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Faculty Development for the 21st Century and Beyond

This is a talk I gave for a job interview almost two years ago. I’m still pretty happy with it, and I thought it was time that I share it here. 

I’d like to start my talk with a question, but perhaps not the question you would expect. My question, and how I am framing this discussion today belies my background teaching writing – it is a question about audience: Who does faculty development ultimately serve? The answer would certainly appear to be obvious, as it is right there in the title: Faculty, of course! However, I would point you to the mission statements of both Chapman University and of your own IETL.

To provide personalized education of distinction that leads to inquiring, ethical and productive lives as global citizens.

To promote the value and practice of excellent teaching that facilitates student learning.

I have a deep appreciation of both those mission statements as they focus on aspects of learning. And when we talk about learning, ultimately we must also think about the student. And thus when we talk about who we, as faculty developers serve, we can never forget that the student, along with their learning experience and outcomes, are ultimately who we all serve.

This tension can be best seen in the difficulty in the development of good Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (or SoTL). It was best articulated to me by faculty developers from the University of Wisconsin System who do a week-long workshop with faculty from across the state every summer, in order to facilitate the production of SoTL work. During their presentation at the POD conference in Dallas, they stated that the hardest part for faculty was turning their “teaching problem” into a “learning question.” Faculty development must always have these intertwined constituencies under consideration when working with faculty: on the one hand, you have the faculty who are sitting in front of you, but behind them, the students that they teach.

The university is a complex ecosystem where multiple parties work in a variety of ways to fulfill the goals of the institution. Faculty development is one piece of that ecosystem, much like the classroom, the lab, the library, the cafeteria, the admissions office, and other units on campus. There is an analogy that I like to use with my students when I am teaching them, and in particular when introducing a more active, peer-drive, project-based learning approach, an approach many of them are quite unfamiliar with and uneasy about. I took it from Douglas Thomas and John Seeley Brown in their book A New Culture of Learning, and it is the image of the Petri Dish.

What are Petri dishes used for? Experiments, where elements are added together, creating a nutrient-rich environment, in order for something to grow (or fester, as I would often joke with my students). What you add will be dictated by what you want to grow. And the growth is a complex process that does not always happen the way you planned. And what grows, when either expected or unexpected, can be quite beautiful.

I also like the image of the Petri Dish because it has clear boundaries, both in terms of transparency and in terms of boundaries. Good faculty development has clear guidelines, services, and accountability, while (as always) respecting the privacy and confidentiality of faculty members who visit us, while also always being encouraged to interact and play a role in sustaining and growing the “nutrient rich” environment. We need to create these safe spaces for faculty to come and learn and grow. As your Institute is a faculty-driven initiative, I have no doubt that you have strived to create such an environment, and looking at your poster presentation from the aforementioned POD conference, I see that you have grown something really special here at Chapman. But the landscape, the environment, will always be changing and evolving; it is up to the leader of the Institute to be able to react to these changes and maintain a place and a space for productive growth.

The Petri Dish is not a perfect analogy; no analogy ever is. One can read the previous slide as another analogy of the university and all the various units, with their own environments, growing on their own. There is transparency, but there are also walls, keeping the various spaces isolated from one another. This can be danger to creating proper conditions, when we cut ourselves off from parts of campus, or parts of the mission of the university. I return to the idea of student as being an important concern in our work as faculty developers. Faculty development, and an Institute or Center for Teaching and Learning, can move beyond the Petri dish, and instead be a place to integrate into the various ecosystems of campus.

So how do we create the proper conditions? I’m going to continue my talk with a story. My academic background is in Comparative Literature, so I’m drawn to the power of a story. I’m always looking for the narrative thread, the clever turn of a phrase, many possible meanings, intertextual references, and (as you have already seen) illustrative, if imperfect, analogies. About a month ago, my seven-year-old daughter made a skirt. I will admit to not knowing how to sew, how to read a pattern, or even owning a sewing machine, but about six months ago, my daughter started to ask about learning how to sew. Rather, she started begging me to teach her. So I began to put a plan into motion to help her achieve her goal of learning how to sew.

