Assistant to "Full": Rank and the Development of Expertise

by Dorothy E. Finnegan & Adrienne E. Hyle - 2009

Background/Context: Faculty rank has been used variously as an independent variable to explore faculty attitudes and behaviors such as productivity, institutional commitment, and turnover, and as a dependent variable to establish the case for discrimination. As a sociological role, however, rank has been neglected. We know little about the competencies of the faculty who have earned their rank, and the presence of a connection between advancing through the ranks to the qualitative progression of professional mastery or expertise has yet to be investigated. This study begins this exploration through a review of the development of professional expertise among history faculty.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: As a result of personal experience and professional observations, our initial interest was to ascertain to what extent expertise is associated with rank. We assumed that assistant professors are by no means novices, rather, that they are less expert than professors. We wondered if explicit and differentiated expertise behaviors associated with the three primary ranks could be identified. In other words, to what extent is the acquisition of expert skill related to the progression through academic rank?

Population/Participants/Subjects: A random sample of 13 faculty members in history departments offering baccalaureate through doctoral programs from two institutions in the same Carnegie category (RU/H) served as participants.

Research Design: This is a qualitative two-site case study.

Data Collection and Analysis: Absent an applicable analytical model, we devised a nondirective interview outline that allowed us to probe faculty about the ways by which they think and execute their work, and we discuss the development of their confidence and conviction in research, publications, professional activities, and teaching. Throughout the interviews, we asked faculty to place their responses in the context of the rank in which the activity occurred.

Findings/Results: Although moving from one rank to another is a clean and discrete act or event, moving from one level of expertise to the next is not.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Although the interviews suggest that patterns exist by rank, we do not believe that rank is the sole or dominant force in this growth. Rather, as one might suspect, a combination of factors exist that propel and guide faculty toward control and confidence in their expertise. We still hold though that rank is a more important social role than the research would have us believe. Although it may be symbolic in nature, it is a signifier to professional colleagues, to students, to the public, and to the individual who has earned it that this person has achieved a certain level of expertise in his or her field.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 2, 2009, p. 443-479 ID Number: 15221, Date Accessed: 4/9/2020 6:22:52 PM

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