Wednesday, March 28, 2012


Ask the Administrator: Getting Your Discipline Noticed

A new correspondent writes:

I am an adjunct instructor at a large, urban university and I'm very happy with my job - this spring will mark the end of my third year here. Every so often a student approaches me to express their desire to switch their major to my discipline (anthropology) and I have to tell them we do not offer it as a major or minor. My classes are only on the books in order to enrich the actually existing majors of sociology and criminal justice, and because my department chair (sociology) sees that I'm doing a good job and genuinely likes me.

This was not always the case. In the recent past, say 10-15 years ago, the university had two full-time faculty in my discipline and offered the major. Then, in quick succession, one retired and the other suddenly died. Rather than bring those lines back the program was shuttered. Now there's just intro classes and adjuncts, and that's about it. Every time someone asks me how they can take more classes in my subject I wish I could tell them there was something we could do to bring the major back.

Is there any hope for getting my university to expand its commitment to my admittedly esoteric discipline? My classes are popular and pique students' curiosity, but they have to go to another institution to study it more. Is there an appropriate way to bring that popularity to the administration's attention?

It’s a great question, because it gets to the heart of what the institution chooses to support.  And it shows a basic flaw in “shared governance” as it’s usually understood.

Most community colleges below a certain size have to make some difficult choices about which majors to support (or combine).  Those choices tend to reflect transferability and/or employability, enrollments, historical commitments, what was hot in the fat years, the availability of external funding, and incumbent employee preferences (both faculty and administration).  It doesn’t usually reflect the academic merit of one course of study as against another, since that varies so greatly depending on who’s measuring.

That may sound cold and offensive in the abstract, but when you get to cases, it makes sense.  Okay, you’re in charge of allocating faculty positions this year, and you have one to give to a department that makes a good proposal.  You get impassioned arguments from both photography and anthropology.  Quick, which has more academic merit, and how do you know?  

It’s a remarkably difficult question to answer with any level of confidence.  (And heaven help the administrator who explains to an incumbent department that its program lacks academic merit!)  But you could look at enrollment data, transfer/employment data, and external funding; those are all much easier to defend, if need be, and they speak to the ability of the college to sustain the program over time.  It’s easy to caricature that as “corporate” or “soulless,” but I think of it as an expression of epistemological humility.

For a major that doesn’t currently exist as a major, it’s usually not enough to say that the course of study is inherently worthwhile, or even that some students have asked you about it.  You should be able to show not just demand -- though that’s certainly helpful -- but also what problem you’re solving.  If your college already offers a sociology major, what would an anthropology major give the students that they don’t already have?  Could they transfer to a four-year college and major in anthro if they majored in sociology at your cc?  If so, what would your proposed major give them that they don’t already have?

Shared governance, as usually understood, is premised on the idea that the incumbent faculty are in charge of curriculum, and the administration handles the budget.  But the two categories are hard to separate when it comes to new program development.  And when incumbent employees vote and prospective ones don’t, there will be a pronounced tendency to direct resources to where they already are.  A new program that can draw entirely on faculty who are already there is an easy sell, but one that would require existing departments to forego badly-wanted hires in favor of something entirely new is harder.  There’s a conflict of interest to overcome.  It can be done, but it’s harder.

The few successful cases I’ve seen have either involved entirely new technology or belated recognition of massive external economic forces.  It’s not immediately obvious to me that either would apply in the case of anthropology as such.  But you might be able to work with sociology to hitch a ride with something else.  Could you develop a course that might be of particular interest to allied health majors?  Maybe something with human services?  Sometimes a program can develop organically simply by becoming the common denominator among disparate areas.  But there’s no guarantee of success, and it’s a hell of a lot of work.

Sorry to be a downer, but that’s how it looks from here.  

I’d love to hear from my wise and worldly readers on this one.  Is there a better way to raise your discipline’s profile within the institution?  Have you found a more effective route?

Good luck!

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

I think this would have worked at my last department. You have to sell the following plan to your department chair and 1 or 2 key tenured faculty who will champion the change. An adjunct in my old department would have exactly zero influence on faculty decisions about hiring and planning for the department. But you can have indirect influence and this is what I would do.
I would have the tenured faculty create a concentration within Sociology or criminal justice for anthro. Make sure that the courses offered dovetail with others in that major. Make the classes a mix of upper divison and GE so you have both majors. Make the classes big so that the faculty feel that their workload will be lessened by the change (thus making them support this addition).
Make sure that in the strategic plan for the department, there's a sense that certain anthro-oriented pieces of curriculum are needed in both majors.
Show the department chair that your courses are moneymakers. Use the numbers from your classes to back that up. Make sure both the chair and the dean recognize the growing importance of this discipline – how integral it is to both of those majors, how high the enrollment is in those classes.
Have the tenured faculty then make the argument that this part of the curriculum is too important to be left in the hands of adjuncts. They could leave! They are not part of the curricular planning for the department! And really (your department chair and tenured faculty should argue) this part of the curriculum is so vital to both of the other majors it's a part of - we need a scholar with the most up to date exposure to the field to really give our students the best experience. If research is part of your school’s activities, point out that a tenured faculty member could mentor students in senior thesis or undergrad research projects – which adjuncts can’t. Tenured faculty should make the argument for a hire – either in this discipline alone or as a cross-disciplinary hire - someone who can teach critical stats classes for sociology and also who can teach anthro or someone who has a criminal justice background.
You use the numbers to appeal to the administrators and the snob appeal of a “real scholar” to get tenured faculty to agree to a hire. But you might argue yourself out of a job…
Oddly enough, my example is anthropology. At my institution, we had one faculty member (albeit full-time) for years. He is energetic and enthusiastic and enrollments began to rise. So we added ad anjunct. Then we entered into a partnership with another institution (fairly nearby)--and it's this step I would encourage trying immediately. As enrollments continued to grow, we addes a second F-T faculty member, but the major is still a partnership between two campuses.
You've got an advanced degree and the best you can do is piecemeal teaching at below entry-level wages for a business degree.

Why in the FSM's name would you want to encourage anyone to follow in your footsteps? Anthropology is a fine hobby, and a course or two can really help you understand your life and the lives of those around you. But it's a rich person's major, and if that's not what your college is, thank your lucky stars your administration is clear eyed.
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