Rocking the Academy

Season 1: #2 - Lee Skallerup Bessette, Georgetown University

Episode Summary

In this episode of Rocking the Academy, co-hosts Roopika Risam and Mary Churchill talk with Lee Skallerup Bessette, Learning Design Specialist at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown University, about her ideas for the future of higher education. We cover the role of social media and blogging in Lee’s career, her advocacy for contingent faculty, and the importance of focusing on students. Find us on Twitter: @roopikarisam, @mary_churchill, and @readywriting

Episode Notes

Topics Discussed in this Episode:

Resources Discussed in this Episode:

Music Credits: “Come Right Here” by Tendinite, licensed under a Creative Commons 4.0 CC-BY-NC-ND license.

Episode Transcription

Mary Churchill: [00:00:00] Rocking the Academy is a podcast that's changing the future of higher education. Your hosts Mary Churchill and Roopika Risam bring you conversations with the very best truth tellers who are formulating a different vision of the University. Do they rock the boat? Yes, but in doing so they rock the academy

Roopika Risam: [00:00:26] On this episode of Rocking the Academy, we are joined by Lee Skallerup Bessette, Learning Design Specialist at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown University. Lee's wide-ranging career includes being a tenure-track faculty member at Florida A&M University, contingent faculty at Morehead State University, and working in faculty development at University of Kentucky and University of Mary Washington. She was also a longtime blogger for Inside Higher Ed.

[00:00:57] Hi Lee. Thanks for joining us today. We're really happy to be chatting with you. And so when Mary and I were thinking about who's rocking the academy, your name immediately came to mind for us. Fittingly, my first question has to do with the way we all met, which is social media. How has social media shaped your trajectory and your career in higher education?

Lee Skallerup Bessette: [00:01:22] Well, I always say that there is no reason for me to be where I am if it weren't for Twitter and social media. I mean, five years ago, I was a contingent faculty member at a rural, regional comprehensive university. You don't go from Morehead State University -- no shade on Morehead State -- but you don't go from Morehead State University in a contingent faculty role to Georgetown University. That is not a narrative that happens in higher education. You don't make those kinds of institutional prestige jumps, and I was able to do it because of Twitter and my blogging and social media and the networks that I developed and the reputation I developed.

[00:02:08] University of Venus, Mary, as you well know, was one of my first launching points to a wider public and I found the call because I followed Mary on Twitter. And then when University of Venus moved to Inside Higher Ed that even widened the platform even more. And it was Mary's encouragement for me to take my little Blogger blog and pitch it to Inside Higher Ed, which they took. That led to opportunities to speak at conferences, led to me being invited to contribute chapters. It led to me discovering that there is a thing called “faculty development” and something called “alt-ac work” and just to be able to build that network and to be able to build my reputation outside of the narrow confines of contingent faculty at Morehead State University, woman, wife, mother who gave up a tenure-track position. So I was able to sort of break through that very simplistic narrative about my career through social media and blogging and through the network that I developed there.

Roopika Risam: [00:03:08] I think we have that in common, Lee, in the sense that Twitter changed the possibilities for our careers. For me, working at a regional comprehensive university, it's not exactly a place that necessarily has - well in the traditional prestige metrics of the university, you know, people look at our affiliations on our name badges and then don't talk to us at conferences.

Lee Skallerup Bessette: [00:03:36] And we know how the prestige system works for better or for worse in higher education. I mean, I had it happen at conferences, where people would come up to me and look at me, look at my name tag, and then make a beeline in the opposite direction. I caught flack for it even when I was writing at Inside Higher Ed. Not from the editors at Inside Higher Ed, but from readers, from people who were just like why is she writing for Inside Higher Ed? Who is she? To which I replied, “Oh, I'm no one,” but we're pretty much the majority of people working in higher education right now.

Mary Churchill: [00:04:07] I feel like there are lots of haters of social media and of course on social media, but I think of other faculty in departments or other staff and administrators at institutions who really look down on Twitter or pooh pooh it or think of blogging as a waste of time. And so how have either of you kind of pushed back on that?

Roopika Risam: [00:04:28] So I first got on Twitter as a graduate student because I just didn't feel like I had enough of a community in person. And so after I got on Twitter, I realized it was really fascinating because I could talk to other graduate students, I talked to senior scholars, and they would interact. I was asked at the new student orientation that year, this was probably fall of 2009, to give advice to new graduate students. And a piece of advice I gave them was get on Twitter. And immediately the Director of Graduate Studies said, “Oh my goodness, don't waste your time with that.” But, there are downsides too, right? I mean, there are trolls.

Lee Skallerup Bessette: [00:05:13] I think it's really interesting that there is that downside, and I think that there does seriously have to be discussion. Because ten years ago or almost ten years ago when we got on Twitter, it was a much different space than it is now. And I do it with a word of caution now when I'm advising people on Twitter. I tell people that they should take stock of what they are, how much of themselves they want to put out there. It's this ability to form a different kind of community, to rethink how we do scholarship, to rethink how we communicate that scholarship. And maybe for individuals it's not Twitter and maybe for individuals it is in a blog. But again to have that openness and to be able to introduce those kinds of things. You know the haters, some of it is rational. The other part of it is I try to see it and understand it as coming from a place of fear. And that kind of change and that kind of disruption is scary. And so the easiest way to handle it is to just dismiss it and belittle it. How do we find that thing that allows for faculty an entryway, a path into it, that allows them to start seeing it as beneficial rather than scary and toxic?

