I’m in the air right now on my way from San Francisco, to Dallas, and then home to Louisiana, after 4 days at the American Educational Research Association conference, and my brain is full. I experienced (and live tweeted!) many great sessions, spoke with a number of very interesting people researching important questions, presented my own research findings with a colleague, and did a little sightseeing. However, throughout my trip, I kept returning to one thought over and over. What is my role in all of this educational chaos?
For those of you who don’t know me, and what I do, I was a bit of an educational jack of all trades before getting my doctorate and becoming a professor at USC. I’m currently an offsite clinical professor, which means that I do my work from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, even though I am employed by the University of Southern California. A few years back, the Rossier School at USC began an innovative program, in partnership with 2U, called the MAT@USC. It’s a hybrid program, meaning that our students do academic coursework online, in a 70% asynchronous and 30% synchronous format, and also do observations and student teaching on the ground in physical classrooms wherever they are located in the world (which includes students in 43 states and 27 countries, last I heard). One of the greatest misconceptions about this position that I hold is that I don’t see or interact with my students. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Each course I teach holds a 2 hour, live class session each week, where my students and I can see each other over our webcams (all at the same time, Brady Bunch style), and we can hear each other speak over a teleconference line. We also use a chat box, video, PowerPoints (non-boring ones only!), poll questions, virtual whiteboards, and a number of other technologies. Our classes are dynamic, interactive, and student-centered, involving lots of small group work and student led discussions. I’ve been teaching in this program for almost 4 years, and I think I’ve maybe lectured for 2 hours TOTAL over that entire time. My students engage with me via our Learning Management System, but also through Twitter, Facebook, and via texting. I review draft after draft of papers and projects, and meet with students individually to talk about their work, their families, their hopes, and their fears. I stay in touch with them, and encourage them to pursue doctoral work or to find classroom placements in high needs schools, or to come back and serve as mentor teachers once they’ve got some experience under their belts. I grade, grade, grade, and actually enjoy it. I watch the “game tapes” of my classes (every session I teach is recorded) and continually try to improve my practice.
What do I do outside the classroom? I engage with other faculty on curriculum development. I serve on school wide committees. I mentor new faculty and doctoral students. I create and distribute technological tutorials for faculty and students. I read and make decisions on applications to our program. I present at national and international conferences on the best practices we’ve honed in on through our teaching, and even do a little research here and there, though its not technically part of my contract. In fact, my first publication should be coming out shortly, and I’ve got 2 other research projects in the works. Not bad for someone who teaches 32 units a year and has no research funding or grad assistants.
Above all, though, I am a teacher of teachers. Sure, I dabble in research when I have a question I need answered that the literature hasn’t addressed (and in my field at the intersection of education and technology, those questions are many), but primarily, I’m a teacher. It is what I love to do, and I dearly hope that this is a job I’m able to retire in. Teaching is my passion, and working with adult learners via innovative technologies is my niche.
So why is it that, when I come to a conference of educators and researchers, I am often met with puzzlement or disdain when they find out what I do? Is it that they aren’t aware that people like me exist? Is it that they aren’t able to fathom something between an adjunct and a research professor? Is it that they believe that, because I don’t have a long list of publications on my CV, my voice doesn’t matter? It occurred to me more than once during this conference, that if, instead of pursuing a doctorate and becoming a teacher educator, I had continued in my position as a classroom teacher in a high needs school near East L.A., I would have commanded far more respect from some of the people I met.
They were often surprised to see me at a conference like AERA. Surprised to hear that, when I encountered an area that desperately needed research in my field (finding articles for the lit review was a challenge), I worked with another offsite clinical colleague and did some research. Surprised that my school would support me in doing this, since it “isn’t my job.” I am fortunate, I know, to be at an institution that DOES value my contribution. That hired me on full time, compensates me competitively, gives me resources like technological tools and faculty funds, and allows me to participate and be a voice in the department, and not just in the classes I teach. What I don’t understand is why this is such a rare and shocking thing.
OF COURSE we need clinical (teaching) professors; we are educators, after all, and having highly skilled and effective teachers in a school of education is critical. I think we all know that there are some research faculty who do not fill this need (nor should they; they are brilliant at answering questions I couldn’t even begin to address). OF COURSE we should provide a voice for these clinical professors, so that they can engage fully as stakeholders in the process of educating teachers, and bring their teaching and content area expertise to program and course design. OF COURSE we should support them to be part of the research community, either as critical consumers bringing back best practices from conferences, or as small scale researchers answering questions that might be overlooked by the larger scale research community.
I don’t think I have an answer yet for this question of where I fit in in the educational chaos. I know where I fit in my school, and I am deeply satisfied with that role. So for now, I don’t think I need to know where I fit in on the larger scale. I do think, however, that this is a question that will need to be answered by the larger educational community very soon. People like me are important to the equation, and are becoming more prominent; I hope we continue to be for a very long time. And I hope that, as the years pass, and I visit AERA again and again, that the attitudes shift from incredulity, confusion, and occasional disdain, to acceptance, support, collegiality, and a focus on how we can all help each other do what we do best.