At this time of year, university students across the country are dreading the thought of trading in a summer of sleeping in, hanging out at the pool and not doing any homework for going back to class.
But, at McKendree University in Lebanon, a large portion of the faculty takes a pass on summer vacation to sharpen individual skills and to try to make the school a better place.
“May and August are the months when school ends for the summer and when it resumes for the fall,” McKendree associate dean and psychology professor Tami Eggleston said. “But May and August are big months for us for faculty development. Right after graduation, we fall right into working on it.”
Summer activities for McKendree educators kick off with a four-day boot camp in May.
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This is the third year McKendree has offered the boot-camp program, Eggleston said. Each year it has a different theme and focus. Faculty members have to apply for one of 20 spots available. But other programs are open to a larger audience including an annual faculty report.
“A lot of what we focus on is technology, because it changes so fast and we’re always trying to keep up with it,” Eggleston said. “We spend a lot of time learning tech. This year we worked on incorporating tablets and mobile devices into teaching. We made presentations to demonstrate the skills we learned.”
Psychology professor Guy Boysen said he participated in two of the first three boot camps.
In the first edition participants were surprised with a free iPads which they used to learn to incorporate the internet into their classrooms.
“One thing I did was use it to re-design my syllabus to make it more student friendly,” Boyson said of what he took from the program. “But I also learned how to use the webcam and adapted what I learned to my classroom presentation.”
Boyson said he recorded his lectures and made them available for students to watch over the internet as homework. That way, he said, classroom time could be used for discussion.
“I made a pledge that I wouldn’t spend any more of my class time lecturing,” Boyson said. “So, not only did that allow us to use that time for other things. But, because the information is available online, there is no reason to cancel class if the weather is bad. You can do it online.”
Ann Collins, an associate professor in the Political Science Department, said instructors don’t feel pressured to give their summer free time away; it’s quite the opposite.
“I’m thrilled to work in a place where we are offered so many opportunities to improve our skills,” Collins said. “This is really a great place to work, and we appreciate that.”
To keep things interesting for participants in the summer program, the retreats have a theme.
J. Alan Alewine, associate dean for curriculum and a professor of math, helps Eggleston coordinate the events. He said the most recent retreat, held in the Piper Academic Center on campus, had an outer space theme. The building where the activities took place was decorated like the moon and participants were served astronauts’ alleged drink of choice — Tang.
“We try to make things fun and interesting, which is important,” Alewine said. “But the faculty also is enthusiastic about participation, because the administration takes their input seriously. That’s really important.”
Eggleston said the retreats are held on campus because, while the school could invest a few thousand dollars on renting hotel rooms and a conference center, it’s a better use of money to put those resources toward technology.
Faculty development opportunities are voluntary. But McKendree president James Dennis said he is impressed by how seriously faculty members work putting in extra time to make sure they’re the best they can be.
“I’m impressed with people who are always trying to better themselves,” Dennis said. “Being competent isn’t good enough. We should all be trying to get better.”
In addition to the boot camp and the retreat, there are several other skills building programs put on by the university. They include the Teaching for Distance workshops that focus on distance education and Teaching for Excellence workshops that discuss nuts and bolts best practices of teaching.
Some McKendree faculty members also spend their summer doing research projects they don’t have time for during the school year, volunteering in the community and writing about their discoveries and theories.
“Everybody is doing something, it seems,” Boyson said. “But it’s very rewarding to work at a place where the staff members are so serious about always trying to improve themselves and their classes.”