Faculty Learning Communities: If at First You Don’t Succeed…

Sherrill Hammon
Indiana Tech It was in November of 2008 and we were excited! I can still remember the railroad tracks we crossed that sent us into the air. (Perhaps I was driving too fast as we traveled home from the International Lilly Conference on College Teaching in Oxford, Ohio.) My colleague, Beth, and I had attended several sessions on Faculty Learning Communities (FLCs) and we were excited about starting one on, what was then a small, private Business and Engineering college. Faculty are fortunate at our university because they can apply for a competitive, internal Faculty Development Grant to fund faculty development initiatives . . . so we wrote a proposal. Our proposal was to (1) attend the Lilly Institute on FLCs in June and to (2) form and lead an FLC on our campus for the 2009/10 academic year. Our proposal was accepted and we began our FLC journey. Beth and I flew to California to attend the Lilly Institute on FLCs that June and found the sessions informative and developmental in nature. We actually left the institute with a plan. We began by inviting eight faculty members to join our FLC -- each person representing a different discipline. All eight accepted our invitation and we met during the lunch hour throughout the 2009/10 academic year. Our meals were catered, served on tables with white linen tablecloths, napkins, and china. The luncheons felt elegant because, after all, we wanted this to be a treat. But . . . we learned some lessons from that first FLC experience. For example, most members accepted our invitation to join because they were curious --- What is an FLC? Why wouldn’t I join and get free lunches?, etc. We found that members weren’t committed to the FLC because we’d never stated our expectations. As a result, attendance at meetings was inconsistent and we never formed a cohesive group. We also failed to show we had accomplished anything after that first year because, although we had identified topics to discuss at each meeting, we had never set any measurable goals. Our lunchtime meetings frequently turned into personal stories or, dare I say, gripe sessions and one hour was definitely was not enough time. Upon reflection, we wondered, too, if the composition of the FLC (some members were tenured and some were tenure-track) created a tension of its own. We never thought of that when initially selecting the membership. Our 2009/10 FLC had its merits . . . it connected faculty from across several disciplines, it introduced the concept of FLCs to campus, and it temporarily gave those who attended the meetings a feeling of support. However, we ended that FLC after one year with no measurable outcomes. FLC: Take 2 Several years passed and in April 2014, three of the eight original FLC members decided to try it again. We reflected on our first attempt, made some tweaks and started over. We saw the value of keeping our FLC interdisciplinary, but we were more purposeful about who we invited to join us and we made sure that each person understood the commitment we were seeking. This time we reduced the size of our FLC to six faculty members. The size makes it much easier to schedule meetings for a 90- to 120-minute meeting and it allows us to travel together to conferences or events. We have diversity in gender, ethnicity, nationality, and discipline. We’re committed to visiting each other’s classes, sharing pedagogy, sharing student engagement techniques, challenging each other to try new methods, submitting proposals for presenting, traveling to Lilly conferences together, and having fun. We “reinvent” ourselves each year by identifying new goals to achieve and even spent time this past summer meeting as a book club to discuss “Make it Stick”. “Take 2” is working beautifully and I’m envious of faculty members who develop an FLC in the early years of their career. Several of our FLC members recently attended the 2018 Lilly Institute on FLCs to sharpen their skills and to help more FLCs get started on campus. I’m pleased to say we facilitated the start of an “Early Career FLC” in September and we’re helping a “Writing Across the Curriculum FLC” get started in January. As a bonus, both our administration and colleagues are recognizing our efforts. We’ve led sessions in two Faculty In-Service Days, we’ve shared the benefits of FLC membership at a Faculty High Tea, we’ve presented at two Lilly Conferences, and we’re currently serving as the Advisory Board to the university’s new Teaching Excellence Center. We’re excited about the future of FLCs on our campus. My advice? If at first you don’t succeed . . . you know the rest! Discussion Questions: Would our campus culture embrace the practice of an interdisciplinary FLC? What issue or topic would be addressed by the activities of the FLC? Who are the key players necessary for such a venture to be successful? What resources are available on campus to support this type of work? Suggestions for Further Readings Building Faculty Learning Communities: New Directions for Teaching and Learning, Number 97, edited by Milton D. Cox, and Laurie Richlin, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2011. Developing Faculty Learning Communities at Two-Year Colleges (2013) edited by Susan Sipple and Robin Lightner. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing. General Information about Faculty Learning Communities at Miami University. URL: http://www.units.miamioh.edu/flc/miami.php

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