PET helps professor adjust to teaching at Williams

Despite often having to adjust to a completely new environment and role as teachers after years of schooling, new Williams professors seem to be very content, thanks in part to the Project for Effective Teaching (PET).

Typically, tenure-track professors arrive in Williamstown following several years of higher education. They are “at the very top of their fields nationally, but may or may not have had any teaching experience, and some haven’t had any; few have had any kind of teaching mentor or program,” said Professor Robert Bell, creator of the PET program. As a result, he explained, the experience is generally “very exciting and challenging, but also nerve-wracking.”

There has been a rise in the number of new professors in the past few years, with 20 hired this year and the last, according to Bell, which increases PET’s importance and prominence on campus.

The PET program was created nine years ago to facilitate the transition into teaching for new faculty and establish a forum for new professors to come together and share experiences. It was conceived in response to a perceived lack of mentoring and guidance for incoming professors, and it seeks to help professors on three levels: pedagogically, socially and individually, according to Bell’s article “On Becoming a Teacher of Teachers,” in the Winter 1999 Harvard Educational Review. In the article, he details the founding of the program and its aims.

“With increasing frequency, young faculty were substantially different from their senior colleagues in gender, race, religion, training or background and upbringing,” Bell wrote. Always problematic, often dicey, mentoring became more charged and sometimes even adversative.” As a result of this, when Bell started the program in 1994, “some felt inadequately mentored and others felt positively neglected. . .surprisingly, few of our sterling appointees had received much training as teachers.”

To solve this disparity, the PET program brings first and second-year professors together for optional, informal weekly lunches, where new professors can meet others outside their departments and make “connections with their peers,” Bell said. “We use it as an opportunity to help orient them” by also bringing in people on campus who run other programs.

The fall semester lunches focus on “in the trenches stuff, such as authority in the classroom and leading class discussions,” said Bell. For the first time this year, the program also included a conference at Mount Hope. In the spring, the “discussion becomes a little broader,” and includes topics like living and teaching at a liberal arts college and the role of athletics on campus. The program also has occasional dinners and sets up meetings for individual professors on an as-needed basis.

New professors had nothing but praise for the program. “The PET program has been very, very helpful so far in the transition to teaching at a small liberal arts college,” said first-year Magnus Bernhardsson, assistant professor of history. “It has had a ‘cohort’ effect; namely, one realizes that any issues or problems that you may be facing are not necessarily that unique but are being experienced in some form or fashion by a good number of people on campus.”

In addition to the pedagogical element of becoming a Williams professor, new professors also must deal with a social transition. They undergo “big shifts in their personal lives; they’re coming from places like New York, Boston, Cambridge or New Haven. . .. and they have to adjust to not being students anymore,” Bell said. He also emphasized their relative youth, compared to the rest of the faculty. The PET program also aims to aid in this part of the transition by introducing young professors to each other and helping forge friendships across departments.

Most professors, however, reflected favorably on their transition. Williams is “much easier, socially, than graduate school; much more relaxed and welcoming,” said David Love, assistant professor of economics. “With grad students there is much more anxiety; it’s easy to be around faculty.” Love attended undergraduate school at the University of Michigan and graduate school in macroeconomics at Yale.

He also seemed relatively unphased by the transition to Williamstown itself. His biggest qualm was an encounter with native wildlife. “I did get bitten by a bat,” he said, “I had to get a rabies shot and everything. . .I was punctured more than I would’ve liked.” Otherwise, he cited a great affinity for the area. “The social level is just unbelievably easy here, people are laughably welcoming, it almost seems like science fiction, like it has to end sometime, but so far it’s been really unbelievable.”

Wendy Raymond, associate professor of biology, who has been at Williams for nine years and has worked with the PET program since her own participation in it, reflected on her own transition. “Williams’ extreme rural location was the toughest transition for me, coming from Seattle. This issue remains a difficult one for many but in fact is a positive draw for others,” she explained.

She also added “The other toughest adjustment I, and others, faced was finding a style to deal with the educational demands of Williams students. . .the process of learning to teach well while coping with seemingly non-stop student input while also maintaining one’s scholarly endeavors is extremely challenging.”

Still, new professors seemed optimistic about this balancing process. “I wanted to work at Williams because it’s an institution where teaching and research are viewed not as competing responsibilities, but as mutually enriching endeavors,” explained said Maruko, a Williams alumnus ’97 and assistant professor of history.

Her position as an alum also places her at an advantage in transitioning to Williams “I think being an alum has made the transition to teaching here easier-it’s probably helpful that I have a general sense of what student life here is like and of what students expect from their professors. Even though I’ve returned in a completely different capacity, I understand what it means to be part of the Williams community,” Maruko said.

Some professors added that their young age and recent transition to Williams could actually help them better relate to students “It’s actually a relief not to have much separation outside of the subject matter; a lot of them are going through the same thing I did as an undergraduate,” Love said. “It seems kind of nutty to think about separation in terms of time instead of experience; it fosters a distance that’s not helpful and not really me. . .every one of my students can teach me something new.”