From the publisher: In 2014, Deborah H. C. Gin and Stacy Williams-Duncan began an in-depth study of seminary faculty members’ views on their preparation for their role, their sense of collective vocation, teaching online, and more. Their insights were published preliminarily as “Faculty Perceptions about Their Work: Four Snapshots of Faculty in ATS Schools,” which appeared in the January/February 2016 edition of Colloquy, the online newsletter of the Association of Theological Schools. Later their conclusions were published in a longer form as “Three Insights about Faculty Development in Theological Education,” which appeared in Theological Education 50:2 (2017), pp. 79–101. In this edited excerpt, they share some of the lessons (and surprises) that emerged from the project. 

Do seminary educators welcome faculty development opportunities? Can a thoughtful faculty development program unify a diverse and independent group of faculty members behind an institutional vision? And, at a time when budgets are tight, should seminaries consider faculty development a perk or a priority?

These were some of the questions we hoped our research would answer, but first we needed to determine if a single understanding of faculty development even existed. We suspected interpretations might vary, and our study confirmed that we were right. Here’s a sampling of what faculty and deans told us:

  • Some educators define faculty development in monetary terms — funds that enable them to attend conferences, take sabbaticals, and pursue individual scholarship.

  • Others take a broader view and say the value of faculty development isn’t restricted to “our specific disciplines, but in how we can work together as a cohesive, coherent, trusting faculty.”

  • A few see faculty development as a school’s efforts to help new faculty settle successfully into the institution’s processes and environment.

Not all descriptions and characterizations that we heard were favorable. Less enthusiastic faculty cited their schools’ practice of tying participation in faculty development to their professional evaluation. They spoke of how demotivating such top-down pressure can be, yet they acknowledged that sometimes such pressure gets them to engage in something they wouldn’t otherwise tackle, such as student formation or online teaching.

As for the perk-vs.-priority debate, one faculty member built a convincing case for strengthening faculty development activities: “Our fields are changing so quickly that we have not really trained for what we’re doing today, much less what we may be doing 10 years from now. We have to be retooling and relearning and gathering new data and skillsets.”

Preparation vs. expectations

Gaps exist between the skills that theological educators need to fulfill their responsibilities today and the skills taught in doctoral programs and enhanced through faculty development opportunities. Faculty tend to be overprepared for scholarly research, adequately prepared for service to school and community, and underprepared for classroom teaching, for administrative work, and for engaging in student formation.

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Figure 1 shows that faculty members perceive that student formation is second in importance only to teaching, and yet faculty members indicate modest preparation from their graduate programs and only slightly better preparation obtained through faculty development initiatives at their current institutions.

Figure 1 also shows that faculty members perceive administrative work (such as directing a grant-funded initiative, serving on an academic committee, or chairing a faculty search) to be almost as important as research, and yet they report almost no preparation in graduate school or through faculty development programs.

Closing the skills gap through a strategically designed faculty development program has the potential to reap multiple benefits for theological schools. In the focus groups we hosted and in the surveys we circulated, we encountered several references to the “collective nature” of faculty development. Respondents saw faculty development as a way to build cohesiveness and create alignment with the institution’s mission while making progress in developing much-needed skills. Ultimately, the result could be a highly skilled faculty that feels a shared responsibility for the good of the institution.

Based on this feedback, institutions are wise to ask: Does our faculty development program generate a feeling of collective vocation? Are our faculty members being socialized into a collective vocation and integrated into our school’s culture?

Moving ahead “collectively”

The notion of developing a “collective faculty vocation” was not considered in our original survey design, but after the topic was extensively discussed in focus groups, we realized its importance. To explore the concept, we looked at how research participants responded to three items on the survey. All three relate to student formation and assessment — areas that many Ph.D. programs do not emphasize. We took note of how many faculty respondents agreed with these statements:

  • At my institution, we have a shared understanding of the purpose of student assessment.

  • At my institution, we have engaged in adequate theological reflection on assessment.

  • At my institution, we have established useful mechanisms for assessing student formation.

By asking about the purpose of assessment, the survey moved to a deeper layer of meaning and mission and allowed the responses to function as a concrete representation of a sense of collective vocation. Faculty members most likely to feel a shared understanding come from institutions that have engaged in intentional theological reflection on assessment and then have established mechanisms of assessing student formation.

Whereas reflection is philosophical, the establishment of mechanisms is functional. A significant majority (66 percent) of respondents believed their institutions had established useful mechanisms for assessment. However, only 42 percent thought their school — as part of its faculty development effort — had encouraged them first to reflect theologically on assessment, then to establish mechanisms for assessment.

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So here’s what we gleaned from all this: Guiding faculty through theological reflection on the work faculty do is more likely to lead to a feeling of collective vocation than merely creating functional mechanisms that become part of a school’s policies and procedures.

Bridging the digital divide

One of the goals for our study was to understand theological educators’ perspectives of online teaching and gather their thoughts about faculty development efforts to prepare them for the digital classroom.

The survey results contained some surprises. Among them:

  • Only 43 percent of respondents had ever taught a fully online course; and only 58 percent had taught a “hybrid” course (one that meets partly online and partly in a traditional classroom).

  • Whereas we expected most online teaching to occur in embedded schools where supportive infrastructure was available, this wasn’t the case. Only 28 percent of faculty at embedded institutions had taught a fully online course, compared with 53 percent at freestanding schools.

  • Most online teaching was done by midcareer faculty rather than younger faculty, who might be assumed to be more comfortable in a digital environment.

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Conversations within focus groups were revealing. Faculty who had not yet taught online identified their lack of confidence and experience as hindrances. This was the case regardless of their ages. One veteran professor commented, “I think I could do some things [online] that would be engaging, but I simply don’t know how. I tell people that if you went to college with a slide rule in your backpack, then [your school] needs to help you.” A young faculty member, obviously not a member of the slide rule generation, agreed. She said, “The assumption is that we all know how to do this, but it’s just not true.”

The most significant concerns about online teaching seemed to be pedagogical, not technological. One comment cited the lack of faculty development as a shortcoming:

I think faculty were left to discover or to figure out that online teaching is a completely different pedagogical environment from a four-walled classroom. Some of us got that pretty early on, and [others] of us [are] still very much trying to force online teaching into the four-walled classroom model. We have not had significant faculty development events or conversations that would help us share with one another what we’ve learned about this new pedagogical environment.

The good news: No regrets

A final piece that emerged from our research addressed whether or not faculty would choose teaching in a theological school again. The good news is that 90 percent had no regrets about their career choice, and yes, they would choose it again if given the opportunity.

Educators who were most satisfied in their work were those who said their institutions are doing enough with respect to faculty development, and those who applaud the shift in emphasis from the evaluation of teaching to the assessment of student learning.

Finally, we determined that faculty members who fit the mission of their institutions are the happiest. We find this very encouraging. It speaks to a positive overall morale of theological educators, which is an important foundation for all faculty development.

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