First, was to find someone who knows how to sew, as well as procuring a proper sewing machine. I began to work my social media circles to find the best resources to get started, both for her and for myself. Thankfully, my mother (who knows how to sew) was coming to visit, and was bringing a sewing machine as a Christmas present. My mother taught my daughter how to use the machine, and my daughter, in turn, taught me. We moved on to making a skirt, watching a YouTube video about how to read, pin, and sew a pattern. The day after watching the video, we started to make the skirt.

We quickly discovered that our scissors weren’t quite sharp enough and were too big for my daughter’s hands. It would have also helped to have a ruler. But we pressed forward, with my daughter and I trading duties. She even made a mistake and had to undo her work and start all over again. In the end, the hem wasn’t quite straight, but she wore it proudly on the first day of school, because as she said, that way, everyone knew it was special and that it was mine.

So, what was the point of this story? I think it illustrates, in a microcosm, what faculty development should and will look like in the 21st century. Much of it probably won’t surprise you. It looks shockingly like good pedagogical practice. Faculty development should be focused on process, not just results. Unlike the skirt pattern, faculty development, in fact all learning, isn’t nearly as neat and formulaic. It should be collaborative, and draw on the resources that are available to us. It also needs to be responsive to the faculty, the student’s, and the collective community’s needs, strengths, and motivations. We also need to have access to a variety of tools and resources in order for faculty to have a choice and use what is most appropriate. This ties into the need for faculty development to be community-driven, a model that you have already adopted here at Chapman. It also should be varied in its development method, taking a multi-modal approach. The workshop is just one way to deliver faculty development. And because we are focused on the process, productive failures (and reflection on them) are to be encouraged.

Again, none of this is particularly surprising. There is a nascent community here at Chapman, and until I understand it better, I hesitate to suggest prescriptive solutions (although feel free to ask about specific challenges or issues you are facing or are anticipating during the subsequent discussion). But I do want to introduce a few more radical elements to create a productive and sustainable environment for your teaching and learning community here through the IETL. Those elements are vulnerability, affect, and trust. The three, to me, are intrinsically linked. We cannot teach, nor learn, without being vulnerable, in admitting that there are things that we are not expert in, and that we need help. The willingness to be vulnerable and come forward asking from help is often a result of affect, of strong feelings towards either the subject matter to be taught, or feelings towards the students themselves, often both. These feelings can lead to research-based, sound solutions to whatever the challenge might be, but there must be that feeling that things need to change, strong enough to overcome the vulnerability. Finally, there must be trust, in order for the faculty to agree to work with you and each other in order to create and sustain the change.

As individuals or as peoples, by fighting for the restoration of [our] humanity [we] will be attempting the restoration of true generosity. And this fight, because of the purpose given it, will actually constitute an act of love – Paulo Freire

I want to end with where I began. I chose both my title and slide image because of the literary imagery they evoke: Don Quixote. Both Duck Dodgers and Buzz Lightyear can be read as contemporary reinterpretations of the infamous errant knight, tilting at windmills, imagining themselves guardians of a code and tradition or mission, one that we can see is incompatible with the reality of the world they are living in. I wonder if you can see where I am going with this. One could read the contemporary faculty (at least how they are portrayed in the media and elsewhere) as being engaged in a kind of Quixotic journey, powerlessly tilting at windmills, Cervantes stand-in for technological advancement, and guardians of The Institution. Perhaps some faculty even believe this of themselves! But who would these knight-errants be without their trusty side-kicks, their Sancho Panzas, their Porky Pigs, their Woodys? And if we truly believed that being a professor has become some sort of parody, then we wouldn’t have faculty development.

But I want us to sit with this potentially uncomfortable analogy for a moment. I put it here as a serious acknowledgement that the landscape of higher education, pedagogy, and teaching and learning has changed for faculty, and quite rapidly, over the past ten years. The changes in technology, in our students, and in our institutions, have been profound and, at times, bewildering. I include myself in this characterization, having taught at the collegiate and university level for over 15 years. I was Buzz Lightyear, blindly and not a little naively barreling my way into the classroom, just as my mentors and teachers had done before me. One of the reasons I got into faculty development is because I was left on my own to navigate these changes, and while I was successful, I knew that there had been too many missed opportunities. I built a virtual community and a body of knowledge, and I want to bring that experience and expertise to help build the IETL and the faculty capacity. I want to be a part of the community here at Chapman University, and I’d like to spend the rest of the time today getting to know you and your culture here. Thank you.

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