Fifteen Suggestions for Developing a Successful Immersion Program

What does an immersion program look like?

Currently, we’re piloting a 14-week immersion program that focuses on an inspirational theme we knew would generate interest. Participants meet for 3.5 hours each Tuesday, with an all-day trip to neighboring institutions on the first Tuesday of each month. During the first half of the semester, the participants hear from on- and off-campus leaders to learn more about the university and its peer institutions. During the second half, they will explore a team project and ultimately deliver a presentation of their findings to the president and provost. Whereas the program’s specific theme is new, and whereas some of the participant makeup is new, the program’s general format parallels many of our other immersion programs’.

Regardless of the type of program, an immersion experience can accelerate the development of people’s leadership skills. Leadership skills benefit every individual, as well as the institution or community as a whole, irrespective of the person’s official position. People with leadership skills achieve more, develop a greater sense of purpose, and improve organizational or community health.

The very structure of an immersion program fosters those skills. Like most of our others, this pilot program challenges participants’ time-management skills in order to build their capacities for new initiatives, raises their institutional awareness, and organizes sustained engagements with diverse perspectives — not only to develop participants’ critical-thinking skills and diversify their problem-solving techniques, but also to encourage institutional thinking over departmental thinking.

Projects dramatically improve immersion programs. A project can help participants not only develop their teamwork skills, but also comprehend the value of collaborating with stakeholders and cultivating champions for the cause. Whereas everyone appears to understand the importance of buy-in, few demonstrate knowledge of how to cultivate it. The early, uncertain stages of our projects include structured conversations and brainstorming sessions with stakeholders, while the participants try to better understand and accommodate the stakeholders’ needs. This investigative process elevates stakeholder awareness of unmet needs. It also invites them to help shape the end result. Both of those aspects often generate champions for the cause. Behind the scenes, the champions then raise more awareness, and particularly if they come from diverse constituencies, they broaden buy-in. Without a project and structured reflection on the process, even immersion programs would have trouble raising awareness of how to generate buy-in.

Perhaps most importantly, immersion programs foster close friendships. Close friendships can lead to sustainable networks for increased knowledge-sharing, collaborations, and potentially even resource-sharing. Connectivity creates an adaptable and resourceful institution or community, capable of responding rapidly to threats and seizing timely opportunities. In fact, friendships succeed where reporting structures and other forced networks fail. Their tangential conversations can blossom into innovations, and intimacy can increase collaborators’ personal investments. That level of friendship necessitates not only ice-breakers, a “Vegas” environment, structured peer interactions, and scheduled time for group reflection, but also topic flexibility to accommodate tangential and idle conversations.

After last week’s day trip, a participant related how much she values our bus rides. The bus rides have helped her, in her words, “really get to know” some of her colleagues. She claimed their new-found friendships already have seeded potential collaborations. Bear in mind, she and her colleagues do not merely desire to maintain their relationships. They better comprehend each others’ needs, skills, and resources, as well as how they fit together like pieces of a puzzle.

That comprehension improves organizational culture and effectiveness, and well-structured immersion programs can not only replicate that comprehension. Well-structured immersion programs can scale it.

Here are fifteen suggestions for developing a successful immersion program:

1. Elevate the program’s profile by creating a competitive application process.

2. Clarify time and other obligations in the call for applications.

3. Further raise the program’s profile by outsourcing the participant-selection process to a committee.

4. Coach the selection committee to choose participants based on their diverse backgrounds, experiences, access to resources, …. In other words, select to create the best program experience. Selection is part of the design.

5. Schedule the program to meet routinely for multiple hours at a time; more frequent meetings can require fewer hours for fewer weeks, but less frequent meetings demand more consecutive hours for additional months.

6. Create a relevant ice-breaker activity.

7. Incorporate a relevant team project into the experience.

8. Craft a project charge that is broad enough to encourage team ownership but specific enough to provide structure.

9. Consider reserving a day for participants to shadow relevant but diverse colleagues, community members, or professionals.

10. Invite diverse, but relevant contributors.

11. Schedule regular opportunities for reflection and discussion, away from contributors.

12. Have participants anonymously evaluate contributors in order to make program improvements.

13. Build time into the schedule for meetings with project stakeholders and for general project development.

14. Require a project presentation before an esteemed audience.

15. Additionally raise the program’s profile by utilizing that esteemed audience in a closeout ceremony.

Advertisements

Professional Development as Rewiring the Institution for Adaptability

Here at the Center for Teaching and Learning, we have been socially networking the university in order to create a more adaptable institution, capable of rapid changes. By bridging the silos of academic departments and colleges, we thus far have facilitated not only the development of new ideas but also actual changes to the university’s organizational chart and processes. We’re becoming a stronger institution in the face of unprecedented technological, economic, and social changes.

In the spring, we will start bridging the gap between faculty and staff, and ideally, we’ll expand this framework to better connect the university’s employees with the surrounding community — the latter’s goal being to facilitate mutual sustainability and growth — and then with other TBR institutions to diversify the available problem-solving skills and overall knowledge and other resources.

But I had missed an additional component that’s structurally necessary for this vision.

Change-leadership scholar John P. Kotter (2014) suggests an additional component in the facilitation of rapid changes. Kotter argues for a dual organizational system, which our Center already facilitates minus a key ingredient. Counterbalancing the university’s hierarchical bureaucracy, a network of passionate people in Kotter’s ideal organization explores threats or opportunities and promotes rapid changes that the hierarchy otherwise cannot address in time. Here at Austin Peay, our Center’s cohort programs network people from across the organization who feel a sense of urgency and want to be change agents. But after they help communicate the change vision, if the administration cannot merely implement the change — as it could, for instance, in the relocation of our Career Services from Academic Affairs to Student Affairs — then the change initiative gets redirected to a taskforce within the very same bureaucratic organization. In other words, the bureaucracy recaptures it and deprives it of its momentum.

The solution? A facilitated (not chaired) guiding coalition.

Like a taskforce, the guiding coalition would further research what is already being done here and at peer institutions, what has been done here and at peer institutions, costs, available resources, … but it also would have design-school-esque facilitated discussions to “[identify] and [remove] barriers which slow or stop [this] strategically important activity” (Kotter, 2014, p. 32). That last part is what a taskforce cannot achieve.

This extra component to Kotter’s dual organizational system will enable us to oversee not only idea generation, but also, at least in certain instances, implementation. For a stronger Austin Peay. For a stronger community. For a stronger higher educational system.

Reference

Kotter, John P. (2014). Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

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.