Rethinking New Faculty Orientation

 

We’re in the process of rethinking the New Faculty Orientation Program. First and foremost, we’re rethinking it as a program, not a series of events. But equally as importantly, we’re rethinking “orientation.” What does it mean to orient a new faculty member for success in an educational climate that, as seen in Congressman Miller’s above video, is reimagining student movement through the educational system?

Incentivized by a funding formula that rewards retention and graduation rates, APSU staff, faculty, and administrators routinely pilot innovative retention efforts in teaching, advising, support services, predictive analytics, course scheduling, co-curricular activities …. Increasingly, Austin Peay employees investigate student experiences that negatively impact student success and are a high priority for the institution to remedy. But how do you do that, and what do you do once you’ve done that? And how do you orient new faculty to this burgeoning way of thinking?

Whether we’re teaching, advising, or brainstorming systemic obstacles to student progression, we’re first and foremost thinking from diverse student perspectives: online students, military students, nontraditional students, first-generation college students, low-income students …. From their perspectives, what impedes their abilities to access course content, acquire skills, make appropriate choices, or progress efficiently through degree pathways?

Whether proposing a course redesign, rethinking advising as redirecting students from inappropriate majors, or creating a seamless learning environment, we’re thinking from diverse stakeholder perspectives: students, faculty, academic deans, staff, administrators, regents, accreditors, politicians, parents — complete with common misconceptions that can undermine the change process. Student perspectives are the starting point, but a successful faculty member has to think from still other perspectives.

If we’re determining the appropriate staffing for a new initiative, then we have to benchmark what peer institutions have done, use existing research to estimate the initiative’s impact on student retention, calculate that impact at $8500 a student, and justify the additional staffing costs per the return on that investment. Because we don’t like to reduce human beings under our charge to dollars and cents, this interpretive frame is an icky one that makes a lot of us cringe and need a shower.

But in order to succeed, our faculty need to be able to access that interpretive frame — and others. To orient new faculty, we have to provide them with opportunities to enhance their capacities for shifting between interpretive frames. That skill is the foundation for innovation — and essential for student, staff, faculty, and institutional success in today’s educational climate.

So how can a New Faculty Orientation Program help faculty develop their skills for changing interpretive frames?

Although the answer to that question is more complex, an orientation program should disorient. It should provide sustained engagements with diverse perspectives so as to undermine stable vantage points with their stubborn preconceptions. It should facilitate in-depth conversations with diverse student bodies and other key stakeholders. It should fit new faculty with radically different interpretive lenses to wear each day.

Professional-Development Strategies

Certain relatively simple professional-development strategies can elevate quality. Here are three design strategies that many colleges and universities can assimilate into their professional development:

1. Professional Development, Not Training

“Training” suggests that specific knowledge or skills have become the goal, and that the goal is convergent. In other words, the word sends the message that there are right and wrong conceptions or practices that the faculty developers are pushing. In our sessions, knowledge and skills are merely tools, not objectives. Participants’ goals diverge. Our participants develop in different ways, because professional development is ultimately self-development.

2. Programs, Not Events

Faculty have a limited stake in one-time events. They can RSVP and still miss an event. But they have a greater stake in programs. For programs, faculty will undergo an application process that requires chairs’ signatures or recommendations. For programs, faculty will face a competitive selection process by a committee of colleagues or academic deans. The program becomes an award with ceremonies, not just an event with handouts. A competitive program has prestige that provides faculty with a stake in the opportunity.

Equally if not more importantly, sessions build on each other to facilitate not merely knowledge acquisition or even assimilation, but also cohort development for improved campus community, cross-campus knowledge transfers, and interdepartmental collaborations. Programs — not events — build campus capacity.

3. Diverse Participants, Diverse Contributors, Diverse Locations

Selection committees need guidance because they’re choosing participants not merely on individual merit or qualifications, but rather for programmatic success. Whereas diversifying ranks within the same department can silence junior faculty, diversifying departments and academic colleges can liberate them. Diverse ranks, disciplines, academic colleges, and other participant characteristics expand a program’s knowledge and skill base for improved cohort creativity. Faculty developers have an obligation to work closely with selection committees.

Meanwhile, diversifying campus contributors expands campus awareness, erodes departmental or even divisional barriers, and improves the sense of campus community. Off-campus contributors can infuse the campus with new insights. Whereas a consistent contributor can tire participants, diverse program contributors rejuvenate them.

So too can diverse locations. Merely changing the scenery can change participants’ mindsets.

These three relatively simple professional-development strategies can significantly elevate quality. They encourage buy-in. Most importantly, they promote a culture of improvement and collaboration for a greater return on everyone’s investment.

Faculty-Development Design Philosophy

Philosophically, I design collaborative opportunities that can lead to innovations for student and community success. During my first week at Austin Peay, our provost introduced me to that mindset. As Dr. Denley explained, people in isolation have trouble escaping their preconceptions and, therefore, make only revisions, not innovations. Course redesigns, one of Dr. Denley’s areas of expertise and the topic of our conversation that day, encourage faculty to come together and work beyond their individual perceptions. Since that day, I have read book after book about creating innovative climates, and they all repeat that same wisdom: only diverse perspectives in collaboration create innovations.

