Tomorrow's Academic Careers
The posting below describes the professional opportunities part-time adjunct faculty (often called freeway faculty or roads scholars) can use to help them enrich their career prospects. It is from Chapter 4 – Exiting the Freeway Faculty Path - Using Professional Development to Get out of Cruise Control, by Victoria Shropshire, in the book Adjunct Faculty Voices
Cultivating Professional Development and Community at the Front Lines of Higher Education, edited by Roy Fuller, Marie Kendall Brown, and Kimberly Smith. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. https://sty.presswarehouse.com/books/features.aspx
Copyright © 2017 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Tomorrow’s Academic Careers
---------- 1,709 words ----------
Freeway Faculty (professional development opportunities)
While I was an adjunct instructor for a total of 10 years, from 1998 to 2000 and 2005 to 2011, I was affectionately labeled what we in the South call freeway faculty, a term used to describe college adjunct instructors who (like me) managed multiple teaching gigs, simultaneously teaching any combination of hybrids, online, and face-to-face (F-2-F) courses for multiple community colleges and/or four-year universities through substantial mileage on the highways. (At one point, while living in the Smoky Mountains, I put 100 miles on my car every day that I taught on two different college campuses.) There were frustrating moments, when the ridiculous pay and the amount of cash I poured into my gas tank made me want to toss it all in and become a barista at Starbucks, where, I reasoned, at least they got health care. But I didn’t. I had held extremely lucrative jobs prior to becoming a full-time educator, but they were unfulfilling. Working in the entertainment industry had drained me, and working in advertising had been soul sucking; only in education did I find the perfect fit for my talents, energy, and creativity. And so I, like virtually every other adjunct colleague I know, chose a life one step from abject poverty because I believe in my students, I have a passion for my job, I have an interest in the success of our students, and I have a desire to personally and professionally improve every semester, rather than crank out the same curriculum, regardless of whether it is engaging or impactful. Although full-time positions are increasingly rare in the world of academia, adjunct positions abound.
Adjunct instruction, for a variety of reasons, is the only choice in some academic regions, even though some choose it deliberately. Nearly “75 percent of the teaching faculty on college campuses is done by adjuncts” (Miles, 2014, p. 25). After moving from Texas to the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, I found that the freeway faculty life was my only option to keep doing what I love. Later, moving to the Piedmont region of the same state, I chose to stay an adjunct not only for the freedom it provided me but also because I discovered that being in constant motion lends itself to a very palpable forward momentum that comprises all adjunct lives, freeway or not. Find these souls and form a sort of casual support group, even if it’s just to meet on Thursday mornings for coffee. The truth is that when you are an adjunct, no one will ever understand you better. Look across the disciplines and ask those in staffed departments that may be available on your campus, such as Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning (CATL), Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), or Teaching and Learning Technologies (TLT), who are often best positioned to help you find other adjuncts. These individuals are everywhere and are probably looking for someone just like you, too. The adjunct heart is great, and the numbers of adjuncts keeping America’s universities running tells you that teaching for the sake of teaching has a powerful heartbeat as well.
Successful adjuncts, in my experience, are those willing to try new things, to learn new techniques, to hone new skills, and to take risks. I have often believed that they are eager to attend seminars and workshops that highlight new teaching tools and strategies. I find that freeway faculty have a flexible skill set that tenured folks either never had or have forgotten; the view is much changed between the campus window and the windshield. Not having to worry about promotion and tenure politics, requisite commitments of committee work, or other “cruise control” administrative trappings can be capitalized on in the life of the freeway faculty. Adjuncts come from a wide range of backgrounds and fields of expertise, and many are able to integrate these real-world experiences into their academic lessons and environment. So if a university is looking for unique insight or innovation in the classroom to assist in the marriage of education and experience, adjuncts should be first in line. It may seem like you simply don’t have the time to invest in new tools or strategies, but in my experience, you will find the time if you make this a higher priority. Don’t delete those professional development e-mails that are sent en masse to the entire faculty. In attending these seminars and workshops, you will not only gain new skills and ideas but also often find assistance and camaraderie among other adjunct instructors who are, like you, interested in creative and innovative techniques that engage students and increase learning. Quality professional development supercharges the engines of effective instructors who are freeway faculty.
