Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

The “why” of Faculty Development

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What’s faculty development anyway? That’s what I originally wanted to talk about. Or thought I did. But then I suddenly realized I really needed to write about the “why” of faculty development. I just didn’t realize it until today.

It’s odd, really, that I hadn’t realized it was a “why” question until I read a really inspiring post by Lee Skallerup y/day (also I think a post by Susan Watson about boring prof dev, but can’t find the link right now) and then BOOM this post by Clarissa Bezerra inspired me – the idea of the post made me think about asking the “why”.  Which also happens to be the first week’s topic in #ccourses (Soooo looking forward to this unit).

For quite a long time (I’ve been in faculty development since 2003) I’ve felt that my approach to faculty development has evolved as I grew as a researcher (the journey of doing the PhD and after), as a teacher, and as a connected learner. I was not sure what was going on exactly, that was nagging at me, and suddenly it clicked today. The “why” of my doing faculty development has evolved and some of the practices no longer fit the “why”. And that disconnect drives me NUTS.

As a teacher, I think I’m very much a “why”/”how” person. I don’t center my teaching around content or pre-defined objectives (though I guess some people would consider “why” a question of objectives) but I center it around a process (“how”) that suits my values (those are my “why”) and broad goals that matter (“why”s again), and that includes centering things around my students’ own goals, interests, and needs, focusing on their development as people, not an instrumental learning experience. I don’t always succeed, but I learn from my mistakes (I think!) only to make new mistakes each time 🙂

I realized I’ve grown as a researcher. From someone who was almost totally interpretive, believing in the subjective views of people, to a more critical researcher, recognizing how micro and macro restrictions can limit a person’s consciousness of what is really happening to them… and towards a more participatory view of research somewhere along the continuum of interpretive and critical… I had always felt there was an arrogance to purely critical research in the assumption of the superiority of the researcher’s interpretation of what is happening in someone else’s world, life, thoughts, feelings. I can’t stand it. It’s SO arrogant. Isn’t it? Almost to the point of being colonizing, even. Unintentionally, sure, but still. And I’m not sure that participatory approaches solve this problem but at least it attempts not to be arrogant (might not succeed, I’m still trying it out; it harbors its own illusions of equality, inclusion and such unachievable stuff we strive towards but often fail to achieve). I also think that pretending research is disjointed from feelings, that it is objective, is really an illusion and that bringing the feelings right smack into the middle of it is much more honest (at least for me) and that’s why I’m liking autoethnography as an approach as well. I am not saying it’s wrong to try to be objective (most researchers do try) but that sometimes in accepting your subjectivity, you can find something richer that is worth exploring in its own right.

Anyway, I say all of this because… for a while now, I’ve been thinking of the parallel evolution of my growth as teacher and researcher and wondering how it goes with my evolution as a faculty developer… and it clicked today.

I have problems with traditional views of faculty development on so many levels. They seemed like minor issues each on their own, until I focused on the “why” of it.

I’ll always remember the evolution of my thinking about how to evaluate the value of WebCT (now merged into Blackboard). When I first started, i was asked to analyze and report on a survey (designed by others and run before I ever came) evaluating learning from WebCT. Reading the results and presenting them, I concluded that it was useless to:

A. Talk about WebCT itself as influencing learning, because each faculty member used it differently; and
B. Talk about WebCT as one thing, when it was not the thing that influenced the learning, but which tools within it used for what purpose.

So my later research focused on how faculty were using it, and then later for my master’s thesis and some other research, i focused on how people used online discussion – because this one tool could be used in a variety of ways, for different pedagogical purposes, in different contexts, and they needed to be understood holistically and not compared outright because it was the same tool. It’d be like comparing all meals created using chicken stock as an ingredient. Sure, the chicken stock is important, as is the pot/pan, but the majority of what makes the meal unique is the other stuff. And you need to look into it to understand the meal.

But I’ve become increasingly disenchanted with the LMS (as have many others, I don’t even know whom to link to, but here’s one by Jim Groom and Brian Lamb on Educause Q; unsure if this is the right link) and I realized that it stopped meeting my “why” as a teacher.

WHY do we as faculty developers encourage faculty to use the LMS, and for the longest time, considered faculty who did not use it as backward? WHY did faculty ever need LMSs anyway? Sure, it might make sense for some people for some purposes (especially where privacy is important). But where it makes no sense, we should not be expecting them to use it.

WHY do I do faculty development?

But first: WHY did it start bothering me, my role as faculty developer?

