Paths to the Professoriate: Strategies for Enriching the Preparation of Future Faculty
By Donald H. Wulff, Ann E. Austin, and Associates
Communication and Political Science Departments
California State Polytechnic University Pomona
The problem with interesting titles is that they usually promise much more than the authors can deliver. Such is the case with Paths to the Professoriate: Strategies for Enriching the Preparation of Future Faculty. "The purpose of the book," write the authors, "is to provide academic leaders, faculty members, and graduate students themselves with research findings, analyses, and recommendations that will help them prepare the future professoriate more successfully. . . ." (p. xiii). Unfortunately, the findings seem to be fairly obvious, the analyses superficial, and recommendations very general and clearly inadequate. Of course, one will find in the book a plethora of interesting facts, descriptions of studies, and statistics. For that reason alone the book could be useful to academic professionals.
Perhaps one of the reasons the book does not fulfill its promise is that Paths to the Professoriate is a compilation of a variety of articles of very uneven quality and importance (as is often the case with edited work). The book is divided into four parts. Part One, an introduction titled "The Challenge to Prepare the Next Generation of Faculty," sets the tone for the book and Part Four, "Synthesis, Lessons, and Future Directions," concludes it. Parts Two and Three are the bulk of the book containing ten chapters between them. The former focuses on the research and the latter on the "Strategies for Reform."
As with everything else in this book, the opening chapter leaves the reader wondering what exactly is the point of this work. Or, to use the title of the chapter, what exactly is "The Challenge to Prepare the Next Generation of Faculty." The authors assure us that "improving graduate education and . . . strengthening the preparation process for future faculty, has become a significant issue in higher education," (p. 3) but do not really explain why this is so. One would expect that a growing interest in the area is the result of perceived problems with and inadequacies of the existing graduate education, recruiting, and training, but the authors are not able to go beyond generalities that explain very little.
On the authors' list of factors contributing to interest in improving graduate education are the role of teaching assistants, labor market issues, graduate student attrition rates, and "the increasing recognition of the graduate experience as a significant stage in preparation for a faculty career." (p. 8). But then again, they fail to get to the core of the matter. When writing about teaching assistants they use a quote from another author that sounds interesting but is of no help: "There is a growing awareness . . . that there are many serious problems associated with the utilization of graduate teaching assistants" (p. 4). What exactly are these "serious problems"? The only suggestion (one sentence without further explanation) is that in the last several decades, research became increasingly more important for universities leaving teaching of many undergraduate courses to teaching assistants. But there are so many questions that need to be answered. Although the increasing importance of research could be perceived as a problem for undergraduate students who often get poorly prepared assistants as their primary teachers, it could also be seen as an advantage to graduate students by giving them the necessary teaching experience. As the authors state two paragraphs later, "universities developed increasingly credible programs for preparing graduate students to teach" (p. 5). Thus, one wonders again, what are exactly the shortcomings of these programs?
The same lack of clarity can be seen in the next section regarding the labor market issues. The authors support their point with another general statement: "Graduate education does not match the needs and demands of the changing academy and broader society" (p. 7). What are the needs and demands? Where do the universities fail in graduate education? What is the problem?
Of course, it could be expected that the individual chapters following the introduction will provide more detailed explanation, yet they are not much better than the introduction. Describing and analyzing each of them would be impossible in this short space, but several examples should illustrate the problem. Most chapters describe surveys that are then analyzed by looking at simple percentages. Although in some cases this method is sufficient, in most others it leaves us wondering what lies behind these percentages. For example, Chapter 2 considers the question "of how well doctoral students are being prepared for faculty careers" (p. 20). The survey respondents were doctoral students with at least two years in the program "who said that, at some point in their careers, they desired a faculty position." (p. 21). Of the respondents, 74.2 percent were interested in conducting research and 71.7 percent believed they were prepared to do so. Almost 78 percent of doctoral students in English departments were confident that they could teach discussion sections while 60 percent of chemistry students felt prepared to teach lab. In both groups, the confidence in the ability to teach lecture courses was much smaller (36 percent). The question now is about interpreting these numbers. What exactly is the meaning of self-reported "confidence"? Does that confidence correspond to actual teaching abilities? Are the numbers "good"? How do they compare with other studies on the subject? Is the lower confidence in teaching lecture classes caused by a simple fact that the respondents are just in the middle of their studies? Finally, how much teaching assistantship experience really matters? The chapter does not answer any of these or similar questions.
Almost all remaining chapters generally suffer from the same shortcomings. This is unfortunate, because the subjects and issues covered are interesting and important. There is an analysis of a four-year longitudinal study on the development of graduate students as teaching scholars (Chapter 3), a chapter on black graduate students (Chapter 5), and one on retaining graduate students (Chapter 6). All have a great potential, many provide data that could be at least of some use, but all chapters are lacking more serious questions and analysis. Paths to the Professoriate is filled with names, organizations, dates, and mission statements, but says very little about real problems and real solutions. At points, the book sounds like a self-congratulatory publication constantly praising someone for something even though it is not really clear what the accomplishments are.
There are many missed opportunities to explore important questions. In several chapters there are signs that the authors understand that many questions can be answered only when reaching a consensus on what exactly a doctoral education means and should be (e.g., Chapter Ten: "Re-envisioning the Ph.D."), but any serious discussion is quickly abandoned and the chapters return to slogan-like statements and recommendations. For example, "Students need help getting started in graduate school in ways that promote success," "Key to the success of doctoral students is the extent to which they connect with the people and cultures of their departments," and "Any changes in graduate education will require greater understanding and appreciation for the diversity represented among students and future professors" (pp. 273-284).
Overall, the publication can serve as a beginning of an interesting and important debate on the subject. The book's serious shortcomings should actually be a wake-up call for much more serious treatment of the matter. What is needed is methodologically sound research, reexamination of the existing data, more in-depth analysis, and, finally, more concrete and specific recommendations.
Posted February 9, 2005.
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