II. Learning and Success

The Future of Faculty Development and Developing the Faculty of the Future

Dr. Ted Mitchell and Mr. Scott Durand

We come from an unapologetic stance: research consistently demonstrates that positive student outcomes, whether graduation rates, satisfaction rates, or personal growth measures, are highly dependent upon the quality of teaching and the quality of interactions between faculty and students. This has probably been true since Socrates and the olive tree, but with so much in flux in higher education, we believe that any focus on the future must include a recommitment to assuring the quality of teaching and faculty/student engagement.

We look at four domains in which the faculty of today and tomorrow must excel:

1) Incorporating technology in teaching and class management

2) Crafting and practicing pedagogies that reach a student population that is increasingly diverse in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, gender identity, and educational background.

3) Deliberate engagement of undergraduate students in research and graduate  students in the skills required to be a great teacher

4) Advising, which includes awareness of students’ mental health challenges as well as the creation of support systems and pathways to academic success.

Certainly, this is a full plate for faculty, yet these encompass what we believe to be the composite of the roles we need faculty to master in order to serve today’s and tomorrow’s students.

Our chapter will explore each of these topics in turn and then suggest alternative ways for institutions to help faculty develop these skills and be recognized for their effort.

Today’s faculty have been stretched and challenged in ways they probably never imagined when they first entered the classroom. If, ten years ago, you asked any higher education leader to define the biggest issue facing faculty, they likely would have told you it was the learning curve that came alongside the rise of online education and the (now ubiquitous) use of ed-tech in classrooms.

None of us could have envisioned, though, what the last three years would bring, nor the “fuel to flame” effect the pandemic would have on the existing issues within higher education. (Some might have stronger language to describe these years!) It’s quite clear now that technology and modality are not, and never were, the deciding factors. Those things are and will always be mere footnotes in the shadow of our real thesis: improving lives through education. That should always be our north star. But lately, that north star has been obscured a little by clouds of doubt.

With more prospective students asking, “Is a degree really what I want?” college leaders and faculty are challenged to reimagine the role of the institution altogether. What is the purpose of higher education? Whom does it serve and how? What can institutions do to ensure that higher education has a democratizing—and not a jeopardizing—effect on peoples’ lives? What shape and size of higher education works best for whom, and what does that mean for institutions and our “business as usual”?

We resist the urge to look at these questions and surmise that we’re in an unsolvable existential crisis. Instead, the most visionary thinkers—many whose essays are contained within this book—are welcoming these questions for the opportunity they afford us all to do better by our students. Now is the perfect moment to discard what doesn’t work so well, while distilling and scaling the undeniably affirmative attributes of higher education so that our value and the value of the credentials that institutions provide are irrefutable—timeless, even. In short, we all know we’ve got a good thing here that’s worth preserving and fighting for. But we’ve got some work to do to get our sh** together.

This change is infinitely achievable because of the optimism and vision of so many college presidents and the resilience and tenacity of the faculty members under their watch. However, it requires us all to opt into a far greater self-awareness as a sector. Because, frankly, there are things we’ve accepted as truths that maybe aren’t so true after all. Some are a little bit wrong, and others are downright nonsense.

Among the norms we’ve accepted as a sector, none are quite so baffling as the myth of the natural-born teacher. Many are called to teach, but no one is born an excellent educator. This myth creates needless anxiety and insecurity among higher education professionals. It degrades the profession by supposing that (1) educators don’t need—or worse still, aren’t worthy of—ongoing, competency-based education (anyone who needs it must be a lousy teacher, right?), and (2) that our field of knowledge isn’t evolving with the world around us. The latter helps to perpetuate a stereotype that the college campus is a time warp, devoid of innovation and relevance.

Imagine for a moment that we had this “natural-born” expectation of doctors and nurses—that their textbook knowledge of medicine alone would carry them through their first shift working with real patients. “Hi, I’m Dr. Durand and I was born to be a doctor. I know everything about anatomy, so I’ll be opening you up today for surgery.” Or “Hi, I’m Nurse Mitchell. I learned how to deliver babies thirty years ago. Let’s do this!”

