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URMC / Education / Graduate Education / URBest Blog / July 2016 / My Path Wasn’t Linear: The Story of a Reluctant Educator

My Path Wasn’t Linear: The Story of a Reluctant Educator

Career Story Blog Post By Jenny Hadingham, PhD, Assistant Director & Lecturer, Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning (CETL) at University of Rochester

This blog post is all about how I ended up in Faculty Development. As I reflect on my pathway to this point, I am amused at just how non-linear it has been. In fact, if you had told me 20 years ago that I would be teaching big, scary professors how to improve their teaching, I’m pretty certain that I would have gone into voluntary exile in Siberia. Naked. My natural shyness and introversion would have made sure of that!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start way, way, way back in 1988. Young Jenny is sitting down with her parents to discuss which high school path to follow for her final three years at high school: Would it be the commercial path (accountancy, math and statistics)? The natural science one, featuring biology, chemistry and physics? Or the humanities track of history and languages? When you think about it, that’s an awfully big decision for a fourteen-year-old to make, given that we were led to believe that it would essentially dictate every single thing in our future lives, from university through death, encompassing everything in between. Accountancy seemed awfully rigid and rule-driven, not to mention very math-y. The smell of chemicals in the labs made me feel nauseous, and seemed to have a lot of math in it (are you seeing a trend?). So, two of the three were ruled out immediately, and thus by a process of elimination, Humanities was to be my lifelong career path and, well, my very life. I recall asking my (now late) father what kinds of careers were associated with Humanities. I will always remember his response (which he denied ever making): “Why don’t you go into teaching? It’s a good career for a woman.”

It turns out that even at age fourteen, I was a feminist.

Howling with outrage, I declared that I would never go into teaching – I would be a pioneer and do something bigger, more important; I’d shatter a glass ceiling or two along the way; I’d do something that would show them (I’m not sure what this might be, or who ‘they’ were, but you get the picture).

And so I decided, upon entering the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, that I wanted to be a diplomat. Notwithstanding my near-constant verbal gaffes and my pathological attachment to the ‘f-bomb’, this seemed like a perfect career. And let’s face it: all the female diplomats in the James Bond movies looked like they lived a pretty sweet life. In addition, I was majoring in International Relations and Political Studies, which seemed to be a natural segue into the diplomatic corps. I was soon disabused of that notion by friends who had been accepted into the South African Foreign Service cadet program. They described long hours of studying – everything from languages to cultural etiquette to which fork one uses first at formal dinners – endless meetings, poor pay, and low morale. Suddenly, the sweet life of a diplomat lost its shine. Again, my thoughts drifted to exile in Siberia.

Ultimately, I ended up doing what most other kids my age did when they had completed their BA, and for whom there were no jobs on the horizon: I signed up for my Master’s degree (at the same institution). After all, who wouldn’t want to hire someone with the high level of education with which I would end up? I funded my studies by accepting what is called a Postgraduate Bursary. Essentially, this entailed the university paying for my studies and in return, I committed to working for the department in which I was registered (still International Relations) for six hours per week. We had a choice of doing admin (not my cup of tea) or leading tutorials. The rough equivalent of the latter was a recitation of 20 – 25 students, which were compulsory and thus well beloved (note the sarcasm). I chose the latter for reasons that are still unclear to me.

As it turned out, I really enjoyed the tutoring, and I was pretty good at it. Even before I know what it was, I got the students engaged in active learning – debates, prepared questions, small group activities. I loved the vibe that emanated from these, and I loved how well the students responded. Although I could never quantify it, I felt that some real learning was happening.

As all good things do, my MA studies drew to a close. I wrote my dissertation on the Middle East Peace Process, and picked up the two extra letters behind my name for my trouble. Just before I graduated, one of the lecturers in the department fell pregnant and needed to hire and train someone to take over her job, which was in Academic Development. In South Africa, new mothers get six months maternity leave, so she would be away for a significant chunk of time. By this point, I had a reputation in the department (apparently) as a decent educator and so I was hired (without an interview, no less!). Academic Development consisted essentially of additional classes to the IR lectures and tutorials that dealt entirely in skills development: from doing research in a library (this was before the internet), to writing essays from paragraphs up, to citing sources, to the use of academic language – all of the stuff that students are assumed (often incorrectly) to have prior to entering university. Unlike the tutorials, attendance at these classes was completely voluntary.

