Cultivating Your Professional Identity: Supporting Faculty Professional Development across Rank and Discipline

Portland State University’s signature general education program, University Studies (UNST), piloted a faculty support series titled “Cultivating Your Professional Identity” (CYPI) during the 2017–18 academic year. The series intended to provide space and collegial support for faculty across institutional ranks and departmental affiliations to hone their professional aspirations, intentionally pursue formative professional development opportunities, and curate and communicate their professional identities through the creation of an ePortfolio. Faculty applied to participate in the yearlong program; engaged in large-group, small-group, and one-on-one meetings with other participants and with program cofacilitators; and reflected throughout the year on their experience. The program emerged from the rearticulation of UNST’s vision and mission statement, created through a collaborative process during the preceding academic year:

Challenging us to think holistically, care deeply, and engage courageously in imagining and co-creating a just world, University Studies’ inclusive pedagogy provokes students to build self-efficacy through relational learning across difference; encourages a community of educators to practice engaged teaching for transformative learning; and advances civic engagement, reflective practice, and the scholarship of teaching and learning.

Inspired by this animating vision and mission to work collaboratively as faculty against prevailing notions of academic individualism, and to engage in and promote reflection on our own roles as academic practitioners, five members of the UNST faculty support team (the three authors of this article, along with two colleagues) developed the guiding ethos, objectives, and approaches to CYPI and cofacilitated the program. On behalf of this facilitation team, we share our experiences, insights, and takeaways below.

Cultivating Connection

As members of UNST’s faculty support team, we recognized our faculty members’ deep desire for robust faculty support initiatives that could speak not only to their continually evolving needs as engaged instructors, but also to their interest in developing a holistic sense of their work as academic professionals. Since the establishment of UNST twenty-five years ago, and through both intentional action and coincidental factors, the program has developed a highly relational culture marked by a productive collegiality both within and outside the classroom. In fact, to honor the experience and wisdom of faculty as the agents of their own ongoing growth and continuous formation, we have intentionally chosen to reframe “faculty development” as “faculty support,” reflecting the foundational ethos of UNST: we are all in this together, learning with and from each other in fully relational ways.

The faculty who teach University Studies courses represent adjunct, full-time teaching, and tenure-related faculty from a wide array of academic disciplines on campus. Wanting to involve a diverse and inclusive group of faculty participants in CYPI, we sought to operationalize our reframing of professional development by asking faculty to set the agenda for their own professional work. For many of our non-tenure-related faculty, in particular, we suspected that CYPI would provide an opportunity to claim and incorporate modes of professional engagement (including, for example, community-engaged work and creative endeavors) that might exist beyond traditional academic boundaries and, thus, be rendered professionally invisible within the institution. At the same time, many of our tenure-related colleagues (including tenured faculty and those on the tenure line) were experiencing pressure to produce scholarship within their fields while juggling the demands of the dynamic general education teaching environment. The task of making sense (to themselves and to their reviewers) of their professional identities in an integrated way posed a different set of challenges to own and frame a narrative that reflected their complex commitments to both their fields and their students.

With CYPI, we intended to serve all of these faculty through a sustained initiative in ways that disrupted notions of academic individualism, envisioning an environment where faculty work collaboratively to share ideas and resources across ranks and departments. We started developing the program by identifying three primary process- and outcome-oriented objectives. Faculty participants would (1) identify and articulate their professional agenda and intentionally participate in activities that further that agenda; (2) document their professional efforts, accomplishments, and aspirations; and (3) share their work with colleagues and other interested parties via group interactions and public presentations. Through these means and to these ends, we identified a variety of resources that faculty could choose to access, both on campus and beyond, and created opportunities for faculty to reflect on their work both collectively and individually.

Over a number of planning meetings, the structure and design of the program took shape. In our call for participants, shared widely through numerous communication channels, we outlined that faculty would be required to engage in the following ways:

Attend and participate in four ninety-minute whole-group meetings over the academic year. To avoid conflicts with teaching schedules, the meetings took place on Fridays at times that accommodated the full group. We conducted scheduling polls to determine common availability among participants.

