You've Got Mentoring
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?
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:
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).
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.
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
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.
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 email@example.com.
Cerbin is a professor of psychology and assistant to the provost and vice
chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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