Adjunct Faculty Scholars Conference delivers resources, support

14th April 2017

By Steven Krolak

(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—Over 80 instructors from Louisville-area institutions gathered at IU Southeast this past Saturday for the second Adjunct Faculty Scholars Conference, hosted by the Institute for Learning and Teaching Excellence (ILTE).

The conference featured presentations and breakout sessions on topics ranging from flipped classrooms and best practices in adult learning to strategies for getting students to write and new technologies for interactive online teaching.

Presenters from IU Southeast were joined by colleagues from IUPUI and Bellarmine University, as discussions grappled with issues of real-life relevance for instructors without tenure.

Building community

The conference was initiated last year as an effort to provide resources and support for hard-working and often under-appreciated teachers and researchers.

Part-time, non-tenure-track instructors—adjuncts, for short—make up over half of the faculty workforce in the United States, according to the American Association of University Professors. Hired to teach anything from a freshman comp class to a full course load, they are not on track for a permanent position, yet face the same classroom challenges and demands as tenured faculty members.

While accepting the absence of advancement opportunities and even health benefits, adjuncts at some institutions must also deal with the lack of even basic support such as office space or access to a computer.

Despite these challenges, adjuncts bring passion and commitment to the job, and the conference was as much a demonstration of gratitude as a skill-building exercise.

“All of the ILTE’s instructional designers, as well as our director, have worked as adjunct faculty at some point in our careers,” said Carrie Jo Coaplen, instructional designer and technology specialist within ILTE, and the lead organizer of the conference. “Holding a conference designed specifically for adjuncts, featuring adjunct presenters, says that we appreciate adjuncts’ research and teaching.”

Encouraging learning

Opening the conference, keynote speaker Michael Day, a licensed clinical psychologist and director of personal counseling services at IU Southeast, shared insights and best practices in addressing one of the most universal and urgent classroom situations: how to deal with students who are experiencing distress from mental illness or life experience.

“It’s safe to say that 20% or more of a given class will be dealing with psychological issues that rise to a level that significantly interfere with learning, while an even higher number likely is dealing with issues or concerns that impact learning to some degree,” Day said.

Being sensitive and creative in response to students’ mental health needs, without compromising academic expectations or rigor, is a goal, and an art, as Day explained.

Alongside an examination of distress signals and their possible causes, Day provided guidelines for classroom strategies as well as resources for further consultation.

From individual histories or ongoing trauma to classroom environmental conditions such as lighting and noise, triggers of student distress often go unnoticed by faculty. By acquiring the knowledge to recognize signs of difficulty and tools to address distress compassionately and safely, instructors can have a positive impact on the lives of these students while also maintaining control of the classroom.

“Learning about the underlying factors that negatively impact student behavior can help faculty respond in ways that better facilitate and encourage learning,” Day said.

Usable knowledge

Feedback from last year’s conference indicated that most participants wanted the same thing: more.

This year, the ILTE team eliminated schedule conflicts by offering each themed breakout session more than once. Topics were vetted by the team months prior, to hone a program that would be academically stimulating and professionally supportive.

For example, Jeremy Wells, assistant professor of English at IU Southeast, introduced a classroom innovation that has challenged students to take charge of part of their own learning journey, with positive results. In his presentation, “Practicing a Pedagogy of Trust,” Wells detailed his practice of turning the final two weeks of the syllabus over to students, allowing them to design an activity worth 15 percent of their grade.

Ray Klein, director of human resources and adjunct instructor at IU Southeast, introduced the concept of andragogy, the theory and experience of teaching to adults. An ancient foundational knowledge, andragogy was popularized by the educational scholar Malcolm Knowles in the 1960s as a pendant and alternative to pedagogy. Based on understanding the unique learning styles of adults, andragogy helps instructors engage older students and leverage their learning and life experience for the benefit of the class.

Two presentations focused on integrating technology―in the form of apps and interactive online materials―into the classroom, to invigorate the learning experience and stimulate creativity. Another dealt with applying the therapeutic paradigm of relationship building therapy to the classroom.

Investing in adjuncts

“We want to invest in opportunities for adjuncts to develop and build a community around their interests and shared knowledge,” Coaplen said.

Already this is happening at IU Southeast. ILTE has launched the Adjunct Faculty Scholars program, which supports adjuncts’ academic work and development through encouraging them to earn faculty development units for participating in a range of faculty activities― new faculty orientation, peer review of teaching training, on-campus ILTE workshops and more―in the same way that practitioners in other professions can, and often must, earn continuing education units. Compensation is a stipend.

Coaplen and the ILTE team are already working to make next year’s conference even more responsive and rewarding than the first two. And they are looking to expand its reach in the region.

To that end, Coaplen has visited over a dozen colleges to meet with provosts, academic coordinators and development officers, fostering relationships that will build interest and enthusiasm for larger conferences.

“Investing in adjuncts promotes teaching and learning excellence and, ideally, student success,” Coaplen said.

Homepage photo: Dr. Michael Day, director of personal counseling services at IU Southeast, helps adjunct instructors recognize the signs of students in distress.

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