The Workshop, R.I.P.

2 Dec

The workshop as faculty development method is insufficient.

Library and IT staff pretty much have one tool in the tool box when they set out to help faculty come to grips with a new application or service. The Workshop. I’ve been associated with Library and IT Workshops for faculty for a long while, and I’ve noticed them sliding away from relevance. And attendance.

It could be that Workshops never were a very great vehicle for anything, and I’m only now noticing it. If it’s true they never were a very great learning vehicle yet we rolled them out continuously and people trudged into them dutifully year after year, that’s just sad. In any event, I’m pretty sure people are now increasingly less willing to trudge into them, and I’m not sad about it.

What’s wrong with Workshops? Well, a few things come quickly to mind.

  1. Content Kills Hope. Workshops are generally framed around content, and not very exciting content at that: a tool, a new Learning Management System, say. A tool often NOT chosen in consultation with the attendees, so from their perspective, an arbitrarily-imposed thing, somebody else’s content. What’s worse than boring content? Somebody else’s boring, imposed content that you don’t want. As a friend and pedagogue famously said, learning’s not about covering (content), it’s about UNCOVERING. (Uncovering the people, really).
  2. The Encapsulation Fallacy. The thing Workshops cover is usually one small mechanical slice of life presented as a self-contained whole, whereas faculty (like everyone) are probably more likely struggling to come to grips with a complex and integrated reorganization of their information and learning systems. So if they come, they are probably asking themselves the whole time “how the heck does this help?”
  3. The Carpet-bagger Syndrome. Workshop teachers are often presented in a kind of clerk-like role. They’re there to teach the topic, then they generally have to run off to do a variety of other things. Answer the phones, show a faculty member how to create a blog, attend a committee meeting, sit at the Reference Desk, help a student submit an inter-library loan request, what have you. All important, necessary, valuable things, but the point is that you may never see them again. They probably won’t be around when you have to do the thing in your real life. They’re like a traveller from an ancient land where tools are vast trunkless legs of stone in a desert, that is to say, easy to learn in decontextualized ways.
  4. Fear of What Should Not Be Feared. The Workshop isn’t really a place where engaged learners and teachers participate actively in the conversation about ideas that I imagine is at the core of a learning community. Ha, you might exclaim. What is it? It’s more like a protection from a conversation about ideas, because ideas take time to think about, particularly to think about together with other people, and the workshop has 40 minutes. It’s as if the Workshop teachers were just cramming the time full of activities like logging into the computers and typing in sample forum entries and imaginary search terms so that there’s no unscheduled portion that might generate an unpredictable conversation with the potential to change our assumptions about life, or anything else interesting.

You can see where I’m going. The problem of Workshops is related to the problem of teaching people in general. And it’s connected to the problem of Library and IT staff isolating themselves from the people they need to be a part of (particularly at a time when that community is reorganizing itself). It’s an example of the fishiness inherent in the Conduit Metaphor. Or maybe the problem isn’t with Workshops per se but rather with the assumption behind them, that Library and IT people can conceive of and construct a meaningful curriculum removed from the context of the very learning community they mean to assist.

So what do you do instead? Here’s where it gets tricky. But some preliminary thoughts:

  1. Let them pick the topic. Instead of plopping a Workshop onto the face of the world Deus ex Machina fashion, why not grow it up organically from the ground. You might ask people what they want to learn. Or better, you might ask them what they want to talk about. They might not be able to tell you, though, because their experience of the pertinent phenomena of life might be as-yet-unintellectualized. So be prepared to use ethnographic methods. Watch ’em. Treat their articulations and behaviors like literature, like stories, like societal conventions, things that have deeper meanings, totems, taboos, messages.
  2. Get them to help you teach it. If you frame the event or intervention and let the community fill the teaching role, you may have more success (of course you may never get credit for it, but the point is to help people, not aggrandize yourself). Also, your community is a community of teachers, a skill set which might come in handy!
  3. Make it “environmentally valid.” (A phrase I learned from a Mind, Brain, Education researcher.) Here’s a rule of thumb: the more the Workshop looks like regular life for the people involved, the more valuable it will be. A colleague said the other day that people don’t want to leave their life to learn, and return later to life having learned. They want to learn in the moment; just-in-time skills acquisition, you might say. So go with it. At the least you’ll come up with structures that have better attendance (because you’ll be building events around where people are, so people will be there already).
  4. Just don’t even think about a “tool” or a “service.” Think about your community, what they’re trying to do, and where you can be helpful. If you say to yourself “these people need an LMS,” you’ve lost them already. But if you say “There goes an interesting person. What is she trying to do?” You might be on the path. (On the other hand if your answer is always “LMS” you may be off the path).

6 Responses to “The Workshop, R.I.P.”

  1. Sarah W December 3, 2010 at 4:41 pm #

    Hear hear!!! I’ve been thinking this for a long time, nicely & eloquently put!

  2. Bryan Alexander December 3, 2010 at 10:58 pm #

    Very well said. Bonus points for “Ozymandias” ref.

    • wedaman December 8, 2010 at 6:45 pm #

      A comment from Bryan Alexander! That is a feather in my fur cap.

  3. Carla Wolters December 11, 2010 at 7:12 am #

    Hi Wedeman,

    This is Carla Wolters, the daughter of Carl and Darla Wolters.

    I just googled my father’s name and ran acroos your tweet tributing my father’s memory.

    I see that you resonanted with my father. I assume he was your teacher at Westridge or Burke?

    He was, indeed, a lover of maps. As he was sick, we discussed plans for driving highways in Maui or taking a cruise through the Panama Canal. Maps were, of course, pulled out!

    I was very touched by your comments.

    I do not know what line of teaching you are in. But I do know, my father always felt as if it was a calling to teach children. As a speech therapist in a school district, he would tell me, “Go teach those kids. They are all ‘little souls’.”

    Wishing you a blessed holiday with family and friends,
    Carla Wolters


  1. Links of interest: December 17th, 2010 « A Modern Hypatia - December 17, 2010

    […] David Wedaman talks about the problems with workshops, and some ideas about what we could do […]

  2. Jason B. Jones and Hacking Education | Theatrical Smoke - October 24, 2011

    […] training, but nobody would come to the training, which would likely be boring (see my post on the death of the workshop), and (as Jason noted, in point 3 above on systems), if I.T. staff found and imposed a centralized […]

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