The Great Resilience: Notes on a Discussion Series to Cultivate Resilience for STEM

Christine Broussard
University of La Verne
Christine Broussard, University of La Verne
Elizabeth Ambos
Ambos Consulting
Elizabeth L. Ambos, Ambos Consulting
Jennifer Manilay
University of California-Merced
Jennifer O. Manilay, University of California - Merced
Casey Wright
Western Michigan University
Casey Wright, University of Iowa

Author Profile
published Mar 22, 2024 10:37am

Higher education was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and as a result, many faculty, administrators, and staff quit their jobs. This Great Resignation produced upheaval at many institutions across the nation. Looking for a space to find hope and a positive outlook in the midst of instability, the Aligning Incentives with Systemic Change working group engaged in a series of discussions about resilience. During spring 2023, we looked for ways to cultivate personal and organizational stability in the face of the Great Resignation and its impacts on higher education.

February reading (led by Christine Broussard, University of La Verne)

The higher-than-normal attrition of academics surrounding the pandemic has been attributed to (for those leaving) and resulted in (for those remaining) burnout. Our first reading (Vercio et al., 2021) noted that the lack of consistent definitions for burnout and wellness makes studying the problem and assessing the efficacy of potential solutions difficult. Informative reporting should include a range (low to high) of risk and all three subscales of burnout (emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, low personal accomplishment). This article underscored that the contribution of systems to 'burnout' has been under-appreciated yet provided the group with aspects of resilience to consider from the field of academic medicine.

The discussion group began with the premise that the antidote to burnout may be focusing on resilience. Like the concept of burnout, we need a common definition of what resilience is in the context of Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, and Medicine (STEMM) education, why it's valuable, and who is responsible for it. Vercio and others (2021) offered multiple levels from which resilience emerges: individual, community, and organizational. Vercio et al. posited that individual resilience relies upon internal personality traits like temperament, outlook, social capital, and societal factors. Individual resilience is also dynamic and can change based on situation and time. Community and organizational resilience includes (for academic medicine) culture, social networks, learning, leadership, resources, adaptive capacity, systems, and capital. This kind of resilience centers a community of possibilities, not problems, because a focus on the problems derails exploration of vision and possibilities for the future. Better outcomes may be achieved by focusing on a shared vision that is used to address systemic issues.

In February we learned that the historical focus on fixing the individual or reactionary problem-solving can exacerbate burnout, and that institutions have a major role in ameliorating burnout and cultivating resilience. A major take home message from the reading was that to bridge individual and organizational (or community) resilience, four things are needed - communication, sense of belonging, shared vision, and recognition of gifts (see table 1, for practical examples of each category and figure 2 for how the individual and institutional are connected across the categories; Vercio et al., 2021). Institutions might renew and reorder relationships (liminal suspension), learn about and practice compassionate witnessing, and activate more networks (relational redundancy). This new model shifts the "weakest link" from the individual to the weakest bonds between the individual and the organization.

March reading (led by Elizabeth Ambos, Ambos Consulting)

For March, we sought to understand resilience through the lens of how we – as faculty, staff, and administrators – mentor students, our colleagues, and ourselves to confront perceived failure by reading and discussing Chapter 13 of the Council on Undergraduate Research's (CUR) publication "Confronting Failure: Approaches to Building Confidence and Resilience in Undergraduate Researchers."

Authored by a team at the University of Kansas' (KU) Center for Undergraduate Research, Chapter 13 presented a case study of how faculty mentors can help undergraduates confront and cope with research failures. The KU team's innovative approach? They guided faculty mentors to reflect on their own research failures, and then to share these challenges with their students, thereby showing students that failure is an expected step in the research journey. Two of the key KU survey questions: "can you tell us about a time when your research didn't go as expected? Or about any tricks or habits that you've developed to help you stay resilient in the face of obstacles?" elicited a robust exchange during the discussion.

