Visiting professorships fill unique academic niche

As the hiring constraints put in place due to budget cuts begin to come into play, the College could see a decrease in the number of visiting professors on campus in future semesters. While the idea of having a visiting professor may sometimes inspire uncertainty in class-browsing students, their role on campus is both crucial and challenging.
According to Andrea Danyluk, acting dean of the faculty, there are two types of visiting professors: those asked to fill endowed positions and those hired to fill in for regular professors who go on leave or sabbatical. The positions are filled in different ways, and the people who fill them can have rather different experiences.

Hiring structures

Endowed professorships, according to Interim President Wagner, are most often filled by people of note who are advanced scholars and can be quite distinguished in their fields. These positions are, in nearly every case, under the oversight of specific departments whose faculty seek out notable figures in fields of interest. “It’s hard to get people in short notice, so the department tries to work out arrangements years down the road, sometimes as far as three years in advance,” Wagner said. “The departments are consistently targeting and recruiting for these positions.”
In contrast, professors filling in for faculty members on leave are brought to the College through a more standardized hiring process. Danyluk explained that a department must apply to the Committee on Appointments and Promotions (CAP) to have the visiting position approved. If the department demonstrates adequate need and the CAP approves the position, the College circulates advertisements for the position and conducts interviews. Danyluk added that this type of professorship occurs more often in smaller departments that lack a large enough faculty to cover leaves internally, or for a specific subject area within a major. In some cases, these professors have recently finished their Ph.D programs and are seeking teaching experience.

Peter Low, professor of art history and chair of the art department, noted that his department regularly has both types of visiting professors. For example, the Clark professorship is an endowed position that draws “accomplished, recognized, stars in the field.” In addition, Low said that due to the “structured plan for the major” in the studio art department, professors often must be replaced when they go on leave, rather than internally covered.

Making the transition

According to Religion Chair Denise Buell, the religion department handles the transition for these professors through a mixture of formal and informal events. The department invites the professor to give a lecture in the semester preceding his or her visitation, and the professor can then take the opportunity to meet majors and get a basic feel for the College.

When visiting professors arrives for their semester, departments often host casual welcome events to help them settle in. Such events also allow existing professors to begin the process of learning from visitors, which Buell also mentioned as an academic advantage. “It’s really nice for faculty to interact with lovely, experienced teachers and scholars,” Buell said.

Will Burns, Class of 1946 visiting professor of environmental studies, acknowledged that visiting professors are transitioning into an unknown and new scholarly experience. “One ‘parachutes’ into a learning environment,” he said. “One doesn’t know the students well, so it makes it harder to develop courses, and of course, one doesn’t get the fulfillment of watching students develop during their four years of matriculation at Williams.”

Barath Raghavan, assistant visiting professor of computer science, discussed another trial of a limited stay: striking a balance between teaching and research. Raghavan completed his Ph.D at the University of California at San Diego this year, and he said that the challenge comes not so much from being a visiting professor as in being a new faculty member in general.

For Raghavan, Williams also represents a shift from the university mold to liberal arts culture. At San Diego, where he received his degree, “it’s impossible for professors to have one-on-one time with undergrads,” Raghavan said, referring to the lack of support given to individual students. As a professor at Williams, he said, “I can provide that support.”

Ups and downs

According to Low, visiting professors face both unique challenges and unique benefits due to their positions. “Visiting professors have roles that aren’t shaped by the tenure track process; they can be more independent,” he said, citing for example the obligations of tenure-track professors to integrate themselves into the College through serving on committees.

Buell also spoke to the benefits visiting professors receive. “The terms are quite generous,” she said. Like Low, she mentioned the freedom afforded to these professors, but also cited the salary and free housing as significant bonuses for visitors.

Low noted that due to their positions, visiting professors may not feel as integrated as other faculty members. “We do our best to consider any visiting professors as part of the department. That can feel like more of a challenge for younger faculty,” he said. The art department is working on creating a written orientation for its visiting professors. They currently give each visitor a faculty contact but, beyond that, integration is a matter of personal initiative.
Low also recognized the hesitancy of students when confronted with visiting professors. “I’ve noticed that Williams students are initially shy of visiting professors – probably because they’re unknown entities.” He added, however, that he encourages students to take classes with visiting professors. “The people we bring in as visitors tend to bring intellectual energy, and classes can be taught in different ways than things are usually taught here, which can be a good experience,” he said.

Patrick Tonks, a visiting lecturer in French this semester, is teaching a seminar on “Cannibalism and French Caribbean Literature,” a specialized topic that the French department would not normally offer. Tonks is currently working on his comparative literature Ph.D, which means that he also brings the perspective of a younger scholar to the classroom. Sayantan Mukhopadhyay ’12, a student in Tonks’ class, articulated the uniqueness of the topic. “Something like cannibalism, as a theme for an entire class – I don’t see that as something coming from some of the older professors,” Mukhopadhyay said.

For some visiting professors, their term provides a contrast to years of other experience. Charles Karelis ’66, the Bennett Boskey visiting professor of public policy and political philosophy, spent over 10 years in the College philosophy department during the 1970s and ’80s, working his way up to full professor and department chair. “Being a visiting professor means having all of the smooth and none of the rough: wonderful students, pretty fall days. You don’t get some of the administrative stuff, like committee work, to worry about,” Karelis said.

On the other hand, Bernard McGinn, the Croghan Bicentennial visiting professor in Biblical and early Christian studies, spoke to the excitement of interacting with a fresh set of pupils. “For me, the most engaging thing is meeting new students,” he said. McGinn, whose semester here represents his fifth campus in the last six years, mentioned a more concrete task – that of mastering a new computer network and technical system – as his biggest challenge.

Wagner said that the contributions of visiting professors outweigh any potential drawbacks. “Visiting professors provide a constant flow of people – they bring different experience, different perspectives and enrich the community with a constant infusion of new ideas,” he said.