Monday, May 13, 2013


Ask the Administrator: Old Dogs and New Tricks

Ask the Administrator: Old Dogs and New Tricks

An exasperated correspondent writes:

So I have one of the most interesting adjunct problems known to adjuncts are too good.
I have tried to cultivate an environment of academic excellence in teaching for the last couple of years in my position.  And it is catching with some of my part time instructors; however, my full time folks (who do not have tenure) won't move off center.  How do I help my full timers see the wonderful work of some of the adjuncts in such a way that they won't want to string me up?!?  
Enrollment in some of the adjunct taught classes well out paces full time folks.  They are missing the boat, or rather, they are missing the dock with our students in the boat on which they are captain.  
As a second to this....why when exposed to the same impetus for change are my adjuncts doing so much better at adapting than the full timers?  I don't want to believe that it is routine, complacency, or laziness, but the cards are beginning to read otherwise...
There isn't much at stake for the full-time faculty.  We don't have tenure, but as long as they don't rock the boat too much they are pretty secure in their jobs (as evidenced by the long list of retirees that have worked for the district for over 35 years who are steadily leaving the ranks).  
Most of my full-time faculty have taught their courses the same way for many years.  That is what I mean about "moving off center."  They are using the same instructional techniques, no integration of technology, standard assessments as evidenced by the use of the same or similar tests that they have been using for years, average student evaluations. ...and lots of sitting around complaining about under-prepared students.
I have attempted to provide professional development, research, books, articles, sending folks to teaching workshops, sharing successes, patterning though examples, etc.  The pattern for this intervention seems fall into three phases, surface level acceptance of intervention, contemplation or completion of task, and resolution usually accompanied by a variation of, "Yes, this is fantastic!  How do we get adjuncts to do this?"  I have tried mediocre reviews on average performance evaluations, I share success of those who are touching students, I even tried an online resource center.  All to no avail.  Success rates for full time folks still hover around 70% where part-timers are up above 76%.  And it is not because they are easier.  I sit in the classrooms.  

In a nutshell, most of my adjuncts are superstars hitting over .350, and most of my full-time folks are bench players hitting only .260.  I feel like I should be relying on full-time folks to blaze the trail and be exemplars in the classroom.  I am beginning to wonder if those expectations are misplaced.  

I’d start by stepping back from the immediate frustration and taking a broader view.  Assuming your depiction is largely accurate, bad habits didn’t develop overnight, and they won’t be fixed overnight.  And it’s safe to assume that any progress you make will be partial.

Instead, I’d look at it as an issue of climate change.  Too many people have checked out, so they’re doing the minimum.  That’s why they aren’t even actively opposed to new ideas, since active opposition takes energy.  They’ll just smile, shrug, suggest that someone else do it, and go back to doing (or not doing) whatever they were doing before.  In a way, that can be even more frustrating than direct opposition.  At least with direct opposition, you know what you’re up against.  But a pattern of amiable nods with no follow through can take a while to discern.  And while you’re discerning it, it’s getting stronger.

A frontal assault is unlikely to work.  It would be like punching a cloud.  Instead, I’d start with a trek to my grantwriting office.

Routine is the enemy here; you need to engage your people in some new tasks.  In the absence of resources, that can be nearly impossible.  But with grant money, strategically applied, you can provide the time (in the form of course reassignments) and/or funding to pay people to do something different.  

The key is in being relatively directive on the goal and the measures, but hands-off on the means.  Since you mention pass rates, which are easily measured, you could start with projects to improve student success in some gatekeeper courses.  There’s no shortage of literature on that right now, and a well-conceived project can have a realistic shot at funding.  Use the funding to buy some faculty time, and have the faculty use that time to develop alternative approaches in key courses.  But let them figure out what those approaches should be.  Commit to piloting at least one, if not more, of the approaches they endorse, whether or not you personally would have done it that way.  

Interrupting the routine can provide a wake-up call, and having resources at hand will both convey that you’re serious and help get past the initial skepticism.  Committing to piloting something will mean there’s something at stake.  And keeping your hands off during the formative stages will show respect for your people, and for academic freedom.

You’ll probably have some early adopters, which are great, and some who will never give it the time of day, which is just the way of the world.  But if you get multiple projects like this going, and some of them start to work, you may find a wonderful contagion effect among the middle group.  Success is popular, and sometimes even viral.  To the extent that “checking out’ is a symptom of either boredom or fatalism, new success can have an energizing effect.  And if some formerly-fatalistic types tell their friends, sincerely, that they’re actually excited about something, then you have a real shot at changing the culture in a positive way.

That’s one approach, anyway.  

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Does grantsmanship offer a potential way out, or is there a better way?  Alternately, is he just stuck?

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

Have you considered having some of the full-time faculty observe several (not just one) of your star adjuncts, especially if at the same point in the same course? That might be an eye opener. Could even be done under the guise of a mutual observation (I see you, you see me) as long as you warn the adjuncts to be gentle in critiquing the ft faculty. Right now you are the only one observing either group, right?
Are your full time folks over-burdened with non-teaching tasks? It can be difficult to innovate when trying to balance 4 or 5 sections of classes plus service, research, quasi-administrative stuff, and everything else that gets dumped on faculty. There are a lot of down sides to adjuncting, but at least it can offer a chance to really focus on one's teaching.
however, my full time folks (who do not have tenure) won't move off center.
We don't have tenure, but as long as they don't rock the boat too much they are pretty secure in their jobs

At my SLAC, those in visiting & adjunct positions have mentioned feeling free to innovate while tenure-track faculty say they don't have that freedom. The cost of trying something new and it not working is high for the tenure-track while it is relatively low for the contingent faculty. Many of our contingent have said if they were tenure-track they wouldn't be trying new pedagogies.

