June: Meet Kay Sagmiller

The most difficult thing I have negotiated throughout my professional life are issues of social class.  Raised on an Indian Reservation during the 1960’s and 70’s my childhood was rural, isolated and beautiful.  The place I grew up influenced my identity in ways I am still discovering.  As my career in education progressed I discovered my upbringing, though unique and rich, limited my success in the professional world.

As a first generation college student I had little encouragement to attend the university: I was female (and why would a woman need a profession) and secondly, there was an expectation I would stay in the Valley and work in the family business until I married.  This didn’t “feel” right to me, but at the age of seventeen I couldn’t articulate why.

When I entered the University of Montana I was unaware I lacked the social capital necessary for the academic environment.  I spoke too loudly, said whatever was on my mind, and lacked general knowledge about social and societal norms required for life as a professional. How does one learn the personal dispositions to be successful in the white-collar world?  For me, it was a lot of trial and error over many years; I had moments of embarrassment when I used terms incorrectly, filled my wine glass too full, and tenaciously held a point without intellectual flexibility.   Later in life when I worked as a faculty member in the School of Education at Southern Oregon University, I often saw myself in my students: impulsive, quick to anger, short on flexibility and grace.  While this might have been “the way we did things back home,” I knew by this time that these were not the “way people do things” in the white-collar world.  What strategies might a mentor use to gently enculturate students to a new way of doing things? What can we do to help them intentionally craft a professional personae?

Recent research on professionalism and successful students has identified a set of “Habits of Mind,” which outline the personal dispositions of effective and successful people.  While they don’t address issues of etiquette (which is fundamental knowledge for professionals) the Habits of Mind do identify certain qualities of selfhood that increase the likelihood of professional success.  In no particular order these dispositions include: an awareness of our own thinking; careful planning before we begin a project; listening to and evaluating feedback as well as evaluating our own performance.  We work for accuracy and clarity in our work; remain open minded and consider alternative perspectives without judgment.  We avoid acting without thinking, restraining impulsivity.  We work had on tasks even when solutions are difficult to find and tasks are at the limit of our abilities.  Perhaps, though, most importantly, we are sensitive to the feelings, knowledge and abilities of others, and willingly support and assist others when appropriate.  In a nutshell, we are highly aware of how our actions affect others and are clear that with hard work we can accomplish things we may never have dreamed.  

I don’t want to suggest I have mastered all these dispositions.  On the contrary, every day I reflect upon my performance and discern when and where I succeeded.  It is this tenacity for professional excellence that drives me on the path of continuous improvement.  Humility in the long run, is the most important quality to embrace.


Kay Sagmiller is the Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning for Oregon State University.  As a researcher, she is interested in how leadership, curricular practices and faculty development, when carefully tended, act as culture building activities.  Her areas of expertise include program development and evaluation, supervision and instruction, the modernization of general education, and faculty development. An advocate for faculty, she served on the OUS Learning Outcomes and Assessment Task Force and has been instrumental in organizing two state-wide Teaching TALKS (Today’s Academics Linking Knowledge and Skills) conferences specifically designed to enhance collaborative activity among Oregon university faculty.

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