Faculty Professional Development: Beyond Conference Attendance

by Emily Allen Williams

Article content is provided by HigherEdJobs.

Faculty at accredited colleges and universities are required to engage in professional development on an annual basis, yet institutional quarterly and annual reports often reveal that the majority of what is referenced as faculty professional development is usually recorded as conference attendance. Conference attendance clearly is an important means of sharing research, building collaborations, and getting to know discipline administrators and scholars. Conferences afford faculty the opportunity -- over time -- to present themselves as experts in the discipline. Also an amazing opportunity to interface with publishers and vendors of educational materials, some academic conferences also hold career/job fairs, which attract early and mid-level faculty. In an era defined by institutional budget cuts, the rising costs of conference attendance highlight the need for innovative approaches to cost-effective and results-driven faculty professional development for teaching faculty to maintain excellence in the classroom and across institutional platforms of service.

For faculty primarily focused on teaching, as well as their support leaders (provosts, academic deans, and department chairs), there are key questions to consider in accelerating faculty professional development beyond conference attendance:

  • What is the product of the one or two annual conferences most faculty attend?
  • If a paper was presented, what was its yield?
  • Did more research ensue from the feedback on the paper presentation?
  • Was the paper published and/or did it lead to a book contract?
  • Were research collaborations formed (whether attendance was as presenter or observer)?
  • Did the conference experience increase faculty pedagogical abilities?
  • Will participation in the conference advance [or likely advance] teaching and learning within a one to three-year window?
  • What, if any, immediate impact will faculty attendance at the conference(s) have on students?

While attendance at conferences remains important to teaching faculty, the identification of meaningful areas of training that will make faculty valuable to the academy outside of their discipline is an innovative and necessary way to expand the ways by which faculty develop professionally in the twenty-first century. While conference attendance in the disciplines will undoubtedly remain key to advancing research and scholarly collaborations, the twenty-first century higher education terrain is largely branded as one focusing on teaching and learning as well as assessment at institutional, program, and course levels.

So, the question is how will institutions of higher education 'grow' faculty to meet the challenges of working across teaching, research, and service responsibilities? Most faculty are absolutely savvy in knowing which discipline-specific conferences and professional association meetings that they not only want to attend but must attend in advancing both their visibility and acumen as scholars in the discipline. What is not as transparent to faculty are those activities -- beyond discipline-specific conference attendance -- that will shape their competencies in the areas of teaching and learning and assessment towards building student competencies, institutional capacities, and faculty [job] sustainability.

As more emphasis is placed on teaching effectiveness and assessment of the same, it is essential that faculty be presented with, as well as create, means for engaging in career-enhancing development on a semester-to semester rotation. These 'means' should be those that incorporate not only theory but also the necessary research and peer collaborations that lead to timely implementation of teaching and learning strategies. Activities that can be assessed and documented towards enhancing faculty teaching effectiveness [whether occurring as face-to-face, online, hybrid/blended, or independently-conceived] constitute diverse means of engaging in meaningful professional development activities.

Creating the specificities within each of the activities can be motivated from perspectives as broad as those institutionally-developed as well as perspectives more focused such as those programmatically/departmentally-developed. The creation of the specifics engages both administrators and faculty in the intellectually complex work that is essential in the skills that will bolster teaching faculty engagement in continuous knowledge of teaching, learning, and assessment toward accelerated student success.

While hardly exhaustive, the following activities can be successful -- beyond conference attendance -- in the professional development of teaching faculty:

  • Participating as a mentor or mentee in an institutionally-developed program
  • Serving as a chair or committee member on an accreditation review team
  • Serving as a reviewer on a national, regional, or local grants review panel
  • Engaging in teaching and learning webinars that enable semester-long feedback and participation in discussion circles
  • Engaging in campus-based instructional technology workshops in advancing delivery of course content
  • Leading or participating on a grant writing team across discipline areas for national, regional, or local funding
  • Organizing and/or participating in Brown Bag Lunch Series to share pedagogical strategies across disciplines
  • Collaborating with faculty at other institutions on teaching and learning projects
While attendance at conferences will remain key in the disciplines for years to come, it is only one means of faculty professional development. While 'thinking outside the box' is undoubtedly one of the most well-worn expressions in both the academy and business world, the meaning behind the expression remains timely and of over-arching importance as academicians seek to innovate upon ways of teaching and learning in an increasingly evolving society. Continuing to think in ways that are creative, innovative, and long-term are essential to robust and meaningful professional development platforms for teaching faculty.