Even Professors Hate Group Work

crowderNote: this blog post was published on our Inside Higher Ed column. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder (@stepbcrowder) is an author, minister, and Bible and pop culture educator. She serves as assistant professor of theological field education and New Testament and as director of the ACTS Doctor of Ministry in Preaching program at Chicago Theological Seminary.


“Why do we always have group work?” lamented one of my students.

Of course, the response that immediately came to mind was “Because I am the teacher.” However, trying to be a little more diplomatic and wanting to encourage participation and understanding, I responded, “Group projects really help prepare you for the future. Most professions require some degree of collaboration.”

I said that to my students and have actually found it to be true. What I did not say was that professors have as much angst, anxiety and — let’s be honest — dislike for group projects as students.

The nature of the academy is individuality. Yes, professors teach students in various class sizes. However, so much of what we do is solo. We spend ample time researching and writing books, articles and essays for publication. Some of us have the luxury of a research or teaching assistant. However, they, at a distance, help us attain needed information so that we can get back to our respective silos. After all, it is called a monograph for a reason.

Independent research is the modus operandi throughout the hallowed halls of the academy. Professors must prove their worth by the ability to craft articles for “respected” journals. Getting a publishing contract from a “reputable” company is supposed to put one on the road to intellectual success. It is the unspoken paradigm of erudition. The ultimate prize for such labor is tenure. In some instances, professors dare not ignore the mandate to work, write and publish alone. That is what the gatekeepers train us to do — stay in our discipline’s lane and follow the rules of the road without wavering. Otherwise, one is prone to get a citation or ticket toward tenure denial.

The irony of what we do in the academy is telling. While we spend exorbitant human capital in classes, committee meetings and advising sessions, so many of us, me included, are introverts. We would much rather be … alone. Not that we are lonely, but teaching, speaking and the other public stuff is emotionally and socially demanding. We prefer time with a book behind closed doors or moments in our office writing a single-authored work. Differences in work styles, creative idiosyncrasies, uncertainty about tenure and even family obligations can add to group tension. Whereas class group exercises are fairly common, the truth is, any number of professors relish not having to do them. Grading is one thing. Participation is quite another.

Nonetheless, lest we are found to be hypocritical, allow me to posit why professors must dare to take the group plunge. The clarion call to collaborate beckons us. I will participate over the next year in a Wabash Center group project examining the taxation of the academy on African-American mothers. I am excited yet nervous. I know the fine scholars in this group, and I honestly believe this experience will be life altering. Still, the lone voice of individualism wants to scream, shout and throw a temper tantrum: “I just want to stay in my office and finish this book, presentation or article — by myself!”

So why am I going forward? Why must those of us in the academy come out and play? Here are my ruminations on the benefits of group work for professors.

It is important to exchange with voices in field. This is not rocket science. However, we need the reminder: iron sharpens iron. The problem is that the academy often pits us against each other. We fear sharing lest our idea becomes another scholar’s next bestseller. Yes, it happens, but this should not preclude us from collaborating with people we trust. It is helpful to tease out our ideas with a colleague who speaks our language.

We must get the transdisciplinary train rolling. Talking with other people in your field is vital. Seeing whether the tentacles of your research touch other disciplines is just as integral. Coming out of the academic comfort zone opens the door for more consorting and can provide feedback to strengthen your own work.

Furthermore, as departments are restructuring and forcing newly minted Ph.D.s to teach both/and, here and there, branching out is paramount. Yet it depends on the institution. In some settings treading into interdisciplinary waters can be detrimental. A tenure committee can deem it watering down your scholarship.

Learn the tenor of your context and govern yourself accordingly. I am in a context where research diversity is a plus. Although I am a Bible scholar, I try to be conversant with literature, pop culture, gender studies and sociology, to name a few. Those interdisciplinary efforts have led to the development of a new transdisciplinary umbrella, what I call womanist maternal thought.

Future projects await. The mere mention of an idea or word can trigger the next book, volume, center or institute. However, unless academics dare to push the isolation envelope, such projects may never come to fruition. A post on Facebook or a Twitter direct message has the potential to open the door to communication with people outside your academic circle. Those actions can lead to conversations about similar research interests and intersections. Social media can pave the way for a wide intellectual road. But first we must dare to be sociable.

There is power in the human touch. Participating in group work should put you in the room with, well, people. True, our classrooms and committees are inundated with colleagues, students and administrators. Yet with the ubiquitous nature of online teaching, we do not have to be in the same location or same space as another human being, and the technological wall can preclude us from dwelling with flesh and blood.

I am routinely amazed when we do not recognize in person the very people on our Facebook page — it is as if their actual being is foreign to us. Getting accustomed to such human distance should be foreign. There is nothing like being with the author whose book we engage for class, standing a few feet from the professor who first inspired us or chatting over dinner with colleagues in our newly formed cohort. The emotional connection and camaraderie that occur when people are able to discuss ideas face-to-face are almost inexplicable. Who knows? We may laugh and feel a little mushy. It takes head and heart to do this work.