Engage in two professional support activities per term. In the initial call, we noted that these activities included, but were not limited to, participating in other faculty support events either on or off campus, inviting a classroom observation and engaging in reflection on the feedback from the observation, intentionally documenting and reflecting on an aspect of the faculty member’s teaching, attending a conference related to the faculty member’s interests or field, and identifying and reading materials to support the faculty member’s professional development.

Meet one-on-one with at least one of the program facilitators each term, with the expectation that the participant would meet with at least three different facilitators over the course of the year.

Communicate with a cohort colleague for mutual support and feedback. These “buddies” were assigned randomly at first. Participants were asked to schedule at least one phone or in-person sharing session between each whole-group meeting.

Develop a professional, public-facing ePortfolio. Participants were free to choose the platform they preferred; most developed their ePortfolios using PebblePad, Portland State’s institutional ePortfolio platform.

Present insights and artifacts at an end-of-year faculty gathering. This celebration of the academic year includes faculty and administrators from all levels of UNST.

As we developed the program, we were mindful of faculty members’ varied and extensive commitments, hoping to create an initiative that would enhance rather than limit their ability to participate in other activities. We also wanted to recognize and honor participants’ time and effort in a material way. With the support of UNST’s executive director, we were able to secure a small stipend for each faculty member who completed the program.

As noted above, we sought to bring together a representative mix of faculty teaching across different levels of the program, disciplinary frames, and academic ranks. Since we were especially interested in including faculty who had not participated in faculty support efforts in the past, we publicized the initiative through several channels and announced it at the end of the prior academic year. In all, thirteen faculty were accepted into the program, with participants reflecting a variety of ranks and disciplines. Four of the participating faculty were adjunct instructors, seven were full-time non-tenure-track faculty, and two were in tenure-related positions. Of these original thirteen, one tenure-track faculty member left the group at the end of the fall term because of competing departmental pressures and college-level commitments. The remaining twelve participants completed the program.

Findings

At the end of the spring term, after completing the program components outlined above, participants were invited to engage in a short (twenty-to-thirty-minute) in-person or phone conversation with one of the facilitators to share their takeaways and suggestions for the future. Nine of the twelve participants (75 percent) chose to engage in this final reflection. Participants described the deep benefits they experienced from the program and the ways these benefits extended through many aspects of their work.

Participants identified how the program assisted them in deeply examining the breadth and depth of their scholarly practice and how this deep reflective appreciation for their expertise contributed to greater confidence and a sense of professional purpose. This increased confidence led several participants to start writing for scholarly publications, including the recently released special volume of the Journal of General Education dedicated to Portland State’s UNST program (Carpenter and Hamington 2018). In fact, of the twelve participants in the group, seven (58 percent) proposed articles for the journal (along with all five of the cofacilitators). Others drafted articles for additional journals and, for the first time, proposed and presented conference sessions in both higher education and the community-engaged fields in which they operate.

In addition, comments about ways in which participants see themselves differently—and the power they experienced in crafting a personal statement of professional identity—reflected the theme of professional confidence and purpose. Many participants, particularly the adjuncts, who were teaching in multiple places or engaged in varied forms of work across multiple contexts, experienced elements of their careers as distinctly separate from one another. The broad invitation to focus on professional identity, which can encompass but need not solely focus on promotion, allowed space for participants to name connections and practice integration among seemingly disparate elements of their professional careers.

Participants expressed great appreciation for the “buddy” aspect of the program. These pairings were tremendously fruitful, all told, with many duos going far beyond the expected one meeting per term to create solid collegial relationships that have continued beyond the end of the program year. When identifying the benefits of the buddies, participants talked about collaborating, feeling less isolation, and meeting with people they otherwise were unlikely to encounter. A key aspect of the beginning of the buddy process was a random assignment of initial buddies. This meant that participants were paired across rank, status, and department. The facilitators were not sure whether participants would express a preference for being linked with someone professionally similar to themselves, but none of the participants expressed that in the feedback.

When thinking about the structure of the program, a large number of the respondents noted that the required nature of program elements was helpful. Some mentioned that they would not have created an electronic portfolio if it had not been required. One talked about “forced professional development” but indicated how helpful it was to be required to participate in two professional development activities per term and how, because of the program, these professional development activities felt necessary and meaningful, rather than a luxury that could easily be skipped or cut out of a schedule. Another participant, noting that they “had to” participate in something each term and had received a list of suggested on- and off-campus activities, reported feeling encouraged to experience forms of professional development that were new to her. Interestingly, even though the program required participants to meet at least once each term with at least one of the cofacilitators, several participants expressed reluctance to request these meetings, saying they did not want to ask for the time of colleagues they perceive to be overly busy.