It’s equally silly to expect this kind of stagnancy of faculty members, yet it’s long been the status quo. In 2023, many, if not most, faculty members have had little to no training in the craft of teaching. To date, fewer than one in ten institutions have a reward structure that prioritizes research over teaching in terms of tenure, promotions, and so on, yet graduate programs spend vast amounts of time with students on the ins and outs of conducting research, and little to no time with students on how to teach.

And while teaching is certainly a craft, it is without a doubt also a science. We have an extraordinary amount of evidence supporting what works, and that body of knowledge continues to grow as we work with more institutions to promote efficacious and smart teaching, and as we measure the impact of pedagogical upskilling on real classrooms and students.

Yet the science of learning has gone largely untapped by our profession; it’s not an expectation we have for higher education faculty. The “learning how to teach” void has caused many undeniable subject-matter experts to have to rely on their own scrappiness to refine their pedagogical practice. They do so through trial and error and self-teaching. Let’s be honest—many are downright burned out and lack the time for it. Their workday is a shrinking commodity.

Faculty are juggling expanding responsibilities in areas that were not previously such a prominent part of the gig—mentorship, expectations of nearly constant digital communication, and so on. These activities now constitute a greater part of the faculty workload. Even if time were abundant, are we really comfortable leaving pedagogical efficacy to chance at a time when student outcomes matter so very much? We wouldn’t accept those odds anywhere else, would we?

Doing away with the myth of the natural-born teacher requires higher education leaders to acknowledge their duty of care to students and the teaching profession. They can readily do that by ensuring that their faculty members have had every opportunity to refine their pedagogical approaches and understanding of current issues facing students. Those issues are a not-insignificant part of the zeitgeist on campuses nationwide. (An eye-watering amount of the faculty workday now is spent responding to non-academic student needs. In one study 21 percent of faculty said maintaining constant communications with students outside of class time was the single most challenging part of their job.)

Today’s students are facing a host of challenges, many of which—like economic standing and job prospects—mirror the challenges facing the public. Others are unique to or even created by higher education. Arriving at college or university, for so many, has required herculean effort, with academic achievement arguably among the “easiest” parts of the journey. What comes next is also a massive source of stress for current students. Mental health crises among students are at an all-time high, confounding institutional leadership and often requiring faculty to take on the dual roles of educator and counselor. For many students, there is still a feeling of being an outsider on campus—the work to create spaces of belonging is pressing. This is increasingly true as student bodies now include many more people who are first-generation, returning learners, and new-traditional students. Critically, the cost of higher education remains a barrier for so many.

With these factors in play, every moment of instruction counts, and there’s little room for mishaps, yet mishaps seem to happen daily. The faculty member is paramount to student success. At the end of the day, faculty members spend more time with students than anyone else. A single educator impacts more than 100 students, on average, in a year. There is no interaction so vital to the existence of higher education than that between the educator and the student. It’s true online and it’s true in-person. And in the paradigm of a workforce in which people everywhere are asserting a right to learn on the job, higher education has a fantastic opportunity to lead by example. In short, educators are not immune from a need to grow and learn, and they deserve the opportunity to thrive on the job.

When leaders make this investment, they give faculty members a vote of confidence. “We believe in you. We are investing in your today and your tomorrow. And we entrust you with the success of our students.” When they do so, they offer students a quality educational experience, taught by people whose ability to relate and inspire matches their passion for their subject. The net result of all of this, we should have no guilt about asserting, is institutional success. We know this because the data prove it. Well-trained educators do boost retention. They do boost achievement. And the long-term gains for their students are astonishing. When taught well, a graduate is 1.9 times more likely to be engaged at work and lead a fulfilling life. This is unsurprising to anyone who has ever been in a fabulous teacher’s classroom. If we all know the value of excellent teaching, why don’t we (wait for it) . . . scale it! The good news is that we can. We are!

