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Adjunct 101: Enhancing the adjunct faculty orientation

Some campuses administrators have decided to make the adjunct orientation more meaningful, efficient, and convenient
University Business, November 2013
Higher ed leaders are enhancing orientations to bring adjuncts to campus who are more likely to improve student outcomes.
Higher ed leaders are enhancing orientations to bring adjuncts to campus who are more likely to improve student outcomes.

An email from the department chair with a building and classroom number, a schedule, a syllabus, and instructions for getting a parking permit is about all the orientation many adjuncts receive before arriving on campus to teach their first class. It’s no wonder many of them don’t assimilate into campus.

But with part-time instructors now making up about half of all U.S. higher education faculty, at some campuses administrators have decided to make the adjunct orientation more meaningful, efficient, and convenient—that is, make it more than an afterthought.

Joe Berry, a member of the American Association of University Professor’s committee on contingent faculty, says existing adjuncts and any unions or other organizations that advocate for adjuncts on campus should be involved in presenting the orientation for new arrivals and encouraged to share their experiences frankly. At the best orientations, he adds, new adjuncts have the opportunity to meet with veteran adjuncts without administrators present, which allows for honest and open discussion.

Berry also thinks new adjuncts should be paid for attending orientation, as they are at Columbus State Community College in Ohio, for example. He says compensation is a sign of respect that sends this message: “Your time is valuable. We understand that. We are not going to have you do required work without paying you.” “Even if it’s voluntary, if people are getting paid, you’ll get much better attendance,” he adds.

“Even if it’s voluntary, if people are getting paid, you’ll get much better attendance,” he adds.

Here are some approaches college and university administrators are taking to move their adjunct orientations beyond what may have traditionally been a cursory welcome message—and, in turn, bring adjuncts to campus who are more likely to improve student outcomes and experiences.

A group welcome

The right name for an orientation can go a long way in helping adjuncts feel appreciated, prepared, and connected. At McKendree University in Illinois, that name is MVP, for McKendree Values Part-Time Faculty.

Of course, substance is the real key. The number of adjuncts at McKendree fluctuates between 150 and 170, compared to its 98 full-time faculty, says Shirley Rentz, director of human resources.

Adjunct orientation sessions, which have ranged in size from four to 12 people, are held about once a month on the main campus in Lebanon. Representatives from human resources, academic affairs, academic records, and information technology take part in the program. Adjuncts can hear more from these offices by watching their short welcome videos, posted on the MVP web page.

In the past, when each new adjunct professor went through orientation individually, it took about half an hour to meet with the human resources officer and complete the payroll paperwork. Even more concerning, Rentz says, adjuncts weren’t receiving enough information about other essentials, like how to access academic records or get help from IT.

Also, while new faculty members met with the chairperson of their respective academic divisions, the associate dean who oversaw the hiring of part-time faculty wanted to meet everyone, too. A group orientation seemed to offer the best solution to all those concerns.

The current orientation lasts about three hours. First, new faculty members meet with Rentz for a half hour, and then the associate dean leads them on a campus tour. Finally, they meet with representatives from IT, academic records, and student affairs.

Online orientation

Many adjunct faculty teach part time or have full-time jobs elsewhere, and institutions are beginning to accommodate their needs through online orientations.

At National Louis University in Illinois, at least 45 percent of the university’s courses are taught by adjuncts, says Tom Bergmann, vice president of human resources. So bringing them all onsite for a full day of orientation would be a difficult proposition. That’s why the provost’s office and the co-chairs of the adjunct council developed a program delivered remotely. They decided the orientation was so valuable that it should be presented not only to new adjuncts but existing ones, as well, Bergmann says.

With more than 700 adjunct teachers to get through the program, organizers created a 15-month calendar to allow everyone time to complete it. So far, 137 adjuncts have done so.

Initial funding for the program, which doesn’t provide compensation for participants, came from a $5,000 provost’s office grant. That grant is aimed at creating consistent training for adjunct faculty members in all academic departments, says Ellen Belluomini, co-chair of the adjunct council and an instructor in the College of Arts and Sciences. Faculty contracts cover the the time needed to administer the program.

Consisting of six weekly modules, the program starts with an introduction and welcome messages from the president and provost. Other segments cover human resources, best practices, reference materials, and policies and procedures. Each module includes assignments designed to reinforce participants’ understanding of the contents.

Linda Kryzak, the other co-chair of the adjunct council and a professional lecturer at NLU, says the best practices module incorporates many resources from the National Education Association, including ideas about working with ESL and special needs students, teaching with technology, and using a variety of methods to engage students.

The vast majority of the faculty at Colorado State University-Global, an online institution, are part-time. The school has an online faculty training course for adjuncts that lasts three weeks.

“It essentially looks like one of our courses,” says Provost Jon Bellum. “We’re modeling the same type of behavior within the training that we would expect the faculty to model within their own classrooms. All of the technology is the same.”

While each academic department at the Community College of Philadelphia is responsible for handling adjunct orientation in its own way, a collegewide professional development website features a special section for adjunct instructors. It includes general information about campus resources and policies, along with video clips offering tips on teaching and classroom management.

Sharon Thompson, vice president for academic affairs at CCP, said she picked this approach after hearing from academic department heads about the challenges of orienting new faculty members who have varying schedules and time commitments. “The website was the best way to hit everyone,” she says.

Adjunct connections

Some university officials are making special efforts to help adjuncts feel more connected to the university and to one another.

After completing the training course, new adjunct faculty members at CSU-Global are paired with a more experienced instructor who supervises their first course. And at Community College of Philadelphia, all adjunct instructors in the English department are assigned a mentor. The department also has teaching circles—small groups of full- and part-time faculty members who get together to discuss issues like classroom content and learning outcomes.

At National Louis, Belluomini says the orientation program is designed to help new faculty members connect with their peers. “Not only do the senior staff from the adjunct council train them, but also they talk to each other and get to know each other.” Adjuncts otherwise rarely interact with either other adjuncts or with full-time faculty, she adds.

After new adjunct faculty meet with university administrators at McKendree, they share a meal. “In the summertime, when our dining facilities are closed, I go to Subway and bring sandwiches,” Rentz says. “We’re not talking about a lavish dinner. … When school is in session we either take them down to the dining hall or we take them to our little café.”

At Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, administrators do something similar, with human resource staff members on hand during the getting-acquainted meal to help new adjunct faculty members complete the payroll process, says Laurel Willingham-McLain, director of faculty development and teaching excellence.

Echoing administrators at other institutions, Rentz says that while new adjuncts at McKendree often resist the idea of an orientation at first, they do eventually see its value.

“They all come in thinking, ‘This is going to be the longest three hours of my life,’ ” she says. “By the time they’re through, they say, ‘Wow! It went so fast, and it was so helpful.’ I think they get a lot out of it, and it truly does have them engaged. They feel they know where to go for answers and that they have a good sense of what they’re in for.”

Sonya Stinson is a New Orleans-based freelance writer.