Has anyone been to a good faculty retreat? Has anyone been to a constructive, useful retreat that accomplished something substantial that could not otherwise have been accomplished in one or more non-retreat faculty meetings?
Has anyone left a faculty retreat with warm collegial feelings and no regrets about spending all day or at least part of a weekend with department colleagues?
In the hopes that such things exist or that some people at least believe that such things exist, I searched online for information on how to have a good/effective faculty retreat.
Some of the advice I found makes sense and seems rather obvious, though apparently not to some of the people organizing the retreats in which I have participated. For example: A successful faculty retreat requires advanced planning and organization of the discussion topics and tasks to be accomplished. Yes, yes, yes.
Some of the advice involves retreat activities that would make me run away: Play bonding games! Bring a nerf ball! Watch a movie together! Chew bubblegum! No, no, no.
I suppose one school of thought is that the random behavior that characterizes shorter faculty meetings might eventually converge into constructive action in a longer faculty meeting held at a remote, peaceful location.
My school of thought -- what one might reasonably call the negative, doesn't-play-well-with-others, you-are-so-cranky-you-are-probably-part-of-the-problem school of thought -- is that faculty retreats are a few orders of magnitude more painful and time-wasting than regular faculty meetings, an effect that is magnified by being in a remote, peaceful location with certain colleagues.
12 years ago
Every retreat I've ever been to has just been a 8-12 hour long department meeting, the never ending meeting with breaks for meals (which were also part of the meeting). Yet, I much preferred retreats that were simply extended regular meetings, to those that include ridiculous activities like playing bonding games. If the retreat were optional and everyone was there voluntarily then those might work. But you can't force people to attend a retreat against their will and then force them to play silly games on the grounds that it will be fun since you're starting off with the wrong premise to begin with.
I have only been to one faculty retreat and I found it nice to have more time to talk to colleagues I wouldn't otherwise bump into often (we are a big department). Our meetings have short scheduled sessions with a strict agenda, lots of coffee breaks and breakout sessions where people are deliberately put in groups with a mix of ages and research topics. Lots of people do moan that it is a waste of time/money but I think informal social interaction with nice colleagues is useful. None of my colleagues are excessively domineering or obnoxious. And having a retreat is also the only way to make people focus. If we just had two days o faculty meetings in the department, people would just vanish back to their labs half way through.
I have been to exactly one faculty retreat. In opening the retreat, our Dean told us that the administration wanted to completely eliminate our discipline, but couldn't because "we bring in too much research money."
I will never go to another faculty retreat.
Our faculty retreats can be pretty low density, but not particularly loathesome. See my posts:
and because it is a religious institution, we have gorgeous music during the worship segments.
My department does a good job with 2x-yearly faculty retreats. The organization rotates somewhat between senior faculty members, but each person that's been in charge has a good sense of what issues can be addressed in a typical faculty meeting, and what issues need some deeper discussion that we couldn't effectively accomplish in blocks of 50 minutes. For example, we often discuss really multi-dimensional issues where everybody needs to be able to voice their opinions, and the end result is usually forming a subcommittee to put it all together and hash out a solution, which will then be discussed at a faculty meeting.
We don't play bonding games, we have ample snacks and regular breaks, and there's always a nice lunch.
Also, we get along really well, so most of us don't mind spending time with one another.
I couldn't really imagine random behaviour with my colleagues. That would be wrong.
We did, however, have a retreat just before I joined my present department. I think that retreat was the right thing to do at the time, because the department was having an identity crisis, and the retreat seemed to have helped it resolve that issue (to some extent).
My department has a retreat coming up in ~10 days - I was part of the committee that planned it. Some things that make me hopeful it might be worthwhile:
- we only have a retreat every 4-5 years (unlike a previous institution that had them every year)
- the entire retreat is focused around a single theme (improving the quality of our graduate program)
- no silly games for forced participation are planned
Our Cancer Cell biology retreat is all science--talks by your colleagues with a nice lunch in the middle. Not always scintillating but actually quite good. Of course we're all too busy, but this sort of retreat is a valuable investment.
