Friday, August 15, 2008

A (Surprise!) Successful Faculty Retreat

(The promised quasi-academic post, at last!)

The Humanities Division at Field (we're too small a college to have distinct departments, so we operate as divisions) inaugurated what might be a new tradition this summer: the divisional faculty retreat. Next week we have the mandatory two-day all-faculty retreat (it was only one day last year, but apparently we have a lot of work to do this year, yippee), but early this week the Humanities folks all met for about a day and a half with the intentions of a) getting to know the new people and b) thinking deliberately about where we want to go as a division in the coming year.

I was, ostensibly, an organizer of this retreat, although I did very little (the real organizer claims that I came up with the idea, which is patently false, but nice of hir to say). I was therefore kind of nervous coming up to it: if the retreat was a failure, I thought, will my name irrevocably be associated with it? Especially by the many new people in our division? (We have three wholly new people, the Minister and I are starting our second years, and the remaining five Humanities faculty have been around for rather a long time, so the division on the whole is pretty new to the college.) Luckily, however, it went surprisingly well. Nonetheless I disavowed all responsibility for the planning and whatnot; I was involved in coming up with the schedule and planned one of the sessions, but, as at least 40% of the division also played that role, I don't think that I can take any special credit.

So. I thought I'd run through my thoughts about why this retreat was successful, since my impression is that faculty retreats in general can be perceived as kind of a waste of time, and I don't recall being particularly impressed by the one I attended last year. I wrote a post about it at the time, I think, but I'm too lazy to link, so you can look in the August '07 archives if you're desperately interested.

Anyway, here's what we did, broadly speaking: We started with a couple of getting-to-know-you activities (along the lines of what you'd do on the first day of a comp class, for example), then had a long session about what the humanities is/are. In fact, that "is/are" was crucial to the session: "Humanities" means both an accumulation of disciplines (the "are") and a particular approach, or set of approaches, to knowledge. This session, which wound up going over its designated two-and-a-half hours, was broken up into sections where we discussed questions as a group (What is the focus of each of our disciplines? What do our disciplines have in common? What sets us apart from other divisions, e.g. Social Sciences? etc.) and sections in which we met with the faculty from our own disciplines (e.g. English) to discuss how our disciplines contribute towards the mission of the humanities. Now, we didn't come up with any kind of answers to the first set of questions; one thing that I found interesting was how the conversation kept getting derailed into what the humanities aren't. This often involved wild, probably inaccurate generalizations about other divisions (Scientists know exactly what they want to find before they start researching! Social scientists think there's one right answer to every question!), but, despite the regrettable un-scholarliness of such claims, the fact that we had such a hard time defining what it is that we do was pretty thought-provoking. So when we got into our groups by discipline, we had some clearer questions to address: What do we want our students to take away from our majors? Why do we think that what we study is important, and how can we best convey that to our students? And so forth.

Maybe the best thing about this session was that it got us all talking to each other about something other than problems in the classroom, administrative screw-ups, or what we did over the weekend. We were talking about, you know, abstract ideas. And why we value our own work. That's important, and something I don't remember really doing since my campus interview.

Then we had some pragmatic sessions on, say, syllabus construction and dealing with the unexpected situations that can arise during teaching. The latter was my special purview, and I came up with what I hoped was kind of a fun way of addressing it: everyone wrote down on index cards an unexpected/difficult/silly situation that he or she had faced (or feared facing) in the classroom, but wrote it as a "What would you do if..." question; we shuffled the cards, and then everyone took one and had to answer it off the cuff. Then the person to whom the situation had occurred discussed what he/she had done. It was a pretty lighthearted session--the last one before dinner, so I assumed that we would be tired, and was right--but I think that it went okay.

Anyway! This was an overnight retreat at the guest house on campus--even though most of us live within a half-mile of campus. Well. The overnighting gave us the opportunity for a postprandial talent show (preceded by rather a shocking quantity of wine). I was not alone, I believe, in having some misgivings about the talent show, but it was surprisingly nice. There was music, a Tai Chi demonstration, poetry reading, the display of a crocheted afghan. I, incapable of baring myself to my colleagues, read an excerpt from the romance novel my friends and I wrote in high school; there was also a display of bad academic verse.

The next day we resumed with more pragmatic sessions: advising, required vs. recommended events, the current climate on campus and issues that new people should be aware of. We wrapped up with quite a nice lunch and some more WINE.

So, what made this successful? First, I think, was the simple fact that there were so few of us. Also, as members of the same division, we were able to discuss some very concrete things that we'd like to do together and even to take some steps towards getting them going--like setting up a web page for the division (that would include detailed course descriptions, my hobbyhorse), emphasizing environmental sustainability and social justice in our classes, and sharing syllabi. The abundance of wine probably helped, too. But also, my immediate colleagues are by and large a great bunch of people whom I like very much. They certainly have their...idiosyncrasies, but after all, that's part of the charm of the professoriate. So it was a good couple of days. I feel decidedly less reluctant to start up the semester--although I'd still rather skip the next two-day retreat, as I don't expect it to be quite so pleasant.

1 comment:

What Now? said...

Glad to hear it went so well. I do think that something great can happen in overnight situations -- there's more time, there is much wine to be drunk, and there are those conversations that happen in more intimate settings. I know that such a retreat design is problematic for some folks, especially single parents, but I also think there is much of value in them.