Arming Faculty without Telling Them What to Do

By Day 1, new faculty need to know our students and how to reach them. They would need that kind of knowledge if we were Harvard, if we were a community college. No two campuses have the same demographics, so learning the different student bodies, characteristics, and learning preferences orients faculty to their new environment.

But I don’t tell faculty how to teach. They know better than I do how to teach their content. Any implication otherwise would be wrong and insulting.

I do provide faculty with teaching strategies. A simple cohort-building activity helps faculty acquire and assimilate the specific teaching strategies for those diverse student bodies — and this activity circumvents my “teaching” anyone anything.

Most strategies overlap for different demographics — like fostering a sense of classroom community in order to improve student-to-student knowledge transfer, socially incentivize attendance, and diversify classroom accountability structures. Participants encounter a short list of specific classroom activities, with their slightly different pedagogical intentions. And then we use think-pair-share: participants individually choose which activity they most likely would use and explain their reasoning to their neighbors.

The process of choosing only one forces the participants to evaluate and cognitively organize the options. Also, by selecting first and then discussing their reasoning, they activate multiple parts of their brains to access the same content, which increases the likelihood of their retaining that content. Participants also develop a vested interest in other people’s answers, and the in-depth discussion becomes a reflection activity that fosters metacognitive understanding. It also improves mutual understanding and peer relationships. The subsequent greater group discussion disseminates more information for improved reflection and understanding, but it also fosters a sense of cohort community. After an hour of tackling five strategies this way, the faculty see those five strategies in a list and take that list home with them. They’re also motivated, talkative, and reluctant to leave the conversation behind.

This activity is an example of how to help faculty develop new understandings, without boring them with a lecture or their perceiving the faculty developer as trying to rob them of their academic freedom. Regardless of the topic, look for opportunities to deliver information as tools — for socializing, problem-solving, designing a project … — not as endpoints. When information becomes the endpoint, it should become a handout; the interaction, only an email. Otherwise, we’re wasting both good will and everyone’s time.


New Faculty Orientation for Faculty and Institutional Success

In redesigning the orientation program, I am struggling to envision from a new faculty’s perspective, how to decipher our university’s distinct student bodies, our students’ role models for successful attitudes and behaviors, their unique challenges on their time, their preconceptions of what it means to learn, their preconceptions for what it means to teach, their expectations for their courses and professors, their reasoning for choosing their majors, their thoughts and emotions when they no longer can progress in their majors, their potential for isolation from the campus and its opportunities, the factors that impact their opportunities when they graduate, …. and how the university operates as a system to improve the likelihood of student success.

Here are some of the campus-led program topics I’m imagining:

  • student demographics and their retention and graduation rates
  • teaching students with different at-risk characteristics
  • classroom management strategies for diverse student bodies
  • how to structurally prevent the likelihood of academic dishonesty
  • how to leverage the course-management system for student success
  • collecting course data for more effective changes
  • how to interpret student evaluations
  • student pathways, bottlenecks, and the system of student movement
  • the philosophic trajectory of academic advising: where we are heading
  • how and why the university connects with the community
  • RTP as a tool for student, faculty, and institutional success
  • campus as a collaborative community with a shared purpose: student success
  • emotional intelligence and conflict management with colleagues
  • retention to the second year and beyond

I’m also hoping to brand each year with, for instance, an “Incoming Class of 2014” T-shirt. Depending on the number of new faculty, perhaps we can provide them with individual teaching consultations.

We’re still early in the design process, and a lot of people will play a role in the program’s ultimate shape, but I truly believe we can orient new faculty to a systems-thinking paradigm that will help the institution stay proactive and innovative in fostering student success, while bolstering faculty retention and success.

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.