Rusted train rail with moss growing over it

Towards a Critical Approach to Faculty Development

Reviewed by Adam Heidebrink-Bruno and Sean Michael Morris
reclaim” by Fio; CC BY-NC 2.0

We are two critical pedagogues who are also faculty developers, trying to create space for conversations interrogating dominant approaches to faculty development.

Faculty developers support the growth and continuing development and evolution of faculty in their roles as educators. But, what we (Maha and Lee) are addressing in this column installment is the nature of how faculty development is delivered, if “delivery” is even the right term at all. Can we encourage critical pedagogy within the current system(s) of faculty development within the institutional structure as it often exists? What are the underlying values behind how faculty development is often approached?

Critiques of the Current State of Faculty Development

Faculty development positions (expert) teachers as learners, a situation that can be uncomfortable, threatening, or exciting, depending on the teacher’s perspective and the institutional context. Faculty developers should take advantage of opportunities to create environments conducive to learning (within faculty development itself), reflecting the kinds of learning we wish to encourage in our classrooms. And yet the picture is complicated, and the constraints are different.

We can approach faculty development critically from multiple lenses. By critically, we mean highlighting injustices/oppressions and challenging the status quo. By faculty development we mean to focus on activities conducted by specialized people on campus (called instructional designers/technologists, faculty developers, or similar) as part of a specialist university department (e.g Center for learning and teaching or similar) in order to support faculty in their teaching — and particularly in their pedagogy.

We agree on some common issues in faculty development even though we each come from different contexts: Lee left a tenure-track faculty position for personal reasons a few years ago, and recently became a (staff) Faculty Instructional Consultant at the University of Kentucky, an R1 institution; Maha started as a staff member but recently became a non-tenure-track faculty member at the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo, a liberal arts institution. This reflects the diversity of position types, as well as institutional expectations, which have an impact on the expectations and limitations of our work. However, despite these differences, we still see similar issues within the work we do as faculty developers.

Institutions that De-value Teaching & Emphasize Measurement

Institutional pressures and policies reward and favor research over teaching, very rarely valuing scholarship of teaching and learning as much as discipline-specific research, if at all. This de-incentivizes faculty to invest time developing their teaching or innovating in their pedagogy. Also, neoliberal and corporatized universities focusing on assessment and accreditation, on instrumental learning and measuring performance, often create obstacles to thoughtful pedagogy and deep learning — assessment becomes overly codified and simplified, lacking nuance, while pressures to improve retention and graduation rates influence course creation, content, and assessment.

Over-emphasizing the articulation of measurable, visible outcomes is a value-statement: it tells teachers that all of the less measurable, less articulable, less tangible learning that many educators value are not worth focusing on, particularly because the emphasis is often on measurable knowledge and skills rather than the less tangible attitudes we can foster or encourage in our students. Also, it assumes that no matter where our students start and whichever path they prefer to take, we should strive for all of them to reach the exact same goal, a goal that we set before we ever set foot in the classroom and meet our students. This position assumes student agency has no value in the classroom, and it discourages teacher agency as well, by assuming much of the important work of teaching can be pre-planned only to be enacted by the teacher following a pre-defined path. Good teachers know it cannot.

The combination of these two factors means that faculty are less likely to make time for faculty development activities; and it also means that quite often, faculty developers are expected to support faculty in designing learning outcomes, aligning assessment, and designing detailed rubrics — a process that in itself can become a power struggle when faculty feel threatened when asked to make their outcomes explicit, or ashamed to find their assessments not aligning to their outcomes.

Neither one of us is comfortable doing this kind of pedagogical consultation. We would rather work on finding ways to support faculty to embrace emergent outcomes that respond to their students’ needs and interests, and to help them question how their assessment practices and content choices exert power in the classroom.

Inequalities and Power Dynamics in Educational Institutions

If a center for teaching and learning exists at all at an institution, it’s often staffed with one or only a few tenured (or not) faculty members who may or may not have course releases from their regular teaching duties, and most staff do not have the academic freedom or job security of tenure. In tight budgetary situations, centers such as these can become an easy way to free up some budget money, as well as potentially being seen as a way to address “administrative bloat” concerns — do we really need another director, another center on campus? (One example is the relatively recent closure of The Faculty Center for Excellence in Teaching at Western Kentucky University.) This perception, of course, is both unfair and wrong; faculty development is a service to the faculty, helping one of the core missions of the institution: teaching and learning. However, faculty themselves are often stretched to the limit with their own teaching and other responsibilities, too busy to attend or even to make time for a consultation.

It’s important to examine the culture of the institution toward teaching, and thus faculty development: more faculty will participate if they know that good teaching is truly valued. And what does “good teaching” even mean? There can be a divide between what some faculty (and administrators) view as good teaching, and what other faculty and faculty developers know to be effective teaching practices. If faculty or administrators see the teaching and learning center as out of touch with the institutional perspective on “good teaching”, then there is a real risk to critical pedagogy approaches, because tenure and academic freedom are often not extended to “staff” members working in the centers.

This is a reflection of a confusing power dynamic between faculty who teach full-time or as adjuncts in the disciplines and faculty developers who:

  1. Are not always faculty, may not have PhDs
  2. May have PhDs but are not tenure-track faculty (our situation)
  3. May have less secure jobs, less teaching experience, less prestige in the institution

How, then, are these less secure, less prestigious “staff” to be change agents within the institution and with faculty?

