Professor uses public pedagogy to help students launch “unbelievably varied” careers

Q&A by Olga Kuchment, Texas A&M AgriLife Communications

On a given day, students in Dr. Jennifer Williams’ leadership ethics class might discuss the U.S. government, Lao Tzu’s philosophy or a Miley Cyrus performance.

“I focus on public pedagogy—taking things going on in the world and bringing them into the classroom,” says Williams, an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Texas A&M University. Among her awards and honors is the 2012 Dean’s Outstanding Achievement Award for Early Career Teaching, the 2013 Association of Former Students Distinguished Achievement Award for College-Level Teaching, and the Montague Center for Teaching Excellence Scholars Award.

“We look at the ethical downfalls of leaders,” Williams says. “That’s really important for traditional college students who don’t have much work or life experience.”

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Dr. Jennifer Williams, assistant professor in agricultural leadership, education, and communications. (Photo courtesy of Olga Kuchment.)

In addition to current events, Williams’ courses feature high-impact learning experiences such as service learning.  In fall 2012, her students contributed $30,000 in volunteer time and products to the Bryan/College Station area. Her students, along with others at the department, have gone on to lead industry groups, start their own businesses, and enter varied professions including pharmacy, medicine and law.

Williams is a prolific researcher. She has published at least 13 peer-reviewed articles on teaching methods in leadership development and has given 28 peer-reviewed presentations on teaching in leadership education.

Williams has a long history with ALEC; she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the department before going on for a doctorate at Oklahoma State University. She returned to teach at Texas A&M in 2010.

Q: How did you end up as a professor studying leadership?

I always wanted to be a professor but I didn’t know what I wanted to “profess”. As a sophomore, I took my first leadership class. I realized that leadership is a skill that everybody needs because at some point we all “consume” leadership.

Even the lowest levels of employees who have a boss need an understanding of how to work with that person, how to be able to look at that leader and say: can I follow that leadership type? Some leadership types are like oil and water.

Another example is getting to vote. We get to choose our leaders sometimes.

Q: Leadership is a relatively new field. Where did it come from?

Sociology, psychology, political science, business—they all feed into this field. It’s very multifaceted.

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Dr. Jen, as her students refer to her, with students from her ALED 340 course. The students built and raced carts in teams demonstrating different leadership styles.

Our program in the College started in the late ‘80s, to teach leadership classes geared toward high school FFA and 4H, for those that wanted the social science part of agriculture but didn’t want a teaching degree. It was focused on raising the next generation of farmers and policy makers and movers and shakers in the world of agriculture. Now, the gates have busted.

As research kept going on in the field, we kept building our leadership courses. We added courses on change and team development and personal leadership development.

When budget cuts hit, a lot of colleges cut their leadership programs. But we found more and more students were drawn to our program. A lot of students from across campus found us and said: We can apply this to anything that we do.

Q: What’s happening in the world in terms of leadership studies?

The movement that leadership is in right now is called “neo-charismatic.” And that’s saying that we need leaders who have high personal values, who understand ethics, and who can communicate that well. So we need this notion of an authentic leader, somebody who does what they say they’re going to do. And our courses and the experiences we give our students allow them to do that.

I have a master’s student who worked with a Christian non-profit organization in Nigeria. She found that the Nigerians wanted a relational leader while the Americans believed they wanted a leader who focused on the task only. (A relational leader focuses more on the relationship with her follower than the task.) So the organization wasn’t being as effective as possible.

Americans, we’re a bit ethnocentric. We’re figuring out our way of leadership is not always the best, because of cultural nuances. It’s quite different in different countries, and studies have proved that empirically.

Q: What advice do you give to students interested in studying leadership?

I say, be prepared to explain yourself. Our discipline is about working with people, working for people, and making the world a better place. We teach students intangible people skills that make them better employees.

Studying leadership can be great for students and scary for parents. I understand that. Parents want to get into a nice nursing home. I tell parents that we train students to do whatever they want to do.

Q: What do your students go on to do after graduating?

Our students’ careers have been unbelievably widespread. Many work for nonprofit organizations, and many work as government workers, lobbyists or lawyers.

Some of our Ph.D. students go back into academia—they want to train more leaders. Others have developed their own consulting business, or work for high-name leadership consultants, or start their own youth development organizations.

Some students go to professional schools: veterinary, dental, pharmacy, and chiropractic. They tell us that they have very different skills than other students, skills that enable them to work with groups.

One student, who is in pharmacy school, got in touch to say how her skills helped her not only to work on a team but to facilitate a team. Her cohort took all their classes together, studied together and did projects together. She did a personality test on everybody at the very beginning, so for each project she would know who needed to be in charge, who was task or relationship oriented. They were the top team that year. Now, she got them all interested in leadership training.

Q: What’s one of your favorite things about your job?

The great thing about A&M is we have a lot of freedom to create experiences for students that are meaningful. I do crazy things. As long as they create an impact for students, no one’s ever said to me, ‘you can’t do that.’

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