(important note: this is about how I view myself as faculty developer; not to imply that others who do faculty development are like me in any way)

  • I am no longer comfortable assuming I know better. I was almost fresh out of college, just starting my masters, and I was arrogant, believing I knew something those teachers who’d been teaching for years didn’t… simply because I was studying education and I knew a lot of ed tech. Sure, I know some things, different from the things they know; I have experience worth sharing, but the power dynamics I perceive now are different…
  • I am no longer comfortable assuming I know better about someone else’s context. I can only imagine and think with someone but I cannot know, not for sure, what will work or make sense for them
  • I am no longer comfortable intruding on someone else’s teaching unless they explicitly invite me to, and I am not comfortable crossing whatever boundaries they put. The article by Randy Bass (shared in #ccourses), though great in many respects, suggests we put students & courses at the center and teachers on the outskirts, right by the librarians and instructional designers and techies. That just feels so WRONG because the role of all the support people is NOT equal to the role of the teacher; centering students, YES, that’s a good move. Centering courses? Actually, that goes against the rest of the whole article’s premise of interdisciplinarity and integrating co-curricular learning (more on this in a future post!). But throwing the teacher totally outside the center, as if equal to all the support folks? That’s stepping over a teacher’s role in really dangerous ways. I teach, too, and I would hate the interference of someone if I did not ask for help. I teach, and I know that no external observer or support person knows my class better than me. My students might know better 😉  but not the external person.
  • My department is (Thankfully) a non-evaluative body, we are there to support faculty without judging them, but some aspects of our work take us towards doing this unintentionally. It worries me.

So, asking again: WHY do I do faculty development?

I think it’s important to approach faculty development as we’d approach good pedagogy. Not all of us approach pedagogy the same way. For me, it’s important to think of faculty development as something where the teacher/faculty member is the center. I’m not reducing my role as faculty developer to a marginal one. But I’m also losing the arrogance it can sometimes entail. If the faculty member is at the center, we as faculty developers cannot assume we know what is best for them. We cannot assume we know what they need, how they would like to get it, how best we can offer it (thankfully, one of my colleagues is supervising a masters thesis by another colleague trying to explore these questions for a sub-set of faculty).

If we see our role as a supporting one… even the term “empowerment” is complicated because it implies we have power to pass on, that the person we’re trying to empower is incapable of achieving that power on their own…

My overall goal, I guess, is to help improve the student experience at my university, my country. That entails working with faculty (and others across the university) to strive towards that. But I’m not sure how TALKING AT faculty is going to help with this, when it might be much better to LISTEN TO them. Faculty development should not be evangelical, trying to convince them of what “we” know is best for them, but rather a listening role, a “how can we help you” role. And there is a flood of memories from articles about how “how can we help you” can be arrogant as well.

Guess what this post is doing? It made me realize I need to spend more time thinking about my “why”, but that this is the crux of my inner conflict.

Lee Skallerup sums up the “how” very well here, and within it you can glean the “why”:

The best professional development is participatory and connectivist. It is driven by the needs and interests of those attending and allows for collaboration between the facilitator, the participants, and beyond. It needs to be a space where everyone is open, honest, and ready and willing to work and to try. It challenges us to actually engage with, experiment on, and develop for ourselves whatever approach, tool, or technology targeted by the session. It is, unsurprisingly, much like the learning environments we want to create for our own students.

It’s worth asking how much of our prof dev activities are like the above… but also, “why” we want them to be more like the above?

16 Comments

  1. Maha, reading this post has made me feel like you were speaking from inside my head at soo many points there. Awesome. I’lll be sure to read this a few times more, for it’s sparking off more ideas and inquiries in my head. Love it. I will certainly share this one with my fellow supers for the inpiration injection. Let me mull over your ideas here (such richness) and come back later to talk to you about them.
    Thank you for this great post.
    Warmest,
    C.

    • Wow. Really happy ur inspiring me to write this is jumping back to be useful to you too… Great to be cross-blogging again. I always fed off ur energy 😉

  2. I’m sorry that I don’t have a more substantial comment, but I just want to acknowledge that you are the rare combination of thoughtful + prolific blogger that makes experiences like #ccourses so rich.

    • Wow, thank you Howard. That comment is “substantial” in its effect on my ego 🙂 thanks for reading and commenting, and also for partially inspiring this post in the first place 🙂

  3. Hi Maha, I’ve been reading your posts through the #ccourses RSS feed, and as both Clarissa and Howard have said, your contributions are so rich and thought-provoking. I want to sit down with you and talk! There’s so much in this post that strikes a chord – from the disconnect of practices no longer fitting the Why; to tensions in research methods and the (potential) benefits of auto-ethnography; through to the importance of listening rather than evangelising… I’ll too be re-reading this post (and your blog). Thank you.

    • Hi Helen, thanks so much for “connecting”, and your very warm comments. I’d love to sit down and talk, too 🙂 let’s do it sometime (I am usually sitting down when I am on a PC/iPad and we could hangout audiovisually or in text 🙂 I’d love to get to know you better, we seem to have a lot in common 🙂

      • Yes! Always up for a hangout (thanks er… Googs). Will be around most of the time this week, just Ping me (or vice versa)!

        • Ur in UK, right? So timezone not an issue (whew) 🙂 I am reading ur teaching post now, and I discovered I was already following u on twitter so 🙂 getting to know u a bit already 🙂 looking fwd to more 🙂

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