(Yes, yes, the page numbers are clunky but deliberate.)

Transformative Conversations: A Guide to Mentoring Communities Among Colleagues in Higher Education is a book about Faculty Mentoring Communities (FMCs). It's meant to be inspirational rather than descriptive; one of the key characteristics of FMCs is that they're bottom-up and not compulsory. Personally, the book wasn't mind-blowing to me at all... but I was still glad to read it, because my constant feeling while doing so was "finally, somebody wrote this stuff down."

An FMC's project is "the group's members themselves," as Parker Palmer writes in the foreword. "The agenda would consist of reflecting on our work and life, remembering our callings, exploring meaning and purpose, clarifying personal values, and realigning our lives with them. The goal of an FMC would be to use meaningful conversations to reinvigorate ourselves, our work, and by extension, the academy." (pg. x)

Did you catch that? Reinvigorate ourselves. This is a view of the academic life wherein vocation drives competency, rather than competency standing as an end unto itself. It is a fundamentally ontological view of faculty development and development of selves and identity as faculty. It's a deliberate sidestep away from the frantic churn of others' expectations. The book uses "formation" as a theme, and uses that word in the same sense as Ignatius of Loyola (or more recently, Steven Pressfield or Julia Cameron): not deciding who we want to be so much as discovering -- in contemplation and action, combined -- who we are made to be, and deciding to be that. An FMC is a small group of self-selected faculty members who -- quite simply -- help each other create space and time to be themselves.

The process is a midwifing one rather than a didactic one. There are multiple parallels to physical-birth midwives: you birth the child (or faculty-self) you have, not the one you wished you had. You go through discomfort and uncertainty -- liminal spaces -- in the process. You need to receive in order to give -- Lave and Wenger (1991) noted that Yucatan Mayan women were not allowed to become midwives until they themselves had given birth under the supervision of a midwife. Similarly, the authors realized they could not engage students in "a process of perpetual growth and formation" unless they themselves had ongoing formation (p. 4-5). One particularly poignant story (to me) came from Gallaudet, where FMC participants challenged each other to open up space for their Deaf Studies students grappling with wrenchingly personal work (p. 123-125). (I've previously written about the midwifing analogy in engineering education.)

More pragmatically, the book suggests meeting at least once but ideally twice a month for 1-2 hours. Regularity and clarity of expectations, such as confidentiality, are key. Rituals and norms will emerge (p. 85). For instance, the Gallaudet FMC asks themselves "What would we like to see happen in our teaching, our scholarship, and ourselves?" every semester (p. 109). The University of Washington FMC asks each member "where are you?" at the start of every meeting, as a check-in (p. 112).

Outcomes aren't prescribed -- in fact, the expectation of "outcomes" seems out of place; the point is creating space for growth too complex to measure or fully articulate. Some aspects of that growth may be reflected upon and captured, as in the authorship of this book itself. Ultimately, though, the goal of an FMC is transformation of the faculty involved. Note the word "transformation" rather than "improvement" -- that's important too. "Improvement" presupposes a metric we already know we want to get better at. "Transformation" presupposes no such thing; everything, including the type of change, is left open to emerge.

So what?

  • Hey, look -- an ontological approach to faculty development!
  • Also, a highly individualistic, not-all-faculty-are-the-same (in fact, each-faculty-member-is-wildly-different) approach!
  • Staying in liminal spaces long enough to become yourself is hard; that's why small support groups help.
  • We can only "midwife" others (like students!) when we have given birth ourselves -- and continue to accept support for our ongoing formation journeys.