Mary Churchill: [00:06:22] What I hear you both saying is, I think in the beginning the faculty role can be very isolated or isolating, right? And you often feel alone in a department, particularly if you're not at the center of the department and it can influence your behavior, perhaps in ways that you don't want it to. But I think Twitter and online social media in general creates another space where you don't have to make the compromises you do if you're stuck only in a department with your colleagues. I was struck by something you said earlier around Inside Higher Ed -- writing for Inside Higher Ed -- and it's true, you know. I think people were like, “Why do you think you get to write there?” And your answer was really, “Because I pitched it.” So there's not necessarily a fear, right? Or you take risks because you think there's a tomorrow that's going to be better than today. And I think that's a resiliency. And, how do you, in faculty development roles and as a mentor to folks, how do you help people adopt that attitude?

Lee Skallerup Bessette: [00:07:34] I think one of the biggest things for me is trust. You have to build trust with people, and I say it until I'm blue in the face. And I don't actually like holding my story up as a success story and being like, “And you could do it too!” Because, you know, there was an incredible amount of privilege behind that as well. And so it's also been for me a reconfiguring of what I consider success to be. For a long time, it was unlearning that I was a failure because I never got tenure. You know, those are still powerful factors within the academy, even on the alt-ac track, of how we define success or failure. So it's negotiating and navigating those things and really setting, well, what is it exactly that I want in terms of my priorities, in terms of my personal values? What is it that's holding me back? And then how do I, how does one, maneuver their way around those things and get them to come together in a way that makes sense, that is doable, that is believable?

Mary Churchill: [00:08:32] When I think of this rocking the boat and the academy and you, I think of, and maybe you've played a larger or smaller role in this then I'm aware, but the role of getting contingent faculty and contingent faculty issues to be on the official agenda of the MLA meetings and the MLA platform.

Lee Skallerup Bessette: [00:08:54] Yeah, and I think again it was one of those situations where I sort of stumbled into it, right? I started writing about contingent faculty and issues, blissfully ignorant, tragically ignorant of the work that had been done and was being done for contingent faculty. And, you know, I have to say that if you want somebody who really rocked the boat and who did rock the boat, you should have Maria Maisto. She started the New Faculty Majority. She worked tirelessly behind the scenes at the MLA for a lot of years both before I was on the scene and then also afterwards. We're all indebted to the legacy that she and many others were involved with, in the New Faculty Majority and even those adjunct advocates before that. I just came in at a really good time, and I had a platform, and I was willing to use it. And that's the work that I have found that I'm really good at in a lot of ways: amplifying. And I want to use that to the best possible purposes, which is to amplify, and I was able to amplify issues of contingency.

Mary Churchill: [00:09:56] Switching gears, what do you see as the biggest challenge for universities?

Lee Skallerup Bessette: [00:10:01] Public funding. This is the first time I've ever worked at a private institution. All the institutions I've ever worked at, and coming from Canada as well, have always been publicly funded institutions. So that challenge of the tuition-driven public institution model is of trying to best educate the students that we serve in our service region under austerity, right? And just trying to figure out how do we reimagine. I mean, it's really about, at this point, reimagining the system in a way that we can make higher education sustainable again for our populations and not just the elite, that they grow as people, as professionals, and get jobs, don't get me wrong, but that it is an enriching experience and enriching four years.

Roopika Risam: [00:10:47] Where do you see innovation happening or what gives you hope that we might be able to have a different future for higher ed?

Lee Skallerup Bessette: [00:10:55] Stubborn hope because I just really would like my kids to have a good experience in higher education. I mean you see pockets of it, right? And you see it happening in individual classrooms, and you see it happening with colleagues in the people that I've connected with on Twitter. And all of us who are on Twitter who care about these issues, who are making decisions, small decisions, every single day in our classrooms and outside of our classrooms, and how we speak, and how we interact, and how we treat our students, and how we treat each other. That's what really gives me hope, right? The individuals within the system who are working tirelessly and thanklessly at making those things that they can make better, every single day, and connecting with one another and becoming colleagues to one another. And we start seeing it -- I mean, it's been a decade and we're starting to see the people who were grad students or early career when we were first on Twitter and getting to know one another who are now tenured and moving into leadership positions. And that's really heartening to see because I know that they're going to carry a lot of that stuff that we've all talked about, learned about over the past decade through social media -- and our own education -- but I think reinforced through social media. They're going to take those into those positions. And so you see something like The Graduate Center and the work that someone like Cathy Davidson is doing, conferences about rethinking graduate degrees, institutions reinventing themselves and thinking carefully about reaching students and helping students succeed beyond apps and nudges. The innovation is going to be thinking about the whole student and the whole experience and those connections. Because, we know, the research shows us that we know students persist when they make connections with people on campus, right? Not apps. Not interfaces. Not kiosks, but people. At the end of the day, the person sitting across from you or the one person sitting on the other side of the computer screen in terms of online learning. We start focusing on people, then that forces us to rethink the entire system of rewards that the entire system that has built up on.

Roopika Risam: [00:13:11] You have been listening to Rocking the Academy, where Mary Churchill and Roopika Risam bring you conversations with the very best truth tellers who are formulating a different vision of the university. Catch more episodes at