Helping Professors Find Time to Think

The mission of faculty development has begun to broaden beyond the traditional focus on teaching

Matt Manley for The Chronicle Review

December 05, 2016

I am one of many in academe who eagerly read The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy, drawn in by the promise of the book’s subtitle. The frantic pace of academic life drives us to distraction — deadlines, teaching demands, information overload, days of back-to-back meetings, the increasingly competitive and resource-squeezed nature of our work.

As an associate director of faculty development at Emory University, I am always on the lookout for antidotes to that counterproductive frenzy. In The Slow Professor, published earlier this year, Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber encourage us to simplify our work habits, to allow scholarship time to be fruitful and rewarding, to be more "contemplative" than "productive." Slowing down, they write, allows for periods of rest and perspective, and it lets scholarship "ripen" in the context of community rather than competition.

It sounds luxurious, doesn’t it? Time to think. But as I read, I wondered: Are there unintended consequences?

Faculty members say their writing and teaching are improved by interdisciplinary interactions with colleagues.
After all, Berg and Seeber are both professors of English, formed by a research culture in which salaries are not pegged to grant dollars, and their book is primarily concerned with the humanities. But the need to slow down is just as urgent in other fields. A recent essay in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences argued that the current system of reward and incentive has driven scientists to effectively spend "more time announcing ideas than formulating them." The cost, the authors write, is creativity: "Finding organized explanations for the world around us, and solutions for our existential problems, is hard work and requires intense and sustained concentration."

So what happens if a scientist on "soft money" takes time for sustained concentration by submitting fewer grants?

A public-health researcher I know recently took a year off from the vicious grant-funding cycles for a deep and critical look at the trajectory of her research. As a result, her personal income dropped by 80 percent during that period. While it was "painful," she says, "at the end of my career I will look back and say it was the best year I’ve had because the quality of my scholarship improved. Ideas don’t come on a schedule pressured with deadlines and obligations."

Her story and others like it suggest that those of us in faculty development have a role to play in helping academics cope with those pressures and restore joy to their work.

Historically and recently, faculty development has focused solely on teaching and learning. The mission statements of our professional groups — like the National Academy for Academic Leadership, the Professional and Organizational Developers Network, the New England Faculty Development Consortium — place "teaching and learning" in a position of primacy.

Now, however — supported by books like The Slow Professor — we are starting to see faculty development envisioned as an intellectual endeavor for the "whole professor."

What does that mean? It means we can foster rich pockets of time and space for faculty members to think, talk, and write about what they do. We can create discrete, accessible opportunities for quiet conversation and stillness of mind. They need not be major commitments or dramatic changes. A small shift into a dedicated space for an hour or so can work wonders.

Faculty development must cultivate times and places for deep deliberation and care -- not merely for the whole professor, but for the whole university.
For example, we could organize and coordinate faculty writing groups based on participants’ preferences around format, frequency, and group composition. Those pockets of time and space could also be virtual: twice-weekly "Sit Down and Write" gatherings to help people structure their time and connect with others might happen simultaneously in a campus coffee shop and a Facebook group. Following the "Pomodoro" time-management technique, group members could write for 25 minutes, take five minutes to check in, write for 25 more, then take a few minutes at the end to catch up.

Campus faculty-development centers, like ours at Emory, could host "academic learning communities" — short-term seminars in which faculty from disparate areas of the university meet four to six times a semester to discuss their research, teaching, and intellectual lives.

Our centers might also house multidisciplinary courses examining issues and topics by faculty and students from across the university. The goal is not just to focus an array of intellectual perspectives on an important topic but also to create a sense of common purpose across diverse groups of people, including students at all levels — undergraduate, graduate, and professional.

A spirit of interdisciplinary creativity undergirds all of these endeavors. Seminars could lead to curricular innovation and scholarly conferences. A legal historian and a women’s-studies professor might discover via their writing group that they are scholarly soul mates. A nursing professor mightunderstand her work in a new light after teaching with a theologian and an anthropologist in a multidisciplinary course.

Such connections can help faculty members find new pleasure and reward in the profession.

And that sort of satisfaction translates into quality scholarship and teaching. According to internal assessments at my institution, faculty members say their writing and teaching are improved by interdisciplinary interactions with colleagues. The result is a better institution for faculty members and students alike.

In addition to Emory’s center, some institutions are embracing this broadened notion of faculty development:

  • The Center for Faculty Excellence at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill aims to provide "holistic support" to faculty members "across the spectrum of their professional responsibilities and activities: teaching, scholarship and research, leadership, and mentoring."
  • The University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Institute for Teaching Excellence & Faculty Development states as its mission "the professional development of faculty across all career stages and disciplines with a wide range of programs and resources focused on teaching, mentoring, scholarly writing, tenure preparation, leadership, and work/life balance."
  • And the signature program of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity deals with the "personal and professional life" of faculty with the goal of "learning the secrets to increasing your research productivity, getting control of your time, and living a full and healthy life beyond your campus."

Faculty development in higher education has long held teaching and learning as its end game. In this increasingly demanding and competitive era, however, it must encompass a more expansive role. Faculty development must cultivate times and places for deep deliberation and care — not merely for the whole professor, but for the whole university.

Allison Adams is an associate director of the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence at Emory University in Atlanta.