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Using IF with a Group of Faculty

I wanted to share my recent experience about using the IF process with a group of faculty at my institution to discuss changing general education requirements. When I attended the 2009 Summer Institute, I considered how to implement IF into venues other than classroom settings or citizen discussions such as meetings of faculty committees or advisory boards, and wondered how applicable IF might be for facilitating productive discussions in these education settings. I could foresee how faculty group deliberations on certain goals or topics would benefit from more focused discussion on concerns and possibilities, especially if participants agreed to some ground rules about how conversations would be facilitated. My experience in large faculty meetings or committees is that participants crave real participatory discussion that leads to clear ends, but the often contentious or unfocused nature of the process undercuts both collegiality and productivity. Thus, I wanted to see how a different type of discussion process would impact the nature and quality of the deliberation.
I currently co-chair a Task Force to reform general education requirements at the college that includes over 30 department/discipline representatives, including several department chairs, administrators, and new faculty members. The group has been deliberating (for about a year now) what the new general education (GE) curriculum should include and how it will be different from the existing curriculum. The Task Force has been designing an interdisciplinary core course model of GE that potentially reduces the number of GE courses offered (and thus threatens the viability of certain courses/ majors/ faculty positions). Questions about class size, faculty workload, resources, etc. are on the minds of stakeholders in this discussion. At many institutions, discussions about reforming GE destroy relationships among individuals and departments and lead to mistrust of the process and that any democratic, collegial outcome is possible.
I wanted to use IF in GE Task Force discussions because I believed that framing the discussion around GE reform concerns and possibilities would produce a different kind of dialogue, especially if discussion facilitation helped participants to view issues and outcomes from different perspectives (the own, their department’s, a student’s, the college’s) and the group’s conclusions and recommendations about GE were made more visible and transparent during the deliberations. At the same time, I was worried about how well a Task Force of faculty would adapt to participating in an IF-like process, since I wasn’t ‘training’ them to use IF (like I would with students) nor did they volunteer to discuss a particular topic per se (like a citizen discussion) nor was I leading them through a ‘series’ of discussions (concerns, then possibilities, then actions).
The long and short of this is is that I facilitated a meeting of our GE Task this week using the IF process. I set up ground rules for participants (you must be recognized to speak, everyone gets to speak, try to stay on task). I used flip charts to record the ideas being expressed in conversation and then to list a summarized version of the key concerns. I also actively indicated to participants when I thought their comments were addressing concerns versus possibilities versus actions (which participants described as implications), and actively asked participants to engage in perspective-taking. The discussion lasted about 90 minutes.
The discussion went extremely well! Many participants commented that they really liked the format for discussion, and felt that the group had made a lot of headway in one meeting in clarifying concerns, possibilities, and implications regarding GE reform. The process, they reported, helped them see the issues more clearly and specifically, and how these issues impacted different stakeholders. From my perspective as facilitator, it wasn’t as tough managing the discussion (keeping people on task, making sure people took turns) as I thought it might be), although it was hard to simultaneously record succinct comments (I needed a notetaker!). It seems to me that the IF process heightened the level of civic discourse in the group and participant’s sense of productivity – good things in the political, sometimes contentious, often unwieldy world of academia.
I will definitely use the IF process again in meetings with this group and keep you posted about how this goes. I was really happy about how well IF worked in this setting.

Debra Swoboda