Being in the Workshop: Thinking Ontologically About Our Clientele

Robert Allen Alexander Jr., Nicholls State University

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger once asked, “Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?” (2000, p. 1). That’s a question that has crossed my mind, in a less philosophical way, as I have watched the ebb and flow of participants in and out of our advising workshops. What is it, I wonder, that compels our colleagues to come to our workshops? Or of more concern, what is it that keeps them away?

Because those of us who put together workshops for advisers tend to be enthusiastic about our product, it is a challenge for us to step back and reflect on how those workshops may appear to our clientele. As we developed advising workshops in the past half decade, we invested a lot of effort toward making the sessions engaging by offering attention-grabbing and witty titles, hosting the workshops in comfortable, well-equipped rooms, supplementing presentations with multimedia, and establishing a certification program and an Excellence in Academic Advising Award. Our efforts have led to some significant successes, with faculty and staff members from across campus participating in multiple workshops. In general, we feel we have accomplished much and established a solid program. Even so, we are experienced enough to know that past success does not guarantee sustainability. The clientele we were recruiting to attend workshops five years ago are not the same ones we seek today. Yes, in some cases they may be the same individuals, but now they are more experienced, savvier, and, unfortunately, in some instances more jaded. And even if they are new to our campus, they are likely more proficient with technology and better focused on the advising needs of contemporary students than the generations of professors we have been accustomed to serving in past years. If we ignore these demographic changes in prospective workshop participants, then we risk stagnation and a proliferation of empty seats.

Another factor we need to consider is that the previous workshop experiences of our clientele are probably not limited to the product that we have been putting forward. They have likely participated in workshops elsewhere—in other areas of our campus, on other campuses, or through webinars—and some of those experiences may have been less than ideal. So try as we might to make our workshops as engaging and enticing as possible, we cannot control what others are doing. Who has not experienced—well, perhaps the better word is “endured”—such a workshop before? We can all remember the uninviting room, designed and furnished, no doubt, by a graduate from the School of Antiseptic Design, and the PowerPoint presentation riddled with bullets and mind-numbing statements of the obvious, a couple of graphs, and no images—a reminder that this PowerFul technology can be, when not fully utilized, far less effective as a communication tool than a medieval manuscript or smoke signals. Even if the room is well-furnished and the PowerPoint and the presentation captivating and scintillating, there are other elements that can make one’s workshop experience miserable—for example, the belligerent attitudes of other attendees, who often wear as a badge of honor the I’ve-got-better-things-to-do look of the world-weary senior professor. Strolling back to our offices after such workshop experiences, we may be consumed by feelings of deep dissatisfaction, wondering if it is not possible to build a time machine and retrieve that lost hour.

Why does it seem like a lost hour? Perhaps we come away with a morsel or two of information that may be useful, but it is not enough even to whet our appetites or drive us to seek additional resources. The primary reason it may have seemed a complete waste of time is that we feel disrespected, as if our hard-earned professional status has earned us nothing more than an invitation to be “developed.”

Is it any wonder, then, as Ronald Berk suggests, that faculty members “look for any reason not to attend [faculty development workshops] rather than to consider any positive value to attend” (2010, p. 50)? Administrators incessantly encourage—some might say “cajole”—professors to attend workshops, primarily because they wrote it into their annual plans, but also because they occasionally do think about the benefits to our students when teachers and advisers are more aware of theories and trends that may enhance their job performance. And most of us are genuinely interested in performing at the highest level and are therefore not averse to learning more about how to become more effective both within and outside the classroom. However, as highly educated and accomplished professionals, we do not appreciate being treated as if we are ordinary employees, expected to punch a time clock or make a certain number of widgets (that is, attend a set number of workshops). Most of all, of course, we do not like to be lectured to as if we do not have anything to contribute to the conversation—if indeed there is any conversation at all.

Because of the nature of college professors, anyone charged with developing an advising workshop program faces complex choices. Of course, some may choose to ignore that complexity and to treat the potential participants as if they are “regular” employees who need to be “trained.” What is appealing about that choice is that one can plan initiatives without having to consider the whims and desires of brilliant and, quite frankly, somewhat odd people. What is much more challenging, but also potentially more rewarding, is thinking about the uniqueness of faculty members and how academic advising initiatives should take that into account.

If as developers of advising workshops we choose the more challenging route, then there are some key questions we need to ponder: How can one design a workshop that will appeal to individuals as sophisticated and demanding as college professors? Where within the traditional advising workshop is there space and time for the sort of reflection and conversation that will engage faculty members? What sorts of approaches are required to ensure that the participants feel their professionalism is being respected even as they are challenged to consider alternative approaches to ways they have been doing things?

