Digest No. 03 - August 2017

A Breath of Fresh Air: Students’ Perceptions of Interactions with African American Faculty

Neville, K.M. and T.L. Parker. 2017. “A Breath of Fresh Air: Students’ Perceptions of Interactions with African American Faculty.” Journal of College Student Development, 58, 349–364.

Summary of the Article

Kathleen M. Neville and Tara L. Parker raise the question: how do students describe their interactions with and perceptions of African American faculty members? They assert that knowledge of the ways undergraduate college students perceive African American faculty members may provide an “important reason to diversify the professoriate” (p. 349).

The authors used phenomenology as their qualitative research method. Student-faculty interactions stand as their focal phenomena. Neville and Parker center their attention on the individual and shared meanings students derive from their experiences with African American faculty members. Class observations and interviews with students were used to discern these meanings. The students who participated in this study are undergraduate college students at a four-year public institution located in the Northeast who were enrolled in an undergraduate course taught by an African American faculty member.

Three African American faculty members agreed to participate in this study, two of them were female assistant professors and the third a male tenure-track instructor. All three faculty members had one to three semesters of teaching experience. Neville and Parker observed five course sections taught by these African American faculty members at three different times. A total of 100 students were enrolled in these five courses. At the end of the semester, the authors sought student volunteers to be interviewed. Of the 22 students who agreed to an interview, 16 self-identified as white.

In making their observations of these classrooms, Neville and Parker center their attention on the nonverbal behaviors of students as they interacted with these individual African American faculty members. They used semi-structured interviews that lasted 45 to 60 minutes. The interview questions focused on the students’ experiences and perceptions of their interactions with the African American faculty members.

Discussion of Findings

Neville and Parker derived four major themes from their observations and interviews. They used qualitative coding approaches to develop these themes. The authors found that most of the students shared similar experiences with the African American professors. They described the personal qualities of these faculty members as “a breath of fresh air” (p. 356). Other qualities students described include down-to-earth, open, passionate, and caring. These qualities give rise to the major themes described in the following paragraphs.

The theme of a “breath of fresh air” is the students’ views that African American faculty members exceeded their expectations for assistance with academic and personal matters. Neville and Parker noted that many of the interviewed students viewed such interactions as different from their interactions with other faculty members.

Each day classroom interactions between African American faculty members and students were marked by the faculty member welcoming students to class, calling them by their first name, and informal conversations before and after class. Such interactions characterize the theme of African American faculty members as “down to earth.”

The theme of “open” notes that African American faculty members showed their own vulnerability by being open and genuine with students. Because of this faculty member openness, the majority of students interviewed perceived the classroom as a place where students could state their personal opinions.

The theme of “passionate” denotes the sentiment of most students interviewed that the focal African American faculty members are excited about teaching and “passionate” about what they are doing. Such passion for teaching created a classroom environment that generated “enthusiastic and engaged classroom discussions” (p. 359).

Taken together, the teaching qualities of openness, being interested in the academic and personal matters of students, being down to earth, and being passionate indicate that “caring” characterizes these three African American professors. Hence, the fourth theme of “caring.”

Implications for Action by Campus Leaders

Beyond institutional goals of increasing the racial diversity of the faculty, these findings offer a cogent rationale for the recruitment and retention of African American faculty members or other faculty members who display these characteristics at CIC colleges and universities. The teaching qualities students valued in their African American faculty members resonate with the teaching cultures of CIC colleges and universities. These teaching qualities reflect a student-centered orientation to teaching.

Neville and Parker assert, “Faculty and administrators of all races and ethnicities may find these results informative as they attempt to create educational environments that encourage student engagement” (p. 362). African American faculty members can serve as exemplars of the teaching qualities needed for such educational environments. Faculty development units at CIC member institutions should consider the use of these themes as guides for other faculty to emulate.

Tenure and promotion policies at CIC colleges and universities should also reward faculty members for “going above and beyond” to support students in their academic and personal success. Formal recognition of these teaching qualities exhibited by the professors in this study “would go a long way toward retaining a more diverse faculty, while also enhancing the overall climate and culture of the institution” (p.362). Chief academic officers, academic deans, department chairs, faculty governing bodies, and faculty tenure and promotion committees should work toward rewarding faculty who embody these teaching qualities.

About the Authors

Kathleen M. Neville is the associate dean in the School of Graduate Studies at Salem State University.

Tara L. Parker is an associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development at University of Massachusetts Boston.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Anderson, L.E. and J. Carta-Falsa. 2002. “Factors that Make Faculty and Student Relationships Effective.” College Teaching, 50, 134–138.

Smith, D.G., C.S. Turner, N. Osei-Kofi, and S. Richards. 2004. “Interrupting the Usual: Successful Strategies for Hiring Diverse Faculty.” The Journal of Higher Education, 75, 133–160.