By definition university professors are experts in their fields. Given the laws of the universe, however, professors are also aging experts. Not experts on aging, but, rather, humans who are aging. As Yeats wrote in his poem on getting older, Sailing to Byzantium, we are all “fastened to a dying animal.”
Growing older increases knowledge and experience while—one hopes—gaining wisdom. Few faculty members would willingly return to their graduate student days defending dissertations and preparing for job interviews.
Nevertheless, with increasing age comes the fear of being left behind. Science, by its very nature, advances, and increasingly, faculty members are expected to be Professor 2.0. For much of the technology involved in research and teaching has changed dramatically in the past few decades. This is not to say that the fundamental characteristics of research and teaching—passion, creativity, determination, and critical analysis—are different, but many of the means to express these have surely been transformed.
In my office I have boxes of photocopied articles used for my doctoral dissertation, which I completed in 1995. I will never open the boxes again, as the articles—and much more— are now available on-line. I can access the electronic versions of the articles from anywhere at any time and use them in more creative and comprehensive ways than I ever could as white, letter-sized pages with black printing held together by a staple.
The electronic articles I’ve collected to replace those in the boxes have migrated from hard-disk, to hard drive, to CD, to USB. They currently reside in the “cloud.”
In another box I have overhead transparencies used for my teaching up until 1999.
My most recently completed collection of boxes contains the collections of required readings I prepared for my students, for them to buy when they started a course. But as of last year, students in all my courses can access these readings electronically from the university library, or, in some cases, from public sources.
So far, I’ve been unable to discard the nearly one dozen boxes of material in my office, as I feel a sentimental attachment to these relics from a bygone era. Fortunately, because of technological change there has been little need. Fewer and fewer books and journals arrive for my bookshelves (as most publications are now electronic), delaying the need to toss the old to make more room for the new.
In the less than two decades since I received my doctorate, critical aspects of teaching technology have changed. Blackboard, Moodle, Powerpoint, and related technologies are part of the teaching process for many faculty, and many students expect them to be part of their university experience. Ratemyprofessor.com, blogs, and other means provide students with a degree of knowledge (and perceptions) about professors and their performance not available in the past.
The technological shift is not without its harms, as it can easily entail a loss of reflective reading, in-depth contextual reading, and opportunities for undergraduate seminar discussions. Increasingly, older faculty colleagues are the only ones who can recall a time before the current technology. This does not mean they wish to turn back the clock, but they are often the ones better able to advocate that technology not displace the core elements of the teacher-student relationship.
Electronic personal research assistants, such as Zotero, and other related software, are now standard in research. Slowly, but inexorably, printed books and journals have been complemented, and are being supplanted, by electronic versions. Powerpoint, for better or worse, is the default means to present ideas and findings, whether in a classroom or scholarly conference.
For the aging expert, the advancements in knowledge and changes in technology of the past several decades are generally welcome. In many cases, it was the hard work and cuttingedge research of professors that developed these technologies.
Information and communication technology have resulted in a democratization of knowledge, as colleagues at smaller institutions now have the same, or at least similar, access to scholarly information and databases. The same applies to students. Personally, I love searching for books in library stacks, but I also appreciate being able to browse for an item from my computer at 2:00 a.m.
Collaboration is easier with colleagues far and wide, resulting in richer research initiatives.
Yet, for many mid-career and older faculty members, there is anxiety. The anxiety is not so much about what has happened to date, but what else might occur; that is, not of having been passed by, but, rather, of the possibility of being passed by in the future. The anxiety comes from wishing to stay ahead of technological and cultural change, or even to shape it.
Anxiety can be good as it inspires change. I recorded and posted audio lectures on the Web more than a decade ago. Earlier this year, I began to experiment with posting lectures on YouTube. Truth be told, I had not really wanted to record audio or video, but I felt that not doing so was limiting what I saw as my teaching duties and, more generally, limiting how I saw myself as an educator. The widespread availability of the technology and my students’ obvious enthusiasm for it forced my hand.
On the other hand, anxiety can be stressful. Students in my fourth-year political science course use more intricate Powerpoint presentations than I can produce. My MBA students can find more up-to-date data than I can, while seamlessly integrating video, graphics, and text into multimedia presentations. I fear I’m falling further and further behind in what should be a field I’m expert in. Fortunately, teaching is to some measure an art, and one that has a broad range. University faculty are blessed (and, arguably, those with several decades of experience even more so) in that they have a measure of control of their work. They can decide on their research interests and methodologies, and—to some degree—on their teaching duties.