Ultimately, of course, we need to address this question: Why would anyone want to attend an advising workshop?

What are the incentives? Merit points that count toward promotion and tenure? Some sort of certification that one can frame and nail to the wall or slip into one of those slimy plastic sleeves and insert into a professional portfolio? The warm and fuzzy feeling that comes from doing what one is expected to do? The sheer joy of getting out of the office and delighting in the company of one’s colleagues?

Such rewards are nice, in the same way that door prizes are nice. They may provide some incentive. Trinkets have their place. But they are not the foundation upon which one creates decor, much less develops a professional career. In other words, the incentives we typically provide to inspire college professors to attend advising workshops are comparatively trivial.

So we could raise the stakes and offer incentives like steaks, grilled on a spanking new patio that is part of a massive new building dedicated solely to faculty members and served on silver platters lined with $100 bills. That would surely enhance workshop attendance.

Back on Planet Reality, however, we know we have to be more creative than that, even if what we just conjured up stretches the limits of our imaginations. We need to think about what we have and have not been doing. We also need to remember that famous quip often attributed, probably incorrectly, to Einstein, and now invoked so much by politicians and workshop facilitators (and now apparently writers of articles on developing advising workshops) that it has taken on the status of the trite and trivial: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting the same results.” So to avoid falling into the trap of complacency, of thinking that our prior success will inevitably translate into continued success, we need not only think of new incentives and approaches but perhaps to think more deeply about what it is that college professors do and how we might use that to appeal to them.

Having spent more than a dozen years on my current campus working with faculty colleagues, and having spent a good bit more time than that living with myself, who happens to be a college professor, I think I may have some idea about what it is that we do and what appeals to us. We are, honestly, pretty smart and savvy individuals. We enjoy learning. In fact, one could say that it is our lifestyle. We are insatiably curious, even if often we act like we really do not care all that much about newfangled things. Our minds are our tools. We like to exercise them and then to show them off by flexing them in public. Typically those public displays happen in classes or at academic conferences. But we would probably relish an opportunity to indulge in such recreation in a local, non-classroom environment—say in a place where colleagues from multiple disciplines have gathered in a comfortable and inviting place.

Perhaps what we need to be doing as developers of advising workshops is using our heads and allowing faculty members to use theirs. We should ponder the following questions: Are we appealing to the intellectual interests of faculty members? Are our workshops too technical, too simplistic, too insulting? And are they too limited in their disciplinary appeal?

It is the last question that intrigues me the most. As someone who hails from a humanities background and who has taught courses in literature, philosophy, religion, and cultural studies, I have found most faculty development workshops, including some I have had a hand in developing and facilitating, a bit heavy on research and theories emanating from the social sciences and education—in particular, educational psychology. There is, of course, a lot we can learn from those areas—and that we need to learn—but by building workshops somewhat exclusively with the tools of those disciplines, we are guilty of neglecting others. Obviously it would be ridiculous to think we should or could employ resources from all disciplines, but I would argue there is one way we can sort of do that, and that is by drawing from what we might call the progenitor of all disciplines—philosophy.

When confronted with the choice of whether to participate in an advising workshop, a philosopher (if he acknowledges the existence of free will) might ask, “What does it mean ‘to be’ in a workshop?” And that may lead us to another question: What does it mean to be a “being” in a workshop? Is that “being” nothing more than an empty vessel waiting passively to be filled—that is, “developed”? Or is that “being” merely a mind/soul “stranded,” as U2 (2004) suggests, “in some skin and bones.” Or could it be that that “being” is much more complex than we have ever imagined, and part of that complexity is its refusal, despite the best efforts of scholars—philosophers, scientists, humanists—to  be reduced down to something that can be contained in language, much less a specific learning outcome?

If that is what we are, then is it not the ultimate act of hubris, if not foolishness, to think that we can “develop” our colleagues?

OK, so maybe I am being too impractical. Philosophy can have that effect on us. So before digging even deeper into this philosophical quandary or quagmire or pile of you-know-what, let us consider some questions that may seem more sensible.

Could it be that our faculty colleagues are just not all that interested in the issues typically addressed through advising workshops? Are they so preoccupied with their teaching and research within their disciplines that they do not have the time nor the inclination to focus on our students’ broader college experiences? Should they invest a lot of time learning about residential life, financial aid, and student services? The answer to such questions seems obvious—to us. Faculty members need to know about the many diverse entities that contribute to the success of our students. And I think that most of them do want to know these things and understand that their students’ success—and, in particular, their advisees’ success—depends tremendously on the students’ ability to navigate and make use of these resources. So it is not a matter of professors being indifferent or too narrowly focused on their own work.

