Working as an administrator gives you a much bigger sense of how a student's progress through a degree depends on a lot of folks beyond the faculty. And it depends on good communication between those folks and the faculty. But we don't often set up systems that make such communication comfortable, expected, or rewarding.
When I learned to teach in the humanities, we were expected to be autonomous in the classroom. The big leap for us as graduate students was from being dependent on a professor's syllabus and teaching his or her discussion sections to getting to design our own syllabi and teach without supervision. Of course, we were never completely independent in graduate school. We constantly compared notes on teaching, asking each other for advice, swapping stories about undergraduates and sharing successful assignments.
Full-time teaching worked the same way. In my first department, each of us devised our own syllabi, sometimes trying to fit our course content into a larger sense of the major, but not always. Sometimes we just wanted to teach what we ourselves thought was most important. Eventually we started thinking about the major in terms of skills as well as the content we treasured (sometimes we called the desired results student learning outcomes; usually we didn't).
People in my department always shared teaching tips and successes, swapped advice about problems, brainstormed possible solutions. But one thing we rarely did, and I haven't seen a lot of it in other departments of my acquaintance, either, is ask anyone outside the faculty about our teaching. Faculty discussed student issues, pedagogy, and problems with other faculty.
Graduate school doesn't train us in how to move beyond our classrooms when thinking about student success. Oh, we know about the counseling center and residence halls. We may have had the occasional encounter with the coach about a problem athlete. But whether a student gets to graduation, or whether that student ends up with a good undergraduate experience, depends on a lot of folks who are not classroom teachers. Folks such as:
Librarians. If you haven't spent a good few hours going over your syllabi with a librarian trained in your subject area, you're shortchanging your course and your students (and yourself). Librarians keep up with the technology in your field. They know the campus holdings and can order better texts for you if they know what you're teaching.
Librarians can offer even more help if you give them a heads-up about what your assignments are going to be. They can pull relevant texts from the stacks and hold them on reserve for your course. They can come to your classroom and talk about which sources are available and how to judge their quality. They can suggest assignments and let you know about resources you may not have seen yet. And they can be a great help if you have to miss a class--they can work with your students in the library that day or in your classroom to keep them on track with whatever assignment you've given while you’re away at that conference.
Librarians live to help. And they'll be able to help your class do much better work if you've taken the time to share your syllabus, your assignments, and your ideas with them.
Academic advisors. Many colleges and universities have a cadre of professional advisors who help first-year and undecided students select their courses. Have a conversation with the head of your advising center. Let her or him know what the best course of study would be for a first-year student who might eventually be majoring in your discipline.
Go over the prerequisites and requirements of the major with staff members in the advising center and explain your department's rationale. Help them to understand what you're looking for in student majors, and maybe the center will steer some your way. Let the advising staff know what kinds of jobs and internships your graduates get. And ask them how they make their recommendations to students. What trends are they seeing in students' interests, in their preparation, and in their difficulties?
You can get a lot of great information from these folks—stuff that can help you make changes in the major or in particular courses. But you'll have to overcome the all-too-prevalent prejudice against professional advisors because they're not faculty. They're not. But they're probably seeing a lot of things in your students and potential students that you would never see, and they can make you better at advising in the major and, perhaps, at curriculum development or even teaching. A student can get a great start in college with good information from an academic advisor, and you can help make that more likely if you establish some good communication with the advising office.
Student affairs staff. A student's experience of college depends to a great extent on how well the people in student affairs do their jobs. And we as faculty members can make good use of their work, for our own ends. Why shouldn't the money their office spends on programming help us out, too?
What good, you may wonder, is thousands of dollars spent on a band for Spring Weekend? Well, student affairs would be glad to share, I can almost guarantee. Want your music students to get a chance to meet the band? Are your business majors itching to learn about how college athletics are funded? Want to bring a screenwriter to campus but don't have the departmental funds? Student affairs can help you out.
If you want to attract more majors, the folks who run freshman orientation are always looking for charismatic faculty speakers. Trying to get a small capital campaign going for your department? Make some new friends at Parents' Weekend.
Student affairs is used to being ignored by the faculty, and in my experience they don't even hold it against us. They're happy to schedule programming that supports coursework, to pair up academic assignments with events on campus, even to provide money and/or staffing to make sure students can make connections between what happens outside the classroom and what happens within.
Registrar, financial aid, veterans' affairs, institutional research, etc. All kinds of administrative offices on campus have a big effect on whether students do well in college, and so they should be of interest to faculty members. If students who fail courses can retake them at your institution, perhaps you might encourage someone who is doing poorly after the late-withdrawal period to simply stop attending and retake the class next term. But what if students can't get federal financial aid for a class the second time around? In that case, it might be in the student's economic interest to try for the D or the C-minus instead. Lots of administrative offices could tell you that, but if you never have conversations with the staff members who work with student financial concerns, you might never learn it, and you might give some bad advice.
The more you know about how the course schedule is put together, about the LBGTQ population's need for non-gender-specific restrooms, about the internship office's community links, and about the differential between graduation rates of students of color and white students on your campus, the better you'll be able to serve your students, as a faculty member.
I know you're overworked. But I also know that this kind of connecting, these kinds of relationships, can only make your job easier. If you’re an administrator, try making that kind of connecting easier on your campus. And try making it possible for adjunct faculty as well—those overworked and underpaid folks who teach so many of the first-year students. A little paid professional development opportunity to do some of this networking could produce a big effect for student retention.
So get out there and talk to people across your campus, in all kinds of jobs. Who knows? You might make a friend. And you’ll definitely make yourself a more effective faculty member.