Tuesday, April 22, 2014


Workshops for Adjuncts

This is one of those issues that seems simple enough conceptually, but is really hard to execute well.  I’m hoping that some folks out there have cracked the code in a useful and transferable way.

For the usual budgetary reasons, we have to rely on a substantial number of adjunct faculty.  (We actually do the same thing in other parts of the college, too, except there we call the part-timers “consultants.”)  While some adjuncts come and go fairly quickly, many of them teach here for years.  Since they’re on the front lines with students, we’d like to make sure that they are current and engaged in discussions of classroom technology, pedagogy, assessment, classroom management, and similar issues.  

Over the years, though, when we’ve done workshops for which they were paid to attend, attendance has often been light.  That’s particularly true for folks who aren’t brand new hires.  That’s probably inevitable, given the diversity of work and life schedules among adjunct faculty, but it’s discouraging.  

It’s possible to run workshops on different days and times, of course, and we’ve done some of that.  But you start to thin-slice your population when you do that, and there’s a fresh cost to each new workshop.  Eventually the marginal utility of one more workshop gets low enough that it just isn’t worth running.

In a perfect world, of course, we’d have enough money that this wouldn’t be a problem.  But this isn’t a perfect world.  So within the fiscal parameters that actually exist, we’re trying to find a more effective way to reach significant numbers of adjunct faculty.

I should clarify: this isn’t about fixing problems.  It’s about helping good people do what they do, better.  

Any given time of day, or day of week, is impossible for a significant number of people.  The same is true of summers, or any given point during the semester.  We’ve tried.

So this is where I’m hoping someone has developed, or tripped over, something useful.  Wise and worldly readers, has anyone seen (or developed) a way to reach significant numbers of adjunct faculty with something useful?  Preferably something that doesn’t involve spending money we don’t have?

I would think a well-run online, discontinuous, discussion of current topics would be a shoo-in for this sort of faculty development program. Much like online courses often give credit for participation in discussions/forums, you could give "bonuses" to folks who contribute so many ideas/posts/responses, etc.
Ask the faculty what they want and when they could attend. I would guess that you have different types of adjuncts - those that are freeway flyers, those that teach one class on top of their "regular" job. Online instructors that come to campus once or twice a term. These groups will need and want wildly different things. So I'd ask them what they want and try to address their needs.
We set up a BlackBoard site for adjuncts that a senior faculty member facilitated. We posted links for online tutorials, posted important info, answered questions about all sorts of issues, and facilitated some discussions. Some folks were more active than others, but even the lurkers liked it. We automatically signed people up, but you didn't have to login or engage if it wasn't of interest. It worked well.
To add on to Ivory's point, it's perhaps partially an issue of what the workshops are about and what they offer.

It's been about 5 years since I've adjuncted, but I probably would have looked at most offers to do a workshop as hoop jumping or seen-and-be-seen opportunities, and not necessarily as something that I could learn from.

My attitude may have been the wrong one. There is a value to being engage and frankly, one never knows what one can learn unless one participates. But I think that's a hurdle that needs to be overcome. Not that you don't know that, but it's worth underscoring.

Gabriel Conroy brings up a good point. What's the value of the workshops? Our present "professional development" office offers workshops to our adjuncts that are downright insulting - things like "how to write a syllabus" or "how to give a good lecture." As if our adjuncts were stupid children, rather than highly educated professionals, many of whom have been teaching successfully at our university for a long time.

Nobody would dream of offering workshops on those types of topics to tenured faculty, so why do they think it makes sense to treat adjuncts this way? Frankly, many of our adjuncts have more teaching experience and are more in touch with the realities on the ground, than the people running these workshops. Small wonder, then, that attendance is often low, even though some of these workshops offer a small stipend to adjunct participants.
I'm in industry rather than academia, and our approach to training is "all of the above"...

We have regular required training (eg safety training) in person on a yearly basis, with 6 or 7 sessions offered so that everyone can attend. Then we have required training online (eg gov't compliance) which can be taken whenever at your computer. Occasionally enough people express interest in a particular piece of software or something that the company will actually pay for a training session for a group -- dedicate a room for a couple of days, bring in an instructor. This is sort of like your normal "workshop" approach. I did this for a software package I wanted to learn.

