Teaching a Nation's Professorate

Give Jennifer Hood-DeGrenier a cocktail of infectious proteins, and she'll isolate them quicker than you can say Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. But give the Harvard-educated postdoctoral cell biologist a class of college freshmen, and she might just isolate herself. The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), postdoc would like nothing more than to teach at a liberal arts college once she completes her postdoctoral appointment. However, years of advanced training have done little to prepare her. Like scores of neophyte teachers before her, she'll simply cut her professorial teeth in the classroom.

That's about to change.

"Few of us in the sciences had any formal training in teaching," says San Francisco State University Dean of Graduate Studies Paul Fonteyn, co-director of a new postdoctoral level teacher-training program called A Postdoctoral Curriculum: Preparing the Nation's Professorate. "We learned while on the job."

Bruce Macher, a biochemist who spent more than 10 years as a faculty member and postdoctoral research mentor at UCSF before moving to SF State in 1987, is a case in point.

Spreading the Word

Eventually, interested universities will be able to download the program's Web-based training modules, with a minimal expense of time and money, says Vicki Casella, director of SF State's Center for the Enhancement of Teaching. The center is building the program content and modules. Faculty guidebooks and other training material will also be available. Check here in February 2002 for updates on curriculum availability.

"When I first began teaching, I had absolutely no idea how to develop a lecture or build a test, let alone how to assess student performance," admits Macher, who is collaborating with Fonteyn and UCSF program co-director Cliff Attkisson in attempting to spur a paradigm shift in postdoctoral training programs. "I had some experience teaching an upper-division lab course as a graduate student, but someone just said, 'here, go do it.' That's still how it is today. You get trained to be an effective researcher, but when you get a faculty position, it's very much up to you how to figure out how to be an effective teacher."

They aren't the only mavericks clamoring for change. Other forward-thinking members of the academic community, along with aspiring college professors like Hood-DeGrenier, have long decried the woeful lack of teaching preparation offered in graduate and postgraduate training. A recent survey by the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students revealed that nearly half of its 32,000 respondents wanted more teaching preparation. And in a UC Davis survey, more than 60% of responding postdocs favored more teaching experience and training. Additionally, the nine-campus University of California system, which trains 10% of the nation's postdocs, ordered a study of its own postdoctoral training programs after officially recognizing inherent shortcomings. The 1998 Report on Postdoctoral Education at UC resulted in a set of recommendations for improving its programs, which included enhancing teaching skills.

"Ninety percent of postdocs who remain in academia will end up taking jobs at nonresearch institutions where teaching, not research, is the number one priority," says Macher. "The need for this kind of program is clear, and long overdue. But," he emphasized, "teacher training alone will not land you a tenure-track position."

Because postdoctoral appointments are by nature research intensive, reformers are taking a hard look at how to implement teacher training without detracting from a postdoc's research productivity.

"What we're trying to do is set a new tone for what the expectations should be for individuals applying for academic positions in the sciences," says Attkisson, UCSF dean of Graduate Studies and associate vice chancellor for Student Academic Affairs. "We want to prepare postdocs to enter classrooms as tenure-track faculty seasoned in research as well as teaching, aware of the full components of their academic posts. But this won't be limited to postdocs here at UCSF. Ultimately, we would like to see other institutions follow our lead, so we designed the program with that in mind."

Why introduce teacher training at the postdoctoral level? Why not before?

Jennifer Hood-DeGrenier and Christine Des Jarlais meet to discuss the new teaching program.

"This is the final step before pursuing a faculty position, so it makes more sense," says UCSF collaborator Christine Des Jarlais, assistant dean for Graduate Outreach and Postdoctoral Affairs.

Des Jarlais believes that if postdocs remain productive in their research, those who complete the three-semester program of Web-based training modules, professional development workshops, and classroom teaching experience, will "absolutely" have an advantage over other candidates vying for faculty positions.

"When they walk into an interview, they'll be able to hand over a teaching portfolio with student evaluations, a course syllabus, and the like," Des Jarlais says. "More importantly, they'll be able to articulate their teaching philosophy, which they'll have had time to foster and test in and out of the classroom. Through professional development workshops, they'll also have a much better understanding of how to navigate the nuances of academic life, including interviews."

This sounds good to Hood-DeGrenier, who recently attended a standing-room only meeting about the program, scheduled to begin in February 2002. Like other postdocs in the room, however, her main concern was the commitment of time.

SFSU's Vicki Casella, who is overseeing the design of the module content (see sidebar), told the crowd that during the first semester, they could expect to spend about 2 hours per week going over training modules and participating in follow-up discussions, making it doable for the vast majority of postdocs.

"A person could certainly be in the lab 24/7," asserts Hood-DeGrenier, "but that doesn't necessarily make you more productive than eight well-spent hours a day. For people who really want to become good teachers, I think they'll be willing to take the time for this program." Training modules will be packaged for online delivery so postdocs can work through them each week at their convenience, says Casella. "It could be midnight Sunday, and they'd be able to access the module."

Scheduled face-to-face time with faculty mentors, who will guide them through the sequenced modules, will be flexible, and most interaction will be through "threaded discussion" using a password-protected online course delivery system called Blackboard. "All you need is access to the Web. We'll supply the program software."

Modules will cover all aspects of college teaching, from articulating a personal teaching philosophy and designing a course to dealing with sexual harassment and inappropriate student behavior.

But everyone involved agrees that, to a large degree, the program's success lies not in its flexibility, ease of delivery, or even a postdoc's motivation, but in the support of the postdoc's research mentor.

"It needs to be a full partnership," says Macher. "Research faculty must have the right attitude about what the postdoc experience should offer in terms of preparation for careers as college professors. They also need to have some approach to ensure that happens. Currently, that means helping postdocs publish as much as they can, and that indeed is what really lands the job. But does that necessarily prepare them for the job? No. So this is all about changing the mind-set."

Program applications must be reviewed and signed by a postdoc's research mentor before being submitted, says Fonteyn, who adds that the program can accommodate 15 postdocs a semester. "Research faculty ultimately determine how postdocs divide their time, and we want to muster all the advantages we can to ensure that the postdocs and the program are successful."

The first set of participants will play a large role in defining the program's scope, says Casella. The model will be fine-tuned to reflect their experiences and perspectives. The modules also will incorporate feedback from faculty mentors who have expertise in curriculum development.

"We want this to work, so we'll tailor the final program model to what the general needs and limitations of a postdoc seem to be," she says.

Macher adds that when it comes to selecting participants in the program, they'll likely favor those who are well into their fellowship and have produced a number of publications, versus candidates who've just started or haven't yet published.

"It makes sense, when you consider that they're closer to making the transition to a faculty position at that point," he says.

Once postdocs complete the first semester of skills courses, they'll co-teach a semester-length undergraduate science course with a faculty mentor at SF State. Sessions will be taped and critiqued. Postdocs will apply their newfound teaching philosophy in their own course the following semester, with student evaluations to measure their success.

"If we get a solid number of research faculty on board, it will show other high-level institutions that if it can be done here at UCSF, one of the nation's top producers of postdocs, it can be done just about anywhere," says Des Jarlais. "That's a really important feature in turning this program into a national model."

In the meantime, Hood-DeGrenier and dozens of other UCSF postdocs are waiting to learn whether they'll be among the program's first participants. As pioneers for this new endeavor, they'll leave the bench for a few hours each week and step into another, more personal, experiment.

"You don't become a great professor overnight," says Hood-DeGrenier. "So the more help you can get, the better."

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