One of the questions I get most often from people new to instructional design is how to work with faculty that are resistant to making changes to their course ideas (or maybe even resistant to working with an instructional designer all together). To be honest, once you have gotten to the place of resistance, you can generally find all kinds of advice for dealing with disagreements that will work. There really isn’t anything special or different about your interactions with people that you don’t see eye to eye with even when you are an instructional designer.

However, I have found that there are ways to start off the working relationship in an instructional design context that can set a tone for collaboration or disagreement on down the line. There are a few things that I try to do with the first contact with faculty to get off on the right foot. So my biggest piece of advice is always to set up the relationship the right way from the beginning, and then you should have a smoother relationship with faculty to begin with (and if disagreements arise, a good foundation to work towards agreement).

The first thing I tell people to do is to get your view of the faculty members in the right context in your mind. Of course, this includes setting aside an pre-conceived notions you might have gained about them from other people – but it is more than that. I try to keep in mind what the work flow of the faculty actually looks like, especially how they are very busy. Not necessarily more or less busy than you are, but just on an entirely different context of busy. They are having to deal with hundreds of student emails, and then all kinds of research-related emails, and then all kinds of department-related issues, and so on. When you send them that initial contact email, you can probably guarantee that it will be filed away until there is a lull in their work flow – later that day, later that week, or even later that month. That filing system might be anything from a folder system in outlook to a paper notebook next to their computer (I have seen it all). But the key thing is that they are likely to put it aside without a whole lot of thought about it at first.

This is an important factor to remember. Some faculty might respond right away, but others will file and get back to you once the dozen or so urgent requests in front of them are taken care of. At this point, while you are waiting for a response, don’t make things more complex by having other people contacting them as well. Many instructional design groups will do this differently: the manager will contact the faculty to “introduce” the ID, then if there is no response from the faculty after a few days, the ID will then email again… possibly introducing more team members as they do so. By the time the faculty gets to that lull to respond, they have all these people contacting them and they have to figure out if they are all working on the same project, or different people working on similar projects. Then they have to figure out who specifically to reply to, who was just adding extra information to the discussion, and so on.

And right there is a place where you can start to get off on the wrong foot with faculty. Instead of responding to one person, they have to take extra time to read through these emails from different people to figure out what is going on. Again, some will be fine with that, but others will feel that you and your department are “piling it on” to try and pressure them to respond faster.

So, for the sake of focus, make sure to only have one person contacting the faculty member or members until they respond. If you need to send multiple emails to follow up and nudge the faculty, respond to your last message so those that use threaded email system will just end up with one email thread rather than several. Since the goal of having the first meeting is usually to set up a first meeting, you can make sure that the other people they need to meet are at the first meeting.  And if at all possible, wait to bring those people into the conversation at the first meeting. If you really have to bring them in earlier, then at least wait until after the faculty has first responded to the initial emails.

Quite often, a manager or other person like to make the first email to connect the ID and faculty, and then step out of the picture. If you can avoid that, I would. If the faculty doesn’t respond right away, then the manager will have to nudge. If the ID nudges, it introduces that complexity that I have found best to avoid at this stage. So if you are a manager, get used to letting your people do the initial contact. If you are an ID, get used to doing the initial contact. It just saves time and avoid miscommunication down the line.

Remember: that first response from faculty is usually the signal that they have the open head space to deal with course design – or that they are at least ready to free up some head space for the design. So feel free to nudge them if needed, but don’t add anything else to that nudge beyond your initial “let’s meet” message.

Also, I should mention this “let’s meet” message. Be careful how you phrase that request. So many people jump out of the gate with suggestions, like “we can meet once a month” or “once a week” or some other frequency based on what they think the course needs. And they are probably right about this suggestion. But remember that the faculty you are meeting with have already possibly thought about how many meetings they need with you as well. They may be flexible, but they also may have a specific need for meetings. If you come out right away and suggest a specific schedule, you may stress them out by not suggesting enough meetings compared to what they want, or maybe by suggesting more meetings than they thought they needed.

Of course, you might get lucky and suggest the exact frequency they were thinking of, the heavens will open, collaboration glitter will float down, and every one rejoices.

But you might also set up a foundation of frustration if you get it wrong. My suggestion? I always like to say that I want to “discuss a method and frequency for consistent communication to keep the course design process moving forward” or something to that effect. When you say something like this, what ever method or frequency they were thinking of will fit into that description, and they will feel like you are there to help their course, not impose deadlines.

Which, of course, you usually are… but you don’t want to default to that position from the beginning.

However, make sure you don’t jump out first with “how about meeting twice a week” or some other specific suggestion. From this point on in interacting with faculty, always lead with questions intending to draw out what the faculty thinks. I have found that leading with questions is a good way to collaborate more than disagree. Don’t just say “well, what we need to instead….” But also, don’t beat around the bush, either. Just ask them directly: how often do you want to meet, and in what context?

Of course, there is a good chance they will suggest something that is more often or less often than you thought, or they will suggest face-to-face meetings when you thought email would work, and so on. When this happens, try to find out (by asking questions) why they want their suggested frequency instead of going into “correction” mode.

  • “That seems to be a high frequency of meetings, and you are pretty experienced in online course design. How are you feeling about working on this specific course?”
  • “Do you think you will be able to meet the deadlines for the course design? Would it maybe help to have more frequent check-ins with me to meet deadlines?”
  • “I know you are used to face-to-face meetings with our organization. How do you feel about email check-ins? We could possibly meet less frequently if you think it will work for you to email me questions as needed.”

A quick note: multiple meetings per week is probably going to send the wrong message to faculty. They usually have multiple meetings only with students that are struggling the most in their class, or with colleagues that can’t stay on track when working on research projects. There is kind of this stigma against being asked to meet multiple times per week in many academic circles. Don’t be against that if they are the ones that say they need it, but don’t be the one to suggest it first. Not all faculty think this way, but I have learned the hard way to not be the one to bring it up with the ones that do have a preconceived notion about it.

So, really, from this point out, I would say if you stick to asking questions first rather than jumping into correction mode, and then follow other methods and guidelines for dealing with workplace conflict or disagreements, you will know how to deal with most situations. By taking into account how you start off the working relationship with faculty, you are getting started on a better foundation for future interactions. There is a lot more that I could cover, but this post is getting too long. If you have any suggestions for dealing with resistant faculty, let me know in the comments – there is still a lot I can learn in this area as well!

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