Friday, August 17, 2007

Faculty Retreat

In response to Undine's request in the comments, I will blog a little bit about the faculty retreat I attended yesterday. But first, here's my request to the whole world:

Please. Can we stop saying, "Think outside the box"? Please?

After 2.5 days of meeting-type activities, I think that I will throw something if those words are uttered in my presence again. My god. This has been the cliche-of-choice for years now; may it die? Please?

All right. PSA over.

The retreat, which took all day yesterday, was useful in two ways. First, it let me get to know a few more faculty members, which was nice. Second, it gave me more of a sense of how Field College* works and how it thinks about itself. Now, I know that a day of activities and exhortations probably doesn't constitute the "real" behind-the-scenes Field, but you can still learn a lot from the kind of rhetoric that an institution employs. (*This is not, of course, its real name. I call it that because we are in the middle of the fields out here. Just to be absolutely clear.)

So I won't say that it was a complete waste of time, by any means. But if I'd been teaching here for ten or five or even two years, I might have found it kind of pointless. It's just that, as a new person, I'm still gathering information, and even the boring and otherwise pointless activities serve a purpose.

That said, it was a pretty weird day. We met at a sort of nature park/preserve, and after some introductory presentations, we had an Activity. The Activity involved, fortunately, about 90 minutes of solitary walking around the park, which was quite enjoyable. We were also supposed to engage in some independent creative stuff while we were wandering, so I did some drawings; I'm not a great artist by any means, but I enjoy drawing, and I usually forget that it's something I enjoy, so it was a nice meditative kind of thing to do a few sketches.

After Activity Part One, we reconvened for a half-hour of talk about how to best actualize (a word I loathe) the religious mission of the college. This was fairly brutal, because the person running the conversation seemed a little uncertain of how to lead the discussion. In fact, it reminded me of the less good discussion sections I've run as a TA: lots of difficult and poorly explained questions, which the leader started answering almost immediately after asking them, and no one else saying anything (because we didn't really understand what was going on).

We then broke up for an overly-air-conditioned lunch. The theme for the week could be "freezing your ass off in the middle of summer." Digression: What's up with that? I worked in an office once, in a VERY hot part of the country, where I had to bring sweaters and a space-heater to work in July. I weep for the planet.

Anyway. Lunch over, we were split up into pairs to talk about what we did on our walks. Then we were divided up into different, larger groups, again to share what we did on our walks. Then we all came together as a group, and each small group reported on what we'd "learned." Um. I didn't find this so useful. I mean, it was nice to talk to a couple of other people in a structured yet informal way, but the activity as a whole was supposed to teach us something about collaborative learning, and I'm not sure that it was successful. But it was a good effort, and relatively painless, so okay. Better than just listening to talks about budgeting or whatever.

Then there was a little talk about, I dunno, something to do with student learning, but I was tired and bored at that point and didn't pay much attention.

So that was the day in outline. Here are some of my thoughts.

One of the things that was talked about in the first session was the utility of a liberal arts education. Nationally, as we all know, there is a certain amount of skepticism about how useful or important a liberal arts education might be. So this one person gave a couple of examples of how Field College students used what they'd learned in school out in the world: a student who had studied psychology volunteered in a counseling center, and a sports team captain used what she had learned in a management course.

Fine and good. But. Doesn't this exactly not answer the question of how/why a liberal arts education is important? By hearkening to professional applicability, you're essentially arguing for a more vocational-style approach to education: Take this course because it will serve you in a directly applicable practical context outside of college. But when people argue that humanities courses are irrelevant, it's precisely because they don't have that kind of obvious, direct applicability. You can't easily measure the positive outcomes of these courses--that they help to develop a more complete human being, or influence the culture in which we live.

A liberal arts education is important because human beings are more than economic or professional animals. Our world is not simply our jobs. We live in a culture and a society, and developing our knowledge of and connection to that culture, as well as the skills to critique and try to shape it, is essential. It's interesting to me that complaints about the pointlessness of most college courses circulate at the same time as so many people seem to deplore the supposed degradation of our culture, when a solid liberal arts (and especially humanities, to let my allegiances show) education seems to be one of the most reliable ways of learning to observe our culture critically and actively decide what kind of participation one wants to have in it.

So that rankled, a bit. I feel that I should note that the person making these arguments was not a faculty member, but someone from career services, so she was probably approaching the question from a different angle. But still, as a literature person, I felt a little put off by what she was saying, because I can't think of such transparent applications of my own courses to the world at large (other than comp, of course).

Well, regardless, it's over, and now there are just a few more meetings and that kind of thing before the real fun begins!


Fretful Porpentine said...

A liberal arts education is important because human beings are more than economic or professional animals. Our world is not simply our jobs. We live in a culture and a society, and developing our knowledge of and connection to that culture, as well as the skills to critique and try to shape it, is essential.

Well said. (Sigh.)

So that's what they do at faculty retreats. Who knew? (Here we just have an optional teaching workshop and a mandatory new faculty orientation, which doesn't sound nearly as mystical as a retreat, but also not as scary.)

Hilaire said...

Yes, very well said. I was silently applauding as I read!

That sounds like a rather painful day.

undine said...

Thanks for describing this and for describing the liberal arts mission so well.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I love your comments about the liberal arts. Yes, the SLACs definitely run into this conundrum. It's weird.

And I have to say that the benefit of being an adjunct this year is that I don't have to go to any retreats! (At least, no one's told me about them. I don't think I even have an orientation, which is actually good, because from what I could see online, the orientation here is designed to orient faculty who are new to the profession, not just new to the campus. But I digress.) But they do serve a nice purpose in helping people get to know one another.

(If you were doing this retreat today I would SWEAR you're working at Rural Utopia! Although no religious mission there.)

heu mihi said...

Off by only a couple of days! Well, where I am is definitely Rural, although Utopia is still open to debate.

I like your icon, NK! Not sure if it's new or if I just never noticed it before.