Making the Case for Integrative Professional Development

In higher education, integrative learning is all the rage, and will be for some time to come. According to AAC&U:

There is a growing national emphasis on fostering undergraduate students’ integrative learning through multiple forms of engaged educational experiences. As learning across boundaries becomes a signature characteristic of a 21st century liberal education, curricular, co-curricular, and pedagogical innovations call for new forms of cross-cutting faculty oversight to discern the quality and level of students’ overall integrative learning. Such oversight is in addition to the responsibility that the faculty already have for the effectiveness of the curriculum in their own departments and across general education.

As with so many pedagogical initiatives and strategies that we promote for students, we are notoriously bad at integrative learning as scholars and professionals. We lament the “silos” in higher education, but we perpetuate them with our disciplines, departments, and divides. We bemoan the gap between academic and co-curricular learning, but then we position ourselves squarely in our specific area of the field, usually on one side or the other.

In some ways, this isn’t entirely our fault as individual scholars, practitioners, scholar-practitioners, or practitioner-scholars; the promotion and tenure structure is designed to reward specialization vs. generalization. Fear not, this isn’t another piece advocating for overhaul of the RPT process – though I do think that will be necessary for any substantial change in higher education. Instead, I want to start a dialogue on what we can do about this – individually, in our centers, on our campuses, and across our professional networks – to catalyze change in higher education more effectively and model integrative learning for our students.

In my career so far, I’ve intentionally sought out positions that are somewhat uncomfortable and stretch my knowledge, skills, and abilities. In other words, I try to find positions that I know I can do effectively but that I haven’t always done and probably won’t always be doing. I’ve purposely completed internships and accepted positions at a range of institutional types: a large public research university, a school of applied technology known for project-based learning, a Jesuit institution committed to social justice and holistic development, and now a small residential Ivy League college regarded for its blended emphasis on teaching and learning, liberal arts, and high quality scholarship. Within these diverse institutions, I’ve also held a range of professional positions, as a leadership and civic engagement educator, ePortfolio specialist, instructional designer, and experiential learning expert. I’ve worked all over the org chart: in student affairs, academic affairs/curriculum development, information technology, and now a teaching and learning center. To some, this might make my career trajectory seem scattered, but to me, it’s made all the difference in my applied understanding of higher education, and more importantly, how we might change it.

The ability to move around as much as I have is a professional privilege, and I recognize that, so I’d like to share some strategies that don’t involve uprooting or even overhauling your resume:

  • Be a square peg: Join (and engage in) professional organizations where you aren’t considered an expert. I’ve found incredible value in participating in Campus Compact, IARSLCE, EDUCAUSE, thePOD Network, AAEEBL, and AAC&U – as a way to intentionally cultivate professional relationships and my own blended understanding of digital, experiential, and community based learning. Participate in webinars on topics you’ve never heard of, and read books that are peripherally but not explicitly related to your field.
  • Never stop learning: The best teachers are also lifelong learners, and see the act of teaching as a process of co-learning. Be an active listserv participant: Post and respond to questions, click on links when colleagues share them, take the time to read articles that are referenced, etc. Consider signing up for a MOOC. (Even more so if the term “MOOC” makes you uncomfortable.) Build an ePortfolio and challenge yourself to reflect critically on and identify the intersections in your teaching, research, and professional development.
  • Expand your band: We talk a lot about the limitations of preaching to the choir in our respective fields, so get a new band together. Create integrated communities of practice on your own campus, and include representatives from a range of units that cut across departments and academic/co-curricular divisions. This can be formalized by enlisting new members for advisory boards, committees, workshop series, etc. or an informal, relational strategy  – taking the initiative to invite colleagues to coffee to learn about what they do and identify places where your work might intersect.
  • Go digital: Use hashtags to make connections and engage in virtual backchannel conversations. This is especially helpful if professional development funds are limited. If you’re not able to travel to a conference, consider attending virtually. Many professional associations now offer remote attendance options.
  • Find your tribe: To integrate your network, depth is as important as breadth. When attending a conference, participate in tracks or cohorts (if offered) to deepen your engagement with a particular topic, idea, or community of practice. Examples include the annual ELI Leadership Seminar and the IARSLCE Practitioner Scholars Forum. AAC&U also offers a series of summer institutes that can support institutional cohorts in collective professional development on specific topics:
  • Stack your roster: Good teaching is truly a team sport, and involves expertise that no one person has: subject mastery, knowledge of learning design, technology/media expertise,command of collections, archiving, and copyright etc. Find out what resources are available on your campus, and use them. Also, co-teach if you have the chance, especially with someone outside of your home department, or even someone outside of academia. Teach with a community co-educator or co-curricular educator to integrate the students’ applied and theoretical learning.

What are your strategies for integrating your own professional development? How might we inspire professional associations to offer more integrative learning opportunities?