Career Profile: Bill Hirt

Bill Hirt

Department of Natural Sciences, College of the Siskiyous

College of the Siskiyous is a 2-year college.
Bill Hirt is one of the leaders of the 2008 "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 Bill'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 pursued my education in geology "straight through" from a community college (Santa Monica) to a university (UCLA) to graduate school (UC Santa Barbara). After grad school I held two temporary teaching positions and then worked at the Idaho Geological Survey before joining the College of the Siskiyous' faculty in 1991.

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?

  1. I struggled to recast my understanding of geology, which was developed as a graduate student and a practicing geologist, into terms that introductory students could relate to.
  2. I also struggled to find ways to engage and retain students, who commonly had very weak study habits and basic skills, in college-level science courses.
To be fair, I haven't completely overcome either of these challenges. Experience has taught me, however, that by making my instructional expectations as clear as possible (e.g., with examples, rubrics, etc.) and by giving students lots of practice applying the concepts they're trying to master that I can usually help students who want to learn be successful.

How did you make the transition from your Ph.D. research to your current research program?
My dissertation research, which sought to understand the processes that operated in a large felsic intrusion, was a traditional field-geology/petrology project. In the years since the dissertation was completed however, my research has moved forward because I've learned to use a different set of "tools". Studies of crystal size distributions, thermal modeling, and physical modeling of solidification fronts have complemented the original petrology to give a much clearer picture of how large intrusions evolve thermally and mechanically. I emphasize to my students that, in order to do research, I need to (1) remain a student myself; and (2) work with colleagues whose knowledge complements my own.

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?
The alignment that existed between the College's goals and mine of supporting rigorous, engaging instructors who remained professionally active by conducting and presenting original research has changed since I was hired 17 years ago. Although instruction has always come first, in the past the College supported faculty who wished to remain active in their disciplines by granting funds to attend conferences and awarding sabbatical leaves to pursue research projects.

In recent years, however, administrative priorities have changed. Support for discipline-specific activities has waned as an emphasis has been placed on activities that promote the assessment of instructional effectiveness. This shift is understandable in an era of NCLB, but I think it is going to make it much more difficult for young faculty members to remain as professionally active as I have been and still earn tenure. In our institution the academic senate has stepped forward to assert faculty primacy in making decisions about funding discipline-specific activities. I feel increasingly sure that proactive measures by faculty groups will be crucial in efforts to preserve faculty development resources in the face of external pressures to scale them back or eliminate them.

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.
It sounds simple, but for me one key has been to talk with my family, set a schedule for when I'll be off working in the field or the lab, and then stick to it. If I know I have the time set aside in advance for research I find that it helps me use my remaining time effectively and minimizes a host of personal and family stresses.

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?
Be patient. As much as possible tackle one problem at a time so that you're not overwhelmed, and don't be upset if things aren't perfect the first time. All sorts of things--classroom presentations, lab exercises, manuscripts and proposals--improve over time, especially with input from friends and colleagues. So, be patient and don't be afraid seek advice from folks you know who have been through this before.