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?