May Staff Retreat

May 31, 2023
Staff of the Wilmette Institute posing under a tree with a host of pink flowers in the courtyard of the Los Angeles Baha'i Center--May 2023

Photo, Left to Right: Chitra Golestani, Hasti Khoshnammanesh, Jeff Albert, Ymasumac Marañon-Davis, Nicola Daniels, Robert Stockman, Derik Smith, Justin Scoggin.

by Robert Stockman

The eight staff members of the Wilmette Institute attended a four-day retreat at the Los Angeles Bahá’í Center, May 23-26. The eight are Jeff Albert, Director of the Education and Schools Office; Derik Smith, Acting Director; Chitra Golestani, Associate Director; Justin Scoggin, Chief Academic Officer; Robert Stockman, Dean of the Department of Bahá’í History and Texts; Nicola Daniels, Registrar and Student Services Specialist; Ymasumac Marañon-Davis, Course Designer; and Hasti Khoshnammanesh, Digital Support Associate.

The four-day meeting began with a review of our mission statement, which summarizes the main purpose of the Wilmette Institute. We continued with an exploration of Bahá’í pedagogy and carried out several exercises where we all expressed our own understandings of the framework for action as part of the emerging Bahá’í pedagogy the Wilmette Institute is learning about, and then merged them together into a single vision.

We spent some time discussing the Wilmette Institute’s accreditation process and continued next steps. It appears that it will be possible for us to submit our application for accreditation this December, when our two certificate programs are nearly complete.

The certificate programs were reviewed. Both programs are going quite well, with six students proceeding through the Bahá’í History and Texts Certificate and nine through the Social Transformation certificate. The Wilmette Institute needs to complete at least one cycle for each certificate program in order to apply for accreditation, demonstrating to the Distance Education Accrediting Commission that our policies and plans are effective.

Scenes from Staff Retreat, May 2023, Los Angeles.

We spent some time consulting about our relationship with the Graduate Theological Union of Berkeley, California. Our courses are gradually becoming more recognized, faculty are recommending them to their students, and the number of GTU students taking them is slowly climbing. We are developing relationships with more faculty there and are reaching out to faculty and students at the University of California Berkeley as well. In addition to Bahá’í courses and webinars, we want to develop Bahá’í-oriented modules we can offer faculty to include in their courses.

Very exciting is our growing relationship with North Carolina Central University, a large, publicly funded, HBCU (historically Black college/university).  The Wilmette Institute brought a powerful play, The Bus Stop, to the campus back in the fall and it generated considerable interest in our approach to social change. A guest lecture has already occurred in one course and we hope to develop modules to add to existing NCCU courses. A group of NCCU faculty and students are coming to the Association for Baha’i Studies conference in Atlanta this August to talk about the collaboration and what has been learned.

Several hours were devoted to our websites and marketing. We reviewed a marketing plan to engage more youth. We considered the tasks that must be completed to move our public website and our Moodle learning platform to new hosts, to upgrade our Moodle, and to replace our registration software with a better, less expensive system. The transitions should occur in July, when no courses are scheduled.

A major focus of our consultation was our extension courses, that is, the courses we offer every year that are not for credit. These courses absorb a considerable amount of the Wilmette Institute’s energies, especially human resources, and those resources need to be focused on our certificate programs and on perfecting our understanding of Bahá’í pedagogy through the creation of some innovative and new extension courses. A major concern that was considered was the fact that in the past the Wilmette Institute did not have the human resources or skills to focus on faculty training. Consequently, many faculty got used to the Wilmette Institute staff doing all the set-up work for their courses. In some cases, the staff even researched videos and podcasts that the faculty could include in their courses and recommended readings. In contrast, universities place all the responsibility for course design and set up on the faculty themselves. The Wilmette Institute has decided to transition its faculty support system to providing faculty training and advice, but generally will not do course set-up. The faculty will be expected to develop and upload their courses themselves. To assist them, however, the Institute will provide two general faculty training sessions per year via Zoom and two focused training sessions per year for selected faculty teams who are innovating and want to sharpen their skills further. Staff members will also Zoom with faculty two months before their course begins to review work that needs to be done and provide suggestions and training.

In order to continue supporting the extension courses, the Wilmette Institute staff agreed to cut back on the number of extension courses in 2024 to 30, which is the same as the number this year. In addition to the 30, Wilmette Institute staff plan to develop a few courses that relate to Baha’i pedagogy in order to acquire a better understanding of how that pedagogy actually will work in practice. By scheduling 30 extension courses, the Institute is able to continue offering the various series of courses it has started, but will stretch out the time it takes to complete the series from two years to three or four. All of our active faculty should be able to continue serving, but where they were teaching three courses per year, they may be teaching two, or if they were teaching two, they may be teaching one.

The staff also discussed its own cyclical learning process, and agreed to meet quarterly to reflect about the Institute’s progress. Derik Smith, the Acting Director, will spearhead that initiative.

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