Prevalence of the Workshop a la Prevalence of the Lecture

What about faculty development itself? Can faculty development itself embody practice inspired by critical pedagogy? One of the largest issues we see is the prevalence of the workshop as the mode of faculty development. It is like the prevalence of the lecture as a mode of “delivering” content to learners. Lee has previously called for unconference-style faculty development. Maha, inspired by this, has tried unconference-style faculty community meetings. But, again, institutional and professional expectations often dictate that the workshop model remain predominant even when it is not the most appropriate choice. This leads to a complicated balance between what faculty developers know works (see “Four Categories of Change Strategies for Transforming Undergraduate Instruction”) and what faculty and administrators expect. We are not suggesting that workshops necessarily use poor pedagogy; just that they, in all their diversity, should not be the prominent form of faculty development, with one or two experts as facilitators. Even conferences about education need to become more pedagogical. Maha recently challenged a very conservative conference at Cairo University by leaving the stage and walking amongst the audience with the wireless mic doing a participatory “presentation”.

Faculty Resistance: Legitimate?

The mere existence of faculty developers can make faculty self-conscious about their own practice. This may be a good thing if it raises awareness of good pedagogy and encourages teachers to improve their practice, but can be problematic if it shakes a teacher’s confidence or makes them feel incompetent. For example, many centers encourage integration of technology into teaching. This pressures faculty who are not tech savvy to try this out, often unsuccessfully, without clear pedagogical purpose. Faculty begin to hear buzzwords like “flipped classrooms” and “blended learning”, and want to try them out even when it does not make sense for their context or their teaching philosophy or their own readiness.

Also, successful faculty can resent the idea that they are not “good teachers” or that they need to modify their teaching, despite a long career and tenure. Faculty can find it difficult to look inward; it is much easier to blame “students these days” for being unsuccessful in their classrooms. We don’t wish to encourage a deficit model of thinking about students, but nor do we want to take on a deficit mindset when thinking about faculty.

Faculty, through the long training process that is graduate school and the tenure track, have been acculturated to “doing it all” by themselves. One reason why confidentiality is so important in faculty development is that faculty are often made to feel, either implicitly or explicitly, like a kind of failure if they seek help with any matters, be it writing, research, or, in our case, teaching.

Space to Promote Critical Pedagogy?

At a recent workshop Lee offered on digital pedagogy, she was asked what the difference was between her understanding of digital pedagogy and critical pedagogy, because they seemed very similar. Lee answered, “Very little, but how many of you would have come to a session called ‘critical pedagogy’?” Not one person raised their hand (save the one asking the question). We are stuck in cultures around learning that are not conducive to critical pedagogy, something many faculty are unaware of, and some even actively resist this approach to learning. As instructors we each have some control over our respective classrooms; but as faculty developers, it becomes a much more complex and complicated process to affect change. That’s why it can be more powerful — the impact is felt beyond a handful of classes and can help change the institution itself, if we can create the needed space for it.

Keeping the Conversation Going

There’s much more to explore and talk about together, so we will be hosting a series on critical faculty development on Instructure’s Keep Learning blog. We feel that’s a great place for teachers who recognize that they are also lifelong learners, and we feel that readers in that space will be interested in conversations around faculty development.

Here are some of the topics we’ll be exploring. We are also open to suggestions, questions, and other conversations around faculty development.

  • Alternative approaches to faculty development beyond the workshop format
  • Rethinking outcomes, assessment and rubrics
  • Faculty development as advocacy within the institution and beyond it
  • Relationships between faculty and faculty developers
  • Institutional commitment to teaching

We will be looking to curate posts that highlight the most interesting and provocative work that has come out around faculty development and instructional design; and we invite other faculty developers to contact us if interested in authoring or co-authoring pieces on similar topics, or even faculty who wish to share their thoughts on faculty development.

We will also be launching a regular Twitter chat using the hashtag #facdevchat, with the first Twitter chat scheduled for the beginning of the new academic year. Please feel free to start using the hashtag to suggest topics, and to give us suggestions in the comments here and on Keep Learning.

Who knows what else can come out of this? A community of critical faculty developers who do MOOCs together, create our own conferences for developing faculty developers? What would you (as a faculty member or faculty developer) like to see?

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4 Responses

  1. Pingback : Critical Faculty Development: 5 Steps to Foster Better Course Redesign - Keep Learning

  2. Pingback : Institutional Constraints on Critical Faculty Development: a #facdevchat Discussion - Keep Learning

  3. I am on my department’s faculty development committee. We will meet for the first time this semester on Friday, the last day of fall semester. I am not blaming a soul. This is a classic issue in higher education–isolation and alienation and lipservice paid to the craft of teaching. If you add to that how universities have sucked dry the well of good will and you might just get the idea that nobody cares about the quality of teaching. People do care, We care in our department. We just don’t have the institutional structures and have not done the capacity building needed to design new structures. We have scheduled a half an hour to talk. What on earth can we do in that half an hour that could help us build facdev capacity? I am creating an annotated set of bookmarks with local and outside facdev resources (hybridpedagogy and Keep Learning are both included), but those are for faculty to consult elsewhere and elsewhen. WTF can I do in that half an hour tomorrow?


    Dazed in Kentucky

    1. Gosh Terry, that’s just…awful.

      If it makes you feel better, my univ does not have a fac dev committee, just our Center for Learning and Teaching. And if it makes you feel worse, all kinds of meetings that last 60-90 mins are often not very productive, so…?

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