Agile Faculty: Practical Strategies for Managing Research, Service, and Teaching
reviewed by Richard Sawyer — May 16, 2018
Title: Agile Faculty: Practical Strategies for Managing Research, Service, and Teaching
Author(s): Rebecca Pope-Ruark
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 022646315X, Pages: 176, Year: 2017
Search for book at Amazon.com
In recent decades, funding for public colleges and universities has become increasingly dependent on student tuition, incentive-based budgeting, and external grants (St. John, 2005). In this context, a greater emphasis has been placed on faculty productivity. Ideally grounded in scholarship, faculty productivity is often defined by the number of peer reviewed articles published, the number and size of courses taught, and the amount of grant funding received. Framed narrowly, productivity has become a de facto accountability measure for faculty, and as such is more important than ever to academics as well as the administrators who evaluate them.
In her new book, Agile Faculty, Rebecca Pope-Ruark, an associate professor of English at Elon University, promotes a particular strategy for higher education faculty to manage their research, service, and teaching. Drawing from production management tools used by software designers, Pope-Ruark applies Agile work strategies to the work of academics with the goal of reimagining paths to vitality in higher education (p. 1). Agile, as she states, was founded in the principles of design thinking and focused on iterative planning, collaborative progress toward goals, and distributed expertise (p. xiii).
The Agile mindset is operationalized using a framework known as Scrum, which organizes work in the following manner: the faculty member, alone or with a collaborative team, brainstorms all the different activities that might potentially be necessary to complete the project, groups and prioritizes any smaller tasks under bigger chunks of work, commit[s] to completing a set of pieces within a certain timeframe (sprint), shares any completed work with a writing group, and finally reflects on the process (p. 12). While these steps may sound similar to the organization of many research projects, there are a few key differences. First, Pope-Ruark suggests that collaborators develop a working contact for the research team. This might seem like an unnecessary step, especially if you are working with friends or trusted colleagues, but rules created at the outset of the project can be used to deal with awkward issues that might arise later (p. 65). One of these rules is to make a commitment to using the Scrum process (p. 66). Another is to identify a product owner, or PO, for the project. The PO has ownership of the process and is responsible for moving it toward completion. In the software industry, there is also something called a daily Scrum, which is a daily ritual where team members recommit to the project and are held accountable for their progress toward goal completion. In the daily Scrum, members stand in a circle and individually answer three questions, such as What will I do today to help meet our sprint goal? (p. 31).
The concreteness of the framework for goal completion is a large part of what makes this book recommendable. Simply put, Agile may be beneficial to faculty members who feel anxiety or panic when facing the complexity of conducting and publishing research. The potentially beneficial aspects of Agiles structure include the clearly articulated short-term and long-term research goals, the collaboration-and-role structure, the progress platform, the accountability focus, and the embedded feedback/reflection loops.
Its important to note, however, that the notion that these systems work and are beneficial is an assumption on my (and Pope-Ruarks) part; Pope-Ruark offers no empirical evidence to support Agiles effectiveness. To address this shortfall, though, she offers this thought:
I have found little, if any, literature on Agile in higher education broadly except for my own work combining Agile and Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). For these reasons, this text does not rely on published or empirical academic research to support my claims of Agiles usefulness in faculty work. Instead, I draw from personal experience, reasonable hypotheses, and the rich information available on trusted industry blogs, online news magazines, and process texts published by respected presses. (p. xiv).
Wondering about what these unidentified respected presses are, I also question on what basis she makes the claim that this strategy would be helpful for new faculty, mid-career faculty, women faculty, faculty of color, and contingent faculty. To her credit, she articulates how certain systemic and institutional biases may place pressures on some faculty members more than others. About faculty of color, she writes:
Studies have found that faculty of color produce less scholarship than their white peers, perhaps due to increased service requests, increased effort needed to justify areas of scholarship considered suspect by senior peers, and subtle discrimination across all areas of work causing negative environments that affect productivity. (p. 30)
Given how deeply these institutional biases are connected to larger social inequity, Im a bit skeptical of her assertion that even stressful contextual challenges do not necessitate a narrative of constraint. This is a narrative of purpose, commitment, clearly articulated goals, growth, and vitality. And as we will see, this is a narrative of Agility (p. 10). I have to admit that I found the juxtaposition of a problem of systemic workplace injustice with a solution based on individual commitment to be a little disconcerting.
Further questions were raised for me by the advice she gives to department chairs about how and why they might use Agile in their work with faculty:
As a department chair, working through this process early in a new faculty members career, perhaps together, provides an excellent opportunity to talk about managing competing priorities, working toward promotion and tenure requirements, and defining the role of research progress for faculty in the department. (p. 49)
She also writes, You might hold a workshop introducing some of these Scrum strategies and characteristics of an excellent team member to kick off the [department] collaborations (p. 62). Its important to note when considering these quotes that Pope-Ruark emphasizes that faculty should always have a choice of whether or not to use Agile. But I have to wonder how a new faculty member could exercise this choice when her department chair equates being an excellent faculty member with the use of Scrum.
Finally, my long-term questions about Agile as a strategy for faculty growth have to do with what it means to be an academic and grapple with what knowledge is and, as Foucault did, with what knowledge is not. By its very nature, scholarship often evolves for years or even decades as a messy, slow, dialogic, and often contested (and unfunded) endeavor. An emphasis on defined and short-term results can complicate the development of new, paradigm-changing ways to understand our world. Is it absurd to ask how well John Dewey would have fared had his department chair encouraged him to use Agile? We like to think that genius comes from within, and there is certainly a personal element to it. But it is also nurtured by a respect for the counterintuitive, by time for painful reflection, by freedom for exploration, by the courage to make mistakes, and by acknowledging that higher education is a place for critique and questioning, especially as the context of higher education continues to change.
St. John, E. P. (2005). Public funding of higher education: Changing contexts and new rationales. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.