Most faculty receive copious amounts of information about the various generations and their characteristics — the Millennials, the Gen-Xers, etc. — and strategies to engage them. Although meeting the needs of learners and tailoring our strategies to be optimally effective with each group have merit, it is important to consider the roles we choose. It is inappropriate to assume that, as faculty, we will simply mold ourselves to the needs of various students. Rather, we need to consider our role and the interactions that best fit the situation.
Potentially more significant than generation definitions is the fact that our speedy technology brings new demands, challenges, and opportunities for the faculty role. With vast social media networks and direct email contact, it is easy to understand how students fall into interactions where they treat faculty like their best buddies. I still gasp when I receive an email addressed, “Hi Dean,” as if dean were my first name and not my title. We select the role style, not the students.
In the mid-1900s, universities and colleges often emphasized their roles as in loco parentis, in the place of parents. Here the action is to guide and direct the next phase of a learner’s development. As a community, we continue teaching learners about making good choices. The university’s code of conduct sets standards and assigns consequences for unacceptable behaviors such as cheating and binge drinking. Taking the parental role to guide is part of what faculty do, as we construct curricula and courses to build the intellect. We use a parental approach often to nurture the formation of young professionals, particularly in strengthening their caring hearts as respect for all persons. We shape concepts of professional conduct as personal integrity and responsibility in the professional life. In loco parentis is part of faculty life.
Faculty sage (whether on the stage or off) is another role choice. In this mode, faculty knowledge is revered, and faculty members are approached with deference. In many ways, the sage guides all interactions, because ultimately the sage knows the best choice. In nursing, those who bring true practice situations into dialogues often are the most revered, because they demonstrate real-world knowledge and answers. There are distinct advantages to this role, when well executed, in that learners are captivated by the scenarios and may grasp important concepts that would have escaped them without the real-world illustration.
Leamnson (1999) speaks of another role, the adult friend, “someone who approves of [students] as learners and persons” (p. 138). He describes this role when considering freshmen, but I think it has a place in the repertoire for all faculty. These are the times when we are not “teaching” per se; rather, we are sharing ourselves, hopefully as caring individuals with values and standards. Whether desired or not, moments of being ourselves are part of our faculty existence. We need to recognize that such adult friends may become the most important part of the students’ journey into the profession and their development as persons.
As dean, I often hear alumni ask about individual faculty or laud a faculty member who was particularly important to their success. They don’t chat about the classroom experiences; they talk about the person.
There is one more role: mentor. Faculty have an ongoing opportunity to guide the transition into the next phase of the learner’s development — finding the right niche in the profession. Mentors happen as needs arise, and faculty need to be receptive to forming this relationship, which may extend past the student phase and into career development.
As faculty, we have choices on how we interact with learners, and these change with the students’ needs and the context. Orientations for the new student include content from the in loco parentis model, with lots of rules and regulations to follow. Sages guide students in clinical practice where the primary emphasis is on best patient outcomes. Classrooms, regardless of format, also have sages. Adult friends take time to be available and honor students as learners, through their struggles to grasp difficult content.
Being a faculty member is not about being at the beck and call of a fast moving, informal student population. It includes deliberately and strategically considering the best role for your own style, learning objectives, and student needs. It is complex, more so than the space of this column allows, yet richly rewarding as you make those decisions carefully and thoughtfully.