Thursday, January 13, 2011


Professional Development Days

Like many colleges, mine requires a few days each year for faculty and staff professional development. They’re tolerated somewhat grudgingly on all sides, which I think is about right.

“Professional development” is a pretty elastic term; depending on who you ask, you’ll get wildly different definitions. Some people see it as little more than a euphemism for conference travel. Some see it as something close to a personal slush fund; I’ve had professors tell me, with straight faces, that each professor should just get a set dollar figure for the year, to spend as they see fit on anything they consider relevant. I replied that they already get that: it’s called a “salary.”

From a relatively narrow institutional perspective, professional development refers to maintaining and improving your ability to do your job. That might involve travel, or it might involve subscriptions, or it might involve workshops. (Savvy employees use professional development to develop the ability to do their next job.) I consider this blog part of my own professional development, since it actually helps me on the job (though I’ve refrained from mentioning it at annual reviews).

With faculty covering a gamut of disciplines, and professional staff with varying responsibilities, any professional development event held in common will necessarily tend to focus on job-related, rather than discipline-related, content. Those can be painful, but a few of them have actually worked. A FERPA presentation from a few years ago was well-received, since much of it was counterintuitive and the relevance was obvious. The single best one was a presentation on the latest technologies for student cheating -- it was both shocking and useful. (Did you know they have websites now that offer papers with the errors characteristic of speakers of various languages? If your first language is Russian, for instance, you could order up a paper in which the use of articles is confused. The idea is to make it sound like you wrote it. Amazing.) I once heard of a college in a poor city using its professional development day to give the employees a walking tour of the city; that struck me as daring, and potentially pretty useful. I’ve also heard of them being used as “days of service” in the community; though probably well-intended, it strikes me as missing the point of professional development.

Yes, sometimes the days flop. At PU, every so often, they’d bring in motivational speakers. I’m sure some of them meant well, but sheesh. Motivational speakers and I don’t mix. There’s such a thing as managing one’s own emotions. And anything involving a Big Name Guest Speaker is likely to land with a thud.

The idea behind having a day like that before the semester starts, it seems to me, is to establish some sort of minimum level of participation. Some people avail themselves of all kinds of travel opportunities and other resources, but some don’t at all. These collegewide days, for all their very real limitations, at least prevent complete stasis.

Have you seen a collegewide professional day work well? If so, what did they do? Why did it work?

Why does "conference travel" need a euphemism? Is conference travel offensive at a CC?
Yes, I've been to a few that I thought were pretty good. One common theme was that they were voluntary. Forcing the entire faculty to attend something that was selected "for" them (by who knows which administrative talking head, with which latest-greatest agenda of their own) is a recipe for irrelevance and resentment.

If you do make something mandatory for all faculty without giving them input into what "it" is, then you should expect that several people will show up with laptops/ipads in hand and will simply use the enforced detention time to finish prepping their syllabus for the first day of class - something on which development time might be more usefully spent.
I'm interested in your comment that you use the blog for professional development. Recent conversations at MLA (large conference in my humanities field) indicated that "once you start blogging, you're no longer administrative material." Would this be if you are blogging non-anonymously, as opposed to your blog? Any thoughts on this that you could share with someone who hopes to have an administrative job one day and currently blogs about academia?
We've had success with the mini-conference approach, where there are concurrent sessions that cover a wide variety of topics, most of them led by faculty. The ones that are most popular are the ones that deal with new technology and technology updates and the ones that are round table discussions (we've had lots of positive feedback about sessions that talk about various aspects of creativity, for example).

We have to show a certain amount of faculty development hours each year, and as department chair, I leave it up to faculty. They can come to the free and convenient in-house development or they can do other types. For years, we've had no travel money, so going to a regional or national conference quickly becomes cost prohibitive.
I recently sat through a profession development seminar on recruiting, which I thought was important for shaping the college and targeting students of a particular demo. Useful and interesting. Of course, I'm a young faculty member.
We have no required professional development, other than a series of seminars required for all new faculty that must be completed in their first two years, and an in-service day that's required for all employees on the first day back from summer break. The afternoon on that day is required only for faculty, and the structure has at least evolved to allow for a set of workshops that allow us to pick and choose things that interest us.