I blossomed in this position. Even though I had no formal training in education, I seemed to have an instinct for what worked and what didn't. To be fair, I also received a boatload of mentoring advice from three trained teachers who worked in the Faculty of Arts in various roles. Alison, Moira and Laura met with me once a week to plan the following week’s activities. I marveled at their creativity and knowledge. I wanted to be just like them (without having to do a degree in education - that seemed to be a step too far!). Over time, though, their expertise seemed to rub off on me. They started to use some of the stuff that I developed in other departments - the ultimate affirmation that I was a part of this tribe of teachers. I did this work for four years and loved every second of it.

I sensed there was more, though - more that I could do, more of a difference that I could make. As it turns out, that was a good instinct. Having registered, and then un-registered for a PhD twice in International Relations, I realized that wasn’t my calling. Never had been, actually. And so I faced another existential crisis: where did I belong? What ought I be doing? And how would I know when I found it? At this point Karma stepped in. A Teaching Center for Faculty Development was in the process of being created, and its director was looking for a faculty developer. To this day, I have no idea what possessed me to apply for the post - I suspect it involved a not insignificant amount of hubris on my part. By some weird twist of fate, I landed the job. How ironic that a decade after declaring unequivocally that I would never going into teaching/education, I did just that.

I remained in this position for nearly a decade, teaching faculty about the dark art of good pedagogy. I never registered at a School of Education for a formal qualification in education, although I did complete several graduate classes. My ‘real’ education in this role came from Experience - not all of it good! I will always recall an instructor from engineering who had been compelled by her department chair to attend a four-day teaching workshop that I facilitated five times a year. To say that she didn’t want to be there was an understatement; she militantly didn't want to be there and made this known by her attire (black jeans, black boots and a puffy bomber jacket. Every. Single. Day), her body language (arms permanently crossed, right eyebrow seemingly unremittingly arched in contempt), and her refusal to participate in anything. Any. Single. Thing. And don’t get me started on the evaluation that she gave the course and me. I never truly understood the meaning of the word ‘venomous’ until I read it. After the course, I did a lot of soul-searching about my ability to do this job - based entirely on my experience with this individual. The more I thought, though, the more ideas I came up with about how I could have/should have handled her, and what I could do the next time to make sure that this situation did not repeat itself. I came to enjoy challenging myself to do better, teach better, and offer more alternatives to the tired old ‘chalk-and-talk’ lecture.

It was in this role that I signed up for a PhD in Education. Clearly, the third attempt was the charm and I completed it in 2011. The topic was on pedagogies employed by advisors to support their PhD students in succeeding in their degrees. I ran workshops on this topic while I was doing the research, so one complemented the other rather nicely. At about this time, the writing was on the wall for my Teaching Center for Faculty Development. Budget cuts to pay for more research left it vulnerable. Also at this time (Karma was clearly working overtime), a friend of mine sent me the online job description for the position that I currently hold. The subject line of her email was: ‘Do you want to work in New York?’ It sounded good, and I'd always loved New York City (having visited it once in my lifetime for a single day). Was I a bit shocked that NYC and New York State weren’t the same thing? Sure. Was I disappointed? Hardly. Two Skype interviews, and the job was mine.

Admittedly, the transition from the South African higher education system to the

American one was somewhat bumpy. The learning curve has been steep. My abiding belief in the miraculous powers of workshops as a tool for faculty development has been shattered, to be replaced by more one-on-one mentoring, classroom observations and greater emphasis on graduate students interested in being future faculty. I have arm-wrestled with instructors who believed whole-heartedly that ‘this generation’ of students are in every way inferior to themselves when they were the same age. I have won in some cases and had to concede defeat in others. And that is okay. I have watched instructors at all levels of age and experience make small, tentative changes in their teaching (suggested by me, obviously) and been blown away by the results. I have had numerous conversations with instructors about what they do well in class; most are flabbergasted that what they were doing instinctively had been documented in the educational research as ‘good practice’.

I don't know what my next career step is. In contrast to fourteen-year-old me, I know that I want it to be in education. I want to keep teaching. I want to keep learning. I would love for it to be here at UR.

I told you my path wasn’t linear.

Tracey Baas | 7/8/2016

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