Recently I was talking to my daughter about her summer plans. “It’s hard, Mom,” she said. “I have to make a commitment before I have all the information.”
“Welcome to adulthood,” I replied. I felt for her. We try to amass as much information as possible before making commitments, but in the end, many adult choices involve best guesses, hopes, and a great deal of faith. Jobs, marriages, and children are among the obvious examples of commitments made without full information, but there are others, perhaps less weighty but still important, in daily academic life.
Two years ago, my university made a big curricular change, voting to replace a year-long Core course for first-year students with a pair of first-year seminars. A year ago, I helped implement the first faculty development programs for faculty planning to teach first-year sminars. When we voted in the curriculum, we had several other changes still hanging fire—would we completely revamp the general education curriculum? (As it happens, no.) Would there be further changes that the first-year seminars would have to accommodate? That’s still not clear. How soon could we implement the program? That was the big question, and we answered it this year: with one year to plan and develop new courses, we were able to offer the new program this fall, offering over 100 seminars over the course of two semesters.
Last spring and summer over 80 faculty members participated in our first-year seminar institutes, as we called them, preparing to teach their courses. We talked about writing across the curriculum, the pedagogy of engagement, critical thinking, and information literacy. We learned about critical first-year issues (I hadn’t known before that most students who transfer start making that decision within the first six weeks). We complained, we shared ideas, we compared notes.
We did not, crucially, have all the information we would have liked to have when we decided to put the program in place. We agreed to implement faculty development programs without quite knowing what they would look like. We did have a good history: our previous curriculum had been well-supported with a faculty seminar and lots of shared resources, so we knew we could do something similar. Still, we’d never tried anything like this before, and we had no idea how it would turn out.
Now as I begin our second summer of faculty development I have more information than I did last year. I can tell incoming faculty of my experiences and the experiences of our other faculty. I can talk about what we did right, and what we might want to change. Of course, things will be different next year than they were this year — the students will be different, we have a new dean coming in, we are starting a few new programs and, again, incorporating many new faculty members. But the decision we made two years ago has borne fruit; the decision we made two years ago has, it seems, been validated. I can only reassure my daughter that whatever decision she makes, she’ll get the rest of the information as she needs it, and one way or another, her summer will work out. After all, mine did.
(I wrote this post without even thinking about the two biggest news items of the last week, from the frivolous—though not for the people involved—to the serious: the royal wedding and the death of Osama bin Laden. It does occur to me that these are two more cases where decisions had to be made long before all the information was available, but to say more would be to risk trivializing, so I’ll stop here.)