Professing Education

 

On the Path to Professing

Jill M. Gradwell

Buffalo State College

In an earlier article in this journal, Alan Jones (2005) articulates the nature of professing in the field of education:

Let's grant that professing is traditionally something done by those who hold teaching positions, or professorships, at institutions of postsecondary education—at colleges and universities, where instruction is offered to undergraduate and graduate students. Professing in this setting, in addition to teaching, involves research, writing, and a variety of public service. (p. 9)

As I ponder the nature of professing, I reflect on the path that has brought me to this place. Why and how did I become a member of the professoriate? What in my doctoral preparation prepared me for the trinity of the academy: teaching, research, and service? Although my family, immediate and extended, played a significant role in supporting my efforts to complete my doctorate and find employment in the academy, it is my formal doctoral education that I focus on here. In retrospect, from my position as an assistant professor of social studies education, I now have a stronger sense of that path. In this paper, I describe my experiences of becoming a professor and find that it is the journey more than the destination that matters most.

First, I recognize that my circumstances allowed me an advantage over others starting their doctoral programs. I was the recipient of a four-year Presidential Fellowship at my university, important not only for the economic benefits it provided, but the expectations that came along with being a fellow. As a Presidential Fellow I was expected to teach at the college level, engage in collaborative research with faculty, and participate in special seminars. Additionally, I was extremely fortunate to have an advisor who epitomizes what it truly means to be a mentor and continues to be one today.

Some assume that because you are a teacher educator, you must be able to teach and teach well. I have learned, however, that teaching is a craft that must be carefully honed through years of practice and reflection. Although I taught secondary social studies for seven years in public schools, there was much to learn about teaching adults, and specifically teachers. One exceptional piece of advice my advisor gave me when I asked what courses to take in my program, was to learn about the various professors and take courses from those identified as being excellent teachers; the content of the course was secondary. I found this suggestion to be wise for I learned more than content. I observed the teaching of ambitious educators whom today I try to emulate in my own practice.

Another useful suggestion was to take courses outside of my department that both appealed to me and complemented my program. I learned how professors from different fields approach their subject. This has truly helped me in my current situation as I teach in an interdisciplinary department of historians, social scientists, museum specialists, and social studies educators.

As I was making my way through my program, I also took every opportunity to teach at the college level, first with my advisor and later independently. I not only taught at the university in which I was enrolled, but also as an adjunct at a nearby college. Co-teaching allowed me to collaborate and learn about the development of college courses. Working as an adjunct helped to familiarize myself with how other institutions work, those that are teaching colleges, and how those differences mattered with respect to the environment I wanted to work in later.

Another area of professing relates to scholarly research. I learned to never pass up a research opportunity regardless of how overloaded I felt. It was during these joint research ventures that I gained practical experience doing original research, writing papers, and subsequently publishing the findings. I struggled, especially near the end of my program, with the question of whether to devote all my energy to writing the dissertation or to continue submitting paper proposals for annual meetings, presenting papers for conferences, and finalizing articles for publication. I opted to take a longer time in completing my program to pursue these research opportunities. I think in the end it was a smart choice because it helped me to build a strong work ethic. Also, I had a significant number of national presentations and some publications on my curriculum vitae when I went on the job market. Additionally, it opened networking opportunities for me, because at the annual conferences I established ties to other like-minded researchers, and I have been approached to collaborate on common projects. Finally, because of the numerous research projects I collaborated with my advisor on, we continue to work together now as peers. This research relationship has helped me seamlessly move from student to professor.

Another significant factor in helping me down this path to professing was co-founding a dissertation support group. Again, listening to the wise advice of my advisor, I found others in my program to rely on to read and respond to my work. My advisor was helpful for the subject-specific nature of my research, but my peer support group could read my work from an outsider's perspective. Since the completion of our program, our group has now evolved into an educational research group that meets monthly to discuss relevant issues related to beginning professors of education. The bonds formed early on in the program laid the trusting relationship that continues today.

One other aspect of professing is to provide service to the profession, college, and local community. Often, service activities can consume even the most organized person. My service experiences as the president of the department graduate student association and officer in the student special interest group of my professional organization prepared me for the numerous demands professors balance. I helped to organize research symposia, brown bag lunch series, interdepartment-alumni conferences, and national student group meetings. I recommend becoming involved in campus and professional life in some way during your doctoral studies. I found it helped me to connect to the campus and my profession, especially when I was engaged in the dissertation phase of my program. It also helped me to form ties with other students in the department, which eventually led to four of the current members of the educational research group mentioned earlier. As a professor, the experiences I had as a student have enabled me today to lead committees, hold and organize meetings, and form networks across departments and campuses.

Although I still feel I am very much "on the path" to professing rather than at the final destination of the professoriate, I sense I am inching closer. Not long ago, a student and a new assistant professor invited me to be their mentor. This announcement left me feeling uneasy and unsure about my place in the professorship. Had I really arrived? In a conversation with my former advisor, I shared my insecurities. Surprisingly, he shared his own uncertainties. I was amazed, given that he is an accomplished, award winning scholar and teacher, and a full professor! Like Grant's (2005) description of a high school history teacher's route to ambitious teaching as being "more journey than end," I find myself feeling much the same way.


Acknowledgements: The author thanks Paul G. Theobald and Gary Marotta for their close reading and helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

References

Grant, S. G. (2005). More journey than end: A case of ambitious teaching. In O. L. Davis, Jr. & E. Yeager (Eds.). Wise practice in teaching social studies in the age of high stakes testing. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

Jones, A. (2005). The nature of professing. Professing Education, 4(2), 9-10.

 

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