Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Useful In-House Professional Development

I have to confess to deeply conflicted attitudes about in-house professional development programs.

In theory, I like the idea a lot.  Everyone working at the same place means you can tailor the content to the realities of that place.  There’s already a comfort level among the group, since people already know each other.  And you don’t have to deal with flying.  I’m old enough to remember when flying was merely a nuisance, as opposed to the soul-crushing nightmare it has become.  At some level, it still surprises me every single time.  The ability to learn something of professional value without having to deal with airlines is not to be sneezed at.

But empirically, in-house professional development can be terribly uneven.  In my DeVry days, the campus once brought in a motivational speaker.  I endured the morning so I could have lunch without guilt.  After lunch, he started laying down ropes in the cafeteria for some sort of ropes exercise.

No.  Just, no.  I walked out.  My dean asked me why.  In my calmest, politest, most measured Bob Newhart-y mode, I told him that I didn’t get my doctorate to do rope tricks.  He smiled and let it go, which was the right response.  But sheesh.  

Workshops led by internal people are usually better, since they feel a moral obligation to their colleagues to provide something of value, and they’re coming from the same environment.  But sometimes there’s a topic on which nobody internal really has expertise.  

When the topic is relatively specialized, I’m a fan of roadtrips.  By that I mean sending a department -- whether an academic department or an office -- to meet its counterparts at another college within driving distance, to learn about something interesting that they’re doing.  The key is to have peers meet with peers.  It’s a low-cost, high-payoff approach, because peers will find the right level of detail almost without trying.  

On academic topics, it’s always fun to have faculty present to the college as a whole.  Seeing professors in their natural habitat, doing what they do best, is gratifying.  It can also be striking to see how different somebody’s in-class persona may be from their walking-around persona.  Not everyone is like that, of course, but it’s amazing to see when someone who’s usually circumspect suddenly comes alive in front of a group.

Some topics are trickier, though.  A colleague recently raised a question about serving students who seem to be on the autism spectrum.  She does her best, but has never been trained in it.  That’s not the sort of thing that necessarily lends itself to grow-your-own presentations.  I don’t imagine making everyone into experts, but some basic tips there may go a long way.  Even better, they’d be relevant across most areas of the college, from faculty to financial aid to counseling.

I’m hoping that some of my wise and worldly readers have seen or experienced particularly good in-house professional development around working with students on the spectrum.  I don’t want to waste anybody’s time with a trite or poorly done presentation -- let alone rope tricks -- but this seems like the kind of topic tailor-made for thoughtful support.  Any ideas out there?