April 11, 2006 Feature

On Being a Professor

Position Announcement: Responsibilities of this position include: teaching graduate/undergraduate courses, advising, supervising, conducting research and pursuing extramural research support, and serving on department/ university committees.

The preceding is a fairly typical job description for a faculty position. Its brevity is misleading because nearly every word of the description points to a constellation of professional responsibilities.

Consider teaching. Competent and engaging teaching is a multi-layered, creative, and challenging activity that translates into a number of tasks, beginning with course design and ending with evaluations (of both students and the instructor). Unlike primary and secondary teachers, professors do not follow a curriculum that is prescribed by an external agency. Furthermore, professors are evaluated by the students they teach. A university course is a composition in which the whole is created by combining parts. In this electronic age, the parts have an ever-growing diversity-textbooks, journal articles, Web sites, e-mail discussion groups, professional conferences, and discussions with colleagues. Newly hired assistant professors often feel overwhelmed by the demands of teaching, and for good reason. But things do get easier with experience.

Above all else, professors are educators. From its etymological origins, the word "educate" is related to words that mean "draw forth" or "draw out" from an incipient or rudimentary state. The implication seems to be that effective teaching demands an appreciation of the learner's state as well as knowing about the specialty knowledge that is to be imparted. That is the challenge that lies at the heart of teaching. Moreover, professors should try to do more than simply place knowledge at their students' disposal: professors should challenge students to think, to think critically, and to think creatively.

The talents and energies that go into educating are enriched by the other aspects of the professorial life-reading the literature in the field, reviewing articles submitted for publication, planning and conducting research, writing journal articles and book chapters, professional consulting, attending scientific and professional meetings, serving on professional committees, and developing collaborations. I find that my colleagues are continually revising and updating their materials.

What many people outside academia do not know is that much of teaching is "underground," that is, virtually invisible in official teaching loads or credit-hour production reports. Like most professors I know, I participate in "independent studies," "directed readings," and "thesis/dissertation supervision." In these teaching roles, the professor meets individually with a student (or occasionally a small number of students) to help guide the student(s) through a personalized learning experience, usually on a student-selected topic. This is gratis instruction. Rarely does anyone tell professors that they must do it, but most do, because it is a fulfilling experience to work individually with students.

The roles of advising and supervising are usually done individually. I will consider these two roles under the single term mentoring. I was never really taught to mentor, but I have discovered that it is probably one of the most important things I do. The university provides a special opportunity for mentorship of a kind that molds both career and character.

Mentoring has an intrinsic duality in that it addresses personal and professional concerns. As a mentoring relationship unfolds, the mentor may serve a variety of functions, including advisor, tutor, sponsor, model, supporter, and coach-sometimes all at once, but other times, only one or two of these. The really good mentor knows when to do what, and for how long. As protégés mature in skills and knowledge, their mentoring needs change, and the mentor should adapt accordingly.

Conducting research and pursuing extramural research support are double-barreled responsibilities that demand continual reading of the research literature, creative and careful design of studies, data analysis and lab management, discussion of results with students and colleagues, writing articles for publication, and preparing research grant applications. The demands of research are formidable, but the satisfaction of discovery and extending the frontiers of knowledge is a precious reward. I deliberately say rather less about research than I could because I come from a so-called "research university" and some might think that research is all I can-and want to-write about.

Finally, there is the expectation of good university citizenship, which means serving on department/university committees. The good citizen gives willing and able service on the committees that keep departments and other academic units running. And it does not stop there. Professors frequently agree to service beyond the campus, for example, service to state, national, and international associations.

The man or woman who successfully competes for the position described in this article will be known by a title unique to academia. He or she will be a professor. This title is derived from the Latin for "one who claims publicly to be an expert." It is a hard-won title but one that opens a rich set of career opportunities and a degree of self-determination shared by few other vocations.

With continued career success, the academician eventually reaches the professional pinnacle-full professor. My non-academic friends may ask good-naturedly, "full of what?" My answer: full of the awareness that my own expertise is incomplete and it is essential to recruit my successors, who will take over where I have left off. I wish them well. 

To Learn More
See "A Professorship in Your Future?

Ray D Kent, is professor of Communicative Disorders at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and ASHA Vice President for Research and Technology. His research interests include neurogenic speech disorders in children and adults, speech development, measurement of speech intelligibility and quality, acoustics and physiology of speech, and theories of speech production. Contact him by e-mail at kent@waisman.wisc.edu.

cite as: Kent, R. D. (2006, April 11). On Being a Professor. The ASHA Leader.


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