Look at your reward system. Is it really encouraging full-time faculty to innovate? Or are they not rocking the boat because that is the climate that permeates the college? If so, why would they rock the boat?

The service part is also important to consider.
Along the lines of what the other posters have said about the other duties of full time faculty, I'll add this:

I'm amused about the suggestion of writing a grant, because if there were a grant to write to try new teaching methods, guess who'd be writing wouldn't be the adjuncts, or the 'grant writing' people. I've worked with the latter on a few occasions and they expect the full time faculty to shoulder most of the writing duties.
Anon 4:08, what you describe may be place-specific. At my school, it WOULD be the non-tenure people writing that grant. The tenure-track people don't have time and many of them don't have the inclination, since publishing and service are more valued than teaching (even at a "teaching school" like mine). The thinking is that as long as one's teaching isn't horrible, then it is fine. And it is a lot harder to coast on research, than on teaching. So when trying to cut corners to buy time for research or other job requirements, innovation in teaching loses out. Teaching is just a baseline on top of which tenured people do other things. For those of us on the non-tenured side of life, teaching well is more essential to keeping our jobs. Perhaps the same is true for the full time, non-tenured people at the original correspondent's institution.

There are some Scholarship of Teaching & Learning (SOTL) grants out there, at least in my field. They are small, but they do exist. However, they are not always open to non-tenure people, and especially not to part-time people. Ironic.
Even though I am now an adjunct, I have found that if I teach the same course quarter after quarter, year after year, I tend to get stale. I end up doing the same thing over and over again, I fall into a routine, I become bored and complacent, and I end up putting forth less and less effort with each successive quarter. After a time, I become more or less a robot in the classroom. So I relish the time when I am assigned a new course, one that I have never taught before. New material, a new approach, even a new preparation, all invigorate me. So maybe a way to re-energize your full-timers is to periodically switch around their course assignments.

Of course, all of this depends on how well good teaching is rewarded at your institution. If your school is an R1 university, teaching is definitely much lower down in priority than is research, publishing, and the chasing after grant support money. To full-time faculty at an R1 university, teaching is little more than an unneeded distraction. In my undergraduate days, my college had no research to speak of, and I found that the quality of the teaching that I got there was quite good. But in graduate school at an R1 university, I found that most of the faculty recognized that how well they did in the classroom didn’t really matter very much, and they simply went through the motions and did little more than read the textbook to us in class.

Terminating one or two full timers and promoting a part-time superstar to full time status ought to at least be on the table here. Isn't the possibility of that reward what's motivating the part-timers, producing excellence? I'm pretty confident the remaining full timers would move "off center" if this happened once.

It's what Jack Welch would do.
I'm with Edmund Dantes on this one. If your FT's are only doing mediocre work why isn't that reflected in some sort of evaluation? Do they know they aren't meeting your standards? If you don't know where the bar is, how do you know how high to jump?

I agree with Pondering Fool. If they don't move off center, they keep their jobs.

Depending on where the college is, the adjuncts might have other college choices for being an adjunct; the full-timers may not have many other college teaching choices. I agree that the rewards of moving off center are iffy.

Here's the deal with grants: somebody needs to take enough ownership of the idea to research best practices, decide what will be done (and when and by whom), and develop a strategy to measure results. Will you do this? Will your disengaged faculty do this? Or do you expect your grants staff to be experts in pedagogy?

If your grants staff do a bang-up job researching, designing, and budgeting, in addition to wading through all the other parts of the application, who is going to do the work they got funded? You? Your disengaged faculty? Your grants staff?

If your faculty don't like the perceived top-down approach to changing THEIR work--the terms of the grant and the activities and outcomes they're now committed to--who's going to be blamed? You? Your disengaged faculty? I'll give you a hint: it's the grants staff.

Tackle the problem of disengagement at the root. Make your expectations clear. Give people the resources and support to make changes. Get obstacles out of their way. Call them on inertia. Reward attempts to try, not just bounding successes. Reward your adjuncts.

--A dedicated grant director and former adjunct
There was a study done in a military college where all first and second year maths had to be taken by all students and the course material was identical for all streams of each year class. Students were randomly assigned to each first year class and the teachers were a mix of newer and more experienced teachers. What the authors found was that the students of the newer teachers did well in first year course but worse in the course the following year (where they were also randomly assigned to teachers again). The authors concluded (IIRC) that the more experienced teachers taught with a longer view and the newer teachers were more likely to teach to the material.

My point being - how do the students of your full-time staff do in subsequent years compared to those of adjunt staff? Which kids are more likely to complete and complete well? It might not just be the actual course being taught where the impact of the teacher is felt.

(I don't have a citation for this on hand but I may be able to find it if someone really wants it.)
Was it this study?

"The overall pattern of the results shows that students of less experienced and less qualified professors perform significantly better in the contemporaneous course being taught. In contrast, the students of more experienced and more highly qualified introductory professors perform
significantly better in the follow-on courses."


"Results that student evaluation scores are positively correlated with contemporaneous course value-added but negatively correlated with deep learning"

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