Faculty members—regardless of age—who are drawn to multimedia lectures suitable for large audiences can often teach introductory courses. Those with the skills for Webbased courses or distance education courses can in some cases offer these types of learning formats. Those whose skills and interests are suited to smaller, seminar-style formats still often have the chance to teach in this manner.
Christopher Plummer’s Academy Award at age 82 provides solace that age is little related to performance, and that skills honed during a lifetime can infuse the technology. However, Mr. Plummer’s success also suggests that older faculty members should not necessarily expect to play Romeo. They do, and should, select those roles that fit with their expertise and interest. Older faculty members usually have decades of institutional experience and, if they wish, can wield considerable influence in an academic department. My own experience is that it is often the older members of my department who respond to calls for assistance and advice and who are no less involved and committed to their academic activities than younger colleagues.
Not surprisingly, decades of teaching, research, and service result in their having a much stronger bond to the academy than their younger colleagues. The elimination of mandatory retirement in most Canadian universities over the past five years has had positive impacts on older faculty members. Previously, when reaching age 65 meant an automatic dismissal from employment, there was often little motivation to start new research projects, teaching initiatives, or other activities once a professor was within a few years of 65. This has now changed, and, not surprisingly, more professors are working past age 65.
According to the CAUT Almanac, the number of professors employed full time beyond age 64 more than tripled between 2001 and 2009 to 5.1 per cent (6.3 per cent of males and 2.9 per cent of females). In fact, the number of full-time professors age 70 and older equals that of those under 30. Both make up 0.7 per cent of all full-time university teachers. Mid-career and older faculty members do find themselves in a quandary with regard to compensation. Most universities have a progress-through-the-ranks or a seniority scheme that results in those with long tenure earning more than younger, newly hired colleagues. This can result in such questions as: What is Senior Professor X doing this year to earn 50 per cent more than Junior Professor Y? Shouldn’t Senior Professor X be 50 per cent more productive this year than Junior Professor Y?
These compensation schemes, however, are not productivity schemes. The progress-through-the-ranks system in academia is a means to provide—assuming satisfactory performance— a pay scheme in a profession where, most likely, the job you start with (teaching, research, and university service) is the one you finish with. There is little opportunity for the kind of advancement, in pay and responsibility, found in most other occupations.
Moreover, there should be little inter-generational conflict, as most junior colleagues will eventually reach the same salary levels of their older counterparts.
With the Baby Boom generation beginning to reach retirement age, many more faculty members than ever before will be reaching 65 in the next two decades. Consequently, at least three reforms to established practices and arrangements are required.
First, many universities are not taking advantage of the skills possessed by younger and older professors respectively. Nor are younger and older faculty members taking advantage of each others’ skills, either. Mentoring programs for junior faculty are rare, and mentoring for older faculty is unknown. But much can be gained by ensuring that newer faculty and more experienced faculty interact with one another. Less experienced faculty can learn the many unwritten conventions of academia, from dealing with students’ grade concerns to getting manuscripts accepted for publication. Older faculty members, if they wish, can learn how to use the latest teaching technology from their younger colleagues. Such shared learning occurs best in informal arrangements at the departmental level.
Second, the retirement process is often abrupt, causing undue stress to all involved, including students. Greater flexibility in retirement patterns, such as phased retirement, is a benefit for administrators, colleagues, and students. Most collective agreements have some provisions for a stepped retirement, but these are often inflexible, either not allowing faculty members to increase their workload after it has been decreased or placing arbitrary limits on course loads.
The third reform is ensuring that retired faculty members, if they wish, can continue to be involved in the academy. There are few institutional or informal mechanisms to promote and sustain this. In East Asian universities, it is not uncommon at the start of the academic term to have a reception for retired faculty, so they can meet new colleagues and incoming students. This is a small gesture, but one that serves to remind, and bind, the old and new in the mission of teaching and learning.
The above suggestions are by no means exhaustive, but do show how individual faculty members, departments, faculty associations, and institutions can each play a role.
The anxiety felt by mid-career and more senior professors is rooted in believing they may not have the knowledge or tools to adapt, to continue to contribute. For many individuals this feeling is the incentive to keep learning and innovating: to upgrade from Professor 1.0 to, perhaps not 2.0, but to Professor 1.1, or 1.4, or 1.7.
Indeed, academia must have a range of professors from 1.0 to 2.0. The student body is diverse and heterogeneous, as is scientific inquiry. We may all be “sailing to Byzantium”, but, fortunately, there is no one route we must all follow.
Thomas R. Klassen is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science, and School of Public Policy and Administration, at York University. He teaches courses on the politics of aging and has written extensively on retirement.