One of the most useful and enjoyable of those that I've attended was an overview of some of the other academic departments and tours of their specialized facilities. I previously had no clue how the ones I toured were structured or what they required, had no idea that we had some of the technology that they used, and had fun trying some of it out!
I second the mini-conference idea! We used to have those at my CC for the PD days in January. This year the format was different - everyone together in one big room. I'm only speaking anecdotaly (sp? is that even a word?), but my colleagues and I preferred the mini-conference, small-group, more-interactive approach of previous years. I wonder if it was more expensive or something and that's why it was changed?
In my first full-time academic job, way back in the previous millennium, I had an experienced colleague tell me that the main purpose for those mandatory meetings at the beginning of each semester was to wake up the old professors so that they know that the semester is about to begin.
US Jogger:

Your comment is not only ageist and offensive, but it's inaccurate as well. Most professional development activities I've attended over the past 36 years (yes, I'm an old guy) appear to be designed to put people to sleep.

Right on, Phillip! Or to give everyone on the faculty a chance to catch up on their Fb pages or write that last syllabus.

I know the old folks are usually awake because it was one of them who asked a presenter why she gave a lecture to us about not lecturing in class. Why didn't she use the active learning methods she claimed were a better approach to learning? Because you can't do it with a canned PowerPoint presentation? Busted! Another had no idea at all what it meant to teach a content area like anatomy where students are not allowed to pick and choose what they want to learn.

I like Buela's idea about getting exposed to other parts of campus. I know faculty who had to be given directions to a major classroom building for a meeting.

Our best program wasn't actually professional development, it was a clear, detailed, and yet engaging presentation about how "Outcomes Assessment" actually works.
Reading this blog post made my head spin. Granted, I'm a professor at a R1 institution, not a community college, but still... Anyway, some reactions:

Mandatory professional development days? With required attendance? WTF! Sounds like a Dilbert cartoon. If my school tried to force me to attend a professional development seminar, I'd tell them to fuck off. I work 60-hour weeks.

Euphemism for conference travel? What's wrong with conference travel?

Some professors suggest, with straight forces, a slush fund with a set dollar amount each year? What's wrong with that? And what's with your "with straight faces" crack? You find it nutty but I find it totally reasonable. This is not about salary; it's about having some money to spend on professional development, to spend on making you better at your job. Your salary is for personal things; but it makes sense to have some funding to make me better at my job. Maybe it's to attend a conference, or to buy a much-needed piece of equipment or prop for the classroom, or something else. If you trust your employees, I think it makes a lot of sense. But then, keep in mind my situation: I'm a professor at a R1 institution, and I do a lot of grant-raising: I'm responsible for raising funding for all the research I do. Part of that is raising money for personal discretionary funds, that I can use for any work-related purpose I see fit. They are incredibly useful. And they're not misused. (For instance, I might use them to pay for a lunch celebration when my group hits a big milestone, or to send a minority student to a conference for under-represented students, or some other situation that isn't covered by any standard mechanism but that has a high pay-off.) Maybe your CC just doesn't have the funds to give every professor a small amount of discretionary funds, and if so, so be it, but please look at the idea so askance.

So, short answer: If you're contemplating a college-wide mandatory professional development day, my advice would be: don't do it!
EngineeringProf: Staff development activities are required (at least for cc teachers) out here in CA. 28 hours every year, and if you don't go, your pay is docked.

It's not so onerous, though: Some are actually useful, and they're defined broadly, so wellness programs, stress reduction, or "dealing with difficult people" workshops count. Attending a conference (like the MLA for English teachers) counts, too, and so does serving on a tenure review committee or evaluating an adjunct faculty member.

CCPhysicist is also right on. About a decade ago the content of most all staff development programs that dealt with improving one's teaching had to do with the inefficiency of classroom lectures: "Lecturing is the most inefficient way to deliver information. Students retain only 21 percent[or some other dubiously concrete number]of what they hear during a lecture."

While I agree that there are lots of other useful and productive things to do in the classroom besides lecturing, it always tickled me that the anti-lecturing workshops/presentations were invariably presented through a lecture.

As a part-time instructor, I attended a professional development program (25 hours, mostly online) because it paid a $500 stipend. It was eye-opening, as the full-time instructor leading it referred to our teaching as a "hobby you actually got paid for." I found that insulting, as the only reason I'm part-time is because I teach one class less during one semster than the full-timers. Unless there's an 'emergency situation,' typically a part-timer quitting after the semester has begun, then I can teach a full-time load. My typical load is 5/4, then 4 for the summer. 13 classes a year and I'm part-time. I do take advantage of PD classes in Microsoft Office, as I one day hope to return to the private sector where the exploitation, in my experience, is nowhere near as severe as in community colleges. And you can even get a raise if you do good work, unlike adjuncts who apparently teach as a hobby.
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