Providing the holistic professional development faculty members need (opinion)

Is higher education failing faculty? This is what I asked myself after taking the pulse of postsecondary professional development via recent job postings. Too many of these postings seemed to prioritize mechanics over meaning or make a mismatch between pedagogy and technical proficiency. The apparent favoring of HTML over human beings is disconcerting.

One recent morning, especially sour with the current state of affairs, I tweeted about my faculty development views. In response, many educators expressed a similar sense of disappointment, acknowledging the gap between the kind of in-depth development that can help faculty to flourish versus the quick-fix Band-Aids that don’t seem to bring much balm.

After reading those replies, I couldn’t help but think that such job descriptions are telling us something important about the disconnect between conventional views about what faculty need as far as support and what faculty actually want. Such a gap is a part of a larger dilemma of increasing faculty disengagement in our college and university communities, which is at once a reasonable self-protective measure in a continuing pandemic and, at the same time, an indication of more pervasive and long-term problems. One of those problems seems to be paltry professional development.

So what’s the answer? Can we effectively reimagine faculty development for the whole person—focus on the holistic before the HTML? What pedagogy might provide a pathway for this purpose? Is there hope for the future of faculty development in higher education?

Re-Engaging Faculty With Feminist Facilitation

In her piece “99 Tips for Faculty Development in End Times,” Karen Costa argues that, right now, educators “need a lot less development and a lot more support.” She encourages us to reconsider faculty development as “teaching and learning together.” And her call for reframing development as facilitation—words matter!—is in line with the feminist pedagogical call for a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage.

I’ve written before about how feminist pedagogy provides a practical pathway for disrupting traditional classroom hierarchies, and I’m part of a group of feminist pedagogues trying to spread the word about the power of this undoing, particularly in online spaces and places. At our Feminist Pedagogy for Teaching Online site, we promote feminist pedagogical tenets that help empower educators with specific strategies for seeing learners not as empty vessels but instead as active and agentic co-creators. I want to suggest that we should also apply those principles to faculty development via what I’m calling “feminist facilitation”—which can be just as feisty.

What does that look like in action? In the OLT Community of Practice that I co-facilitate, when we realized that faculty members were feeling overwhelmed during the pandemic, we asked what we could do to enhance our caring-first approach to coaching. Faculty members replied that the community functioned for them as a both-and space: a place where they could come to re-energize their teaching during COVID as well as one that provided a nice escape from postsecondary pressures. So we used this liminal positioning as a catalyst for change, taking a multipronged approach to co-creation. We posted self-care strategies, shared stories about teaching and learning in trying times, and prioritized the personal as much as the pedagogical.

By way of a feminist intervention—akin to what Judit Török and Maura Conley describe as a “decentered collective community”—we experienced firsthand how decentering can lead to the delights of dismantling. Everyone was teaching and learning together, simultaneously. This synchronicity was enhanced by the community’s come-as-you-can membership, wherein faculty have access to all of the materials and full use of the medium but can pick and choose their teaching/learning adventures. According to Maha Bali and Autumm Caines, “The inflexibility of time and space of traditional faculty development is inherently inequitable.” Mostly asynchronous approaches and alternative means of engagement are strategies that I especially appreciate, not only as a feminist facilitator but also as a mother, multiprofessional and online adjunct who sometimes needs pedagogical nourishment in the off hours.

Reframing Faculty Development as Foundational

In addition to teaching and learning synchronicity, multiplicity of means is something that Alexandra Mihai sees as integral for the future of faculty development. She encourages institutions to be more strategic about faculty support by incentivizing teaching alongside research, investing in communities of practice and reimagining faculty development and the scholarship of teaching and learning as part and parcel of an evidence-based approach. In other words, institutions need to embrace a paradigmatic shift that can help them illuminate the importance of teaching—and that light-up needs to be intense.

Shifts of this sort happen at Lumen Circles, where I facilitate nine-week Belonging and Inclusive Teaching Fundamentals circles. In those communities, we interrogate power and privilege, promote cooperative interaction, and honor our lived experiences through iterative self-reflection that makes them part and parcel of our evidence-based pedagogy. In so doing, we rebel against more generalized forms of faculty development that, in their one-size-fits-all approach, can fail to recognize and represent diverse faculty identities.

The community-driven components of the circle align with what Emily Skop and her co-authors refer to as an “ethos of care,” where research teams are actively engaged in changing academic culture through social justice collaborations that promote equity and address systemic injustices. Faculty, as evidence-based agents of change, are engaged in collaborative caring, too. And teaching teams, fueled by feminist facilitation, can function as gateways for the expansion of inclusive pedagogy and the cultural changes that come from it.

The Forecast for Faculty Development

Clearly, despite my somewhat blue beginning, I do not believe that all hope is lost when it comes to faculty development in higher education. The fix might just be in the function. Structurally and systemically, faculty support needs to become less a complacent afterthought and more an intentional constant. That constant is especially important, in the words of Bali and Caines, for “marginal or different from the majority” faculty who may feel as if they are practicing pedagogy on the peripheries. We need institutional, not just individual, buy-in for programs like OLT Faculty Development and Lumen Circles. Establishing this infrastructure is an equity essential. If we can reinforce these efforts with feminist facilitation, the forecast for faculty development actually looks quite favorable.