Takeaways

We find it interesting that each element of the program was called out by some participants as distinctly helpful and by others as distinctly less helpful, suggesting the importance of creating sufficiently diverse approaches in faculty support programming that meet the needs of all participants. For example, while many people appreciated the end-of-term reflections we asked them to submit, at least one person thought there was too much reflection. Almost all participants appreciated the buddies, but a few pairings were not successful, for scheduling or other reasons. Some duos changed from term to term, and others decided to remain paired over the course of the year; each of those approaches was viewed as helpful. The large group meetings largely felt useful to the participants, but there were a number of suggestions to make them more effective. Several people were happy to finally have a professional online presence through the ePortfolio, and at least one person would have liked the option to continue to use a paper portfolio. Thus, while each element of the program likely can be improved, this set of feedback indicates that each element of the program felt useful to a majority of participants, though not all elements seemed equally productive or useful to all.

Participants overwhelmingly articulated a desire to see the program continue and to include, if possible, a way for program “graduates” to engage in a second-level cohort or to serve in leadership roles in CYPI and in UNST more generally. (Several participants have, in fact, assumed both formal and informal leadership roles in UNST following their completion of CYPI.) Participants offered ideas for improvements to the program, including a desire for more large-group gatherings. Many participants wished they had started building their ePortfolio from the beginning and suggested work sessions at the end of each large-group meeting to support a more scaffolded approach to building the ePortfolio. (Toward the end of the program, one of the facilitators scheduled ePortfolio workshop sessions, which about half of the participants attended.) Several participants also suggested a mini-workshop format for the large meeting, tapping into facilitator and participant expertise.

As the cofacilitators reflected on these follow-up conversations, we discussed ideas and potential challenges for moving forward. If the program moves forward, we know organizers must determine a stipend structure that both reflects the current budgetary challenges at the university and rewards full participation and completion of the program. While UNST will retain a commitment to include faculty across ranks, the organizers also perceive the relative inequity in benefits available to non-tenure-related faculty, especially adjuncts, and the challenges in rewarding their participation in faculty support efforts because of structural issues related to the collective-bargaining agreements.

Another consideration is the name of the program. One participant suggested changing the name so that it is more attractive on CVs. While “Cultivating Your Professional Identity” is descriptive and very clear relative to the purpose of the program, we may want to develop another name to ensure the program serves as a marker of professional development in a way that is legible within the academy.

The organizers were surprised, as related above, that participants were hesitant to ask facilitators to share time outside the group meetings. This seems to reflect the culture of scarcity that permeates the university, a culture that UNST intentionally tries to disrupt. Should we offer this program again, the organizers will work more directly to name this dynamic and embed strategies for participants to get the full range of collegial support to which they are entitled.

Finally, it is worth noting that the program affected the facilitators in important ways as well, indicating a truly relational process. In fact, envious of the opportunity that CYPI participants were enjoying, nine members of the UNST faculty support team (including the authors) decided to form a group we called “Cultivating Our Professional Identity” (COPI), which organically became a space in which we engaged in mutual support, encouragement, and peer coaching once a month. As a result of this development, one participant (a CYPI cofacilitator) wrote a successful Fulbright application and spent a sabbatical in Japan on that project, another dedicated herself to the writing and revision of a memoir, and a third decided to request a promotion and has just submitted her portfolio. In these turbulent times in institutions of higher education and in the larger world, we have experienced both the power of collaborative action and collegial support, and a deep sense of gratitude for it. That, to our hearts and minds, is one way we might—as our mission statement urges—“think holistically, care deeply, and engage courageously,” for the good of us all. 

 

Reference

Carpenter, Rowanna L., and Maurice Hamington, eds. 2018. Special volume, Journal of General Education 67 (1–2, 3–4).

 


Rowanna L. Carpenter, Director of Assessment and Research in University Studies; Annie Knepler, Assistant Professor and Writing Coordinator in University Studies; and Vicki Reitenauer, Assistant Professor in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department and Faculty Support Coordinator in University Studies—all of Portland State University

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