The use of contingent faculty continues to increase throughout higher education. Given the important role they play, it makes sense to consider what can be done to improve their working conditions and their ability to teach effectively. Understanding the contingent faculty experience is certainly an important step in improving it.
This was the motivation for a recent survey of community college contingent faculty members conducted by Carol Schwartz, associate chair for undergraduate teacher education at Lourdes University. The anonymous survey featured 41 questions, 40 of which were quantitative questions that asked respondents to report on their participation in various instructional activities on a Likert scale, along with the following open-ended question:
“If your institution could do one thing to help you improve your teaching, other than increasing compensation, what would you recommend?”
Six-hundred and forty contingent faculty from 47 community colleges across eight Carnegie classifications participated in the survey, and there were 448 response statements to the open-ended question.
Schwartz coded the open-ended responses and grouped the responses in the following categories (ranked according to number of responses):
Responses to the open-ended question “showed that overwhelmingly they want to do a good job,” Schwartz says. “They know they need instructional support to do a good job, and they really want to be included as part of the faculty, not like some appendage. When these adjuncts actually asked to be included in department meetings, I laughed to myself because full-time faculty often complain about too much committee work, department meetings, and all the things they have to do. And the adjuncts are saying, ‘Please include us. Invite us to meetings or have faculty meetings once a year in the evening so we can attend.’ That’s wonderful.”
Improve communication—Schwartz says that this is the most cost-effective and least difficult area to focus on when trying to improve the contingent faculty experience. Frequent, effective communication with contingent faculty can improve professional relationships and help them feel included and respected. “I always try to make sure that I’m getting to the adjuncts the information they need to help them be more effective. There are certain times when they’re teaching key courses where I’ll say, ‘I know this is going to be tough, but could you attend a meeting on campus because you are critical to this change or this meeting?’” Schwartz says.
Shift from a teaching to a learning paradigm. “I think institutions need to recognize that it’s not about teaching; it’s about learning. Once we start to shift that focus, maybe then we could do things to support instructors in creating effective learning experiences. We’re in the middle of a seismic shift where we’re looking at the effects of our work on student learning, but some people still aren’t making the connection,” Schwartz says.
Ask your contingent faculty what you can do to improve their teaching. Asking the same open-ended question from this study might yield some surprising insights from contingent faculty at your institution. One respondent in this study, for example, asked for access to a photocopier rather than having to pay for work-related copies.
Assign courses early. This will give contingent faculty members more time to prepare.
Provide professional development and offer incentives. Allow those who participate in professional development activities to have more input on which courses they want to teach.
Tap into contingent faculty members’ areas of expertise. Contingent faculty members may have skills or knowledge that full-time faculty do not. By communicating and collaborating with contingent faculty members, you might be able to add courses that you would otherwise not have been able to include.