A 2010 US Department of Education study found that adjunct instructors teach 60% of the college courses in the US. They represent a critical first line of instruction for many students, yet often receive minimal faculty development and minimal institutional support for serving students.
This week, we interviewed Jennifer Strickland, the interim director for Mesa Community College’s Center for Teaching and Learning, which supports the college’s 300+ residential faculty and 1100+ adjunct faculty. We asked Strickland why the issue of adjunct support should be accorded some urgency – and what forms of support she has found to be most needed in order to improve teaching and learning, as well as retention of adjunct faculty.
The Need for a Shift in Institutional Culture
Strickland argues that providing adjunct faculty with few resources to improve pedagogy and limited logistical support doesn't serve students well. While the rationale for this has to do with the level of investment in contingent versus full-time faculty, what is actually at stake is the level of investment in the student. Strickland notes the example of institutions at which part-time faculty lack an office (even a shared one) and a phone line on campus-–curtailing their ability to offer regular office hours or respond in a timely manner to student questions.
“To your students,” Strickland advises, “a faculty member is a faculty member. Yet, to the college, there is a difference between full-time and part-time faculty. And in the institutional culture, there is a difference. The question we need to ask is: How do we ensure that the student doesn’t know there is a difference? And what are we doing to ensure that 60% of our faculty human resources who face students on a day-to-day basis are being successful in the classroom?”
"It’s critical to shift perspective – look at this issue from the student perspective rather than from the perspective of ingrained, institutional culture. We’re investing in student success."
Jennifer Strickland, Mesa Community College
Survey Your Adjunct Faculty
Strickland cautions that a number of misconceptions about adjunct faculty remain widespread – for example, that adjunct faculty simply “show up, teach their course, and leave” or that adjunct faculty only know their profession and don’t know how to deliver quality instruction. The reality is that adjunct faculty are not a homogenous group. Some are highly engaged in the academic community, while others are subject to “part-timerness.” Some have received formal training in instruction, and some haven’t. And adjunct faculty may come to your institution with varied motivations, ranging from aspirations for an academic career to a love for occasional teaching to the desire to share professional experience.
A critical first step is to survey your own adjunct faculty with some regularity and determine:
- What motivations drive them to teach at your institution?
- What are their long-term goals?
- Do they feel engaged in your institution?
- Do they feel supported at your institution?
- What are the most significant challenges they see to delivering effective instruction?
Don’t only rely on national reports on adjunct motivations and needs. Check with your own population of instructors.
The Support Adjunct Faculty Need Most
Strickland summarizes the critical support that is most frequently needed:
- Comprehensive orientation for new instructors
- “Just in time” support
- Ongoing faculty development programs, with incentives for participation
- Engagement with full-time faculty
Strickland advises that orientation needs to include both logistics and an understanding of the college’s mission and strategic direction. You are inviting new instructors to the institution and its community – not just to a job.
Second, you need to offer support and faculty development that meets the needs of your unique adjunct population, and it’s critical to include “just in time” support as part of that. “It’s important, but very hard to do,” Strickland admits. “But recognize that most faculty keep non-business hours. When they have a pressing question, they want to address it right then and there. Anything you can do to offer just in time training will make a significant difference as adjunct instructors strive to improve teaching and learning.” Online training can also provide an effective supplement.
Third, offer faculty development programming that is unique to adjunct faculty. “Part-time faculty especially have unique needs for support and need programs that are unique to them,” Strickland emphasizes. She also notes the importance of live, on-campus, face-to-face faculty development. “Often adjuncts don’t feel tied to the community or to the college; providing incentives for them to come to the campus for development programs assists with engagement and retention of your part-time faculty and with increasing participation in voluntary development programs to improve teaching.”
Fourth, ensure that part-time faculty have opportunities to engage with full-time faculty and to participate in the larger academic community. When surveyed, adjunct faculty often share a frustration that they do not feel valued by full-time faculty.
- Does your institution offer a mentoring program in which full-time faculty engage with part-time faculty?
- Are adjunct faculty represented on curriculum review committees? (After all, they are often closest to the students)
- Are adjunct faculty eligible for the same awards nominations that full-time faculty are?
It can be costly to hire and train new adjunct instructors continuously; make sure that your part-time faculty feel engaged and valued by the institution, that there are awards and rewards for effective teaching, and that adjunct faculty have opportunities to develop as instructors.
"When you invest in adjunct faculty, they feel valued, they feel that they have an impact in the college. Adjuncts provide 60% of instruction; show that they are a critical part of the institution."
Jennifer Strickland, Mesa Community College