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April 15, 2002

The faculty/staff continuum

Marshall Gregory is visiting professor of English, liberal education and pedagogy.


Everyone agrees, presumably, that the chief function of schools is teaching. Even a university’s research could not occur if no teaching were going on, for a university is something quite different from a nonteaching research institute.

But a question seldom asked—because everyone thinks they already know the answer—is who actually does all the university’s teaching? Most people assume that teaching is the province of the faculty. Many faculty members, indeed, have been professionally socialized to view teaching in highly ethnocentric terms as a university subdomain, the boundaries of which enclose a function exclusive to them. Even faculty members who engage in more research than teaching often will answer the question “What do you do?” by responding “I teach.”

The most familiar model of teaching is the model of a classroom door closing, students taking their seats, and some faculty member in an academic department joining those students at a seminar table or standing behind a podium, from which position she or he will lecture or lead a discussion. That’s what teaching is, and it’s faculty who do it.

Two things are wrong with this model. First, a vast amount of teaching that circulates within and that travels outward from the university does not fit the model of teachers engaging with students about the contents of an academic discipline. Second, this vast domain of nonclassroom, nonacademic teaching is seldom done by faculty; the overwhelming bulk is done by members of the professional staff.

This is not something many faculty members think much about, not because they deliberately prefer to remain ignorant about professional staff functions, but because the increasingly corporate structure of the university—not to mention everyone’s increasing commitment to specialization—simply masks various constituencies and their functions from each other’s view. Thus, from the point of view of many faculty members, the functions performed by professional staff relate to teaching much like the infrastructure functions of campus buildings relate to teaching.

These functions are indispensable but mostly invisible, and while faculty would concede that such functions support teaching, they would not concede that these functions are the same thing as teaching.

If the infrastructure functions inside our classrooms suddenly ceased working—if heating, cooling, lighting and running water were suddenly cut off—teaching would become difficult. If professional staff functions suddenly disappeared—if students never got properly registered, if computer assistance techs never answered the phone, if press releases never got sent out, if no one received notices of meetings, if in-house publications never got published, if the library was left to manage itself, if environmental and equal opportunity policies never got or articulated, if no one ever spoke compelling to potential donors about the value of giving money to Emory, and so on—teaching would not only become more difficult but might even grind to a halt.

Faculty members concentrating naturally on their disciplines, their research, their departments and their teaching don’t deliberately avoid thinking about the professional staff, but the university’s complex organization (plus everyone’s business and “busyness”) tends to obscure from faculty what professional staff do—until something goes wrong. The moment something goes wrong or out-of-class assistance is required in one of these ways, a faculty member automatically seeks help—not from another faculty member, and certainly not from students—but from professional staff.

However, much more than many faculty or administrators generally recognize, professional staff don’t merely support faculty teaching. Professional staff (and this may come as a surprise to some) play an important role as teachers in their own right. The idea of a faculty/staff divide, in which all teaching occurs on the faculty side and only support for teaching occurs on the staff side, is a fiction.

Throughout academe (including Emory), teaching exists on a continuum that runs from faculty through nearly the entire professional staff. Both faculty and staff do important forms of teaching, in other words, but there are interesting and important differences in the kinds of teaching they do and in the “student” audiences that professional staff encounter.

Professional staff teach various constituencies much more diverse than most faculty teach. Faculty tend to teach students and each other. (I’m leaving out faculty members who do private consulting on the side; these faculty may be teaching, but their audiences are not of the university’s choosing and those audiences don’t have interests served by university aims.) Thus, when faculty teach their students and on particular occasions, each other (at conferences, in reports, in discussions, and so on), doing so more or less exhausts the diversity of their audiences.

The professional staff, on the other hand, who also teach students and faculty, are just getting warmed up by these two audiences. Staff teaching fans out to address constituencies more varied than many faculty members ever see or think about.

In addition to teaching students and faculty, professional staff teach such audiences as trustees, each other (by means of countless in-service workshops), new employees both academic and nonacademic, the media, students’ families, potential donors, neighborhood action groups, the city council, the state legislature and politicians in general, the general public, accreditation agencies (which faculty members also teach), and alumni, to mention only some obvious constituencies who need to know facts, policies and history of the university, as well as the overarching educational philosophy that keeps the university coherent.

Most of these “student” audiences seldom get seen by faculty, much less taught by them. Moreover, the “curriculum” that professional staff teach is as broad in its own way as the faculty’s. They teach about application and enrollment procedures to prospective students and their families; they teach faculty about university policies and benefits and how to work their computers and how to write grants (for openers); they teach the media about the university’s educational missions as well as its special programs and the general character of an educational experience at Emory; they teach prospective donors about the university’s needs for both special and general funding; they teach alumni what changes and improvements have occurred since graduation; they teach faculty about important developments in intellectual fields and academic pursuits through publications such as Emory Report and Academic Exchange; and they teach students important life lessons, ranging from lessons in everyday civility and time management to lessons in how to avoid serious problems (or what to do after not avoiding serious problems) such as date rape, violations of the honor code or what to do with evidence of someone else’s criminal activity.

These lists are suggestive and far from exhaustive. They are intended to invite faculty and staff to think of themselves not only as colleagues in the technical sense of being fellow employees of Emory University, but to think of themselves as colleagues in the deeper, organic sense of participating in different versions of the same activity that lies at the heart of the university’s sense of identity and that forms its most enduring and distinctive mission: teaching.

The teaching done by professional staff may seldom fit the model of the traditional classroom setup, but this difference should not obscure either the fact that it is teaching or that it is important teaching. Each group’s important functions on the teaching continuum provide not only the grounds for advancement of the university’s varied missions, but also the grounds for increased respect, understanding and appreciation for the indispensability of each other’s contributions in keeping Emory’s teaching mission effective, productive and vital.