faculty work

I’m starting to think ongoing faculty development is one of the last valid uses of a system office.  Since I work in one, this is a premonition I should pay attention to.

We presently think of faculty as working in three areas, and the portions change according to the kind of college or university where you work:

faculty work - present

For most institutions, reliable income is confined to the yellow area, instruction.  In the four-years, prestige accrues to those who have figured out how to move steady revenue into the dark red, research.  And really, no one has figured out how to make the orange pay.

And yet, orange may increasingly be where it’s at.  If we get over courses as the irreducible unit of currency, and focus instead on learning – not just encouraging and directing it, as we do now, but also measuring it, vouching for it, and billing for it – then work changes.

For one thing, judgments about the learning of an individual student are pretty subjective.  You’d need the eyes of many beholders before the money could verifiably reward intellectual development, and faculty wouldn’t be paid soloists anymore.

I picture something more like the weekly meeting of a surgical staff, or a sitcom writers’ room.  A bunch of professionals sit around a table and fruitfully argue, bringing collective judgment to bear on, say, a season finale or a GI tract.  Their job is to figure out how it could work better.  Faculty do such work now, but in meetings with students it’s called advising, and in committee teams we call it service.  In other words, it comprises the orange area:  the work is expected but unpaid and undervalued.  Too much of it is a bad career move.

Free on-line instructional materials, like Open Educational Resources, MOOCs, or miscellaneous how-to clips on YouTube, have ended higher ed’s corner on the yellow area.  Faculty at some schools are making high-profile claims that their classes are qualitatively better than what’s available on-line for free, but if by “classes” they mean lectures, then their arguments will fail.

The courses that are MOOC-proof aren’t lectures, but instead the ones that leverage the social dimension of learning, like the SCALE-UP classes at the University of North Dakota.


Classroom layouts like this take the traditionally private educational pairing of one professor to one student, and opens it to interaction from additional students.  The benefits are visible and irresistible, to the point where most colleges and universities now organize some combination of learning communities and peer mentoring:

old and current models

It seems inevitable to me that if higher ed’s funding model is to follow verifiable learning, instead of hours of delivered instruction, then that model will have to make an additional step in its evolution:

future model one

In other words, we’ll see more of what faculty at some institutions do now to coordinate learning communities:  meet regularly to discuss where in their development their students are, where they need to end up, and what might get them there, all in return for a course of released time.  So, some faculty and programs have figured out how to make the orange part pay, even if the institutions have not.

It also seems likely to me that for the sake of facilitating access, alignment, and student mobility, that those faculty will need to meet regularly with colleagues from outside of their own institutions, further growing the orange area with obligations of service, committee work, and ongoing professional development.

multiple institutionsIn that world, system-level work will probably continue to be what it has been:  a negotiation between the public and its universities about funding, learning, and priorities for the state’s citizenry and workforce.

But to that context the system will add what may be its first and only indispensable role:  of harmonizing and developing disparate understandings among the faculty, whether full-time or contingent, of exactly what that education looks like.


6 thoughts on “faculty work

    1. Nice analogy to the arts — the kind of group work where there’s not a single right answer and a bunch of wrong ones, but where there may be an optimization. Thanks for the comment, John.

  1. Good thinking, Ken. You know, Mark Hopkins on one end of the log and a student on the other . . . . How do we get that kind of learning through new models? Thank you for mentioning faculty on contingent contracts–the new faculty majority. Much collective work to be done for those on contingent full-time and part-time contracts for their sake and for the sake of student learning.

    1. Ken, like this view of this next phase in the evolution of faculty work and educational institutions. Consensus is the currency of outcomes/competency based learning and faculty development, spanning faculty designations and institutions, is the most direct way to achieve consensus.

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