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Writings & Speeches

Learning to Evolve with the Times as a Faculty Member
BY YVES SALOMON-FERNANDEZ

Besides compensation, which is typically the most divisive issue between management and faculty, transitioning to teaching online over the last decade has proven to be a contentious issue at most higher education institutions — private and public. As I prepare to take on the help of my current institution, I have no doubt that this will be an issue for my administration. Adhering to the old adage, I prefer to ask my colleagues to take on challenges that I would also be willing to embrace myself even if I’m skeptical, bordering on fearful at first. I had taught research methods and assessment online during a 16-week traditional semester and a 12-week summer schedule both in person, fully online, and hybrid. It was difficult, but doable. With slight modifications, I was able to teach using the same syllabi that I had used for my face-to-face classes. This year, I was asked to teach our Advanced Leadership course fully online and in an accelerated summer session.

Conquering my Fear
Embarking on this accelerated six-week online course, I knew would be different. It would be hard. Despite my prior experience teaching undergraduate and graduate students for 10 years face-to-face and online, serving as a dissertation reader and teaching a range of courses, from classroom assessment for aspiring K-12 teachers to statistics for business and accounting majors at private and public universities, nothing could have prepared me for teaching Advanced Leadership fully online during an accelerated 6-week summer session. Needless to say, it was not my first choice of format but I love the course, so I committed to teaching it.

The graduate program in which I teach had polled students and the overwhelming majority stated that they want to take the class, but would prefer an accelerated summer version. I should also add here that the program in which I teach is the most successful at the university across nearly all metrics: graduation rates, time-to-degree, strong enrollment, etc. The model works! Part of its success is that first there is great demand for higher education professionals and second the program directors and us as a faculty listen to what our consumers/students want. The quality of the program has also earned it a great reputation in the field.

Like most faculty, I thought how can one teach leadership online. It’s absurd, I thought. I also wondered how I would keep quality high. Thinking in the box, I would have argued that teaching leadership or communication online is impossible. I challenged myself to redo the course in a way that would maximize student learning, help them develop strong leadership and management skills, have a strong theoretical foundation, and acquire a breadth of knowledge from business, marketing, learning sciences, etc., plan for their continued leadership development, and most importantly to know oneself and build upon one’s strengths. By the end, this course had become the most satisfying endeavor I had engaged in in my life.

Setting the Expectations
My first course announcement was clear and direct. It stated that there would be a lot of readings, videos, podcasts and that after students post their entries each week the learning management system would generate three random names whose posts they would need to critique. This was in addition to their weekly reflection journals, their leadership philosophy paper, their leadership development outline, and their group case study. I warned that there would be a lot of reading and writing and that those who cannot commit should not enroll. The class was capped at 20; I allowed one extra student in, and one dropped out. All in all I still had 20 students enrolled. With my reputation of having high standards and favoring quality over speed, I knew that those 20 students were in it to do the work. Students also know that I give thorough feedback and I get to learn who they are, their past, aspirations, and current situations so that my feedback can be more tailored to them, not just focused on the content.

Training for One’s Magnum Opus
As a professor, I take pride in pushing my students out of their comfort zones, to push through their boundaries, their prior best work, to set a new standard for their best work and to know that even their current best in my class is still not their best. It’s simply training for their magnum opus. For most, it will be a couple of decades before they get to their magnum opus. Now they know that they won’t get there overnight. They will keep making steady progress until they get there and even when they get there that sense of accomplishment will help them adjust their new bar a bit higher for next time because they know they can do better.

Getting their thank you emails, even from those who did not get As and their request to meet me in person were most gratifying. Some of them even made me shed a tear. For me, it was more than just teaching and co-constructing knowledge with my students. They taught me to embrace my skepticism and fear. In the end, that online class was by far superior in terms of teaching, learning, pedagogy, and engagement than any other class I have taught. As my program director asked me whether I still plan on teaching while I serve as Interim President of my college, I told her yes. I will plan my vacation to allow me to continue to give my students my best.

The Teaching Profession in Context
Financial managers help us grow our portfolios, doctors and nurses take care of our health, journalists keep us informed, writers and artists arouse our multiple senses, teachers prepare them and affect students so profoundly. We may not always know the realities our students are living, but we can teach them, help them grow, and provide them with a great escape from the mundane, build their confidence, and push them to achieve dreams they never dared to have. The power of the teacher is so much more than what s/he transmits, if you believe in that paradigm. Teachers are change agents.