Too New To Be Named

“A lot of kids just trying to waste time creatively, I guess” ~quoting Peter Buck prior to the description of “So. Central Rain” as a song too new to be named on David Letterman, 1983.

Last week I was among the faculty of the Institute for New Faculty Developers (#INFD2015), and I feel so fortunate that I got to meet, network, and converse with the people that I did over those five days. Once again, I somehow got in on a gig that expanded my network in ways I could have never imagined. Should I not have the funding to go to the POD Conference in San Francisco, I might make a road trip just to see these lovely people.

And I have to be honest, I’m not really sure I am the “typical” person chosen for this Institute. Even though I had the title “Faculty” I am very new to this network, this field, and this experience. What I learned connects to larger interests of mine, so I want to be very clear when I say: I’m so completely shocked that I was in charge of anyone’s learning. In charge of anything. A leader of any session. Much less three of them! Each and every day felt like my on-going research with The Impostor Syndrome. A state of being also known as my career.

Being called “Faculty” with this institute made me think about labels, identity, and the state of faculty development. So when in doubt, I turn to research. The words of others. The history which precedes me. The history. People’s words that are smarter than anything I could produce.

Here’s what I read:

DiPietro, M. (2014), Tracing the Evolution of Educational Development Through the POD Network’s Institute for New Faculty Developers. To Improve the Academy, 33: 113–130.

I made some notes, and below the words in bold are to emphasize my experience using DiPietro’s article:

Having INFD faculty who have moved up in leadership positions on campus (such as associate provosts) is important for two reasons. These roles are involved in campus-wide change initiatives, and thus have experience with organizational development. Additionally, they provide participants with models of career development in a field that does not have a predetermined path.

On the emotional side, most participants bring considerable anxiety about their ability to be successful in their new roles. From its inception, INFD has explicitly addressed this anxiety as part of its goals, and anonymous evaluation comments through the week reveal more positive and confident attitudes by the end (e.g., “I learned that I am not alone,” or “I learned that I might just be able to do this job!”).

At the same time, we need to weave ourselves at the core of our institutions, by expanding its offerings beyond instructional support to supporting faculty across the career span—from graduate students to new faculty to the tenure and promotion process, to fixed-term faculty and to mid-career faculty and chairs and administrators. In addition, educational development needs to expand our scope beyond working with individual instructors and get involved in strategic initiatives around teaching and learning, whether it be accreditation initiatives, quality enhancement plans, general education, or program reviews.

I discovered Michele DiPietro through How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (2010). And at the time of this publication, I was searching for what was next for me. I didn’t know about the POD Network. I didn’t know there was a field for people involved in professional development. I just knew that I loved working with teachers. I had some pedagogical framework and theories for learning from my MA in English. This book helped me find researchers that contributed to the next four years of my M.Ed research.

If I was a manager, director, or professor of people who are new to the professional development field, I’d send them to this Institute. You could see it all over people’s faces that they felt relief they were not alone in their struggles. Their self-doubts. Their anxieties. Their own private hell of the Impostor Syndrome.

So let’s pause for a second and return to my epigraph. Watch this video. Check out how confident Peter Buck is, how wonderfully nerdy Mike Mills is. How Bill Berry hides behind his drums. But really, where the hell is Michael Stipe?

He’s hiding.

He doesn’t say a word. You can’t even see him. He has yet to grow into the Michael Stipe that would become the Michael Stipe we all know now.

A force of nature. Worker of the crowd. Red eye shadow decorating his brow. Confident. Full of brazen confidence. Fully out. The Lead Singer. Fully the poet with a backup band.

This:

Yet, he was always the same poet. He just needed a decade to figure it out. How to own it. To be what he wanted to be. To own it. And I love both of these songs equally. For different reasons. They are two different Michaels, yet they are the same. Sometimes in life, I’m convinced, we just need time to figure it out. To sort it out. We need time to figure out the “rivers of suggestions that are driving us away” so that we can say “I need this. I need this.”

And that’s what I observed of my beloved new faculty developers. They just need time to figure it out. And they will. The INFD attendees were empathetic, compassionate, smart people who want to improve teaching and learning. Fantastic caring educators.

I didn’t have anything like this when I got into this field–I’m still not sure I’m apart of it, honestly. And although I fit the model of somebody who has “moved up in leadership;” it’s all been an accident. In fact, I spoke on a panel recently and I described myself as the “Accidental Leader” because everyone else seemed so together. So sure. So very sure.

Basically, I jumped right into the deep end of the pool, and I’ve been treading water barely staying afloat ever since. Whether you see me that way or not, that’s how the last few years have felt. It doesn’t have to be this way for newbies. It doesn’t have to be this hard. There are people, very cool people, all over this country and around the world who can support each other. I just didn’t know it. It just took me time to find them.

Here are the questions I’m grappling with lately: How do we connect people involved in teaching and learning? Why did it take me so long to find them? Why do so many people feel like they work isolation? How can I help end this feeling for people? Can Ed-Tech folks help Faculty Developer folks connect? Aren’t we one and the same?

When I started one of my presentations, I admitted that my research interests can be very depressing. There is more resistance towards what I advocate for then there is acceptance. OER, adjunct equity, and educational technology are magical ideas to people who are allies. For the haters? Not so much.

But I stay optimistic and I keep trying because when I meet like-minded folks, I can see small bits of change for the better. Small bits of hope. Small bits of ideas that need a way to connect. Small bits that connect to the larger picture of life-long learning.

