First Steps in Supporting Part-Time Faculty

Among other findings, the recent Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) has highlighted the phenomenon of "part-timerness" prevalent not only among students attending evening and weekend classes but also among adjunct faculty. The survey authors have called upon two-year institutions to take steps to better engage and support part-time faculty.

As the percentage of instructors who are part-time grows, supporting adjunct faculty in delivering quality instruction is increasingly important for both two-year and four-year institutions. We asked Richard Lyons, Senior Consultant with Faculty Development Associates and editor of the book Best Practices for Supporting Adjunct Faculty (2007), to comment on the first critical steps in offering effective support and faculty development for your part-time instructors.

Training Your Adjuncts

Initial training for first-time adjuncts is crucial. Research studies since The Invisible Faculty (1993) consistently show that not all part-time faculty are aspiring academics. Many are specialists and professionals, freelancers, or career enders -- passionate individuals who may have little or no formal instructional or pedagogical training.

"Consider the 25-year old attorney teaching an evening class. No one ever taught her how to teach. What she knows about instructional design might be what she saw as a student in law school. Maybe she's seen hour-long lectures, and now she prepares to teach in that way. She has not been given the opportunity to learn alternatives."
Richard Lyons, Faculty Development Associates

Lyons recommends providing professional development opportunities for adjuncts that address, at a minimum:

  • Your institution's mission, culture, and student demographics
  • Essentials of pedagogy (instructional design; developing effective exams and grading rubrics)
  • Syllabus and course design
  • Legal issues (FERPA, etc.)

Adjunct instructors will be better prepared and have a different level of commitment to the course and to your institution if department chairs invest the time to align the new instructor's expectations with their own and ensure that a sound plan is in place before launching the course.

"Many part-time faculty who teach a course for the first time are hired on very short notice. They may be thrown in with someone else's textbook and someone else's syllabus. But that's not the most effective way to foster an instructor's success. It's important to give first-time part-timers the learning opportunity of preparing and working through the design of their syllabus and their course."
Richard Lyons, Faculty Development Associates

Lyons suggests offering training in succinct, discrete modules, in a "just in time" fashion, rather than frontloading all the content into orientation or a pre-term seminar. "If you give new adjunct instructors all that information up front, they will be less likely to retain it later when issues arise. Give pedagogical training on delivering effective exams 3 weeks ahead of the first test they administer, rather than 3 months ahead."

A good place to start is to check with your faculty development office or your teaching and learning center. Is there already programming in place that provides the content needed? And if so, does that programming address the needs of your adjunct instructors, or is it designed with only tenure-track faculty in mind? Lyons recommends partnering with other chairs and with faculty developers to evaluate the programs you already have in place and update them where needed.

"Then," Lyons adds, "have a brief one-on-one conversation with new hires, if you don't already." Too often a part-time hire only meets briefly with the chair to get the teaching assignment, the textbook, the classroom number. "Meet again in the second or third week of the term, have a cup of coffee, catch up on what's going on so far."

"That type of meeting can help the new instructor identify potential problem areas or bring questions to the table. It is an opportunity to nip problems in the bud, and this checkpoint may prevent the chair from spending long afternoons later putting out a fire started unwittingly by an adjunct instructor."
Richard Lyons, Faculty Development Associates

Mentoring

Establishing mentoring relationships between part-time and full-time faculty can be an effective way to both train and develop part-timers, but Lyons warns against making the assumption that all full-time faculty will be effective mentors -- or that all of them will serve as good models, skilled at developing good exams or good rubrics.

"Draft a job description and a job specification for mentors, just as you would for a paid position. Have faculty apply to be a mentor, review their qualifications. Ask part-time instructors what qualities and expertise they're looking for in a mentor. Then match them."
Richard Lyons, Faculty Development Associates

Participation as a mentor could be linked into faculty evaluation; it could fulfill part of the service component. "Buy them a lunch a few times during a year, and hold an awards/recognition program for mentors at the end of the academic year -- these are traditional, effective methods of acknowledging mentors."

Involve Part-Time Faculty in the Life of the College

To combat "part-timerness," engage part-time faculty productively in the life of the department. Ensure that they are on the department's email lists, and involve them in departmental activities. Full-time faculty often have a social activity at the start of the term, Lyons notes. "Extend that activity to part-timers. This might mean holding the activity in the late afternoon or evening, to accommodate the schedules of your part-time faculty."

Early engagement is critical. "The time and effort a chair invests in that start-of-term activity will pay off many times over in the overall success of the department," Lyons remarks. "Its purpose is similar to an icebreaker exercise in a class at the start of the new term. It is an opportunity to involve part-time faculty, deepen their learning, and affect retention."

Besides start-of-term engagement, follow up with an end-of-year celebratory function, and include an awards program. These programs are common for full-time faculty, but Lyons recommends starting a parallel award program for part-timers. The program might have different rules and a different nomination process. Having awards for part-time faculty sends a powerful message about their worth to the institution.

"You don't have to spend a lot of money on plaques -- have a small award and let the instructors shake hands with important administrators at your institution. Celebrate them, recognize them. You want them to walk a little taller. Award winners will be esteemed by their peers. They may become informal mentors to other part-time instructors."
Richard Lyons, Faculty Development Associates

Not only will there be a positive impact on the award winners; the program can have an impact on the commitment and engagement of other part-time adjunct faculty. It is an invitation to take an involved role in the life of the college, and to step up and become a top-performing instructor.