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.