Monday, June 06, 2005

The Freshmen Up At Harvard Can't Be Bothered

I'm at a conference on Hybrid Learning at Northwestern that has folks from the CIC schools and some from California too. Last night, I went to dinner with a few folks from my campus who support instruction in other units on campus than those under me and we got onto the issue of the various faculty development programs they run and how much of the faculty participation is tepid to nonexistent. Most of these programs are aimed at junior faculty. When it comes to teaching, these faculty are much like the freshmen at Harvard --- they can't be bothered.

We talked a little about whether these faculty perceive problems with their own teaching. The answers ranged from , "No!" to "Well, they're not very satisfied with their teaching. Granted, they put in a lot of effort into their research, but they work a lot and put significant time into their teaching too. They should be motivated to improve their teaching so they can feel more satisfied."

If those saying no are the vast majority, there is not hope. For the instructors point of view, if it ain't broke.... However, if the majority are in the other category, that the faculty can't be bothered probably depends on who it is that is doing the bothering.

When people try to sell me stuff on the phone, I hang up on them. In general, I don't like to be rude, but there are certain folks you just don't talk to. Perhaps for our faculty, particularly the junior faculty, they just don't talk with staff who support instruction, or any staff for that matter, unless the need is really great.

It may be conventional wisdom that faculty will talk with other faculty, but even that has to be conditioned, I believe. If I'm at all typical, those early events with a Dean or Provost hosting, that are supposed to get new faculty together are excruciating. Faculty want to talk with others where they feel comfortable. That means a common world view, that discussions "make sense" and lead somewhere, and that they don't have to be on their best behavior to participate and get something out of the conversation.

If you consider what we're trying to do with teaching, especially on moving a course from an instructor-centric to a student-centric approach, it doesn't necessarily fit into the class of conversations where faculty feel comfortable. So a broad-based approach pursued by the learning support staff is bound to butt heads with the what makes faculty comfortable issue. The obvious question then, is there an alternative?

The answer to that in the '90s was a definite yes - rely on a "faculty champions" approach. The answer now might be a more guarded yes. From the staff perspective, it is easier to find "eager beavers" among instructors who are not on the tenure path. It is fun to work with such instructors since they care about their teaching and are receptive to the suggestions by the consultants. However, they are likely to have only a very limited influence on the teaching of tenure track faculty. So this is a possibility but not necessarily a path to success.

One might have to look harder for tenured faculty who suddenly show an interest in teaching but, in my opinion, they should still be the focus. (Further, it would be good if they are not too close to retirement so they might yet exert some influence on their colleagues.) Some of these faculty emerge through the formal campus mechanisms, but there are other faculty who may be less overt but show signs of interest in their teaching. These people should command disproportionate support in their teaching and in turn the support staff need to try to create little clusters of diffusion around these people.

This is guerrilla tactics rather than a frontal assault. At this time, that makes the most sense to me.

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