From Faculty Fellows to Equity-Minded Collaborators: The California Faculty Collaborative's Story

The story of the California Faculty Collaborative (CFC) is about human relationships and collaboration as an equitable practice for facing higher education’s challenges. Where we are now is linked to how we got here. While collaboration seems a natural human activity, Kezar and Lester (2009) note that unconscious norms, like academia’s emphasis on individual autonomy, can make it very difficult to achieve. Distinct from teamwork, cooperation, or networking, collaboration requires that a group develop shared norms, values, and responsibility through an interactive process over time. It should not be surprising that when six fellows—three from California Community Colleges (CCCs) and three from California State Universities (CSUs)—and the original hub director and state liaison (both from CSUs) came together in 2015, there was some skepticism about whether we could translate the language of national proficiency initiatives into problems that faculty identify in their own practice. We also worried that our disparate histories and locations presented obstacles to authentic collaboration. Yet, as we delved into different initiatives and taught one another, we discovered a shared commitment to equity.

If equity was an obvious starting point, it was not an easy one. We did not know how to become—or help our colleagues to become—equity-minded. We began by grappling with equity as a “threshold concept”—a concept that, once deeply understood, enables learners to see the world as experts do (Meyer and Land 2005). Just as threshold concepts in the curriculum challenge undergraduates to question prior knowledge and adopt values of academic disciplines, equity has the potential to transform our understanding of faculty roles within higher education:

  • Equity is troublesome: it conflicts with the assumption that fairness means treating students the same (equally).
  • Equity is integrative: once educators understand it, they see institutional processes as related rather than separate.
  • Equity is transformative: it leads educators to view their students as possessing assets rather than deficits and to see themselves as responsible for creating conditions for students to succeed.

As a threshold concept, equity created conditions for collaboration—none of the fellows was an expert, so all had to risk stepping outside accustomed roles. Learning occurred as we tackled an authentic problem together—What does it mean to be equity-minded practitioners? What does equity-minded practice look like in the classroom?

Creating our hub presented a second problem too complex to be solved by individuals—another opportunity to collaborate and to labor together to produce something coherent, integrative, and new. Here, too, fellows had questions, not answers—What exactly is a “digital innovation hub”? Is there an example to follow? Moments like this rendered us vulnerable and able to acknowledge that we are not experts in adapting technology for academic purposes or even in teaching and learning. Thrust into the position of learners, we confronted within ourselves resistance to learning that we had seen—and not always known how to approach—in students. When the group did not know how to move forward with hub design, thresholds had to be crossed. One member suggested design thinking to gain understanding of the target audience.

Together we explored new digital tools (Zoom, Prezi, Slack) and developed an online collaborative process to create a dynamic hub with content curated around questions, not topics, and an easy-to-access space for faculty to meet, explore, and create something new.

The fellows also found that collaboration requires setting hierarchies aside: hierarchies of institutions (community college and university), disciplines (between and within humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences), academic rank and appointment (contingent or tenured; administrator, staff, or faculty), in addition to statuses that cling to personal identities and histories as they intersect with race, class, gender, age, sexual orientation, national origin, religious affiliation, educational experiences, and professional trajectories. To put it another way—collaboration is an equitable practice.

Crossing Boundaries

To culminate the grant-funded phase of our work, our collaborative hosted a convening in September 2016 at the College of the Canyons titled “Crossing Boundaries for Equity-Minded Teaching and Learning.” Attended by thirty educators from eleven CCCs, six CSUs, and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), it marked the completion of two goals of the national Faculty Collaboratives project: (1) enabling faculty to make sense of large-scale national proficiency initiatives as tools promoting achievement of essential college learning for all students, and (2) launching a digital hub to promote professional learning opportunities to a statewide network. Our goal was to practice with faculty what works with students. After reading together and reflecting on what faculty need and want to learn to best support our students, participants imagined ourselves as a continuing community of practice. Visions of our future selves, shared via sticky notes, revealed four themes:

  • becoming equity-minded practitioners (e.g., “[I will have] learned about equity in enough detail to apply it in the classroom.”)
  • improving classroom practice (e.g., “[I will have] greater sensitivity to student needs.”)
  • improving campus structure and culture (e.g., “[I will have] created a culture and mechanisms on campus that facilitate and support integrative learning with faculty and staff focused on equity and student success.”)
  • connecting with colleagues across boundaries (e.g., “[I will know] how to be a boundary spanner inside my institution and between CSU & CCC.”)

This activity confirmed that faculty are hungry for shared professional learning and that educators across segments of public education share values.

Lasting Learning

At the Basic Skills Initiative Leadership Institute, sponsored by the California Community College Success Network (3CSN) in 2016, our team articulated a theory of change:

We believe that creating spaces (online and face-to-face) for equity-minded professional learning and learning-centered collaboration (between practitioners at CCCs and CSUs) will inspire faculty to improve (inter)disciplinary teaching practices, thereby closing achievement gaps and inequities on our campuses and in our state.

While we embraced virtual collaboration, we know that face-to-face experience built trust for crossing the equity threshold. An evolving work in progress, our hub is intended to be a space for faculty gathering, sharing, and learning. Sustaining this work without funding for faculty time presents a challenge. What we know will last is our authentic experience of professional learning: we understand the initiatives; are now familiar with equitable practices like Reading Apprenticeship, transparent teaching, culturally responsive pedagogy, design thinking, empathy mapping, and faculty learning communities; and value the process of learning together. Collaboration is an equity-minded practice, both the end and the means. The ongoing work of our collaborative is to recreate that for and with colleagues. 

 

References

Kezar, Adrianna, and Jaime Lester. 2009. Organizing Higher Education for Collaboration. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Meyer, Jan, and Ray Land. 2005. “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge (2): Epistemological Considerations and a Conceptual Framework for Teaching and Learning.” Higher Education 49: 373–388. doi:10.1007/s10734-004-6779-5.


Christina Chavéz-Reyes, Professor and Chair, Department of Liberal Studies, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona; Emily Daniell Magruder, Director, Institute for Teaching and Learning, Office of the Chancellor, California State University; and Debra David, Professor Emerita, Department of Health Science and Recreation, San José State University

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