If we start with the assumption that our faculty colleagues are interested in learning more about what we typically offer through advising workshops, and we see that despite this interest and our efforts to make the workshops accessible, inviting, and engaging participation has stagnated or decreased, perhaps there is something even more fundamental we need to consider.

Are we truly “recruiting” faculty members to attend workshops by appealing to their professional self-worth?

Given the current state of affairs in higher education and the way state legislators and educational leaders have consistently derided and demeaned those who work in universities, even as they provide us with diminished resources and demand we turn our attention away from what we think really matters—teaching and research, for example—and dedicate time and scant resources to feeding the accountability monster, it is no wonder that college professors are not feeling too good about themselves. Many of us have gone without pay raises for several years and have even seen our take-home pay decrease as we are required to pay a greater share of our health care and retirement costs. As we stroll down the corridors of our classroom buildings, headed off to yet another meeting about how to measure the unmeasurable, we may pause and reflect on why we ever invested so much time, effort, and money into all those years of graduate school. Like the forlorn Kent in Shakespeare’s King Lear, we wonder, “Is this the promised end?” (1994, p. 116).

Perhaps what college professors need more than anything else, then, is some respect, some recognition that they are highly educated professionals uniquely qualified to fulfill a role that makes a significant and indispensable contribution to the cultural and economic advancement of our citizenry. Those of us who are charged with providing advising workshops are well positioned to appeal to faculty members in just that manner.

We can begin by listening. And asking. We need to find out what interests our faculty colleagues and what it is that they want to learn more about. We also need to invite our colleagues to share their ideas with their colleagues. If there is one thing that college professors have in ample supply it is ideas, and ones that they often obtain through their experiences in the classroom and through advising relationships. They may have had opportunities to share these ideas as participants in workshops, but the sharing of a brief anecdote as part of a conversation does not allow one to flesh out an idea, to explore it in ways that can bear fruit for both the facilitator and the participants. We need to make a concerted effort to carve out more time for these types of exchanges, and perhaps the workshop format is not the best way to do that. Therefore, we also need to consider some less conventional approaches and settings to encourage the development of such fruitful dialogue.

What all this is leading to is our increasing awareness of the necessity of creating opportunities for a participant-centered learning environment, one that gives our faculty colleagues ownership of academic advising initiatives and space to reflect, discuss, and synthesize, and without the expectation that all of that has to be or can be accomplished in the space of sixty minutes. What we need to place more value on is what is buzzing inside professors’ minds as they retire to their chambers after a workshop. “It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me,” writes Albert Camus (1991, p. 121), commenting on the power (and the terror) of reflection and self-consciousness that consumes the Greek mythological hero. Sisyphus, condemned by the gods to suffer the “unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing” (Camus, 1991, p. 120), nevertheless finds meaning by making his meaning in what he has, even if that is only a rock. As college professors we can empathize with Sisyphus, for the task of forever rolling a rock up a hill only to see it roll back down sounds a lot like a job description for a tenure-track position. But we can also learn from Camus’ assessment of Sisyphus’ plight and attitude something about the value of what we do as college professors. Sometimes we just need to be left alone with our rock. Let us do what we will with it. Some will carve out a statue. Some will use it to blaze a new trail. Others will just let it roll over them. But regardless of the result, we own it. The rock is ours. And that means that we will invest in it and stake our professional well-being on it.

Are those of us who develop academic advising initiatives beginning with a fundamental error by thinking that our faculty advisers need to be “developed.” Instead, we should be encouraging and allowing them “to be” who they are—that is, to maximize their professional potential through the exercising of their intellectual faculties and the assessment of what they have learned through research and experience.

What we need to do is push our efforts to a more mature level, and, in the process, regard our constituency, our colleagues, as the mature professionals they are.

References

Berk, R. A. (2010). Why are faculty development workshops a waste of time? The Journal of Faculty Development 24(2), 49–52.

Camus, A. (1991). The myth of Sisyphus and other essays. (J. O’Brien, Trans.). New York, NY: Vintage.

Heidegger, M. (2000). Introduction to metaphysics. (G. Fried & R. Polt, Trans.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Shakespeare, W. (1994). King Lear. S. Appelbaum & C. Ward (Eds.). New York, NY: Dover.

U2 (2004). Yahweh. [Recorded by U2]. On How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb [CD]. Santa Monica: CA: Interscope Records.

About the Author(s)

Robert Allen Alexander Jr., Nicholls State University

Robert Allen Alexander Jr., is head of the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies and the director of Retention and Student Engagement at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, LA. He can be reached at robert.alexander@nicholls.edu.

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