Some of the key takeaways from the discussion included: "FAIL = First Attempt In Learning" and "The take home for me is the importance of sharing personal experiences of failure in a scientific context." Another discussant noted: "It is important for us to also consider how to help faculty deal with failure." Several discussants thought the KU approach needed to be reframed to address deep-seated teaching philosophies: "Seems like the discussion about failure in research needs to be a systematic factor. There are some faculty members who don't espouse the "growth mindset" model..." Also, how might KU's faculty mentor survey be retooled to fit community college faculty mentors who work with undergraduate researchers? The energizing conversation closed with an "aha" observation: "Through the sharing of faculty failure and subsequent resilience/recovery – faculty help students work through their own struggles with research. This will help inoculate students against fear of failure and imposter syndrome".

April reading (led by Jennifer Manilay, University of California, Merced)

In April we narrowed our attention to resilience in STEM academics focused on education. The reading we selected, "Understanding STEM academics' responses and resilience to educational reform of academic roles in higher education" (Ross et al., 2022), examined the intersection between individual disposition and influences of increasingly broader academic systems. We noted that because the Ross et al. study was undertaken in the Australian higher education ecosystem, what was described in the paper may match to a "typical" research-intensive institution in the US, but not a community college.

The authors identified five major themes from their survey of faculty and administrators: value and quality; progress and mobility; status and identity; and community and culture. Several themes resonated for the group. For example, STEM teaching is often not as valued as research. Moreover, even teaching-focused institutions like "community colleges and some private schools still have the same resistance to changes in STEM education that we see at larger schools where faculty are doing science-based research." A possible solution is to categorize faculty by their focus. We queried: "what can we learn from institutions that have created multiple tracks for academics (teaching and research) like medical schools or teaching track faculty from R1s? The answer: sometimes takes decades...to implement".

The status and identity theme is related to value and quality, and revealed that to be successful education-focused faculty need to conduct education research. Re-tooling to do education research is problematic in part because of "a focus during graduate school where perhaps teaching was not emphasized as important and/or no training is received." Ross et al.'s study noted that survey respondents perceive a double standard whereby research faculty could ignore feedback about their teaching (and still be promoted or earn tenure), whereas teaching-focused faculty could not ignore feedback about their research.

One of the key points made in the Ross et al. (2022) paper is that "the cultural/reward/prestige divide between research and teaching faculty tends to be experienced by women and non-dominant culture/non-English as first language faculty. Student evaluations often exhibit biases."An important connection to the efforts of our working group is that this paper supports diverse teaching evaluation approaches and taking student evaluation biases into account when assessing faculty teaching.

The community and culture theme brought our group full circle to the first reading and the role of community and institutions in promoting resilience. We noted that the resilience of the faculty during times of economic stress and changes in campus leadership may come from interactions with other faculty or administrators (community) empathetic to the situation.

Attributions:

We thank the members of ASCN Working Group 6 for their contributions to the spring 2023 discussions and to the editing of this blog post.

Suggested Citation

Broussard, C., Ambos, E. L., Manilay, J. O., and Wright, C. (March 22, 2024). The Great Resilience: Notes on a Discussion Series to Cultivate Resilience for STEM. [Blog post]. Retrieved from [https://ascnhighered.org/283156]

References

Corwin, L. A., & Charkoudian, L. K. (2022). Confronting Failure: Approaches to Building Confidence and Resilience in Undergraduate Researchers. Council on Undergraduate Research. https://myaccount.cur.org/bookstore.

Ross, P. M., Scanes, E., Poronnik, P., Coates, H., & Locke, W. (2022). Understanding STEM academics' responses and resilience to educational reform of academic roles in higher education. International journal of STEM education, 9(1), 11.

Vercio, C., Loo, L. K., Green, M., Kim, D. I., & Beck Dallaghan, G. L. (2021). Shifting focus from burnout and wellness toward individual and organizational resilience. Teaching and learning in medicine, 33(5), 568-576.



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