What must the faculty member of today—and indeed tomorrow—know and what skills must they possess in order to excel? What do they need to know to be an exceptional teacher? Because they sure aren’t going to get it through osmosis, and now is not the time to leave this to chance.

The three items that follow are, as we see it, the “durable skills” of our profession that will stand the test of time. These skills will help educators and institutions thrive despite turbulence. Most importantly, faculty members who possess these skills can do their part to ensure that higher education remains one of the best investments a person can make.

They are:

1.         Awareness, Empathy, and Relational Mastery

The faculty of tomorrow will have a finger on the pulse of the evolving complexities facing students and be able to extend true empathy. They will be able to confidently explain how the educational experiences they deliver are relevant to what will happen after graduation, such that students feel compelled to stay enrolled. (Explaining the applicability of course material can’t be overstated. I promise you that only a few exceptionally gifted theater majors are staying awake in an advanced math class unless it’s for good reason!)

Faculty will be aware of the external pressures that make the college experience both a time of opportunity, but for many—particularly those from backgrounds that have long been underrepresented on campuses and in workplaces—of stress and anxiety. This awareness work is deeply connected to race, sexual and gender identity, political beliefs, and religion. It’s sensitive stuff, and that’s precisely why—let’s be honest—many have tended to shy away from it. To gain this awareness, faculty will need to work to uncover their own—often unconscious—biases, with the understanding that how they engage students is as important as what they are teaching. We all think we’re unbiased, but it’s not quite so simple when we start to dig a little deeper, is it?

Tomorrow’s faculty will be able to craft and practice culturally responsive pedagogies that reach a diverse student population. They’ll do this in large part because they will understand the value diversity offers to the teaching and learning environment. Appreciation of diversity creates space for belonging and ultimately yields richer educational experiences, more meaningful discussions, more relevant student contributions, and a greater chance of positive outcomes. There is no getting around it, and anyone who doesn’t “get” this in 2023 probably isn’t cut out for the job.

The faculty of tomorrow will possess a relational mastery that allows them to be compassionate in dealings with students, while establishing firm and healthy boundaries and maintaining a high bar for success. These boundaries are critical to both student and faculty well-being (read—to preventing burnout), but also to maintaining academic rigor. Faculty connections with students will be rooted in trust and transparency. That’s no easy task when plagiarism is a reality, but building a trusting relationship is the first step, isn’t it? What’s true elsewhere in life can be true in the classroom if we take the time to build it.

Creating and extending support systems to students—especially for the most vulnerable and challenged students among the population—will be critical. Because just like appreciating diversity, there is nothing trite or overly lenient about giving students every opportunity, and the spaces they need, to do well.

Yet to do these things requires something that’s often hard for educators. It requires a relative loosening of the power dynamics that have long governed student-faculty relationships. It requires faculty to work toward outcomes that matter to students—beyond a passing grade and in favor of a more holistic view of student well-being.

 

2.         Commitment to Student and Purpose

The faculty member of the future will be a savvy operator who understands the value of each interaction with each student—of each lesson and discussion question. A commitment to their success as a person will trump academic success. This can be another tough pill to swallow.

Committing to the “whole student” will necessitate faculty stepping into the role of helping students navigate higher education, as well as professional and life transitions. The latter is now—and will increasingly be—a vital responsibility of every educator. Career-focused work will be fueled by a sense of purpose and a commitment to delivering valuable learning experiences that go beyond the textbook and well beyond the degree. There will be life-relevance at every turn. We ignore this at our peril!

The faculty of the future will discard the “sage on the stage” model that we’ve all scrutinized for decades, and embrace student-centered teaching. They will teach to the student’s level and needs, rather than delivering pre-packaged lessons.

Faculty will give students the opportunity to learn by doing, helping to connect them to internships, co-ops, apprenticeships, and beyond. Those experiences won’t be added extras; they’ll be carried out in tandem with classroom learning—accelerating and reinforcing what’s learned in the classroom. Seriously—are there any among us who don’t learn better by doing?

