Monday, October 02, 2006

Ask the Administrator: Professional Growth Plans

An occasional correspondent writes:
As a newly hired t-t faculty member at a community college I am now in the very early stages of the tenure process. Consequently, I need to draft a professional growth plan. I've been given a lot of general advice from various faculty members about the plan and it seems fairly straightforward. That said, the one thing that I've heard is that I should expect that, after meeting with my various committee members I should expect to re-draft my plan this year. However, anything that we decide isn't to be set in stone for subsequent review years. I've also heard a lot of folks caution against making goals which are too ambitious and/or difficult to achieve. This all sounds reasonable and makes sense to me.

That said, I wondered if you, speaking from an administrative point of view, had any particular advice about drafting a professional growth plan. The areas that I'm expected to cover in the plan are related to the 'holy trinity' of cc faculty life (student contact/pedagogy, institutional service, and professional service). Obviously, I have a general sense of what I should say and I've been lucky enough to get my hands on a few samples. However, I'm guessing that your job may involve reviewing these sorts of documents and I am hoping that you may have some tips. I know that these documents are somewhat institutionally specific. That said, anything I might want to highlight or not that you can think of off hand.

Professional growth plans are very specific to the culture of different institutions, and even to particular departments and/or deans within that institution.

Some treat growth plans as meaningless boilerplate, a never-read document prepared for the purpose of being able to say that it exists. Some treat it as the opportunity for a perverse kind of bargaining. (If I get two papers published, you'll pay for me to go to my pet conference, right?) Some like to be specific; others prefer a strategic vagueness.

My preference is to use them as heuristics, as indicators of direction. In a perfect world, the vp, the dean, and the department chair will have discussed in advance the general directions in which the college needs to go. The dean and the chair will have discussed this particular professor, and the professor will be able to develop a plan in collaboration with the dean and the chair. The professor will have the confidence of knowing that if she follows through on her plan, all will be well.

In reality, of course, that may be a bit much to ask. But what's useful in the little fantasy above is the idea of communication before putting pixels to paper. Committing to specific activities because you think they're what the administration wants to hear could be very dangerous. Better to both suss out what the administration actually wants to hear, and, better than that, to shape it to your purposes.

Most of the best ideas I've had have been given to me. Professors have come up with activities that never would have occurred to me, and that made the ideas I'd been toying with look silly by contrast. (While I won't and don't claim credit for the ideas, I will take credit for having the intellectual honesty to admit when a better idea comes along.) Sometimes those ideas come about after I've given a broad sense of what I consider important, and then stepped back for a while. In a few, blessed cases, they've actually emerged out of an almost-circular pattern of communication.

I know that many faculty take it on faith that The Administration is a bloodsucking monolith populated by failed faculty who take out our bitterness on the young innocents foolish enough to cross our path, but honestly, that's true less than half the time. (And if it is true, there's no faster way to find out for yourself than to enter its lair and engage it in conversation.) More commonly, administrators are distracted by lots of little things, and frequently responsible for fields beyond our own scholarly training, so we evaluate (necessarily) based on partial and fragmentary understandings of what's actually happening. To the thoughtless observer, that can look like stupidity. To the clever observer, that suggests an opportunity: shape the narrative for yourself before impressions are set in stone.

Honestly, from my perspective, the greatest value in faculty professional development plans is in preventing tenure-track faculty from developing the bad habits that lead to retirement-on-the-job later. Since a cc isn't a publish-or-perish setting, I have the relative luxury of being able not to care too much about which journal your article appeared in; my major concern is that you're actually trying.

Folks at other places (and other kinds of places): how does it work where you are?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.