Friday, April 11, 2008

Ask the Administrator: Professional Development in the Sticks

Right now I'm in the midst of an unbloggable circus, so letters are especially welcome.

An earnest correspondent in the middle of nowhere writes:

I'm an adjunct at a local CC, and I have two

First, my department has expressed an interest in
hiring me full-time when the economics are right. (And
the college has a history of hiring from within
adjunct ranks when possible.) While I'm not getting my
hopes up, it is an opportunity I'd like to position
myself to pursue if and when it becomes available. I
have both academic and professional graduate degrees,
and I went right into the professions after school
(and, due to student loans, knew I was going to do
so), so I've never published. I'd like to publish a
few things to improve my resume (though my CC does
hire unpublished folk full-time), but I don't really
have the vaguest idea how to begin. There's not a
strong academic community in this town, so I don't
know where to find a mentor to help me figure it out,

Second, I feel like I've got my teaching under control
now, and I'm at the point where some of my pedagogical
material is great, and some is only okay, but I'm not
entirely sure how to go about upgrading the "only
okay" (I think part of the problem is that it's easy
to fix things that just plain DON'T work, but things
that mostly work and are in the syllabus have a
tendency to resist change). I want to continue to
improve my lecturing, my assignments, and the feedback
I give my students.

My chair is great, but he has an extremely adversarial
teaching style that doesn't suit me, and he's
absolutely impossible to keep to a point when I ask
him a question. (I'll ask him for ideas on how to
better assess student learning on topic X, and he ends
up trapping me in his office for an hour discussing
18th-century advances in skepticism. Anything I say
sends him off on an entirely DIFFERENT topic that's
totally unrelated!) I've been through our faculty
development center and take advantage of their
resources, but they're really focused on online
teaching right now.

Are there resources that I can pursue on my own that
you or your readers have found particularly helpful?
(Books, blogs, whatever!) Really anything -- I've
snagged books from a K-12 teacher friend that have
turned out to be reasonably helpful. I'm very open ...
I just want to improve!

I like your comment about the faculty development center. In a perfect world, they'd have both instructional designers and academic technologists, and you could use what made sense for you. Instead, whenever budget cuts roll around, they devolve into technology training centers. There's a use for that, but it leaves out something crucial. And the Geeky Moms of the world, who can do both tasks single-handedly, are much too few and far between.

(My ex-girlfriend from college has actually made quite a name for herself as an academic technologist, after getting her doctorate in her academic field, so I feel a certain kinship with Geeky Mom.)

One of the glories of the internet is that being in the sticks doesn't necessarily involve being as thoroughly cut off as it once did. Several academic bloggers have posted some wonderful discussions of teaching over the last few years, and you can obviously access those. (I'd start over at Dr. Crazy's, since she tends to delve into the 'why' as well as the 'what.') You can also post dilemmas and queries on your own blog and solicit comments. (I've been absolutely shameless about doing that, and the collective wisdom of the blogosphere has saved my bacon more than once.)

Back in the more innocent 1990's, when we thought that the worst thing a President could possibly do was mess around with an intern, I was an earnest young instructor trying to improve. Something I found that worked wonders was simply seeking out some of the more successful senior faculty at my college and asking them, respectfully, how they did it. They were remarkably generous with their advice, and even seemed flattered that I had asked. Better, since they were dealing with the same students and the same peculiar institutional context that I was, the tips were immediately useful. The key was that I didn't restrict myself to my home discipline. Certain methods transfer across disciplines quite well, and some fields have actually devoted serious thought to this stuff. (Generally, I've found that the folks who've kept current with the composition-and-rhetoric field have the best tips, though your mileage may vary.)

So I'll take my own advice and throw this one open to the collective wisdom of my wise and worldly readers. What would you suggest to an earnest young instructor in the sticks?

Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.