The word “mentorship” conjures an image of a seasoned professional taking a novice under their wing and patiently teaching them everything they know. This is not how Stephanie Holmsten sees it. Holmsten, an associate professor of instruction in the Department of Government at The University of Texas at Austin, does some one-on-one mentoring, but her primary focus is on creating communities where faculty of all experience levels can learn, and continue to learn, from each other.
Since 2018, Holmsten has served as director of the Global Virtual Exchange (GVE) faculty learning community, which provides faculty teaching in these programs an opportunity to share ideas for designing transnational curricula. She has also chaired the Provost Teaching Fellows, the New Faculty Symposium, and most recently the Department of Government’s redesign of peer observations, for which she aimed to ensure that such observations provide faculty with meaningful input on teaching and how to achieve their classroom goals.
“I deeply admire Stephanie Holmsten’s commitment to supporting fellow faculty members through peer mentoring, as well as the leadership roles she’s held,” says Lisa B. Thompson, professor of African and African diaspora Studies and advisor to the dean for faculty mentoring. “The College is fortunate to have her.”
Throughout her time at UT, Holmsten has worked to support non-tenure-track faculty, including working on the Faculty Council Executive Committee to craft policies to improve their visibility and inclusion at UT. Universities rely heavily on such “professional track” faculty, who teach more courses per semester than tenure-track faculty, but don’t always provide them with a full range of resources and opportunities needed to thrive in academia.
For these and numerous other contributions, Holmsten was awarded the 2022-23 COLA Dean’s Faculty Mentoring Award. I spoke to her recently about her award and the value of mentorship and learning from peers.
Congratulations on the award!
Thanks. I was very honored by this award. I learned about it last year and was just so pleased to see the college applauding this important work because I think the work of service is so profound and so many people do such meaningful work in this space here at UT.
I have been impressed with the university’s attention to mentorship and service. Certainly, publications are central to academia, but there’s so much more that that needs to be done for a university to function on any meaningful level for the benefit of all the people there. Lisa Thompson’s work around mentorship, Richard Reddick’s work, the Provost’s Office, the networking circles, the Distinguished Service Academy; all of this suggests to me that the university is finding creative ways to recognize the importance of service and to build on best practices in service. I see what the university is doing, and I appreciate it and I think it matters.
Why is mentorship so important?
I think that a sense of satisfaction in one’s work certainly can come through things like publications or promotions or salary. But another part of what ties it all that together is having relationships and being seen and heard in your community. Sometime our work applauds individual efforts and we forget that we often do this stuff in community. Opportunities to talk about our work, and share about our work, give us a sense of belonging somewhere.
For me, mentorship is about seeing and hearing people around me, offering a little bit of feedback, suggestions, a sense of shared experiences. We’re walking through this together. You’ve experienced it, I’ve experienced it. How do we make our way out of it? Those kinds of connections can really help people feel like this is where they want to be.
What are the challenges faced by professional-track faculty and how are they different from those of tenure-track faculty?
For all faculty, I imagine we remember the first time we stood in front of a classroom. Many of us don’t have a PhD in education—we have training in our field and then we’re asked to teach. My thought was, “Oh my goodness, am I going to be a good steward of this opportunity?” So, I do think a lot about trying to encourage conversations about all aspects of our work, including teaching.
Professional-track faculty are often the ones who are teaching such a load that they get a chance to really practice teaching. Think about teaching design, innovative classrooms. Tenure-track faculty do this as well, but I think the volume of teaching, the main focus on teaching, means that professional-track faculty have some space to really learn best practices around teaching, really invest in their classes. We get more opportunities to try things, to experiment. If it didn’t work one semester, I’m going to teach it again next semester. I’m going to get it better and better.
Many professional-track faculty keep up a healthy research portfolio, but I think the productivity looks different than for a tenured faculty member because of the teaching load.
What has been your overall focus in mentorship?
A lot of my mentorship has been about investing in community building. One-on-ones are really valuable, but I also love opportunities where we create space where faculty members can meet each other. One thing that I’ve done is create a learning community for faculty who are doing Global Virtual Exchange classrooms. They have this place to think through best practices, struggle through the things that don’t work, and try and come up with ways to work around those problems, as well as to celebrate with each other when things go well.
I’m also a part of the college’s Professional-track Faculty Advisory Committee (PFAC), where we are trying to think more broadly about the experiences of professional-track faculty to ensure that they have opportunities to flourish at the university. In those conversations, we have agreed that it’s not only about the policies of the university and clarity around promotion, it’s also a sense of being seen and heard in our community. And so, creating networks where professional-track faculty can get together and share their experiences about grants that they’ve received or teaching support that they’ve received, and the struggles they share. The Professional-track Faculty Advisory Committee in COLA is working hard to make sure that all of the structures create opportunities for success for professional-track faculty.
What do you wish you’d known when you first started your career? What are the things that education alone can’t prepare faculty for?
One thing I wish I had embraced earlier is that failure is okay and that sometimes when we’re building something new, we have to try a few times before we get it right. Sometimes I tried things that didn’t work, that didn’t connect with the students, and I had to dismantle them and try something else. And when I was building something new or when I was taking something apart, it was always so helpful to be able to talk to other faculty and say, “I am so embarrassed, but it didn’t work. Today’s lecture that I thought was going to really catch their interest just fell flat. And what do I do now and how do I get that energy back?” And to see that in that failure, I’m not alone. My guess is probably all of us have some story of something that didn’t work. Once I joined the Provost Teaching Fellows and other faculty communities, where we talk about the times that we tried something new and it didn’t work and then we learned how to make it work, often we can make it work because somebody gave us an idea that we’ve never thought of before. I thought I was in charge of this space on my own, and then I realized I can do this a whole lot better if I allow myself to learn from failure and allow other people in to help me make it better.
And that process of constructing and then deconstructing is really important for the students to see. We work so hard not to model failure in the classroom, while we ask the students to embrace it. But it’s okay to fail in front of the students because it might help them also see what it’s like when we do. How do we think through something that didn’t work? That’s learning, as it turns out.