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I Get by with a Little Help From My Friends: Leveraging the Expertise of Colleagues

Todd Zakrajsek, PhD

Associate Professor - University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Take a moment to think about all of the tasks that you do or are assigned to do as a faculty member. The list grows quickly and is very impressive. Aside from teaching and research, in my role as a faculty member I have had to do the following: grade term papers, construct multiple-choice tests, present before a large audience (my largest class was 200 students), evaluate group projects, calculate grades, help students to create conference posters, mentor students, facilitate difficult conversations in the classroom, counsel students with test anxiety, explain to students that due to their grades they needed to change majors, advocate on behalf of students with learning challenges, provide career counseling, write letters of recommendation, grade presentations, maintain files of past tests (and many of other documents), and chair committees. This list is certainly not exhaustive. Probably your list looks similar to mine, but is also may list several items I didn’t include. Take a few minutes and quickly write out your list.

Next, circle each item on your list for which you had specific training or those items that fall within your disciplinary area of expertise. For example, if you are a faculty member in the department of speech and communication then grading oral presentations likely falls in your area. If you are a faculty member in the department of music, evaluating a project or performance is right up your alley. Or, if you had a teaching course while in graduate school or as a significant part of your faculty orientation, then circle those items for which you had some training. Do NOT circle items for which you had no previous training, education, or experience and yet you have become skillful at completing. This will be addressed shortly.

If you have circled everything on your list then you had great preparation and/or on-the-job training. To the extent the list contains items that are not circled, well, you have likely had to figure out those things on your own.

Now, for the last task of this exercise cross off any item, circled or not, that you feel you have mastered. That is, you feel confident that you can do the item as well as it can be done. If a student with test anxiety comes to your office and you know EXACTLY what to say cross the item off. If your department chair asks you to lead a committee for the accreditation visit and you know EXACTLY how to deliver on that responsibility – cross them off your list.

Look at your list again. There are certainly many combinations that may appear, but let’s focus on three possibilities. First, if you had a list with pretty much everything circled and the items are crossed off then you were well prepared for your position as a faculty member and you are presently cruising along. That is a nice place to be. The second possibility is if very few things were circled, but most are crossed off. That would indicate that although you may have accepted your position without a vast skillset for the things you were requested to do, you have figured things out pretty well. The last possibility is that you still have many things not crossed off. Whether they were circled or not, having many items not crossed off means there are areas you can develop and improve. I suspect that is the scenario into which most faculty fall. My results reflect this last scenario.

Over the past few years, I have given this idea much thought. It is clear that there are many tasks faculty members are expected to do which require specific education and training to do well. These tasks reflect specific skills and there are experts, who are trained in these content areas. With that realization, I was hit with the following insight. I am surrounded by experts who possess the skills and content knowledge I lack to be more effective at my job duties. They are all around me. Within a 15 minute walk of my office are experts, often nationally-known experts, in all the areas I need assistance. That is when I became the person who likes to buy lunch for others.

My colleagues have been truly giving people, and as luck would have it, there are areas in which I can immediately return the favor. As an industrial/organizational psychologist, such things as appraisal instruments (e.g., mid-semester feedback forms) and motivation (e.g., getting students to turn in work on time) were in my disciplinary training. Grading oral presentations was not. So, a lunch with a colleague from communication may be set up where we help each other. In those cases I suggest we each buy our own lunch and share ideas. If another colleague has information I need and I don’t have any special skills to reciprocate, then I buy lunch. Over the years and across several institutions I have reached out to my expert colleagues for advice, guidance, or recommendations. In each case I have been met with a positive response. Sometimes it is difficult to schedule the lunch or coffee, but everyone I have asked has generously assisted me and sincerely cared about my growth.

Following are some suggestions for where to look for support from our interdisciplinary colleagues. This is neither guaranteed nor exhaustive, but it is a place to start networking.

  1. Addressing challenging topics in class that might start a tense discussion: Religion, Law, Women’s Studies, and Social Psychology.

  2. Supporting students with test anxiety or other learning challenges: Student Success Center (by the way, they have great tips for you to create an environment to improve learning for all students in class).

  3. Setting up group projects: Communication, Business, and Organizational Psychology.

  4. Grading projects or performances: Music, Art, and Business.

  5. Getting students engaged in the classroom: Education, Psychology, and Physics (a rich resource for great active learning approaches coming from STEM disciplines).

  6. Giving really bad news (e.g., failing a class or suggesting dropping the major): Counseling Center or a clinical psychologist.

As you go about all of the tasks required of your job as a faculty member just remember that you are surrounded by experts. Spending one hour with someone who is an expert in a given area may save you many hours of struggling with that same concept. Similarly, you may well be able to use your disciplinary expertise to assist a colleague. Individually, teaching is a really tough job, but together we have a perfect skillset to do everything we are asked to do.


Zakrajsek, T.D. (2014). Developing learning in faculty: Seeking expert assistance from colleagues. In, P.L. Eddy (Ed.). Connecting learning across the institution. New Directions in Higher Education, No. 165. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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