How part-time faculty can strive for teaching excellence

Co-editor of advice book for adjunct faculty talks about how to overcome feelings of being ‘untethered’ in the workplace

March 31, 2016
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On your own: but ‘if people don’t love teaching, they shouldn’t be in the field’

In the introduction to the first chapter of his most recent book, Jon Becker writes that the shift from full-time to part-time faculty in the US has been “dramatic”. Although the figures Mr Becker refers to are from 2009, he told Times Higher Education that the “number of adjunct faculty, all across America, is growing”.

Why then did Mr Becker and his co-editors decide there was a need to publish Quick Hits for Adjunct Faculty and Lecturers: Successful Strategies from Award-winning Teachers?

Mr Becker, senior lecturer in mathematics and actuarial science at Indiana University Northwest and a member of the Faculty Colloquium on Excellence in Teaching (Facet), said that many adjunct staff still feel marginalised and “don’t get enough support” in terms of professional development.

“One of the things we hear quite regularly is they feel like they don’t necessarily have enough support from their own department,” he said. “They’re given a book and told what chapters to cover [with students], or maybe even given a syllabus and told: ‘Go be free, go teach the class.’”

He writes in the book that adjuncts “sit squarely at the bottom of the faculty ‘food chain’ in the eyes of many administrators”, and are “slotted into classes” after full-time staff have cherry-picked their times. The lack of support they feel could lead to unease about their job security, Mr Becker said.

“If something goes wrong in their class, they often fear they are going to lose their job; [they ask if] they are going to be supported by the administration, things like that. I think that’s a lot of it, a feeling of being untethered,” he said.

The tips in his book range from advice on time management and getting a better work/life balance to engaging and helping students. Mr Becker thinks that a desire for teaching excellence is fundamental for adjuncts.

“We have some really excellent adjuncts at the university, and we have some really, really poor ones,” he said. “Just like we have full-time faculty who [either] are good [or] aren’t.

“I think that sometimes when we have a part-time job, [or even] multiple part-time jobs, we don’t necessarily strive for the excellence [that full-time staff might]. I don’t think it’s intentional [but] we need to try to strive for excellence in everything we do – whether it’s a part-time position or you’re a chancellor’s professor, with full tenure and a corner office.

“The good adjuncts who I find…are doing it because they love teaching and love their students. If people don’t love their students and what they’re doing, then they shouldn’t be in the field.”

Facet grew out of Indiana University’s desire to create a “teaching academy”, similar to the UK’s Higher Education Academy, for people who “have demonstrated an excellence in teaching and who promote and advocate excellence in the classroom”.

Now Facet is looking further afield. Facet’s Adjunct Faculty and Lecturers Conference (Falcon), has in the past four years started to “reach outside” Indiana University and attract speakers from across the US and abroad, and Mr Becker hopes to see it grow even more in the future.

Jon Becker’s top tips for adjunct faculty

Service makes you visible and valuable
Although research is important for tenure-track positions, many adjuncts can get their foot in the door by volunteering to help the department with textbook adoption committees, departmental student clubs, or serving in the tutoring lab. By showing a willingness to serve, you make yourself more valuable to the department and increase the chances of your being noticed when a position arises.

Seek out a mentor
Find a full-time faculty member in the department – the chair, if possible – who is willing to spend some time with you every few weeks to answer your questions and offer you advice on classroom situations as they arise. Ask them to observe your class and give feedback on communicating with and teaching your students more effectively. A desire to improve as a teacher shows commitment to your craft and a deep care for the learning welfare of your students.

Be ‘flexibly rigid’
This sounds odd, but is important – particularly if you teach at more than one university. Take ownership of your schedule. Instead of telling a department that you will work “anytime and anywhere”, say that you are available at certain times: for example, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, or every day before 3pm. If you are working at multiple institutions and doing well, make sure that the important people in your department know this. Being in demand makes you more valuable for consideration when full-time positions open up.

Student evaluations are your friend
The best way to receive positive student evaluations is not by giving everyone good grades; it’s by learning every student’s name and major, and delivering an energetic classroom experience. Students who know that you care about them will often comment on your excellent teaching, even if they didn’t do as well in your class.

Be versatile
Diversify your course availability: You may only feel comfortable teaching a basic maths course, but by brushing up on your calculus skills, you will open up your availability to a wider selection of classes, increasing your currency within the department.

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Print headline: Part-time needn’t be a bar to teaching excellence

Reader's comments (2)

I would have to write a response longer than the actual article to list all the ways this information is inaccurate. I've tried every one of these, and not one has worked. Service is largely ignored, sometimes has a negative effect (admin act as though they are allowing you to 'play' at being a full-time faculty member and sometimes even act like it's in in convenience to them. Faculty mentors are frequently busy, unconcerned and even threatened by a go-getter adjunct. Students don't tend to appreciate your taken an interest in them. etc. etc. etc.
I have to agree entirely with the first commentator. This advice is quite incorrect. It is an invitation to do more work for free for an institution which is already exploiting you. I have stellar student evaluations, won teaching awards and innovative teaching grants. This counts for nothing when it comes to getting a permanent job. I refer you to a blog post written by a colleague of mine, with a much more accurate perspective for University teachers employed on temporary contracts

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