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Learning Communities and Dean’s School: Crucial Role of Informal, Social, and Incidental Learning 

April 22, 2022 | Gregory Teachout

As interim associate provost for faculty and academic staff development, Marilyn Amey is excited to see a provostial focus on professional development for faculty and academic staff become a frequent topic of conversation among her colleagues.  

“Success” as an educator or academic administrator can seem like an impenetrable gestalt. We may know it when we see it but producing a list of ingredients can be tricky.  

Formal structures in the academic world provide blueprints and roadmaps. But just as conversations of “hidden curriculum” have emerged as we deepen our conception of student success, we are increasingly aware of the crucial roles of informal, social, and incidental learning for faculty and staff success. 

Tending to these essential development needs is part of the charge of the Office of Faculty and Academic Staff Development (OFASD). Amey outlines three areas she sees as especially promising right now.  


Learning Communities 

Learning Communities are self-organized, safe and supportive spaces for faculty and academic staff to explore topics of curriculum, pedagogy, and leadership.  

Learning Communities make it easier to find fellow educators who share common interests, approaches, or concerns, which can be especially useful, given MSU’s size.  

“We are a very large institution, and it’s hard to find people who share common interests,” says Amey. “We don’t have an infrastructure set up to find people who are concerned with certain aspects of teaching and learning, or about leadership, very easily. It’s far easier with the systems we have in place to find someone who shares your research interests.  

Learning Communities provide a really terrific opportunity for people to come together around topics of interest to them whether that’s in a short-term way or a more extended conversation.” 

There aren’t a lot of parameters regarding Learning Communities, which is in keeping with the spirit of the initiative; they are run by educators for the benefit of their colleagues. The few guidelines that do exist are the result of honing the structure of the Learning Communities since their inception in 2004. 

“The Learning Communities are not intended to be formal, but they are more engaging experiences than simply getting a cup of coffee with a colleague,” says Amey. “There is the expectation that each group meets at least eight times a year. There is signup form, but that is intended to allow the Learning Communities to broadcast a call for membership, if they wish.” 

Because there are more applications for Learning Communities than there are resources to support them — Learning Communities receive a small allocation of funds for operational expenses — there is a vetting process, as well. Amey says the vetting process is more likely to result in finding out others are creating a similar community than anything resembling rejection.  

“The people reviewing the proposals have the opportunity to say, ‘Maybe we can expand this Community, or support your idea in a different way,” says Amey.  


Leadership Learning Communities 

MSU is seeing an emerging focus on leadership development. Leaders are often appointed due to superlative achievement in their discipline, but once again, the “hidden curriculum” comes into play on their first day as a new program director or department chair. They realize how much they must learn about managing people effectively, and the sundry challenges of daily leadership.  

Faculty and staff success -- one of MSU’s Strategic Plan pillars — requires intentional leadership development. Enter Leadership Learning Communities. 

“Our reinitiation of the Leadership Learning Communities (LLCs) is directly tied to both the Strategic Plan and the DEI Strategic Plan,” says Amey. “We want to encourage people addressing different kinds of leadership situations to come together. Formal programming is useful too, of course, but we want to preserve what we’ve learned about the power of informal connection, especially over the pandemic.” 

When talking about position-specific challenges that may elude formal job training, Amey cites the example of program directors at MSU. “Program heads get very differential support from their colleges and departments, but many of the issues they face are quite similar. Where do they get together to talk about that? Whether it’s funding for students, or the curriculum committee at the university level, or changes in status of their respective domains, where are they supposed to convene to share experience and strategy? It doesn’t really exist right now, especially not in an invitational way. That’s where the LLCs come in. You don’t have to be a so-and-so to come. You just have to have an interest in the topic.” 

Amey has served as a co-facilitator for an LLC serving full professor women. A faculty member had asked about finding other women with full professor status to connect with; Amey and a colleague have been running the group for six years since.  

“The conversations are supportive and the learning is immense,” she says. Members of her LLC talk about challenges they have in common, share knowledge about units on campus that have helped them, and apprise each other of awards and developments in their respective areas of scholarship.  

These dialogues are cathartic and useful. According to Amey, they often become something else: fertile ground for the genesis of institutional change. 

“So many initiatives, from new assessment approaches to sustaining respectful work environments, began as simple conversations among colleagues, whether in a Learning Community or not,” says Amey.  


Dean’s School 

Arguably no one feels the impact of hidden professional curriculum more than the recently appointed dean. While usually seasoned administrators, the position of dean at MSU means managing a dizzying collection of competing priorities. 

MSU’s Dean’s School gathers deans new and interim for a series of conversations. It functions as a structured introduction to many aspects of the deans’ purview, a place to exchange ideas, and an opportunity to make mentoring connections with their peers and more experienced deans.  

Helping deans balance those priorities in a way that comports with MSU’s values and allows them the best chance to flourish has been a priority for Provost Woodruff since her arrival, who spearheaded the creation of the Deans School program, according to Amey. That balancing act can be especially challenging for new and interim deans.  

“We had seven or eight new and interim deans this year. Our office was talking with the Office of Faculty and Academic Staff Affairs and the provost, and we realized we needed a formal plan to support the new deans,” says Amey. “The Dean’s School is like a deans-level learning community.” 

The program has been a great success, according to Amey, in part because of the atmosphere the provost and OFASD have cultivated. “It’s a very safe, very protected space to talk about difficult issues. The intimate atmosphere combined with a particular analytic tool we’ve been using called ‘Critical Friends’ has led to some tremendous conversations. I don’t think the resulting support and agency the deans are reporting could have happened any other way.” 

All members of MSU’s instructional and administrative staff, regardless of appointment type, rank, or discipline, are invited to join a Learning Community, or apply to start their own.