The LEAP Challenge Blog
It’s Not a Competition, It’s a Collaboration: Faculty Development Communities of Practice
In conversation with Mary Carney, Dallas Dolan, and Donna Seagle
In the midst of many things changing in today’s higher education landscape, it's good to find an upbeat and spontaneous professional development model. This one sprang from chance collaboration. Three faculty development leaders from three community colleges meet each other through AAC&U’s Roadmap Project. Each of them serves in a single-person faculty development shop at their respective college. They figure they can make a community of practice: instead of one person alone, they can form a team of three. It is a simple elegant idea. A couple of years later, their colleagueship is thriving, satisfying, and hopeful. I asked them how they did it and what they can offer. And indeed they have recommendations to share. –Susan Albertine
What gave you the idea to work together?
The idea to work together came from our meeting at AAC&U’s 2014 Annual Meeting. We felt an immediate sense of kinship, sharing the frustrations and joys of being a one-person faculty development department at our respective colleges. The three of us attended most of the same sessions on faculty development and began talking about how nice it was to have another faculty developer to talk with. We had lunch together on the last day of the meeting and talked for well over an hour—about our institutions, our faculty development efforts, the difficulties we were facing. At some point, we decided we’d like to stay in touch and exchanged e-mail addresses. While we often say “we should keep in touch” to many people at conferences, this time we actually did it! On February 17, 2014, we had our first meeting, via GoToMeeting. We met fifteen times in 2014 and had numerous e-mail exchanges.
Dallas and Mary were full-time directors of centers at each of their colleges. Donna was the chair of a faculty committee for professional development at her college, and had recently transitioned to a larger role and was in the midst of establishing a center, so Mary’s and Dallas’s experiences were invaluable. Mary had read Transformative Conversations: a Guide to Mentoring Communities Among Colleagues in Higher Education (Felten et al. 2013) and was hoping to form a group that offered perspectives and relationships beyond her institution. At our first long-distance meeting, it occurred to us that we might have our own "transformative" group together. While we read some selections from this text, our collaborative work has dealt with mostly pragmatic issues. Our community has depth and sustains us in our shared profession.
Like many leaders in faculty development, we came from the classroom and had some administrative experience. Learning this new field of professional education for faculty has been a challenge as there is little official training. We do, however, have helpful resources such as the POD (Professional and Organizational Development) Network program (podnetwork.org): International Institute for New Faculty Developers. But we were hungry for the social support of a smaller community of practice that would allow us to hold conversations regarding strategies for enhancing our centers and broader discussions of our professional aspirations and ideals.
What are the best things you accomplished?
In terms of day-to-day operations, it’s been invaluable to share ideas with others who are also managing professional development offices and making decisions about what programs to offer, how best to facilitate them, and how to find effective methods for assessing the work and implementing continuous improvement efforts. We respect each other and serve as knowledgeable sounding boards and advisers to each other. We share tools, resources, and experiences, and brainstorm to find the best practices to support teaching and learning. Working with colleagues at other colleges has further legitimized the work of professional development at our home institutions. In fact, Donna successfully advocated for an expansion of her center. Our discussions about office and meeting spaces were valuable as she expanded to a much larger faculty development center and redesigned professional development activities. Our collaboration has heightened our awareness of evidence-based practices and focused our agendas for faculty development.
Our association this past year has evolved based on our changing needs. Early on, Dallas mentioned that we were forming a community of practice. Coupling Wenger-Trayner’s work (2012) with the concept of a faculty learning community has helped us add dimensions to our conception of faculty communities and how they can be supported. We each bring what Wenger-Trayner identifies as “domain” knowledge and contribute to the pool of information and resources. We multiply the resources and knowledge around any question or program development. For instance, we each had materials on diversity and inclusive classrooms; however, Dallas’s long-standing program has provided foundational materials and approaches for Donna’s and Mary’s work to expand the effort at their institutions.
Our software skills have been enhanced in this partnership, mainly through the Donna’s contributions. We’ve learned much more about presentation software, including Prezi. As a result, we are creating more polished and effective materials. Donna has also shared her Library Subject Guides which have helped Donna and Dallas further develop their own materials.
Working with this group has enriched our understanding and appreciation of communities of practice, an important tool in faculty development. When you have hundreds of faculty who are full- and part-time and work on different schedules, it's impossible to offer a workshop at a time when all faculty might be able to attend. It's important, therefore, to create a network of communication and resources, fostering small communities of practice that support each other and that are connected to the programs and resources of the teaching and learning center. We have begun to practice the scholarship of teaching and learning in our community of practice. We have all become more intentional about promoting the scholarship of teaching and learning as a method of continuous improvement. Our community of practice supports and nurtures each of us professionally and encourages us to employ evidence-based practices for faculty development. We do better work than we could have without the group.