I discovered that adjuncts who teach at multiple colleges simultaneously, as I did, had the opportunity to try a classroom exercise or writing prompt on a variety of learners with a wide range of learning styles and often adapted quickly to improve in multiple arenas with multiple approaches to the same series of learning outcomes. For example, once I learned, through one-on-one professional development, how to improve my course design using a learning management system (LMS), my entire teaching career changed instantly and immeasurably. Students interacted more directly with difficult course material, actually reading prior to class meetings (gasp), which greatly improved the quality of discourse during those classes, as well as increased the critical thinking they applied to their reading and writing. They engaged with the ideas and then wrote better papers, I suffered fewer headaches, and they earned higher grades. Win, win, win.
This flexibility and willingness to try new things became my own entry into organized professional learning because I instantly saw benefits in student engagement, learning, and assessment. I was doing more for them with less stress, they were getting more from my class and making more of an effort, and we were all loving it. By organized professional development, I mean structured, established, often sponsored and funded professional development opportunities, from small campus reading groups to large-scale conferences. Prior to being contacted by someone at my teaching center, my only form of professional development was learning the basics of Blackboard at a colleague’s kitchen table.
Find a Mentor
The community college I worked for at that time had a laissez-faire relationship with technology, meaning there was no concerted effort to embrace or integrate it, but the college wouldn’t stop you from introducing or using it in your courses. I found my mentor by listening to my students. Students talk; if you listen before the start of class or in the campus coffee shop, you will hear their opinions on just about everything, including faculty. On a community college campus, there is a great variety of learners, including age and experience, and their perspectives on the value of their professors are always interesting, if not ultimately valuable. Students value professors who take an active role in their learning, who engage them, who challenge them, and who inspire them (Umbach & Wawrzynski, 2005). My students talked about my mentor. She was tough but fair, tech savvy, and hip. She used office hours to help students who asked for it; she was respected, and her classes were recommended. So I sought her out after a department meeting, and over coffee we became friends.
No matter how you do it, finding a full-time faculty member who is willing to mentor or assist in some way is an undeniable connection to success in most every field, but especially for freeway faculty (Diegel, 2013), who often feel unsettled, outside the sphere, or even intimidated by academia. Although the majority of full-time instructors (and this was only 8 to 10 years ago) patently avoided new tech (primarily using Blackboard), I found a single instructor who understood its promise in real and practical ways and was willing to assist me in learning it; that one connection made all the difference. (I have since discovered additional mentors who were once freeway faculty, which is indeed valuable, as they fully understand the pitfalls of becoming a stagnant fixture, a professor on cruise control.) I was interested in integrating technology to increase my own time management and the engagement of my students, and I quickly found that my mentor and I had similar views on student-centered approaches to instruction. I cannot imagine my professional success had I not stepped out of my comfort zone and knocked on her office door.
Integrating these technical tools (not just the LMS but the connectivity it gave me to my students by linking to other tools) allowed me to create or join a community of colleagues that was a support system not only for my improving my own skills as a professional but also in managing my time. Being freeway faculty means you spend quality time behind the wheel, which means less time for office hours, less screen time, less time for life in general. Simply put, those who do not develop and maintain superior time management skills do not survive. At my busiest professional semester, I taught eight (!) concurrent courses (online, hybrids, and F-2-F) consisting of four separate preps for three (!) different academic institutions; my husband was genuinely worried that I would have a psychotic episode before Halloween. I not only survived but also thrived. (Although, admittedly, I could not sustain that pace long term!) To survive, you must be honest about the challenges you are facing; your academic institution and administration cannot be expected to guide you, but your community of colleagues can and will keep you on the right road. It’s often a personal matter to ask for assistance about anything from dealing with the great variety of administration demands to revising assignment prompts to creating more effective collaborative projects (not to mention grading them!). But I have found that asking is really the hardest part; once you take that risk and share a concern, you’ll often find that fellow adjuncts share your drive to continually improve and manage the often overwhelming workload; rare is the adjunct professor who lives on cruise control. They are amazing, often untapped, sources for practical, helpful advice that can ultimately help you manage your time – and your life.
Diegel, B.L. (2013). Perceptions of community college adjunct faculty and division chairpersons: Support, mentoring, and professional development to sustain academic quality. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 37(8), 596-607, doi: 10.1080/10668926.2012.720863
Miles, G. (2014). Presidents, do right by athletes and adjuncts. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 60(39), 25.
Umbach, P.D., & Wawrzynski, M.R. (2005). Faculty do matter: The role of college faculty in student learning and engagement. Research in Higher Education, 46, 153-194. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40197351