And let’s be honest: Teachers hate the phrase “Faculty Developer.” They think it’s condescending and presumptuous. If they distrust theories from social-scientists, it’s even worse. If you have a Humanities background, it’s an even deadlier association. Say you’re a “Faculty Developer” and you’re already losing a battle with some teachers. They roll their eyes. They don’t come to your workshops. They delete your emails.

They think “I don’t need your advice on pedagogy, I need discipline-specific tips and training.” Or they balk at the idea that somebody who is not a part of their discipline can help improve their teaching. What can you possibly know about MY classroom? What. Can You. Possibly Know.

In Washington State, we’ve toyed with the idea of calling this field “Professional Learning.” For me, this label is an improvement because it gets away from a deficit model and embraces more of the life-long learning ethos that we want to see for our citizens. Our teachers. Our students. Our classrooms. Our learning. Our. Learning.

You’re right, I’ll tell a Chemist or an Engineer, I’ll never understand your field, but I think I can save you time. I have some ways that I think will help you do the stuff you love as a teacher. Let me show you. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Let me try.

And it’s so hard. Faculty professional development is the one area that has been hit most with budget cuts during the recession. We are being asked to do more with less. Those Chemists and Engineers don’t get to go conferences like they used to. They are seeing more adjuncts in their departments. They are seeing fewer resources for their teaching. They see your salary as a faculty developer and they blame the administration for taking their funding away to pay somebody like you. The disconnect amplifies as budgets shrink on the state and national level. The disconnect amplifies.

So what is the state of professional development on a national level? From what I’ve experienced through this institute and by attending a national conference in the last month, I hate to say it, but it’s not good in America.

We’re being asked to do more with less.

Faculty are bitter, angry, dissatisfied. Administrators are misinformed or stressed beyond capacity. Upper-administrators are employing business model tactics that don’t work because education should never be a for-profit enterprise (a memoir).

Students are paying more and getting less. The cognitive load on everyone is killing motivation for life-learning. The erosion of tenure and the rage of adjunct faculty makes this gig pretty depressing. In short, we want to be the own-it-all-with-eye-shadow-Michael-Stipe and we’re being forced to hide behind the ever badly behaving cocky Peter Buck.

It seems, truthfully, to be business as usual in higher education. Only a bit worse. Nothing changes while problems amplify. The problems amplify. The disconnect amplifies.

What we want and what we need has been confused. Been confused.

So what do we do? How do we improve the conditions of people involved in education? How do we make their lives easier? Better? More productive? More satisfying? Happier.

We can create connections. We create networks. We mentor. We organize. We talk to people. We can listen. We can create organizations of mentorship and networks.

Allow me to give you an example how challenging this work can be.

At the start of the Institute, the guy who was employed to help with the technology was tasked with passing out paper booklets so that people could take notes by hand. I cracked a joke with him thinking about things I’ve read about Ed-Tech.

And I said: “How fitting that the Ed-Tech guy is passing out paper notebooks. What’s up with that?”

He said, “I know, right?” I looked around the room, and out of a 125+ people, most of them were writing notes by hand. And there is nothing wrong that. Don’t get me wrong. I love me some pen and paper writing. I love journaling. I love writing by hand. I love writing. Obviously if you have made this far in this post.

But here’s the thing. The Thing:

Every reflection in those notebooks was written in isolation yet how many people were writing the exact same thing? How many people would have benefitted from knowing “I’m not alone?” How could their level of anxiety have gone down with sharing their writing with others? How many ideas could have spawned meaningful collaboration? How many plans for individual institutions could have been amplified by collaboration?

And yes, there are things that I write that I would never want anyone to read, but really, when it comes to my work, I don’t feel satisfied unless I’m sharing what I’m doing. For better or for worse. Complete or not. Published or not. Good or not. In the last six months, I’ve gone through a massive change in the way I see my learning. My philosophy of learning has changed. For the better. I feel more satisfied with my writing.

During one of my presentations, I shared the need for having a philosophy of technology as a teacher. One of my graduate professors emphasized that it’s not enough to have a philosophy statement of education; you also need one for technology. So here’s mine from 2012, and please note that super stressed tone in my voice is because was teaching four composition courses while I was attending graduate school. My statement would sound different today. Don’t judge me; it was three years ago.

I would also add that you need a philosophy statement for social justice. But what then? You have three philosophy statements! How do you combine them? How do you encompass what you would like to be as an educator with who you are?

It takes time. Think of the timeline from young Stipe to fabulous Stipe. Think of the brilliant REM songs. The awful. The not-so-great. It just takes time to sort it out.

One of the sessions on creating an identity as a faculty developer made me think about how I would label myself in this field. Somebody shared that if we don’t label ourselves then somebody else will. If we don’t own our power, then somebody else will. If we don’t claim our notion of success, then somebody else will define us as a failure.

I was present. I was reflective. I felt part of community of learners. I thought about my career and how it connects to others. And how it doesn’t.

I wrote typed the following sentences on my magic typewriter:

I would like to be an instructional designer who advocates for the poor, the underserved, and the underprivileged. I’d like to examine the necessary balance of power and influence to support open education in my corner of the world. But maybe what I want to do is just too new to be named.

Maybe. What I’m achin’ to be. Is too new. To be named. I know I’m not alone.

What about you?

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About Alyson Indrunas

Always learning about instructional design, educational technology, #OER, professional development, adult education, and the federated wiki. A Memoir.
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