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Making and Maintaining Meaning: Finding Reasons to Keep Going, Sharing Resources to Keep Breathing

The academic life: alternating rounds of teaching, committees, and scholarship that sometimes skip and trip over one another. For some faculty, the tenure track race is energizing, and for others, exhausting. For lecturers, the teaching load and service expectations can be daunting. Most faculty will admit that they experience periods of high energy and of near burnout rather frequently, especially in their first years at an institution. How then, can an institution support its faculty in making and maintaining meaning throughout their professional lives?

This past week, Lehman’s second year faculty met to discuss this question. We have a core group of nine second year faculty members who participate in monthly workshops and social activities: the group represents faculty from African and African American Studies, Biological Sciences, Education, English, Political Science, Sociology, and the Leonard Lief Library. Each lecturer and assistant professor works with a different set of departmental expectations for teaching, research, and service, and although there is some overlap, their student audiences also differ.

Many of the first and second year faculty are eager to continue developing their research and are questioning their capacities to negotiate between their dedication to teaching and the urgencies of investigation and publication. The lack of easy fixes can be discouraging, as can the ongoing struggles of students to manage personal tragedies while pursuing professional hopes. By Spring Break, many faculty members feel their energies and motivations dwindling.

To counter this, our workshop participants identified and shared recent success stories of teaching, research, mentoring, and collegiality. We were surprised and pleased to realize that many of our successes were connected to student successes, such as transfer of skills across courses and positive feedback about assignments. In the second year, faculty members are also feeling more confident with course management and navigating the college and university resources.

A series of discussion questions followed (see the Files section of the Lehman Faculty Professional Development Group for these) as we traded partners to share reflections about present satisfaction, past plans, and future changes. Each faculty member listed his or her key points on the whiteboard after completing the conversations: we enjoyed seeing the interplay between our lists and our priorities. Each participant emphasized overall well-being as well as partnership with students and peers as essential to finding meaning in their work.

Some of our findings: our professional growth and energy are cyclical and need support from regular exercise, reflection, and connection with others; many of us feel better when we balance independent and collaborative work in both our research and teaching rather than over-privileging one at the expense of others. When asked to choose from a list of “developmental tasks for adults,” the choice was unanimous: each faculty member wanted “to find support for one’s own growth and to support the growth of others.” (from “Developmental Tasks of Adults” in the Files section of the Lehman Faculty Professional Development Group)

This was one of the most meaningful and inspiring workshops in which I’ve taken part; it continues to be an honor and privilege to share these monthly (and with the new faculty, weekly) conversations about what it means to teach and to think within the context of higher education.

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