A departmental retreat from another dimension


I once participated in a departmental retreat from the Twilight Zone. Or it might have taken place in an alternate-universe wormhole.

Details are fuzzy, but when I searched my google calendar, I found it still sitting there, way back from Spring 2006. There I remember a few things with uncommon clarity, on account of the weirdness.

TheTwilightZoneLogoWe had a one-day retreat for the whole department. It was scheduled for a weekday when classes weren’t being taught, on account of a religious holiday.

I remember the lunch was pizza. I only recall this factlet because the pizza was ordered from a relatively fancy place, and was above-average in quality but not that substantial. The number of pizza slices was only N+2. I was fine, but I think most people were a tad hungry. I still recall the two people who unilaterally took the extra pieces after everybody else took one piece each.

Another thing I remember is that the Dean provided enough funds to support a professional facilitator, but we didn’t hire one. Some of us wanted one. One of us even had a partner who did this kind of thing for a living, and argued well for why it would be a good idea. (Something along the lines of, “If you don’t have an unbiased person who can keep things on track, we won’t be able to get much done.”) But some of the senior faculty thought that an outside person wouldn’t be able to understand our particular issues. Somehow, consensus was artificially declared.

For most of the retreat, we discussed pedagogical challenges and the particular needs of our majors. It was decided that our students weren’t problem-solving adequately, weren’t getting enough experience with hypothesis testing and critical thinking, and didn’t have adequate writing skills. Also, plagiarism was rampant. Somehow, nobody mentioned that these are widespread and perennial problems, with a deep literature in the field of higher education research.

It was obvious that the university’s outcomes assessment plan was an a steaming load of poo that administrators cooked up to justify their jobs, because it only took a single day to figure out exactly how to improve our curriculum!

There was substantial enthusiasm, and big plans were laid. A new course was invented, and the lower-division curriculum was re-engineered around this new course. Yes! We made progress.

But then, that retreat disappeared from existence. After a week, then a month, nothing happened. It disappeared down a wormhole. Everybody in the department acted like we never spent that slightly-hungry day in the conference room. Just pretend the day never existed. Seriously, as far as I know, the topic never came up again.

You might as well picture Rod Serling reporting, “What these faculty members failed to notice was that this retreat did not take place in the second floor conference room, but was in fact, in The Twilight Zone.”

What I imagine happened is that, in the harsh light of the following morning, the people who devised these plans made some version of the “walk of shame.” You know, just got intoxicated with half-baked ideas, and in hindsight, it looked that everybody who consumed the half-baked ideas got trichinosis. (Or maybe it was just caused by low blood sugar from the lack of food.)

Of course, any facilitator would have readily seen that the discussion was proceeding down a proverbial rabbit’s hole. I’m not a fan of blowing money on consultants, but on the other hand, I’m not fond of blowing a whole day on aimless jibber-jabber.

I figure there are a few morals to this story, but I’m not in the mood for moralizing. I just wanted to share a funny old story.

4 thoughts on “A departmental retreat from another dimension

  1. This sounds just like my departmental retreats. Only ours are every year.

  2. FWIW*, several years ago our department had a retreat led by a professional meeting facilitator. We also decided to revamp our undergrad curriculum. And the main reform–totally redoing our first-year introductory bio sequence–happened. I wouldn’t chalk that up to the facilitator, but it didn’t hurt. I remember a conversation after the retreat with some people who’d been skeptical that the facilitator would be helpful; they’d been won over.

    I vaguely recall we also agreed some other things, I think including that every student in the department should take some stats. Those other things never happened and were forgotten, probably because they weren’t very feasible.

    *probably nothing

  3. Terry, I always like your posts, thought provoking or entertaining (or both). I actually like our retreats (every year), particularly because we spend half of the time learning about each others’ research (which I think helps community building immensely, and feels like the fun part). We also tend to have plenty of food. ;-) We’ve never had a professional facilitator, although I just attended another program retreat which did.
    In my opinion, what you need is a person with power (e.g. the Dept Head) who actually turns the plans into action afterwards. Think Executive plus Legislative. The loosely formed and probably powerless groups that form at retreats won’t actually change the curriculum, nor will they put in additional time to hammer out details later. But a department head who is serious about reform can take these plans made at the retreat as a strong mandate to do stuff. And, I think it is a good idea to review progress since the last retreat at the next retreat, and if none occurred, examine why, rather than coming up with new plans.

  4. I’ll second Anna’s view. The single biggest reason our dept. followed through on reforming the first year courses is that the head of dept. was behind it (indeed, the retreat was his idea), charged committees with implementing the changes, and held those committees to account. Not that he was forcing people to do stuff they didn’t want to do, of course–the whole dept. wanted the changes. But as the post notes, wanting X to happen and actually making it happen are two different things.

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