By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—Over 125 instructors from all IU campuses as well as Louisville metro area institutions gathered at IU Southeast earlier this month for the third Adjunct Faculty Scholars Conference, hosted by the Institute for Learning and Teaching Excellence (ILTE).
The conference featured a keynote presentation by Lynn Slaughter, adjunct instructor in the writing program at IU Southeast, and breakout sessions on topics ranging from generational diversity and mindfulness in the classroom to the use of self-made videos and the value of experiential learning.
Presenters from IU Southeast were joined by fellow adjuncts from Bellarmine University, Jefferson Community and Technical College (JCTC), and the University of Louisville, as discussions grappled with issues of real-life relevance for instructors without tenure.
Key to student and campus success
The conference was initiated two years ago as an effort to provide resources and support for hard-working and often underappreciated 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 one required 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 deal with the lack of even basic support such as office space or access to a computer, much less professional development.
All this despite the critical role that adjunct faculty play in student success. Research finds that anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of freshmen do not return for their sophomore year. With up to 80 percent of introductory courses taught by adjuncts, part-time instructors are vital to student retention.
So how can adjuncts make the best use of this influence?
Slaughter addressed this issue in her presentation, “Building Strong Student-Teacher Relationships and a Positive Classroom Climate.”
Drawing on extensive research, survey data and personal experience, Slaughter demonstrated the central role that teacher-student relationships play in student success.
“It’s vital that our students know that we care about them and we want them to be successful,” Slaughter said. “Students want to feel respected, to feel that their questions, input and opinions—including opinions that diverge from our own—matter.”
She outlined a variety of tools that have worked for her in building these relationships in over 20 years of teaching dance and writing. Learning students’ names, designing group work that encourages camaraderie among classmates, communicating expectations, delivering constructive criticism, keeping an open door for consultations in person—taken together, these small gestures pay big dividends in the form of student buy-in.
For Slaughter, knowing one’s field isn’t good enough. Instructors need to feel and demonstrate a passion for the material, to sweep students off their feet intellectually. Passion is contagious, and students respond in intangible but significant ways to the sense that what they are doing is important.
“In many ways we adjuncts are significant gatekeepers to academia,” Slaughter said. “By paying attention to building positive relationships with our students, we can motivate and inspire them to persist in college, earn a degree, and improve their life chances and opportunities.”
A growing community
Participation in the Adjunct Faculty Scholars Conference increased 25 percent over the past year. Much of this growth is due to the efforts of the ILTE team. Carrie Jo Coaplen, instructional designer and technical specialist, serves in a lead role in coordinating this conference for ILTE.
A former adjunct herself, Coaplen has an insider’s grasp of the realities of the non-tenured life, as well as a passion for supporting part-time instructors.
That support began months before the conference, when Coaplen visited with regional stakeholders from the University of Louisville, Bellarmine University, Spalding University, JCTC, Indiana Tech and Ivy Tech. She spoke with them about the conference, and learned about their adjunct-centered activities. As a result of these meetings, Indiana Tech and JCTC agreed to sponsor the conference, with both schools sending nearly 20 attendees each to the event.
Including other institutions is important, as many IU Southeast adjuncts also teach at other schools, according to Robin Morgan, ILTE director.
“Opening the conference to all creates an opportunity for adjunct faculty to develop a community focused on enhancing student learning,” Morgan said. “By including other universities, we can all work together to provide the best possible faculty development for our own adjunct faculty.”
Following the conference, ILTE convened a meeting with administrators and adjuncts from participating institutions to review the event and discuss collaborative possibilities and thematic goals to ensure that next year’s conference is also a success.
Homepage photo: Lynn Slaughter, adjunct instructor in the writing program at IU Southeast, delivers keynote address on the importance of connecting with students.