As part of this deeper learning-to-earning connection, faculty will expect students to create a plan for achieving their career goals. Those teaching graduate students will spend as much time on the science of good teaching as they do teaching students how to research. This will help reinforce our higher education “circle of life.”

Faculty will give students opportunities to problem-solve in ways that mirror what happens in a workplace, while sharpening their teamwork and communication skills through project-based and work-based learning. Courses will be connected to portable, digital credentials signaling that the skills learned in the context of higher education do translate to something employers want and need. Before anyone panics, this is not to say the degree isn’t important—it’s us holding up our hands and saying we can do more and we can do better by our students when we deconstruct their learning experiences in ways that help them most on the job.

It’s often true that a student’s relationship with a faculty member is the first professional relationship they have experienced. With that understanding, faculty will mirror the professional attributes their students need to build. They will give students experiences that allow them to build social capital. They’ll do this by extending networking opportunities, as well as structured mentorship and visits to prospective employers or well-connected alumni.

 

3.         Technological Agility

Any piece of technology or pedagogical approach can be learned at a point in time. However, agility—the ability to move and grasp things quickly—must be continually practiced and honed. An agility mind-set will be the hallmark of an excellent educator. A savvy understanding of how to deploy technology to deliver excellent learning experiences will be an undeniably valuable part of this skill set.

As for the specific tech? It doesn’t really matter. Tomorrow’s faculty will be versed in the ins and outs of an impressive tech stack. Yet that technology will evolve frequently, meaning that being wedded to any one tool or another could, in fact, be a hindrance.

The most important skill in this area will be the ability to change gears quickly. Faculty will be comfortable conducting research with open-source tools and using the tools at their disposal to cobble together teaching moments and lessons, while also being willing to learn alongside their students. (Again, no more “sage on the stage.”) The faculty of the future will handily navigate a changing digital landscape and will be comfortable with a great deal of unknowns as the tech evolves. A hybrid approach will increasingly be the norm, meaning that the management of multiple modalities must be well within the comfort zone.

A fluency with data analysis will be a key component of the agility skill set. Faculty must understand data not only as a means of tracking student progress but also of identifying areas where students are struggling, and using it to inform decisions about course design and instruction.

There is and will be little room for faculty to fear technology. The time of wondering, “Will I be replaced by AI?” should be long gone, as educators realize the value they will always be able to bring to students as skilled navigators and operators of technologically powered learning experiences. As AI and machine learning become more prevalent, institutions and educators will need to understand how to use them to create immersive learning experiences that reach more people.

Ahead to a More Powerful Higher Education

At a time when faculty are being called to do more with less—when burnout among faculty is rampant and more people are questioning their call to join the ranks of higher education—it seems counterintuitive to share a list of things faculty “should do.” Is it an unrealistic expectation that faculty will hone these skills? Are we merely adding more to an over-full plate?

A culture of learning and commitment to pedagogical upskilling among faculty isn’t just a far-out aspiration. There are many within higher education who are already doing this work. The data validate their ability to reach and influence students, compared to those who have had no such training. We see consistently that taking the time to refine one’s teaching practice is a worthwhile pursuit. We know from decades of experience and research that working toward better teaching helps faculty members be more purposeful in each interaction with students. It gives them the power to be more efficient with their precious time, more effective in delivering their subject matter, and more intentional in driving course-wide outcomes.

This isn’t hard, my friends. It’s intuitive. We should all want more empathetic, aware, committed, agile, and tech-savvy educators reaching the next generations of college students. The impressions they leave will be long-lasting. The impacts of it will be felt long after we’re retired.

A highly skilled faculty turbocharges an institutional reputation. It means educators have the capabilities to evolve and thrive, withstanding whatever changes—whether exciting or downright scary—are ahead for our sector. But most importantly, it ensures that the democratizing power of higher education on peoples’ lives is beyond reproach. We can’t think of a more important place to focus in 2023.


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The Future of Faculty Development and Developing the Faculty of the Future Copyright © 2024 by Dr. Ted Mitchell and Mr. Scott Durand is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.