• December 22, 2014

Working to Build a Cohesive Faculty Community

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

I frequently invoke the word "community" when I speak at my institution, Gettysburg College. I do so with intent, both because "community" describes our college so well, and because it is something that should not be taken for granted. Our ability to fulfill our mission is in many ways dependent on a strong sense of cohesion. It would be easy to assume that at a residential liberal-arts college like Gettysburg, such a sense of community would be a given because our students live together, and because we have a relatively small full-time faculty of about 215, all bound together by a common mission. While it might seem like those qualities would guarantee a sense of community, that is not necessarily so. We must work at it.

An intellectually lively faculty is critical to the health of our community, as are the strong relationships between professors and students. Professors are expected to juggle many responsibilities. They should be excellent classroom teachers; they mentor students intellectually and sometimes personally; they supervise theses, research, independent study, and other creative work carried out by students; they carry out their own scholarly programs and bring those projects to fruition through publication, exhibition, and conference presentations; they are expected to stay contemporary in their pedagogy and on the cutting edge in their disciplines; and they shoulder significant responsibility for the governance of the college. That's a demanding workload for pay that is good, but unexceptional compared with other professions that demand advanced degrees.

I believe that most faculty members do this work because they are genuinely committed to their disciplines and the pursuit of new knowledge, and because they love to teach and mentor students. They thrive in a challenging academic atmosphere and the sense of community within it. Increasingly, many of today's faculty teach and work in fields that are increasingly interdisciplinary. Communal connections facilitate collaborations with others outside of one's traditional department, which can bring fresh insights. Finally, at a time when dual-career households create living situations that sometimes put professors at a physical distance from campus, promoting a sense of community is all the more important to assure the development of mentoring, professional, and personal relationships.

There are a number of things we do at Gettysburg to build a broad sense of community for the faculty. Participation in opening convocation for first-year students and commencement for graduating seniors; an employee-wellness program; and a campus day-care center all contribute to a sense of connection and community across employee groups. I would even suggest that governance activity—participation on college committees with faculty and administrators—builds strong connections and a better understanding of the college as a whole.

In addition to those activities, we've developed several programs and events to promote a strong sense of community among our faculty:

Friday faculty lunches. Each week that classes are in session, all faculty members are invited to gather for lunch on Friday to hear a colleague talk about her or his scholarly work. The talks must be given in language that is accessible to those outside of the discipline, and are expected to last about 45 minutes, plus another 15 minutes for questions and conversation. The lunch fare the college provides has lightened considerably since the economic downturn, but attendance has not.

Friday-afternoon social hours. Also on Fridays, academic departments and administrative offices take turns hosting collegewide social hours from 4:30 to 6:00 p.m. at different venues on campus. Refreshments are not lavish, but snacks and beverages are provided. The gatherings allow professors to get to know each other in an informal setting as they unwind from their busy week. There is no agenda beyond enjoying each other's company, and many young faculty members bring their children. When we were going through the first round of budget reductions following the economic downturn, there was an outcry from many faculty asking not to cut the social hours. They are one of our best and most popular faculty community-builders.

Creative teaching and learning programs. Our Johnson Center for Creative Teaching and Learning sponsors programs and workshops for all of our faculty members. This past year, topics included time management for tenure-track faculty members, teaching in the multicultural classroom, and grant writing. Typically the programs attract quite a cross section of faculty. As a result of one workshop, two different groups of faculty members began writing groups that met weekly during the academic year.

New-faculty orientation. We provide a two-day orientation for new faculty members before the academic year begins, then continue to provide opportunities for them to meet as the year goes on. Our associate provost for faculty development hosts new and second-year faculty in her home a few times a year to provide a more relaxed, off-campus atmosphere. We also have a rotating distinguished teaching chair in the humanities, who mentors new faculty members. Last year's chair brought new faculty members together to discuss teaching, course evaluations, and the tenure process. He also helped them get to know the campus culture and colleagues from different departments by bringing them together with staff members from offices including academic advising, the counseling center, and dining services. Last year he worked with our director of experiential education to coordinate a five-day paddling trip to the Adirondacks at the conclusion of the academic year for interested new faculty members. Given that more and more colleges and universities sponsor these kinds of experiences for students as a means of orientation, it is perhaps not so surprising that they would also be effective for new faculty.

Honoring faculty achievements. Three times a year, the college publishes a Faculty Notebook that lists the professional achievements of our faculty members and administrators, including their publications and conference presentations. Further, our library staff hosts an annual authors' reception for all of those who have published something during the year. The size of our faculty makes gatherings like this feasible, and we find this to be a wonderful way to build community. At larger institutions, similar activities could be done divisionally or cross-divisionally, allowing a cross section of faculty members to meet colleagues they might otherwise never get to know.

Benefits: Each event and program contributes to creating a closer faculty community at the college. Our lunch talks provide opportunities for professors to learn more about their colleagues' scholarly work, and to meet and dine with faculty members outside of their immediate departments. Our Friday social hours allow for casual, relaxed mingling. The learning workshops not only educate faculty members on issues relevant to their careers but also bring people from different departments together to discuss their common interests and concerns. Our new-faculty orientation both trains our newest professors and helps them integrate into the campus community. And we boost morale by celebrating our faculty and staff members' accomplishments.

Maintaining a strong sense of community is essential for recruiting and retaining excellent faculty members and for encouraging them to invest both professionally and personally in the college and their students. Simply put, they will be better faculty members if they feel a strong connection to the college community. Making the effort to create a tightly knit community among our faculty and staff clearly has positively affected the quality of life on our campus. And that, in turn, has improved the quality of their work and of our educational offerings.

Janet Morgan Riggs is president of Gettysburg College, and a professor of psychology.

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