As an up for tenure junior faculty I feel like I must attend retreats (and faculty meetings). Both are a total waste of my time. I have not seen any positive impacts from the retreats. I loath the games. The last 2 years I skipped the retreat and spent the whole day on uninterrupted research.
We had a very good 1-day retreat earlier this year with another department to resolve an issue that affected us both. The university brought in a professional facilitator who... surprisingly did a very good job of keeping us on task and addressing the issues at hand. We did not have any silly games - everything was aimed directly at the problem we were focused on solving.
A retreat for the point of having a retreat is a waste of time. Retreats to focus on a major issue that everyone participating believes is a major issue - that's more helpful.
The thought of a faculty meeting extended to last several days is enough to make me want to stab my own eyes out with a rusty garden implement.
I think the pre-planning part is key. We had one that was productive when we were trying to implement tracks into our department. It required lots of research by each track leader to develop a curriculum for the electives of upper level students. We did get more done since we were all there and could hash things out without starting over at each meeting. However, it was a lot of work to prepare. When we have the 8 hour meetings, they just aren't the same and it's like 2-3 long faculty meetings. People don't do the research/prepare the presentations and it is not really fun. Especially, if you are timing contractions and trying to decide if they are less than 10 minutes apart during the middle of one.
The only good faculty retreats I have ever been on have been related to programs, not departments -- specifically Freshman Seminar, where the courses are team taught. The program director has had funding to bring in big names (John Gardner) to do a little faculty development, and we get work done.
Before our last annual retreat, I noticed that "women in science" was on the topics to be covered and I was deeply concerned that it could only be a bad thing for this FSP to know what her male colleagues would have to say on the topic, especially once they had a few drinks in them after the dinner. I was slightly terrified this retreat might be much more than a waste of time. The truth is our department chair brought in an excellent speaker that didn't even consider the possibility of any intrinsic differences in a women's ability to do science. Instead, she focused on all the scientific evidence for bias- in all of us- and ways that we can attempt to counteract such bias when hiring and promoting people. I expect that someday the data presented on bias will come in very handy, assuming I have the guts to bring it up. At present, I am still working on smaller progress, like not being interrupted while speaking in faculty meeting. Baby steps....
I am so pleased to be able to report that I have never been to a faculty retreat in 41+ years as a faculty member. I have missed one or two that actually happened, I think.
The only meeting worse than a faculty retreat is a search committee meeting.
"The only meeting worse than a faculty retreat is a search committee meeting."
I disagree. Our search committees only meet when we have a stack of folders for candidates and most of the committee have read most of the folders. There is a clear goal (picking the 4-5 candidates to interview) and the meeting usually has very little time, so the discussion stays very focused. There is also a clear benefit to doing the work---getting good colleagues to join the department.
Retreats, on the other hand, meander all over the place. Even if there is an interesting topic to discuss, everyone knows that it will all be ignored by the administration and forgotten by the faculty 15 minutes after the retreat is over.
Of course, who knows when we'll be able to recruit again.
I am not in academe, and I have to go to management retreats at least once/year, and I hate them with the white-hot heat of a thousand suns. Especially the "ice-breaker" bullshit w/ which it starts. If I want or need to know my colleagues, I'll introduce myself; I do not want to waste my damn time playing a game when I have a desk full of work waiting for me.
I have been to one (1) retreat in the nearly two years I've been here that accomplished a lot (and, surprise, I organized & facilitated the damn thing, and we really were able to focus), and one that was marginally useful, and two others that sucked and blew. Yes. Four retreats in less than two years.
Yes, I have a bad attitude; why do you ask?
Effective church retreats, yes. Effective work or nonprofit (board) retreats, not so much. But I don't believe they're impossible.
A retreat can be nice if it's brief and well organised.
The worst retreat I've ever been on was a weekend in cabins in the Mt. Hood region. The dean was an avid hiker, and our faculty included some serious athletes, so the mandatory daily fun activities were strenuous hikes. I quite like hiking, myself, but I didn't like watching the one new faculty member--a large woman with asthma--get left behind and humiliated every single day. I started hanging back with her so she wouldn't walk alone, and we both missed out of a lot of strategic discussions.
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