The Big Picture: Shifting Self-Understanding

Prior to serving as the President of Winebrenner Seminary, I was a tenured faculty member at a school in northwest Pennsylvania. I loved the rhythm of teaching, service, and scholarship and remain connected to colleagues and students from the years I spent at that university. We would take short trips with our young family but most of my travel occurred when I attended an academic conference. Other than the occasional frustration that emerges when working with people in any context, I can say I truly loved that experience.

As I noted in last week’s post, we live in an age of rapid changes both personally and organizationally. And while it’s difficult to admit, the world I knew just a decade ago is quickly disappearing. Rising costs continue to lead to calls for more affordable models of education. A more widely distributed student body, both geographically and economically, requires more accessible pathways to coursework. And challenges to the status quo of learning are raising more questions about what “quality” means in the context of graduate education.

Sometimes you’ll hear someone say something like “This isn’t your father’s…” when referring to a changing organization or new event or even make some reference to Dorothy’s words from The Wizard of Oz, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Both of these are ways to signal that something feels out of place or that something no longer feels familiar. This is not your father’s (or mother’s) Winebrenner Seminary and we are definitely not in Kansas any more!

When our organizational context or personal circumstances change it’s an invitation to make a shift in how we view ourselves or our place in a wider context. I’ve written about some of these shifts previously on InDepth:

Shifting: Series Recap

Shifting Focus: From Operational to Cultural Priorities

When confronted with new circumstances, we all tend to “default to our training.” This is where the challenge becomes most evident for those, like myself, who were training in an academic setting and completed a PhD. Rapid organizational shifts are a challenge for all members, but especially for faculty members at a school like Winebrenner Seminary. The following example illustrates some of these challenges.

When I was a PhD student over 20 years ago I had a friend who assisted our department with some research about completion rates for graduate students. Each stage of the process of completing a PhD had approximately a 50% completion rate. For example, if 100 students began coursework only 50 would complete it. Of those 50 students, only 25 would successfully pass comprehensive exams. Of those 25, only 13 (since 12.5 can’t be a number of students, I’ll round up to 13) would successfully defend a dissertation proposal. Of those 13 who proposed a dissertation only 7 (again, rounding up) would complete the dissertation. I’m oversimplifying her research and recognize that each academic area of study is slightly different, but the main point remains – Of the 100 students who began the process of working toward a PhD only 7 finished the process! Of those 7 who finish, only a few are hired into full-time teaching positions. So, when we are discussing a full-time faculty member who has a PhD we need to keep in mind that we are discussing someone who has survived an incredibly difficult process. This is a tremendous accomplishment.

Along the way to completing the degree, each of these seven students were encultured into a particular way of understanding the academy. And it’s no surprise that the better schools did a better job of socializing students into a specific worldview about higher education. This is the reason why sometimes the best faculty members have the hardest time adjusting to new approaches to education and learning.

So, where does that leave us in 2023?

We need to be intentional about prioritizing the unique mission, culture, and strategy of where we are embedded and not default to how we were trained. It’s likely that anyone affiliated with Winebrenner has heard me say some variation of “Your training did not prepare you for how we’re approaching education in 2023.” I can’t set out to recreate my own journey and experience as a student – no matter how valuable it was for me at the time.

  • Brent C. Sleasman, President