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Remember that famous drawing that’s either a rabbit or a duck, depending on which you first decide?

Professional development is like that. People who think it’s a rabbit have a hard time seeing the duck, and people who see the duck have a hard time imagining the rabbit. The rabbit/duck divide is most pronounced when the professional development in question is for faculty. Neither the rabbit view nor the duck view is wrong, exactly, but it’s easy for people to talk past each other when each group assumes that its view is obviously correct.

Keep in mind that I’m writing in the context of teaching-intensive institutions. I grant without hesitation that the picture may look very different at, say, research universities.

On the rabbit side, many faculty believe that the core of professional development involves travel to conferences in their disciplines. The idea is to stay current with developments in the field, to maintain and grow contacts in other places, and to get a break from the monotony of local routine.  

There’s nothing wrong with the rabbit view. Disciplines evolve. Provincialism can become a real problem when people stay in one place forever and lose touch with the rest of the world. There’s an old joke about the HR director who asks the CEO “what if we develop our people, and they leave?” The CEO responds “what if we don’t, and they stay?” Faculty who lose touch with their disciplines are likely to become less effective in the classroom. And those networks have ancillary benefits that we shouldn’t discount.

On the duck side, from an institutional perspective, professional development for faculty tends to revolve around classroom issues that transcend individual disciplines. That could mean online tools, universal design and working with students with disabilities, FERPA and other regulatory compliance, or simply finding ways to teach a class with an intimidatingly wide range of student preparation levels. None of this is specific to any one department or field.

The duck view is also valid, as far as it goes. Compliance with federal law is not optional. Technology is only effective when people know how to use it well.  Some classroom challenges characterize every discipline at the institution; dealing with them across the board is far more efficient and sensible than reinventing the wheel for every single discipline. New advising software or protocols are specific to institutions, rather than disciplines, but they’re only effective when faculty and staff know how to use them.

In some cases, it’s possible for a single event to satisfy both the rabbit and the duck.  A few disciplines have conferences specifically focused on teaching at the two-year level. AMATYC, TESOL, and the CCCC leap to mind.  In those cases, math, ESL, and English composition respectively have entire conferences in which the research presented is specifically about classroom issues. In these cases, the rabbit and the duck happily exist side by side.

But most disciplines don’t have that. Given limited time and very limited money, it’s often impossible or impractical to do justice to both. Sometimes we struggle to do justice to either.

Some partial solutions exist, but I’d like to see more. For example, webinars and other online resources can eliminate travel costs, thereby enabling more people to participate for the same amount of money. (That also helps reduce schedule conflicts with classes.)  But webinars and the like tend to be very narrowly focused, by necessity. A full-blown conference will have a more robust slate of options, as well as the invaluable in-between times in which informal conversation can happen. Conference veterans know that the in-between times are often much more fruitful than the formal sessions.

The constant dilemma at community colleges is that both the rabbit and the duck are valid, but most of the time, it’s a struggle to fund both. There’s a reason that the big national conferences in many disciplines are populated almost entirely by faculty from four-year schools, and it’s not apathy or incompetence at the two-year level. It’s the paucity of travel money. Outside of grants, it’s difficult to support anywhere near as much as we should.  

And that distorts the discourse at the national level. When the people in the room are entirely from only one segment of higher ed, the discussion will reflect that. Even when disciplines try to respond with “undegraduate education” sections and the like, the people who can show up will mostly be from the kinds of places that can afford to send them. The blind spots just get bigger over time.

I can’t discount either the discipline-centric or the institution-centric versions of professional development. They’re both valid, and they both matter. At some point, it would be lovely if policymakers understood that. Until then, any philanthropists looking to make a notable and fast difference are welcome to step up...

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