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Career Profile: Karen Kortz

Karen Kortz
Karen Kortz. Photo courtesy of Karen Kortz.

Physics Department, Community College of Rhode Island

The Community College of Rhode Island is a 2-year college.
Karen Kortz is one of the leaders of the 2014 "Early Career Geoscience Faculty" Workshop. Prior to the workshop, we asked each of the leaders to describe their careers, for the benefit of workshop participants, by answering the questions below.

Click on a topic to read Karen's answer to an individual question, or scroll down to read the entire profile: Educational background and career path * Early teaching challenges * Research transition * Institutional fit * Balancing responsibilities * Advice for new faculty


Briefly describe your educational background and career path.

I received a B.A. in geology from Pomona College. I immediately went on to complete a M.S. in geology from Brown University, doing research on planetary geology. I took a break after my masters, and began teaching at the Community College of Rhode Island. I discovered I loved teaching, and, luckily, the school was able to offer me a tenure-track position. After teaching a few years, I wanted to do research in geoscience education, and I contacted a colleague at the University of Rhode Island. I enrolled in the Ph.D. program in geology and was a part-time Ph.D. student while continuing to teach full time. I finished up with my Ph.D. a couple years ago and still love teaching at the community college level.


What were some of the challenges you faced in your early years of full-time teaching? Could you briefly describe how you overcame one of those challenges?

There were many challenges, including lack of time, lack of colleagues, and lack of guidance. However, I will focus on how I overcame my challenge at the community college due to a lack of colleagues. I initially felt very isolated in my department, moving from a graduate school with many colleagues to teaching in a department where I was the only geologist. After a couple years, I was lucky enough to be able to go to GSA, where I got back in touch with a community who actually understood my nerdy geology jokes. In addition, I attended several workshops (especially Cutting Edge workshops) where I met many colleagues in similar situations and with similar interests as me. I developed close collaborations with some of these colleagues. My department has since expanded to include two more geologists (although they are located on different campuses), but my colleagues at other institutions allow me to feel involved in the larger geosciences community.


How did you make the transition from your Ph.D. research to your current research program?

I have an unusual situation in that I had my full time teaching position before starting my Ph.D. I teach at a community college, so I'm not required, or much encouraged, to do research. However, my research is on geoscience education, so my findings are very applicable to my teaching position. My research focuses on topics that students who have taken one or two geology classes can understand, and they can therefore participate. I include students in my research by advising them on Honors Projects that comprise pieces of my research. I have had a couple students give presentations at GSA.


An essential component of achieving tenure is finding or making an alignment of your teaching/research goals with the goals of your institution.... How do your goals fit with those of your institution? Did you adjust your goals to achieve that fit? If so, how?

At my community college, tenure is based primarily on excellence in teaching and service to the college. I am passionate about creating an environment for all students to learn through student-centered teaching and incorporating my research on student misconceptions into my classes. In addition, I want other instructors to also use interactive techniques in their classes, so I am involved on school committees that focus on improving academic excellence. Therefore, my personal goals fit in very well with the goals of my institution, which is one of the reasons why I am very happy teaching at the community college level.


Many of the new faculty members in these workshops are interested in maintaining a modicum of balance while getting their careers off to a strong start. Please share a strategy or strategies that have helped you to balance teaching, research, and your other work responsibilities, OR balance work responsibilities with finding time for your personal life.

This is not really a personal strategy, but I could not have done everything that I have (e.g. teach full time, get my Ph.D., and start a family) without the full support of my husband. I don't think that can be underestimated. As a more personal strategy, I became very good at working efficiently during the workday (certainly not something I mastered in my earlier schooling!). I try to leave most weeknights and most weekends free from work. To help me make the best use of my time, I carefully looked at what work I assigned my students, compared the work to my course goals, and ranked the work in terms of costs (time for me) and benefits (student learning). I ended up eliminating some assignments (e.g. short answer homework I graded by hand) and adding other assignments (e.g. well-written, multiple-choice, automatically-graded online homework).


What advice do you have for faculty beginning academic careers in geoscience? What do you know now that you wish you had known as you started your career in academia?

I cannot stress enough how important it is to use interactive teaching methods. You will not be able to cover the breadth of topics that you may originally wish to cover, but [without interactive learning] students will not remember most of the details after the semester is over. Emphasize and re-emphasize the important topics, but leave out unimportant terminology and details. Your students are not you, and likely do not learn in the same way that you did. If you can find a colleague who is doing a good job and will share their strategies with you, use them! Go ahead and modify the materials to fit your style, but you do not need to reinvent the wheel!


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