Workshops That Work

Given the serious flaws in many professional development sessions, many of us could benefit from having a guide or coach to help us create better ones, argues Melissa Nicolas.

November 19, 2019
 
 
Istockphoto.com/siberian photographer

As professors, one of our job requirements is to keep learning. While most of this learning happens through conducting research and keeping current in our respective fields, a not insignificant amount happens in professional development. But even though professional development plays a part in our professional lives, much of it is not well executed. Indeed, either I’m just getting crankier, or I have been noticing some serious flaws in the way some professional development happens. (Probably both are true.)

To be clear, I respect and admire people who volunteer time out of their own incredibly busy schedules to lead workshops; they do so out of generosity, and they should be thanked for their desire to share. But the painful reality is that many of the workshops I have attended are not actually places where work gets done but rather spaces to hear someone lecture. In other words, most workshops are really a mirror of teacher-centered classrooms: the teacher talks, the students passively take notes and maybe there is time for a question or two. “The sage on the stage” instead of the “guide on the side.”

Here are some of the actual workshops I have attended that have made my naughty list:

  • A three-hour lecture on active learning.
  • An hourlong lecture on how ineffective lecturing is.
  • A session on student engagement citing the fact that most people only retain the first 10 minutes and last 10 minutes of any lecture, delivered via a 60-minute lecture. (And, to prove this facilitator’s point, this is truly the only thing I recall about that lecture, besides my escalating blood pressure.)
  • An all-day orientation program so jam-packed that organizers and presenters kept saying, “We know this is information overload, and you won’t retain anything, but …”
  • A diversity workshop led by a cis, white, hetero man of a certain age.
  • A town hall meeting that left precisely two minutes for questions.
  • A workshop that began with, “Everything I am about to share is in X document, so you can just read that.”

This list could be longer, but I am getting depressed just drawing it up.

As I have become more experienced (OK, older), I’ve noticed that my patience for professional development activities has a direct correlation to how well they are executed. If a workshop is well planned and delivered, I can wait a long time for the technology folks to fix the broken projector. But if the lights flicker for a millisecond during a session I perceive as poorly planned, I am out of there. I’m not proud to admit this, but my capacity for goodwill ends where I feel my time is being wasted. If I attend one more workshop on how to increase my writing productivity and hear that I “just need to write,” I might lose it. If I “just need to write,” then stop talking and give me 30 minutes of the workshop time to do it! Let me work during the workshop.

While the obvious salve for my irritation is to stop going to these events, I really don’t want to. I want to workshop, not sit passively for two hours. I want to meet my colleagues from various disciplines across the campus. I want to learn new things and try new approaches. I want to hear from experts who have valuable insights.

Teaching the Teachers

What happens to us faculty -- I am unabashedly indicting myself here, too -- who are often skilled teachers, when we are asked to deliver a workshop for our peers? Why is our default mode almost always a lecture? Or worse, admitting we know we shouldn’t be lecturing and then doing it anyway? Do we think that theories about human learning and best teaching practices don’t apply to ourselves as learners? Does impostor syndrome make us feel as though we have to perform in front of our colleagues? Do we get sudden amnesia about how unhappy we are as participants in pseudo-workshops?

Maybe the reason for the inconsistency between what we know and what we do is part of an oft-told tale: just as most of us are not taught how to teach, almost none of us are taught how to teach the teachers. I am fortunate to be part of a discipline -- composition and rhetoric -- that embraces pedagogy, so I had several years of teaching under my belt by the time I hit the tenure track (and I still made -- and make -- a gazillion mistakes).

But I was absolutely clueless the first time someone asked me to conduct a faculty workshop. After delivering more than a dozen or so of what can kindly be described as “stinkers,” I finally had the aha moment: what works in a classroom of students can work in a conference room of faculty members. Since taking that aha! moment to heart and designing professional development with best teaching practices in mind, the feedback I have received has improved significantly. And I now have fun doing what used to terrify me.

What would have facilitated my learning (and spared a whole lot of colleagues much boredom) would have been having someone to coach me on the hows of my workshops’ execution, someone to show me how to use session outcomes to come up with session activities, someone who could be a sounding board with whom to tease out optics. For example, what kind of ethos do I really have in a talk about classroom accessibility if I hold it in a room that’s inaccessible, provide no handouts (or provide them in a teeny font), don’t caption my videos and speak without a microphone? I didn’t necessarily need or want help with the content, which was in my area of expertise. But I desperately needed help with understanding the genre of effective professional development.

Given the scope of the ugly I have seen, it seems like many of us could benefit from having a guide or coach to help us create better workshops. I’m thinking of something similar to the service that centers for teaching excellence offer to assist teachers with pedagogy and praxis. However, since not all colleges have such centers, it might be beneficial to also have a consultancy service that is on call to coach individuals or groups. The sole focus of such a service could be to help presenters and organizers ensure that the workshop/presentation is engaging and that its delivery matches its message.

This coaching will be effective if new faculty orientations are not marathon days of “too much information that we know you won’t retain” and instead became more focused affairs, perhaps centered on a theme like “developing connections” or “diversity in our community,” and created a space where new faculty members could get to know each other and a few key university contacts. Workshops about scholarly output would transition from the audience thinking that their output would increase if they had their hour back to people leaving with individualized action plans. Teaching and learning demonstrations about active learning would actually have people doing things, making things, writing things, talking with each other about things, solving things. In short, I’m imagining a service that helps well-intentioned presenters reimagine their delivery with the best of what we know about teaching and learning in mind.

Ultimately, my desire for such a service is quite selfish: I just can’t sit through one more hour of someone talking at me about how I should be doing something. I want workshops that work.

Bio

Melissa Nicolas is an associate professor of English and director of composition at Washington State University. She has been conducting faculty development for more than 15 years. She is interested in your thoughts about the idea of a Workshops That Work consultancy service and would welcome feedback at [email protected].

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