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(Un)professional development

The other day, a friend posted the following message in response to one of my Essays of the Day.

Just so you know, I was interviewed about professional development opportunities (in my field, GIS) yesterday. I used your essay challenge as an example.

I’m not always good at interpreting comments, so I asked what challenge they were talking about. There are so many challenges related to my essays: my challenge to you folks to write your own regular essays or reflections; my challenge to myself to get to inbox zero, which was going on at the same time; my challenge to my readers to donate more to Grinnell; my challenge to myself to learn how to write profiles; my challenge to myself to write a technical book in a month, which was also going on at the same time; my challenge to my readers to pick their favorite essays, which was old at the time; and probably a number of other ones I’ve forgotten. After some back-and-forth, it became clear that they meant the challenge I’ve given myself to write a (somewhat relevant) essay each day.

Once we’d settled that, I took the bait and asked why the essays were professional development. Here’s what they wrote back.

It’s PD because you are reflecting on (aka learning from) many things that relate to or even are your work as an educator. Further, some of your essays, I’m thinking, have pushed you towards leadership roles on issues about which you are passionate. Finally, we who read your essays (I confess I don’t catch all of them) are forming what might become a learning community.

Do I agree with all of that? Well, I did say early on that I learn by reflecting. Writing has helped me think through why I value Grinnell’s Posse program and Posse students, how I should approach people, even when I disagree with them, and other issues [1]. Writing has also extended my work with Karla Erickson on thinking about my general career and life trajectory. The month of profiles of Grinnellians allowed me to reflect more carefully on things I value about the people I teach and work about. But many of the things I write may be less reflective than they seem. When I write about learning at Grinnell or Grinnell’s CS department, I’m generally recording things I’ve already said out loud, or in different forms. The same seems true of my current series on thinking in C and Unix. I’ll have to reflect more on whether those essays really help me reflect and therefore learn.

Do the essays encourage me to take more of a leadership role? I don’t think so. I’ve always had something of a leadership role. If I recall correctly, back when I was on Executive Council, Eliza Willis complimented me on my willingness to speak truth to power. I think I’m known on campus as being willing to challenge people on issues [2]. There is, after all, I reason I refer to myself as campus curmudgeon. In some ways, I think the essays may have made me reduce that kind of leadership. As I get more sympathetic to the complexities of the people around me, I’m a bit less willing to criticize. I suppose that’s a different kind of leadership.

If my essays are building a community, it’s not a cohesive one. Many of my readers read in chunks, rather than daily. My readers are split between Facebook friends, Twitter followers, and a few people who just check the site once in a while. I didn’t really choose a platform that was intended for building community, and I think it shows. Should I choose a new platform? I’ll have to think about that, too. Few of my essays generate much discussion; certainly, I got more discussion in my Facebook post about the new Grinnell slogan than I’ve gotten for any one of my essays.

My essays may serve other PD-like roles, too. They educate those around me, in some ways. Certainly, I’ve heard some appreciation for how some essays teach about the history of the College or about other context. Those of you who have been in one of my classes may recall that when we reflect on what we’ve learned at the end of the semester, I mention that my mother once planned a study of how faculty serve as moral models [3,4]. In general, I hope that the way I teach models my core value that one should care about and support the people around them. I think these essays also provide a form of moral modeling, although not always a positive one.

That last aside motivated the title of this essay. I don’t think that all my behavior in this series is professional, and some is probably downright unprofessional. In particular, there are a few essays that I had to take down or significantly modify because I do not think I behaved professionally in making them public. Those include the criticism of a colleague in an essay on a Web site and what Michelle says were way too many comments about Trustees in my essay on the same subject. Even in the essays I have not taken down or modified, I have been fairly critical of some things. (There’s a reason I sometimes refer to them as rants.) My series on Harry & David reeks of privilege [5]. The asides [6] are generally silly or snarky and do not reflect a professional approach. And then there’s the whole issue of how these essays affect the boundaries between my students and myself. Of course, in my case, those boundaries are usually much less firm than they are in most cases.

It may also be unprofessional to spend so much time on this kind of writing rather than on more scholarly topics. I’ve written something like 250,000 words in this series in the past six months. I think that could be a short book of some sort, or at least a few articles. There are, after all, only so many hours in the day. Should I not be more productive? Fortunately, I’m a full professor [8], I can do what I want. Nonetheless, I should think about publication. Perhaps, at some point, some of these essays (or at least the thought and effort that went into these essays) could form the basis of a book, or a column, or some form of (more) public scholarship.

Let’s see … These essays are unprofessional (or at least not professional development) in at least one other way. These essays often serve as a form of personal development, rather than professional development. It seems that they are making me a better person, or at least a happier person. While I realize that there is some intersection between the personal and the professional, my greatest benefit from writing the essays is probably personal.

[1] I’d also include this essay in the reflective essays that help me learn.

[2] I think I even got Kington to yell at me at one meeting, although I had not intended to do so.

[3] I tend to mention my response: Mom, while it is clear that you are a moral model to your students, you are the exception, rather than the rule. I think very few faculty serve as moral models to their students.

[4] I also provide a followup: Now that I’m a faculty member, I realize that there are many ways in which my behavior may serve as a model to you.

[5] Can an essay have a smell?

[6] A.k.a. endnotes [7].

[7] A.k.a. footnotes.

[8] Sometimes referred to as dead wood.

Version 1.0 of 2017-01-16.