Fifteen plastic, purple swivel chairs fill a Murray-Herrick Campus Center second-floor classroom on a Tuesday afternoon. A St. Thomas faculty member works her way through a slideshow in the hour-long class, calling for participation and feedback at different points.
“Does anybody have an example they would be willing to share?” she asks about 10 minutes in. A few seconds of silence drag out. “Hmm, quiet group.”
A hand reluctantly makes its way into the air, and a comment that kicks the conversation forward follows. Over the next 50 minutes the room flits from lecture and questions to general and small-group discussions, gaining momentum and openness before it adjourns at hour’s end.
This scene plays out countless times each semester across St. Thomas, but this session was noteworthy in that the 15 chairs weren’t filled by students. They were filled by faculty members, who – in this particular workshop – were being schooled on how better to gain and understand formal feedback from students.
Teachers being taught is a common theme for the Center for Faculty Development (FDC), which, through its wide range of offerings, supports faculty in becoming better at everything they do.
“I relate it to the corporate world: Companies invest in their employees, give them training and development opportunities. It’s the same thing in an academic environment: You want your faculty to be always growing, developing, staying up with cutting edge of what’s relevant with teaching,” FDC director Ann Johnson said. “St. Thomas invests in its faculty, who are the gateway to students’ learning, which is what we’re all about. Making sure your faculty are professionally up to speed and are aware of what’s out there and fulfilled and satisfied in their jobs, that’s really crucial to have a top-notch learning environment for students.”
Although the center has existed on campus since 1981, it took a major step forward in 2011 when Johnson and associate director Elizabeth Smith were employed to run things full time. Since then the FDC has built on its previous 30 years of offerings to round out a constantly growing, dynamic set of resources for faculty.
“[The FDC] has been really good and is getting better and better, offering more and more resources with workshops and mentoring even in the 10 years I’ve been here,” said associate professor Dina Gavrilos of the Communication and Journalism Department.
A veritable buffet
A scroll through the center’s website is a good place to get a feel for what the FDC offers in supporting St. Thomas faculty:
- Internal grants and sabbatical leaves;
- Events, seminars and workshops on a rotating number of topics;
- Classroom consulting services with faculty development fellows;
- The Open Classroom Project, where faculty visit each other’s classrooms to spark discussion on how to improve as teachers;
- Adjunct faculty resources;
- Teaching resources on everything from active learning to course design to mindfulness meditation;
- Training with IDEA, the tool students use to provide feedback for each course;
- A frequent newsletter, Synergia, with a huge range of information;
- Mentoring For Success, which pairs more senior faculty members with more junior ones;
- Faculty writing services and programs, which help with grant writing or academic writing;
- and work-family balance resources.
Along with the faculty learning communities Johnson and Smith enacted in 2011, it’s an almost dizzying level of programs for faculty to take advantage of. And take advantage they do: Last year alone, more than half full-time faculty and about a quarter of part-time faculty participated in one or more FDC programs, Johnson said.
“Our mission is very broad. … Many universities’ [FDCs] have a much more specific focus … on teaching,” Smith said. “We’re looking at faculty both as teaching, their service areas and their scholarly research. We have a very broad mission that’s fairly unique in that characteristic.”
Smith’s reference to other universities’ equivalent centers highlights that similar support is being seen more often in higher education, Johnson said.
“The unusual thing about academic life … is that you don’t really get formal training to become a college professor,” she added. “You have to have a Ph.D. and that’s the requirement. And a lot of times people just transfer their own college and graduate school experience into their practice as a teacher, but that doesn’t always work. It’s becoming more and more common for places … to have programs for preparing future faculty.”
Especially at a university such as St. Thomas, which emphasizes teaching excellence, teaching preparation is front and center. The FDC helps facilitate that preparation early and often as new faculty are required to go through a series of trainings in their first year, including a full-week program in the fall and twice-monthly meetings throughout the year.
“I went through [the training] as a new incoming faculty member and really enjoyed it. I’ve been at other institutions and this is, hands down, the best preparation,” said assistant professor of German Susanne Wagner. “Being in a cohort that first year was immensely helpful and having a close relationship with mentors develop was great.”
“Faculty are aware St. Thomas puts a big emphasis on teaching. From day one they’re aware they’re ensuring their performance as a teacher is strong,” Johnson added.
Programming for every career stage
After faculty are introduced to the FDC in that first year there are any number of ways they can continue using its services as their career progresses. One way that has stood out as valuable, historically, is the awarding of internal grants from a fund that was established in the 1980s. The FDC also helps faculty develop proposals for those grants, which award course exemptions for professional development.
“That’s a fundamental assistance right there,” Gavrilos said. “That’s something I really appreciate and other faculty appreciate as well.”
Along with its full-time employees, the FDC has several faculty members who help coordinate various programs, as well as two full-time instructional designers who were recently hired to help expand training on technology.
“With the addition of our instructional designers we can do a lot more about technology and pedagogy, offering workshops, designing and developing online courses,” Smith said. “It’s an area that we’ve been expanding since [Johnson and I] started, and it’s going to continue to grow.”
Growth is a fitting word for much of what the FDC is involved in: As it keeps growing its offerings, it remains centered on the mission of helping faculty at St. Thomas grow professionally.
“It’s an always evolving landscape,” Johnson said. “Maybe 50 years ago teaching didn’t change much from year one to 30. I’ve been in teaching for 20 years and it’s constantly evolving, and you have to change to keep up with it.”