The Faculty Development Metagame

One of the things I most enjoy about faculty development – consulting with faculty about their teaching and professional development – is what I have begun to think of as the “faculty development metagame.”  It’s not really a game but it’s so enjoyable that I’m reluctant to give up the word for one that is, strictly speaking, more accurate.

The metagame goes like this: In my interactions with faculty, particularly more formal and planned ones such as workshops, I usually have to find ways to explicitly model and use whatever I am discussing or presenting to form the basis of the interaction itself.  In the broadest sense, that means that I can’t continue to champion “active learning,” “student engagement,” and other ideas that are built on the idea that people learn best when they practice and receive feedback if I don’t actively model and practice those ideas myself.  In other words, I can’t tell faculty that lectures are usually a terrible way to teach students by lecturing those faculty.

In a more specific sense, this means trying to find ways to model and use the specific techniques, tools, or whatever is the topic of discussion as the framework for the interaction. The topic of discussion is used to create the discussion itself e.g., a discussion about collaborative tools takes place using tools such as Google Docs and Twitter, a workshop about flipping the classroom requires participants to have watched videos and done other preliminary work prior to the workshop (and of course some will not have done so so they – like students in their classroom – will have to figure out what to do about the group members who aren’t prepared!).  Of course, that means that the interaction will contain little actual discussion in the form of me lecturing and quite a bit of activity both on my part and on the part of the faculty with whom I am working.

I believe this metagame is necessary for at least three reasons:

  • Authenticity: My credibility is injured when I put forth ideas about teaching and learning that I do not myself practice or believe.
  • Efficiency: I am more efficient when I can save time by introducing and demonstrating something at the same time.  If I can get others involved at the same time then that’s even more time saved!
  • Effectiveness: I genuinely believe in the ideas, techniques, and tools that I try to pass along to my faculty.  Just as I believe that they will be more effective teaching their students if they use them, I believe that I am more effective teaching faculty if I use them, too.

Just as importantly, this metagame also makes faculty development very challenging and very fun!  It’s often difficult to figure out ways to employ the techniques and tools being presented in a particular consultation as the consultation itself, especially in ways that are genuine and not facile. Figuring out to meet that challenge makes my job much more interesting and fun.

Often it’s obvious when I’m modeling something and using it as the basis of a consultation or workshop.  But every once in a while I get to have a fun little moment at the end of the interaction where I tell my colleagues: “And that cool thing we’ve been talking about for the past hour? We’ve been doing it!” That makes it even more fun.

A brief example may be helpful: This fall I’ll be teaching a pedagogy class for graduate students and one specific technique they’ll learn is a technique called a “concept lesson.”  Two of the key elements of a concept lesson are a solid metaphor – not an example – for the idea on which you’re focusing and an actual example.  I will, of course, use a concept lesson to teach about concept lessons so I will need an appropriate metaphor and example.  I will teach a concept lesson about concept lessons; that is the metagame.

It’s not always possible to do play the metagame.  There are some tools or techniques that simply take too much time to play out or are so situation- or discipline-specific that they can’t be realistically employed in an artificial setting.  That can make them a tough sell and that’s when it’s incredibly helpful to have (a) others who have experience with it to provide examples and testimony, (b) video, or (c) other artifacts that make the idea real and concrete instead of just an abstract discussion.


Can All Faculty Really Conduct Research Related to Their Teaching?

Although I will focus on faculty and SoTL in this post, I think the same arguments could be applied in many different contexts where people are asked to perform rigorous social science research that is generalizable beyond their specific context. I will also be vague about the background events that have informed my thinking to avoid embarrassing any of the wonderful faculty with whom I have worked.

One of the ideas central to the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) is that faculty members are all capable of conducting research related to their teaching.  I’ve had some experiences in the past couple of years as I’ve consulted with university individual faculty members and groups of faculty members that have convinced me that this idea is misleadingly simplistic and wrong in some instances.   I haven’t yet convinced my colleagues and I’m not even sure these are original thoughts but I’ve begun to think of SoTL research as having three distinct levels with different outcomes and required skills.

I believe that all faculty are capable of performing research that is intended to enhance their own teaching.  When the research is focused solely on the work of an individual faculty member, he or she is the sole judge of the quality of that research. It may even be debatable if research not intended to be generalized is SoTL work or even research; I’m not very interested in that debate because this work is still incredibly valuable and important.

When faculty are interested in engaging in research related to their teaching with the hope that the research can be easily used by other faculty members, the situation becomes more complicated.  If the research is intended to be generalized primarily to courses taught by faculty in the same discipline, the standards that will likely be applied to the research are those inherent in the discipline and familiar to the faculty researcher.

But if the research is intended to be generalized beyond the faculty researcher’s discipline then the standards that will be used to judge it are much higher and are likely to come from outside his or her discipline.  Since learning is a social endeavor, the standards that should be applied are those from social science such as educational assessment and measurement.

Focus Evaluation standards
Individual faculty teaching Individual faculty researcher’s standards
Courses within the discipline Disciplinary standards
Courses across disciplines Social science standards

This is not a purely theoretical idea.  Nor is this a craven attempt to justify my education and experiences and ensure that faculty developers, assessment experts, and measurement researchers will continue to have jobs.    This has helped me understand why some of the faculty with whom I have worked have struggled to conduct research related to their teaching: they have tried to work on a level above their expertise, experience, and even vocabulary.  Since we were still operating under the belief that all faculty are capable of conducting all kinds of research related to their teaching, we were not providing them with all of the right kinds of support.

As a social scientist and an educational researcher, I believe that although all faculty can perform some research related to their teaching, only some faculty can perform research related to everyone’s teaching.  Although all faculty are capable of figuring out for themselves what is acceptable evidence, it takes more experience to understand discipline-wide standards and particular skills to understand standards that are acceptable across many (or all) disciplines.  So when we work with faculty – graduate teaching assistants, adjuncts, instructors, or tenure-track faculty – who want (or are being required) to conduct SoTL research, we must ensure that they have the skills and experience appropriate for the kind of research they are trying to conduct.  Otherwise they can become frustrated, overwhelmed, and distrusting of SoTL work altogether.