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Wheaton Turns Faculty Into Students for Semester-long Session


No sooner does Leah Niederstadt finish teaching her introduction to museum studies class at Wheaton College than she has to rush out the door to her next class.

There, she transforms from instructor to student.

Dr. Niederstadt, an assistant professor of art history, is one of the first-year Wheaton professors participating in a unique, semester-long orientation program college officials hope will help them better assimilate into campus culture and ultimately keep them at the school for their careers.

The school says the program is innovative, because it goes well beyond the standard for training faculty.

“It’s giving us an overview of the way things work at Wheaton, the history, the curriculum, student services, support for faculty,” she said.

“It has made me feel incredibly welcome on campus.”

The goal is to show new faculty members that they have as big a stake in the 1,550-student college as the school has in them and that their contributions are valued, said Provost Molly E. Smith, who came up with the semester-long concept.

“I want faculty to understand they are a part of an institution with a rich history and the future is in their hands,” she said.

The idea came out of her own observations and experiences while working as a professor and administrator at Seton Hall University, Ithaca College, Saint Louis University, and the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

“I’ve worked in many academic environments and one of the things I’ve realized is that when new faculty come in, there is an assumption that they will find their way and connect, and often they don’t, at least not right away,” Smith said.

Before Smith came on board in July 2006, Wheaton’s faculty orientation program consisted of an intensive daylong cram session that came at the start of the semester when new professors are buried under a pile of greater concerns.

That’s typical of most colleges.

“Usually, new professors get an hour or two of orientation, they are given a map of campus, patted on the butt and sent away to teach,” said Martin Snyder, director of external relations at the American Association of University Professors, a former professor and administrator.

“There certainly aren’t many programs out there this elaborate and this well thought out,” he said.

Wheaton’s program consists of two-hour seminars every other Thursday.

The eight new faculty members sit in an informal semicircle, freely taking part in the discussion, exchanging ideas, even taking notes in a historic building on the college’s 400-acre campus about 35 miles south of Boston.

The goal is not to lecture the new professors, Smith said, but to engage them.

The program started with an introductory session where new faculty, who were given a lighter teaching load so they can attend, heard from administrators, including President Ronald Crutcher, who outlined the school’s strategic plan.

That was followed the next session by a presentation by history professor emeritus Dr. Paul Helmreich, who wrote a history of the school that was founded in 1834 as Wheaton Women’s Seminary and went co-educational in 1988.

The program includes a walking tour of campus and meetings with faculty and student leadership. Perhaps most important of all, it includes sessions on research and negotiating the tenure and promotion process.

“It really gives us a sense that Wheaton wants us to succeed,” said Dr. Touba Ghadessi Fleming, an assistant professor of art history.

Although not part of the official agenda, the program has also helped foster friendships among faculty from different departments who might otherwise have little or no contact. Ghadessi Fleming has struck up a friendship with mathematics assistant professor Rachelle DeCoste.

“It’s important to connect with our peers,” DeCoste said. “It makes us feel like we’re in this together.”

Through the informal conversations, the new professors learn the best places to shop in the area and the best local restaurants.

Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., is one of the few colleges that has a faculty orientation program as comprehensive as Wheaton’s.

It starts with about a weeklong series of workshops that introduce tenure-track professors to the college and the community, and informs them of what’s expected of them as a scholar and teacher, Dean Jeff Abernathy said.

It continues throughout the semester with regular “teaching circle” sessions, where new faculty can discuss issues related to their jobs, exchange ideas and hammer out problems.

“We want our faculty to understand the expectations we have for them,” Abernathy said.

Extensive orientation programs are particularly important at small colleges, said Dr. Richard Ekman, president of The Council if Independent Colleges.

“At a small college it’s pretty hard to live your life without interaction with everybody else on campus,” he said. “At a large school, you might not go beyond your department.”

Niederstadt looks forward to the seminars.

“My only complaint is that it starts before I finish teaching. I’m always a few minutes late,” she said.

The Associated Press

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