Shifting How We Think About Faculty Work

In the Progressive Era, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis contended that states should operate as “laboratories for democracy.” Looking for ways to collectively respond to the social and economic inequities of the early twentieth century, progressives experimented with policies and programs that ultimately changed how we think about the individual’s relationship to government and the balance of rights and responsibilities citizens and corporations have within the modern industrialized state.

The Progressives worked in their local context as a vanguard of thoughtful practitioners seeking pragmatic solutions to sociopolitical/educational problems.  Although the analogy isn’t perfect, the aim of the Faculty Collaboratives project is as radical as the progressive impulse: to shift how we think about our individual and collective responsibilities as educators.  Faculty Collaboratives seek to create an environment in which every student benefits from the full potential of a liberal education, ultimately to work toward a healthier democracy and future. Society needs higher education to undertake this practical experimentation. But how do we build support for educators to accomplish the broader change we need?

Participants in the Faculty Collaboratives generated energy and shared ideas for a cultural shift. The project itself arose from an acknowledgment that longstanding and proven approaches, referred to by an alphabet soup of acronyms, have yet to fundamentally change the conversation or bring participation of growing numbers of educators. If the potential of evidence-based practices within LEAP and the DQP is to be reached on a broad scale, institutions need to confront fundamental “misalignments.” It is no secret that the relationship between what we know works and what institutions choose to invest in and reward is off kilter. Shamefully, we have yet to effectively address this reality. Institutions spend millions of dollars competing for students but put a fraction of that into faculty development or learning initiatives that will ensure those students succeed. Resources that support sound pedagogical and curricular practices have greater potential than most institutional investments to reap significant learning, retention, and on-time graduation gains. Yet we continue to hear the longstanding lament that overburdened faculty (many part-time and underpaid) shoulder pedagogical and curricular innovations that go unrewarded in merit and salary decisions.

Jonathan Rossing and Melissa Lavitt (2016) make the initially counterintuitive argument that faculty are “neglected learners.” Raised within an intellectual culture that values narrow research, most are ill-prepared to provide what the twenty-first century requires of higher education. Colleagues who do faculty development work see faculty hungry for professional learning and eager to think about ways of interacting with students and communities that lead to mutual success. Often institutions demand that faculty do this intense work of connecting, touting innovation and engagement in mission statements and strategic plans. But few institutions dismantle the structures that block, fail to reward, and disincentivize that effort. Rarely are faculty afforded the time, resources, and help to rethink and realign their work. Much of what has been successful in the Faculty Collaboratives comes back to supporting faculty in exploring and developing genuine solutions that are responsive to their students, their classrooms, and their community. But a crucial question at this juncture is whether those who do so will thrive in academia because of, rather than in spite of, their investment.

Ultimately, if this effort is going to be the catalyst for radical reform, it must move beyond engaging faculty to engaging the underlying structure and culture of higher education. In confronting the “wicked world problems” of the early twentieth century, Progressives radically altered our thinking about society. We need to radically alter how we think about faculty work. 

Rossing, Jonathan, and Melissa Lavitt. 2016. “The Neglected Learner: A Call to Support Integrative Learning for Faculty.” Liberal Education 102 (2).

Anne V. Kelsch, Director of Faculty & Staff Development, University of North Dakota

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