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What Do Faculty Development Centers Do?

By Annette Finley-Croswhite and David Simpson

As Old Dominion University's Center for Faculty Development marks its fourth anniversary on January 31, 2022, we thought this would be a good time to revisit what faculty development centers do.

Their sizes and scopes vary, but in general they strive to foster professional growth, improve instruction, enrich learning, promote scholarly work, and in a very real sense support faculty members as human beings with varying needs in the trajectories of faculty life. Ideally, these efforts enhance the lives of both teachers and students.

Our own Center for Faculty Development offers a sense of shared community grounded in academic excellence. Launched in January 2018 on the second floor of the new Education Building, the CFD provides comprehensive professional development opportunities for Old Dominion's instructional faculty at all levels and stages of their careers. Initiatives are designed to enhance the University's academic culture and support innovations in teaching, research and mentorship.

There are more than 1,200 faculty development centers in the nation, according to the POD Network, a Colorado-based educational development community. Some that figure in our state include units at the University of Virginia, George Mason, Virginia Tech, Virginia Commonwealth, ODU, James Madison, Radford, Norfolk State, Longwood, Virginia State, Marymount, Lynchburg, Virginia Wesleyan, Washington and Lee, Liberty, Hollins, Hampton, the University of Richmond, Roanoke College, and the College of William and Mary.

Such centers commonly:

  • Help instructors reflect on and strengthen their classroom skills
  • Promote innovative teaching approaches to ensure student success
  • Offer teaching observation opportunities
  • Evaluate course effectiveness
  • Hold workshops and seminars
  • Organize faculty writing groups
  • Encourage scholarly productivity
  • Recognize the specific needs of the scholar-teacher as well as those of the non-tenured instructor
  • Share resources and best practices
  • Produce grants that further an institution's mission and/or strategic plan
  • Develop workshops for new faculty
  • Create knowledge banks on the scholarship of teaching and learning
  • Seek to improve the quality of faculty life
  • Offer training in and support for online teaching

They may also:

  • Work with faculty fellows or faculty associates to advance the center's mission
  • Sponsor multiday or semester-long institutes or conferences on teaching and learning
  • Present teaching and mentoring awards
  • Engage in institutional research projects
  • Build learning communities and reading groups
  • Offer a consistent focus on healthy work/life balance

From a pedagogical perspective, faculty development centers are guided by the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), inquiry designed to inform teaching and improve learning. Often described as a lens on how learning happens, SoTL also involves analysis of student learning processes that can be disseminated at academic conferences and in peer-reviewed books and journals (Fenton, 2013).

Programming often emphasizes innovative teaching practices to ensure student success. These might include instruction on flipped classrooms, low-stakes writing, collaborative assignments, undergraduate research, global learning, contemplative pedagogy, problem-based learning, equitable grading, accessible course content, active learning, various assessment structures, and inclusive classrooms. It's also quite common for faculty development centers to host writing workshops to encourage scholarly publication.

Other offerings more specifically address the quality of faculty life and work/life balance. At James Madison University's Center for Faculty Innovation, programming this semester includes daylong workshops on pandemic scholarship and resilience, inclusive teaching, and contemplative practices for pandemic self-care, the latter offering instruction in breathing techniques and meditation. The theoretical underpinning is that colleges and universities will have healthy students only by investing in healthy faculty.

Faculty Development Centers come in all shapes and sizes. The JMU center, for example, has four directors, 13 faculty associates and two administrative staff members. Virginia Tech's Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning has a staff of seven with a varying number of faculty fellows, usually around five. Virginia Commonwealth University's Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence and Faculty Success has a team of five, while George Mason's Stearns Center for Teaching and Learning has a staff of 22. Confusion can arise because some centers combine teaching and learning with instructional design for online learning, or teaching and learning with a focus on diversity, where other centers concentrate on faculty success.

ODU's Center for Faculty Development currently has a staff of one director who continues to teach in the history department, one full-time educational program developer, and support from a technical writer who is primarily affiliated with the Center for Learning and Teaching. As a small unit we strive to collaborate with faculty and divisions across the campus to devise our unique programming. Our future is bright, however, as we evolve and work with more faculty and gain greater understanding of faculty needs.

To be successful, faculty development centers must adapt to change. A prime example came out of the massive upheaval triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, students and faculty across the United States scrambled as institutions pivoted to remote- and online-only instruction. Chaos in the world at large added uncertainty, stress and fear. Many learners suffered as money for food and rent dwindled. Teachers, too, felt the pressure, especially those with family responsibilities.

Faculty development centers met the moment, and impressively so. Switching from face-to-face to web conference delivery, they crafted workshops tailored to the new reality. They promoted ways to keep teachers in close contact with students and endorsed instructional methods and skill sets that could be deployed to ensure continued learning. Centers offered encouragement, urged self-care, and voiced problems faculty faced because of the pandemic.

At U.Va., for example, the Center for Teaching Excellence developed workshop themes such as teaching equitably during a crisis, transitioning community-engaged courses online, and building an authentic online classroom community. George Mason's Stearns Center for Teaching and Learning addressed topics like rethinking assessments and ensuring accessibility online.

Likewise, Old Dominion's Center for Faculty Development stepped up its support, creating workshops on pandemic pedagogy, flexible course syllabi and alternative assignments, offering insights on dealing with conflict in the classroom, and sharing relaxation techniques such as mindful breathing.

In collaboration with other units, the CFD presented programs such as the Women's Writing Forum, which was created in response to a reported decline in journal article submissions written solely by female scholars, and in light of special burdens shouldered by women during the pandemic. Collaboration with ITS led to a variety of workshops tied to using technology in online teaching.

Throughout the crisis, the CFD continued to keep faculty informed through weekly emails and a monthly e-newsletter, FacSheet. (Read more about the center's achievements in its 2020-2021 Annual Report.)

In 2019, faculty developers from around the state came together to form the Virginia Educational Development Collaborative. Loosely affiliated with the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, this statewide network for educational developers is designed to support professional growth, foster cross-institutional collaborations, promote equity, and aid in the advancement of pedagogical, scholarly and creative activities. The collaborative has also pooled resources for statewide workshops and for promoting greater diversity in faculty development. Currently a group of faculty developers in the collaborative, including ODU's Annette Finley-Croswhite, are engaged in a research project investigating the gender stereotyping and lack of diversity that are witnessed in faculty development.

One of the main problems characterizing faculty development today is that it is often perceived as administrative "housekeeping" with a gender dynamic associated with "women's work." Women more commonly direct and participate in faculty development. This fact is a national trend, but it is worth noting that 75% of participants at ODU CFD events and workshops are women.

The essence of faculty development, nevertheless, is aimed at student success. When colleges and universities invest in faculty development centers, they not only support teachers in their academic lives but promote better classroom experiences for students. Centers thus create, stimulate and nurture narrative ecologies, or the critical conversations, spaces, and ideas that shape academic life, especially those focused on enhancing student achievement.

As we move forward with ODU's Center for Faculty Development, we invite you to reflect on your relationship with the center. Please contact Director Annette Finley-Croswhite at acroswhi@odu.edu or cfd@odu.edu with any ideas, collaborations or innovations you might have to help us better meet faculty needs.

References:

Felten, P. (2013). Principles of Good Practice in SoTL. Teaching & Learning Inquiry: The ISSOTL Journal, 1(1), 121-125. https://doi.org/10.2979/teachlearninqu.1.1.121

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