Honestly speaking, group projects give professors a reprieve in teaching. But perchance we must first teach ourselves the lessons we want our students to glean from those projects. How life affirming it is to exchange with others inside and beyond our fields. Risking openness to what may come breathes new life into dead academic spaces. In the end, a computer can only give so much love.

You Don’t Have To Let Students Into Your Online World

crowderNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder (@stepbcrowder) is an author, minister, and Bible and pop culture educator. She serves as assistant professor of theological field education and New Testament and as director of the ACTS doctor of ministry in preaching program at Chicago Theological Seminary.

“The ‘Sacredness’ of Social Media”

#boundaries #academy #balance #socialmedia #nope #sacredspace #theology

No, this is not another article on why you should or should not engage with social media. I will not waste cyberink on how much time you should allot to Twitter. The degree of frittering on Facebook is up to you. That is not my purpose here — not today. I am a proponent for exploring the vast tools of technology.

Interactions on the Internet are crucial in academe whether one studies history, sociology, geometry or, yes, even theology. From professors posting podcasts to the live-streaming and Periscope activities of pastors and church leaders, the use of the web is ubiquitous to say the least. It is worth emphasizing that access to the world online is beyond a luxury. It is a social, professional, political and theological necessity.

However, we must have boundaries. Too much of a good thing is abusive and irresponsible. I am especially concerned that, in the academy, professors allow themselves to say yes to students who want to invade their social media environment. It is OK to say no!

Within the hallowed halls of academe, we spend many days and some nights responding to student emails, answering the same questions, reviewing paper outlines, drafts and final papers, and serving as disciplinarian and counselor — ad nauseam. Thus, we must establish a perimeter somewhere. Well, it stops here. Know that your social media space is off-limits; students cannot cross this line.

We should not feel obligated to reply to class-related work on Facebook. No, it is not a pedagogical sin to ignore a “Can you explain the directions again?” request on Twitter. A student’s direct messaging is not a substitute for direct use of institutional email. A class-related shout-out on Instagram does not give students instant access to you or me. Our social media presence is precious, priceless and off-limits. It is sacred — holy social ground.

My posting and trolling on social media — well, it’s for me. As a professional, I want to be in conversation with others in the guild with whom distance, time and just plain inconvenience preclude our dialogue. A retweet here, a like there, and a message or two allows me to be in touch with colleagues and potential collaborators. This is the space where I can expand my academic, social and cultural horizons. I discover the latest article, the newest book or most recent political movement. This is not where I want to expend more energy fielding student inquiries about the syllabus or an assignment.

Establishing such lines of professor-student demarcation is not about weariness from responding to student queries. This is par for the course. Pedagogy is an exercise of questions and answers, thinking and responding. But it must also be a discourse of silence, reflection and meditation. Vocation calls for places of professional growth and development. The idea is for professors to have an arena just to be. The busyness of social media can perchance serve in this vein. There is much to be gleaned from the constant, ready access to information, ideas and movements. Everything, however, must be done in moderation. This, too, calls for academic balance and scholarly equilibrium.

The “me” on social media is professional, yes, but is not solely that of professor. There are many facets to my social location and identity. Because who we are “out there” can be personal, it is OK if students are not Facebook friends — although some would tend to disagree. I have colleagues who gladly converse with current students in cyberspace, while others prefer not to have such connections until after students have graduated.

If a request to befriend or an automatic follow comes from someone in a present class, it is professionally and personally within your right to ignore or block such requested connections. If asked in person about the decline, I gently let students know the rationale: social media space is all about me. There, I said it again. Our work requires the time for self-conscious advocacy, adventures and professional advancement proffered through the Internet maze. This is just another teachable moment.

Truth is, students could post items that I really should not see. I choose not to be put in such a precarious position. Let them have their Internet freedom. Note, we all need to proceed with caution. One never knows who is lurking or trolling. The Internet is always watching. Yes, we must be careful, but we do not have to be cowardly.

When it comes to alumni, former students, staff members or other people connected to an institution, there are perhaps a different set of criteria. Relationships change as people matriculate through shared organizations. In this light, some professionals establish various Internet accounts to reflect their respective social, political and career loci.

I think it is relative. You know you. You know what degree of any type of engagement inside and outside of the academy is personally apropos. No, I am not trying to hide anything. Probity says I am who I am in the classroom and in my dining room. This is comparable to not answering work-related emails on the weekend — same, same. A healthy dose of work-family, professor-student balance is beneficial for everyone.

It is just a matter of boundaries for me. I hear the stentorian retort: What parameters could there possibly be when Googling reveals information about ourselves even we had forgotten? The Internet is unforgiving. The World Wide Web has a long memory. It never forgets. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. Anyone, anywhere, at any time can find our pictures, posts and papers without our consent or knowledge. Nonetheless, I would like to believe in a modicum of control over who or what enters and feeds on my cyberself. I study theology. Belief is important to me.

So go ahead. Draw a line in the social media sand. Stand up for your cyber yes. Stand in your Internet no. Erect that “No Students Allowed” fence. Save your social media persona for the work your soul requires. This is holy ground. For the sake of self and society — this is sacred.

