You've Got Mentoring
Enhancing New Faculty Development with Timely Email Bulletins
By Betsy L. Morgan and William Cerbin

From the November 2001 AAHE Bulletin

 


Like many universities, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse has tried a variety of mentoring programs for new faculty. Despite some successes, we continue to search for ways to mentor faculty early in their careers — attempts that are complicated by the differing needs of the individual faculty members, by inconsistent participation, and by inconsistent leadership. We wanted to provide consistent information specific to the idiosyncrasies of our institution to all new faculty.

We also wanted a program that was a good fit for our medium-sized, public comprehensive university, which is undergoing a period of extensive new hiring due to retirements. With these considerations in mind, we launched a program to send regular email bulletins to new faculty members. The articles arrive in new faculty members’ email boxes weekly and provide information on teaching, personnel, and navigational issues specific to our campus.

Why an Email Bulletin Service?
The impetus for the program was an episode reported to us by a new faculty member. In a focus group with new faculty, one individual said that she was advised that student evaluations were the “only” material that the university promotion committee would be looking at when she went up for associate professor. The advice was patently wrong and would be particularly detrimental to any faculty member with mediocre student evaluations.

To combat this type of misconception, we decided to explore ways to provide new faculty with more consistent and timely information. Professionally, we came at this from two different angles. William Cerbin is responsible for new faculty orientation activities as part of his work as assistant to the provost, and Betsy L. Morgan is a department chair who recently experienced both the tenure and promotion processes.

We based the program on the following premises:

  • New faculty members need access to reliable and consistent information.
  • New faculty members need information that is synchronized with the structure and rhythms of the academic year. Timing is critical. For example, information about student advising is most pertinent when instructors meet with advisees to discuss course registration.
  • New faculty members tend to be overwhelmed at the beginning of their first year and simply cannot digest everything they need to know about the job in their first few weeks.
  • Mentoring within departments or colleges is uneven in its quality and quantity.
  • New faculty members need to be able to ask questions of others outside their departments. We wanted to provide some safe space to do so.

Program Particulars
With the endorsement of the provost and the deans, Morgan wrote and began to send email bulletins to the university’s 54 first- and second-year tenure-track faculty. Because the service was new, we also invited third- and fourth-year faculty to participate, and approximately 15 signed on. We also sent the email bulletins to department chairs, associate deans, deans, and the provost’s staff.

During the academic year, Morgan sent approximately 45 email bulletins that covered topics in three main areas: teaching tips, personnel information, and information aimed at helping faculty navigate the particulars of the university. In general, she sent the navigational information earlier in the year and introduced information about personnel issues and teaching by midyear. Many of the bulletins contained external links to helpful websites (such as one featuring advice on writing good multiple-choice questions) and were synchronized with important events (an email bulletin regarding the rules governing retention timelines came in advance of the second-year faculty members’ fall reviews, for example).

Additionally, the email bulletins provided information targeted for faculty members new to full-time teaching. All of the emails are archived on a Blackboard website so that faculty members can easily access the information at a later date (see the end of this article for information on accessing the website).

Assessing Program Success
After the first semester we surveyed the recipients to get feedback about the bulletins. A third party sent and compiled the feedback to ensure respondents’ confidentiality. Of the 57 percent who responded, all rated the service as useful, and 60 percent of the respondents rated it as very useful. Additionally, 95 percent of the faculty respondents endorsed continuing the service, and 80 percent said that the program helped them feel connected to the university.

A number of first-year faculty members also took the time to thank the email bulletin’s author personally. One faculty member, who had been tenure-track at another university, was grateful for the information and complimented the program “given the absence of this type of mentoring” at her previous institution. Finally, the 17 department chairs who responded to the survey all endorsed the email bulletins.

Program Benefits
Overall, the email bulletins appear to benefit faculty in three ways:

  1. Provides timely accurate information in manageable chunks
  2. Conveys a sense that someone is thinking of their concerns
  3. Is specific to the university

This final point is crucial. Although much of the advice would be good to any new faculty member, many emails focused on this particular university (our personnel rules, our deadlines, our ways of functioning). We also saw the bulletins as another way to establish contact with new faculty members, who often become immersed in their work and isolated from colleagues across the campus. This isolation is often even more pronounced for women and faculty members of color.

As we produced the list of information necessary to navigate one’s first year at the university, we were humbled to be reminded how much new information is foisted on new faculty members and the sheer volume of practical information they really need. It has been challenging to strike a balance between immediate needs (how to register to use computer classrooms) and long-term investment needs (why they should be thinking about developing a teaching portfolio).

An unforeseen benefit was that the bulletins prompted discussions among new faculty members, their colleagues, and department chairs. Department chairs receiving the bulletins were better prepared for faculty members’ questions. Several chairs forwarded emails to their entire faculty. In some cases, the bulletins stimulated discussion among department chairs. Additionally, several administrators at various levels chimed in with corrections or comments that improved the content of the bulletins. Finally, the email bulletins were an efficient way to communicate information. Recipients could pick and choose which topics they wanted to read and when to read them.

Problems of the Program
Three problems were apparent early on. First, since there are significant differences between departments and colleges, we worried that information might not be accurate for all units. We tried to offset this problem with disclaimers reminding faculty members to discuss the specifics with their chairs and by including administrators on the list who could “correct” any concerns.

Second, the bulletins were the product of one person’s vantage point and therefore may have had an editorial quality to them. In order to represent more points of view, we did use messages from guest contributors. For example, faculty members from each of the colleges wrote about how they manage their research programs in spite of extensive teaching responsibilities.

Third, email bulletins are, for the most part, one-way communications. Occasionally a new faculty member would contact the bulletin author with additional information or questions about a topic, but for the most part new faculty members did not discuss the topics. One way to offset this limitation is to establish a Blackboard-type website where faculty members can discuss the topics with one another.

Adopting Our Service
We offer several recommendations for institutions that may want to initiate an email bulletin service for their new faculty.

  1. The authors need to be up-to-date on policies and actively involved in teaching.
  2. Bulletin authors must confirm the accuracy of information by checking on processes and policy. Additionally, the authors must ensure that anyone directly affected by the content is aware of the emails (e.g., the business officer in charge of travel reimbursements was interviewed before and then copied on the bulletin regarding travel policy).
  3. The primary author should be compensated for the service. The first year of publishing the bulletins can be very time intensive. The author needs to write the bulletins, check the accuracy of the information, consult with various people and sources, and respond to questions from recipients. The second year may involve less work but still requires the author to revise the emails and manage the service. The Internet provides extensive resources to tap. In addition to national resources, most universities have their policies nicely documented online. One of the services of the bulletins can be to make new faculty aware of the extent of local support.
Conclusion
Overall, we consider the email bulletin program to be an effective and straightforward way to provide timely and accurate information and advice. It establishes another avenue to address new faculty concerns and complements the face-to-face events we hold to help orient and mentor new faculty. We invite readers to visit the Blackboard site listed below and/or contact us with questions.

Samples of the email bulletins are online at blackboard10.imt.uwm.edu. Log in as “guest3” and use the password “guest3”; under “My Courses” choose the course “UW-L Faculty Development” and then “Course Information.”

Betsy L. Morgan is a professor of psychology and in her second term as chair of the psychology department at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Contact her at morgan.bets@uwlax.edu.

William Cerbin is a professor of psychology and assistant to the provost and vice chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Contact him at cerbin.will@uwlax.edu.



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