Jennifer Summit, Professor of English and Center for Teaching and Learning Faculty Fellow since 2011, originally conceived the idea of a program to introduce graduate students to teaching. Summit was named an American Council on Education Fellow in 2012 and, after working closely with SJSU faculty over the course of this fellowship, she created the Preparing Future Professors program.
A graduate mentoring program made possible through partnership between Stanford and San José State University, Preparing Future Professors launched for the first time in the 2012-13 academic year. This year, 2013-14, saw the second successful iteration of the course, with a major increase in popularity amongst students.
In the first year of the program, six Stanford graduate students were matched up with San José State University mentors who shared a common field of study with the help of Stanford’s Center for Teaching and Learning, Vice Provost for Graduate Education, and School of Humanities and Sciences, as well as administrators and teaching faculty from San José State University. The students then shadowed their mentors over the course of a quarter (approximately three months).
The program also includes weekly meetings as a group with Rick Reis, part-time consulting professor in the Stanford Mechanical Engineering department and moderator of the Tomorrow’s Professor mailing list.
Despite the excellent teaching that graduate students receive at top-tier universities, including research-intensive institutions such as Stanford, students who want to become professors are often at a disadvantage when applying to other colleges and universities.
The reason is simple: graduate students coming from research-specific institutions may have a solid idea of what it is like to teach at that sort of school, but they are often regarded as having less experience because they have interacted largely with only a certain demographic and type of student. Public schools look for future professors who possess the skill sets necessary to teach and interact with students from a variety of backgrounds, experiences, and demographics, and they want to see applicants with demonstrated commitment to them. Candidates from private schools can be seen as lacking this experience and commitment.
The first year of the program was an overwhelming success, as indicated by end-of-year assessments and journals that the students completed. Graduates from the pilot program indicated that their overall experience exceeded their expectations. As Summit says, the main issue she anticipated was garnering enough interest from professors: “I thought the hardest part would be getting the faculty from San José State, just because we’re asking them to make a serious commitment.” Instead, she was met with generous faculty offering their mentorship.
Students also benefited from the professional influence of their mentors, according to Rick Reis. “This year more than last year,” he says, “students have spent more time outside the classroom at SJSU.” He went on to explain that the students now often stay on campus for office hours, department meetings, and even Faculty Senate meetings, in coordination with their mentors.
Stanford students also reported seeing diversity in their classes that they had never been exposed to before--students with children, or who were veterans, or who were even homeless--and were inspired by their mentors' warm relationships with students.
The only change for the second year seems to be the level of student interest. As word got out around Stanford campus, the number of applicants spiked as students recognized the value of hands-on teaching, not only to experience a school very different from Stanford, but also to increase their competitiveness in the job market. In response, two more spots were opened for students, increasing the admitted group size to eight.
All in all, the program’s first two years have been a resounding success, and Summit is satisfied that the program is fulfilling its intended purpose: “The program really comes out of our sense that we want to give graduate students a fuller sense of the diversity of American higher education," she says. "I think that universities are sometimes faulted for preparing students to teach at only research universities.” Preparing Future Professors has addressed this need and is effectively coming up with solutions and paving the way for a handful of students every year.
Possible areas of expansion in the future might include the incorporation of other nearby colleges in order to represent even more types of schools, such as community colleges and faith-based schools.
Sierra Freeman is a junior majoring in English.