I use that philosophy in class. I use that philosophy in professional development.

But you can’t just throw diverse people together and expect celestial trumpets. People need to feel comfortable with each other. They need to become active members of a diverse community.

Our programs facilitate that sense of community through participant immersion. The Faculty Leadership Program (FLP), for instance, meets all day each Tuesday for fourteen weeks; that detail by itself forces a sense of community on participants. In all of our programs, we limit participation to fewer than ten people, another detail that encourages a sense of community. Additionally, we utilize ceremony and other symbolic features to distinguish the cohort. Once the sense of community takes hold, we assign a team project that further unifies participants.

That project is also where the celestial trumpets might sound — providing the participants have developed enough knowledge on the front end and that the project arises organically.

Our programs foster a sense of not only cohort community, but also campus community through the information-gathering phase. Generally, after every hour or so, I change guest speakers or initiate a reflection activity. In a three-hour-per-week program, for example, we would meet with either two speakers each day or only one followed by group reflection. Because we encourage discussions over presentations, our guest speakers build a rapport with the participants that breaks down campus barriers and facilitates future interactions. The FLP even goes so far as to include a Shadow Day, in which each participant shadows a different campus leader generally outside his or her purview, preferably from a different division than Academic Affairs. We’re trying to build campus capacity for collaborations, as well as facilitate cross-campus knowledge transfer for rapid response in the face of threats or opportunities.

Diverse campus participants + diverse campus contributors = campus integration.

Once they develop significant knowledge and sense of community, the cohort devises a project. After many iterations, I now charge the participants with as few specifics as possible. In the past, I’ve charged the participants with solving very specific problems. This semester, I’ve charged the FLP participants only with investigating a personal frustration that negatively impacts student success and that is a high-priority for the institution to resolve. If the participants have predominantly external motivations to complete the project, the cohort might not take ownership of it. Only if the cohort takes ownership of it will they continue to work on it after the program ends.

We’re at the point now that I’m working on expanding program access to not merely faculty, but also staff. As a university, we’ve done an excellent job of breaking down departmental and collegiate divisions between faculty, and now we’re at a stage when we can begin the process of socially integrating faculty and staff.

We’re also not too far away from opening our programs to participants from neighboring community colleges or universities. The expanded reach will create revenue streams that can subsidize our programs. It also will create deeper channels that can ferry students, workers, knowledge, funding, and other resources back and forth for mutual sustainability, growth, and community development.

That’s what I mean by, “I design collaborative opportunities that can lead to innovations for student and community success.” I can’t stress enough how rewarding this journey has been, and I attribute a large portion of that sense to this philosophy. It has shaped my interactions with faculty, staff, students, and the greater community. And it’s starting to shape my interactions with the greater community of higher ed.

 

Adventures at Austin Peay, Part I

After five years of designing, coordinating, and assessing professional-development programs under the dynamic, innovative leadership at Austin Peay State University, I’m starting this blog to work out my experiences for better understanding. During this brief time, APSU has undergone a massive cultural transformation, even achieving for the last two consecutive years the Honor Roll for The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Great Colleges To Work For — in part for our professional-development opportunities. Not that I’m assuming responsibility. My arrival coincided with whatever is the positive equivalent of a perfect storm.

President Hall had assumed his position only the prior year, and at a time of extreme distrust of administration, he conducted routine listening meetings. He truly listened, acted on employee concerns, clarified the reasoning behind decisions, and began the process of opening communication and pushing agency down through the ranks.

Provost Denley, a mathematician with experience in course redesign, joined the campus several months before I did. In addition to rethinking the role of provost as a data analyst armed with predictive analytics, he used the prior administration’s budgetary surplus, one-time federal-stimulus money, and our Title III grant to incentivize faculty interactions and initiatives geared towards innovating for student success.

Both President Hall and Provost Denley came from Ole Miss, where I was finishing my Ph.D. They encouraged those involved with the design of the Center for Teaching and Learning to look at Ole Miss’s for an example. After having taught a particularly bad class, I had spent the prior two years practically living at Ole Miss’s Center. I enjoyed my learning experiences there so much that at one point I asked the director, Dr. Johnny Lott, “How do I get your job?” Johnny took me under his wing, showed me his budget and design plans for new learning spaces, and brainstormed faculty-development ideas with me. When the APSU delegates arrived, they asked Johnny whom he would recommend to run their faculty development, and Johnny said, “I know only one person.” He recommended me.

I’m forever grateful to Johnny.

This July, I will have been at APSU for five years. When I arrived, people warned me that many faculty wouldn’t trust professional-development programs, only events. According to the argument, most faculty feared that the Center was an extension of the administration, to control even how the faculty taught. Five years later, APSU is one of the best colleges to work for, and I operate by a mantra: programs, not events. The faculty are hungry for opportunities.

And I’m proud to serve them.