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Author: Amy B. Harkins, MBA, PhD

Transitioning from Faculty to Chair

Adjunct faculty may be the most overused and under-resourced groups of individuals in higher education. Many departments and courses would not function, or at least not function well, without adjunct faculty. Yet despite being in many cases essential members of a department, adjuncts receive modest pay, typically by the course and term. They often function on the periphery of a department or program with little if any attention paid them or their development as a faculty member. As the chair of a department that includes a variety of clinical health disciplines, my philosophy and approach are to involve adjunct faculty in the department and as members of the academic programs in which they teach. Investing in mentoring them as if they were full-time faculty members and supporting their development as educators can, I believe, provide valuable returns. In my department’s case, the possibility that a current adjunct can become our next best full-time clinical faculty applicant should not be ignored. While not all department units may be structured in a way that would permit full-time hires, adjunct instruction may be foundational to the unit. Regardless of the department or the organizational structure, ultimately, one goal is that there should be no discernible differences in the quality of instruction between full-time and adjunct faculty.

I recognize that my departmental need of specialized clinical health professionals for adjunct instruction tends to fall on the side of the expert lecturer for upper-level and discipline-specific courses. However, I believe the same principles apply to the entry-level core and prerequisite courses that adjunct faculty teach at most institutions. To assist in hiring the appropriate individual as an adjunct faculty member, we rely on the networks established among our full-time faculty in the program, the department, and the college. The optimal adjunct faculty candidate is an appropriately credentialed expert on the course topic who has college teaching experience. If the individual has no college teaching experience, then providing professional development and teaching resources is essential. A content expert isn’t necessarily good or natural at imparting the information students require. Those with formal teaching experience may have gained it by serving as a graduate TA, guest lecturing, or having previously been an adjunct faculty. Moreover, the best adjunct faculty candidates have a passion to teach and want to learn how to improve this craft. In my experience, the most highly engaged adjuncts are interested in giving back to their discipline and to students. Below, I discuss four ways that our program supports adjuncts.

Faculty peer-mentoring

When our department hires an adjunct faculty member to teach a course, the individual is paired with a program director or a faculty mentor (or both) who can assist with the daily needs for course delivery. The faculty mentor works closely with the new adjunct faculty to develop the course. The faculty mentor assists the adjunct in navigating the institutional systems of electronic publishing of the course and other didactic details for in-seat or online delivery, including the university’s syllabi requirements and formats, and all policies and procedures relevant to the adjunct’s needs. The department purchases books and printed or electronic resources for the adjunct. Established administrative staff support for student needs is quite beneficial; didactic support for classroom assistance, electronic exam preparation, and any other course material needs are also provided. All adjunct faculty should have access to an office, even if shared space, for teaching preparation and holding office hours as well as access to common spaces within the department or college for small group work. In some instances, access to office and common space may require a dean’s approval.

Professional development and resources

Importantly, when I hire an adjunct faculty, I am sure to provide any needed professional development, including resources and chair support and mentoring. As opportunities arise in the campus teaching and learning center, it is important to nominate and support adjuncts who have an interest in additional training and pedagogical programming. I also recommend that each adjunct faculty new to teaching participate in available free training sessions on the curricular management systems and video systems for the classrooms. In addition, I help to identify opportunities to support adjunct faculty and their professional development. There is a high return in providing even small amounts of funding to offset expenses for an adjunct to attend a discipline-specific academic meeting. For example, I helped to defray the cost of an adjunct faculty member to attend a national pedagogical conference. This adjunct faculty has subsequently redesigned the delivery of a human anatomy and physiology laboratory with augmented virtual reality, the first of its kind on our campus. While many of these resources can be provided by departmental funds, it is always necessary for a dean to have knowledge and to be supportive of the resources allocated to adjunct faculty members for their professional development.

Feedback for measurable improvement

While these resources are helpful, I believe that a primary way to develop adjunct faculty members is simply to make time for them. I make myself available through email and phone and in person. At the end of term, I meet individually with each adjunct to review how their course went and what they believe they should change and improve upon for the next term. Approximately once every three terms, I meet casually with the students to get feedback about the course and what they would like to see changed for the next set of students. While course evaluations have a place and provide some information, open conversation and direct interaction with students can provide even richer feedback. From students’ verbal feedback and course evaluations, I review the course’s strengths and weaknesses with the adjunct face-to-face, and together we review how to improve the course, what is working, and what additional instructional needs can be provided.

Inclusion

Lastly, as they’re integral members of the department, I make certain that adjuncts feel valued. This is easily accomplished by invitations to departmental and group meetings when the topics are relevant, especially when an adjunct can provide needed input and perspective for topical meetings. We include adjunct faculty members in the department and programmatic work toward strategic goals, academic program reviews, and accreditation site visits. Inclusion in these activities is essential as adjuncts rarely have a prior understanding of the larger contextual aspects of higher education, which include curricular mapping, competencies, and accreditation requirements. All adjuncts are invited to department social events as social opportunities permit assimilation and integration regardless of a person’s role. Inclusion builds a sense of community for and underscores the valuable contributions of adjunct faculty.

Adjunct faculty can substantially strengthen an academic program and pedagogical instruction. Investing even a small amount of time, resources, support, and mentoring toward adjuncts’ professional development can guarantee an excellent learning experience for students. Professional development for adjuncts can allow them to become invested academic collaborators and, just possibly, the next best applicants in a faculty search.

Amy B. Harkins, MBA, PhD, received her doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania and did postdoctoral training at the University of Chicago. From 2002 to 2017, she was faculty in the School of Medicine at Saint Louis University, and in 2017, she became chairperson of the Department of Clinical Health Sciences in the Doisy College of Health Sciences, where she oversees nine academic programs that provide education to more than 600 students.