But my husband (who works at the same company) was interested in learning a different software package, very useful to him but without a lot of interest from other employees, so the company actually paid for him to take a four day short course from a private company which specialized in training people on that software.

Are there outside vendors who could provide some of the content that you teach in your workshops? Could people seek out their own training and then get re-imbursed for the cost?

Could you partner with other colleges in the area, and allow their adjuncts to attend your workshops in return for them allowing yours to attend theirs? That way you might be able to give the people the benefit of lots of different dates and times to choose from, without having to pay for all the sessions yourself, and since the pool of people would be larger, you'd get healthier attendance at each.

Those who can, do; those who can't, teach; those who can't teach, run teaching workshops.

I've found that the most useful teaching workshops have been very, very specific. Things like, "How to use the online homework system's Perl-based scripting language to write problems with randomly generated values."
When the workshop is specific to our department, such as new software or different textbooks, a time is set and the workshop is given at that time. Adjuncts do come to those specific workshops,especially if they are given by one or more of the full-timers.

Adjuncts will come if the workshop directly affects their teaching at that specific college.

As Anonymous at 7:19 said many adjuncts have more education and experience than some of the workshop presenters and after the first 30 minutes, those of us with more experience and education realize that what we are hearing is the "latest thing" in education and question its usefulness quietly to ourselves. This "latest thing" unspoken label makes us less than enthusiastic about sitting through the presentation.
I've learned that asking what times are best almost never works. I can't tell you how many times I've had adjuncts request night sessions of our Blackboard training, only to have zero attendance. If you can offer self-paced training, or training that can be offered via WebEx or similar, it seems to help. I've also had a lot of success reaching out to specific departments, wrapping a short training into some other event they need anyway.
As an adjunct, could I just say please ditch the workshops and use whatever money you have to offer other kinds of support? For instance make sure that each adjunct has access too, and help with, whatever grading platform you use? In my most recent job I was given an excel spreadsheet without any information or values added. If someone had taken the trouble to download the names and student numbers that would have been helpful. Or how about a conference fees fund? Or a lunch voucher, or a bus pass? Seriously, any of those things would be so much more valuable to me than a workshop.
Most of the adjuncts I work with do not want training or workshops -- they want better pay and facilities. I don't blame them. When I was an adjunct I didn't get office space or a computer, but I got all the workshops I could ever need.
Ok, you're asking the "what should I get my poor-ass adult kid for Christmas" question.

The answer is money.

The problem is, right now, most adjuncts are tight enough that there's nothing you can offer them that would make them better adjuncts that isn't money. You can give it to them in the form of benefits, or you can increase the salary, or you can just set aside office space.

But fundamentally, compared to financial security, physical health, or the tools necessary to do their jobs, what could possibly be valuable?
Having somehow managed to graduate from adjunct hell to a non-tenure-track assistant professorship, I can say that there is very, very little in the way of workshops that has even the slightest interest.

You're talking about a population who either dabbles in one or two classes here and there, or goes balls-to-the-wall to support their family.

I was the latter. I taught 15 hours per semester split between 3 institutions, all 1 hour apart. I woke up at 5 am to get to my first class at 8am. From there I went to my next and prepped for late night lecture. I got home at 9pm, graded, prepped for the next day, which was 2 lectures and a lab. I got home at 10pm those nights, graded and prepped for 5am again. Attending a worthless workshop was the furthest thing from my mind. Of much more pressing concern- groceries. Gas, to get to my next job. Sleep. Wondering if the adjunct workspace would be occupied when I got there, and if I'd be able to nab an entire drawer to myself for my papers. Wondering how I could keep my weight under control when there was nothing but fast-food available anywhere near my jobs. Wondering how I could fit job hunting into my schedule. Wondering if I'd actually make it to my kids' concert or games at all that week. Wondering if I'd have any classes to adjunct next semester.

Any system that relies on adjuncts is broken. Focus on mitigating our pain rather than wasting money on a workshop that only serves to inflate the CV of whichever administrator is running it.
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