We have shared many resources with one another—sometimes casually, like “have you seen this college’s website? It’s got great materials on it,” sometimes in a more planned way. For example, Mary had a Magna Online video about evaluating faculty development, and we decided to view it together during our online collaboration sessions and to discuss it. We watched the program together (broken into three viewings) and stopped to discuss how these ideas fit with what we were doing in our centers. Our conception of assessment of faculty development was much clearer after those viewings and our discussions. We ended up sharing tools we were using or developing to assess outcomes of our programs.
We each strive to employ best practices in our centers, so it’s valuable to have ongoing conversations about topics related to faculty development, the scholarship of teaching and learning, and other resources that will provide well-founded approaches to supporting our faculty and our institutions to enhance academic excellence. Both through our emerging shared scholarship and our nut-and-bolts conversations, we have learned much from the perspectives that each of us have in terms of disciplinary training and administrative experience.
So much creativity grows out of work with a group like this! We set out to have discussions and share ideas, and along the way we presented our work at the AAC&U Annual Meeting in January 2015. This allowed us to meet face-to-face again and fueled new collaborative and creative goals.
What lessons might you share?
The crucial component is collaboration. We encourage others to share knowledge and resources in order to enhance their programs with the larger goal of student success through strong faculty development. I think we learn from one another in a range of ways, including the intellectual exchange of knowledge about the scholarship of teaching and learning, leveraging technology, day-to-day management, balancing work and home responsibilities, and developing our individual careers. We all share a passion for teaching and for student success.
*Follow the advice of Transformative Conversations: Guide to Mentoring Communities among Colleagues in Higher Education (Felten et al. 2013). For instance, choose a topic or a reading to discuss at each meeting. Give everyone a voice. Take time to develop trust and set ground rules for the privacy of shared information. Once you have developed trust, share both your failures and successes. Work together to strategize about how to build better faculty development across your institutions. This collaboration can be sustaining in times of change and high stress; it’s valuable to have an external professional community.
* Create opportunities and encourage those involved in faculty development to become a part of the organizations such as the POD Network that support this field. It takes time to learn the theories and practices, as well as how to be an administrator and run an office. Faculty members benefit from the opportunity to hold ongoing conversations with others who are involved in the same work, especially those who have made the transition from faculty to administration.
* Find conferences and meetings where you can have face-to-face meetings periodically. It's important to see each other in person if at all possible. And attending conferences and discussing sessions is a great way to get the most out of these professional development opportunities. These gatherings also provide an opportunity to network effectively.
* Find kindred souls who do the kind of work you are passionate about. Reach out to them intentionally, and invest in the relationship. It was important that our first lunch was at a conference where we could spend time getting to know one another before deciding to stay in touch. Then, nurture the group. Explore what you have in common, and what each of the members brings to the group. For example, in our group Mary is the keeper of the documents, and Donna is our technology guru. Dallas is the day-to-day logistics person, setting up meetings, sending reminders. Have a goal for the group, but be flexible and allow the needs of members to emerge. Ask for what you need, and share your work in the spirit of not reinventing the wheel.
* A small group of three or four is best for a community like this—even with three of us, scheduling our meetings has been a real challenge. Make meeting together a high priority—it’s easy to let something like this fall to the bottom of the priorities list.
* Be persistent. When the rush of daily life interferes with the scheduled meeting, be flexible, and be persistent in maintaining relationships. Sometimes meetings will have to be canceled at the last minute; it's worth rescheduling and keeping an eye on the long term goal. It takes time to build effective communities of practice, but the conversations become more rich and valuable over time as members develop their shared knowledge and relationship.
* Be generous; share your knowledge and materials. We are committed to seeing all of us succeed.
* Celebrate the triumphs! When Donna’s program got a wonderful new space, she took us on a tour via Skype to celebrate, because we could never accomplish alone what we can accomplish together.
* It's not a competition; it's a collaboration.
Mary Carney is the director of the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Leadership and associate professor of English at the University of North Georgia (Mary.Carney@ung.edu); Dallas Dolan is director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and professor in Social Sciences at the Community College of Baltimore County (email@example.com); and Donna Seagle is director of Instruction and Professional Development and associate professor of Psychology Chattanooga State Community College (Donna.Seagle@ChattanoogaState.edu).
Felten, P., H.L. Bauman, A. Kheriaty, and E.W. Taylor. 2013. Transformative Conversations: A Guide to Mentoring Communities Among Colleagues in Higher Education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Wenger-Trayner, Etienne, and Beverly Wenger-Trayner. 2012. “Communities of Practice: A Brief Introduction.” Retrieved April 21, 2015, from: http://wenger-trayner.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/06-Brief-introduction-to-communities-of-practice.pdf.