Co-Facilitating a Faculty Learning Community:

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Let me begin by saying, quite honestly, that it was an honor to be asked to co-facilitate the inaugural Faculty Learning Community at my university, which took place over the  2017-2018 academic year. Each part of the process was interesting and engaging, from preliminary conversations with the Director of the Office of Teaching and Learning at my institution during the preceding academic year, through more concrete and focused discussions over the summer of 2017, and the actual implementation of plans for our first meeting in October, to subsequent meetings through the spring 2018 semester. (Our final regularly scheduled discussion will take place in about ten days, on 18 April 2018. That will be followed by a workshop session in early May, where some FLC participants will draft revised syllabi for our targeted courses and discuss changes we have already implemented or that we intend to implement.)

Learning communities can function in a variety of different ways. In this case, my co-facilitator and I designed it as a learning community for teachers at our institution, with a focus on potentially helpful instructional strategies. We were hoping to have a mix of tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty members; we also hoped for a mix of experienced teachers and relatively new ones. As it turns out, only one non-tenure track teacher joined the group and none of the faculty learning community members was relatively inexperienced or new to our institution. Still, we had a good mix of disciplines and a variety of personalities that made for interesting discussions.

We settled on two books to inform and direct our readings, Make It Stick and The New Science of Learning. The former was more central to our discussions and the latter provided supplementary perspectives and information.  Each of the participants agreed to target one particular course and pledged to revise the syllabus to that course to reflect concrete, specific changes as a result of participating in the learning community (e.g. modifications in the manner of teaching, in the manner of information presentation, in particular learning activities or in the general structure of the course).  Beyond the two co-facilitators, there were eight participants, The ten of us (or a large majority of the ten of us) met once or twice per month through the spring semester.

The frustration and ambivalence evoked in the title of this blog entry arose from the experience of facilitating discussions among the faculty members of the learning community. It was not always easy to keep the participants on task and focused. The conversation veered periodically into tangents that, in my view, had little to do with the subject matter of the books under discussion, or with the pre-planned talking points or the overarching goals of this learning experience. What is more, I often had the impression that my colleagues were more eager to speak about their own teaching, than willing to listen to and to learn from others. At times, I felt a little bit like the flustered teacher at the front of a classroom who begs students to turn their minds and conversations to a particular assigned topic or to focus on a particular idea or dataset… and is immensely frustrated to observe that students ignore her or his directions and continue to chat about matters irrelevant to the intended discussion.

When I take a step back, however, and think about how I prefer to teach, giving up a large measure of control, allowing students significant responsibility in each class session for constructing their own meanings, developing and integrating their own new knowledge, forging their own connections, I realize that my frustration is a bit silly. Part of my problem is that I have not been following the lead of my co-facilitator, who seems to accept faculty engagement at whatever level our colleagues give it and seems to consider any progress made by any FLC member to be a good thing. My feelings of frustration point more toward a problem with my attitude and my expectations than toward a lack of productivity in Faculty Learning Community on the whole. Indeed, if I am honest and objective, I note that most of the members of the faculty learning community express real excitement about the ideas and strategies that we have evoked and critiqued. FLC members are intellectually and emotionally invested in rethinking their teaching, their classroom practices, and the manner of presentation and/or organization of their courses. In truth, the Faculty Learning Community has had a real impact.

The real ambivalence has to do with my desire to control the entire experience. No, wait, it’s not even desire. It’s my belief that somehow I would prove to be negligent and irresponsible if I failed to control every moment of the experience or if I lacked mastery in directing the conversations. This notion is, I have come to realize, an unnecessary and counterproductive way to view this experiment. I need to let my overzealous illusion of control fall to the wayside. My true responsibility is to influence the gist of conversations ahead of time by providing good prompts and by framing certain ideas or expectations for the conversation. However, the actual exchanges and crosstalk during our meetings are not my primary responsibility and are not really under my control. I can reasonably expect my colleagues to invest in our shared intellectual work only as much as they want to and need to. To state the lesson for myself, in a nutshell, I need to prep conscientiously, then to chill and let the experience unfold, trusting the participants to engage with each other and with the ideas and frameworks. Amen.

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