To Be Conditionally Unaccepted: When You Are Denied Tenure

crowderRev. Dr. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder (@stepbcrowder) is the Director of Theological Field Education at Chicago Theological Seminary (full biography at the end).  In this guest blog post, Dr. Chowder reflects on the painful experience of being denied tenure, but also on bouncing back, and even seeing the “silver lining,” in this (temporary) professional setback.  She offers some tips for other scholars who have been denied tenure to remain resilient.


To Be Conditionally Unaccepted

“Isn’t it crazy how the world tries to make us ashamed of so much.” I heard this recently from someone describing shame emanating from unexpected health challenges. Things beyond our control can so quickly become a source of embarrassment. Pride, professional expectations, and pretention easily spiral to chagrin. When plans do not go, well, according to plan, it is common to press the “shame on you” default button. Discussing success is the academy is a no-brainer. Yet, what happens when the publishing path takes a wrong turn? What is our recourse when tenure denial attempts to catapult us off a cliff? There are times when the hallowed halls of academia do not accept us. We become the conditionally unaccepted.

Academia is a polemic. Much of it is public thought and research in the hands private people. Whereas our teaching, lectures, and publishing are on display for all to see, so many of us are introverts. We realize for the sake of survival and networking, we have to share ideas and garner feedback. Social media makes tooting our own horns just a click away…done. However, there is reticence and embarrassment when the things do not go so well. We quickly go further inward, almost regretting that we can out to play in the first place. I believe that instead of shaming ourselves or letting the difficulties of the academy force us inside, painful watershed moments are times to embrace the outside.

A few years ago, I was experiencing my own tenure drama. I knew as the first African American and third woman in this department’s history it was an uphill battle. The percentage of faculty of color at the university in general was dismal. Both an African American and a Latino professor had been denied tenure within four years.

This did not look good for me, and it did not go well. For five years at the end of every semester, I was summoned to the “principal’s office.” A parent’s phone call, a student’s email, an evaluation or comment, and there I was waiting to hear the charges and my subsequent “punishment.” It all culminated in the dean telling me six months before my tenure portfolio was due that I would not get the administration’s support. Forty classes, six hundred students, and numerous missed events in the lives of my children – for naught?!!

My immediate response, of course, was to run and hide. Well, actually, my immediate response was to leave the office, less I spoke or acted unprofessionally. So, I reached out to trusted colleagues and advisors. I told my story. I shared my experiences and sought wise counsel. These actions became life-saving and life-affirming for me.

I offer the following to persons for whom the academy has taken its toll:

  1. Process. Take the time to muddle through and accept your various emotions. Rejection is more than a notion. Anger, embarrassment, and sadness take turns as daily dance partners. Meditate on how you feel. Grab a journal. Write a letter to those who scorned you, but please don’t email it or post it to Facebook.
  2. Tell. Too often we are ashamed when the bad surfaces, especially in the polished, refined world of higher education. Sharing our experiences is cathartic. You must tell your own story. Academia is large and yet so small. Social media makes the private, public knowledge in just a few seconds. People know or will find out sooner or later. So, you tell it. Furthermore, you are not the first or only one to have such a harrowing experience, and you won’t be the last.
  3. Trust. I went to people who had been where I was trying to go. I needed to know what to do next. Surround yourself with people beyond your career grade. Their resources can prove invaluable. If I had not been forthcoming about my own career crossroads, I would not have known about my current opportunity.
  4. Do the do. Just because it did not work out at one institution does not mean you are a bad professor. It could have just a bad fit. For people of color in the academy, there are some colleges and universities that are hard on our spirits. I was able to teach adjunct a year after my tenure experience. My publishing schedule has been amazingly full. Sometimes it is a matter of finding a hospitable context. We must find the place that will nurture the work that our souls must have.
  5. Discern. Try to look for the magnificence in the madness. My interest in biblical studies and pop culture piqued because I was trying to find a way to connect to students at my former institution. That may not have come to fruition had I not wrestled with trying to be a better teacher, even in a hostile environment. To this day I am still intrigued at how the bible appears in peculiar places.
  6. Mentor. There are students and upcoming professionals who need to learn from us. Much instruction emanates from our challenges as well as our successes. The professor-university connection is a relationship. It looks one way during the dating game, but marriage is different phenomenon. Sometimes marriages end in divorce. Sharing this narrative with persons fresh out of grad school is just as important as sharing a syllabus or teaching tips.

The “shame” from not getting to next can leave us devastated. Rejections like gut-punches leave us breathless. Just know somewhere is a space that will indeed breathe new life into you. We must fight to do the work we were destined to do and in the end, accept ourselves.



Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder holds a Ph.D. in New Testament from Vanderbilt University. She is the Director of Theological Field Education at Chicago Theological Seminary and serves on the ACTS DMin in Preaching Program Committee. She has written numerous scholarly articles and frequently blogs for ON Scripture and The Huffington Post. Her book on womanist maternal thought is due next spring.