Taking teaching up a notch
Managing student participation can be a challenge, whether we’re running a small-enrollment seminar or a large-enrollment course. For those who plan to use part-time teaching as a path to further professional development, it’s also important to choose and use a signature teaching method, style, or activity to help us stand out as instructors. TLI offers training and support in a variety of strategies for effective and innovative teaching, open to all faculty and staff.
We all teach varied loads, with varying assignment styles, and UT’s adjunct faculty members run the gamut from recent doctoral graduates to those with a great deal of experience, so some of the following strategies may be more useful than others, depending on the context.
For those who regularly teach multiple courses on a part-time basis, staggering assignments is key. It’s often tempting to pile all of the grading into one corner, and engage in one mammoth grading marathon, but that approach often leads to burnout and long-term teaching fatigue, if not a gradual cumulative loathing of teaching as such. Our experienced instructors recommend spreading out the grading and making it part of a daily routine, to prevent excessive accumulation. For more advice on the grading process, see our TLI assessment and evaluation resources; for advice on responding to student writing, see the UT Writing Center’s advice on designing writing assignments, and responding to student writing.
TLI features a variety of resources for helping more students get the most out of your class. Take a look at our resources on inclusive teaching, and specialized pedagogical strategies. If you teach online courses, our resources on online teaching are also essential!
OIT also offers a variety of instructional design and support resources, with advice for using technology to augment assignments and course “look and feel.”
Most departments also allow some flexibility in requesting courses, and when possible, it’s very useful to gain experience teaching several kinds of course, or designing our own electives, if the opportunity arises. Even core or gateway courses allow a certain degree of customization to their reading selections or syllabi. To help teaching supplement our professional activity, either in a day job or an education-oriented career-path, we can customize what we discuss with students, what we ask them to read, and how we engage with course content so that it develops synergy with other obligations. This also helps “advertise” for our department’s discipline, introducing students to discipline-specific topics and modes of inquiry.
- Theme writing assignments to help students get interested in the core areas of activity we know and can teach well. For more advice on designing writing assignments, see the Writing Center’s assignment design page.
- Theme readings to align with a current research agenda
- Design in-class activities around active learning exercises, or opportunities for data-collection. For more information about pedagogical strategies, see TLI’s pedagogical strategies page.
Professionalizing: Quick tips on collegiality, conference-going, and publication
Not everyone currently teaching part-time plans to move toward full-time work in higher education, but for those who do, it will be important to determine our home discipline’s expectations and commonly available positions. Some departments frame non-tenure-track positions as “lecturer” or “senior lecturer” appointments, while others use terms like “clinical assistant professor”—and as Ramsay and Brua (2017) point out, not everyone means the same things by these terms. Since many of these issues are discipline-specific, this guide endeavors to offer some general tips, primarily aimed toward those new to adjunct teaching, or those who have only recently begun to consider further professional development in higher education. For more in-depth information, we recommend two approaches:
- First and foremost, of course, it’s important to make connections with those already doing the work within the discipline. Often those newest to the department will have the clearest sense of what the job market looks like in the realm we want to pursue.
- Second, for general help in making plans and developing effective habits in research and evidence-based teaching, we recommend the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity, which offers a Core Curriculum intended to help launch faculty careers. It does tend to lean toward tenure-stream faculty, but its professional development advice can help anyone who aspires to full-time work within the academy, and it’s free to join for UTK faculty and staff.
At a more general level, we can work toward the following broad goals. As in other elements of this guide, we all teach for different departments and disciplines, and as a group, we have varying levels of experience, so not all recommendations here may apply equally to everyone—and in many cases, our intent here is to start the conversation rather than provide a definitive answer.
For most of us doing teaching on a part-time or contract basis, it can be difficult to feel as though we “fit in”—and because of the socio-economic situation in academia today, that’s not an accident. Access to resources is not distributed equitably to those who teach part-time, and not all participants in the process are equally willing to give us the attention we deserve as colleagues. However, most departments do maintain a variety of activities and opportunities to get involved, and our experienced instructors recommend attending and participating in seminars, lectures, and program-planning—strategically—as much as time allows. Particularly for those inclined toward more full-time work in academia, networking is more important than ever, and even casual connections can open new paths. Consider the following options:
- Contact local full-time faculty members in your discipline and arrange casual opportunities to chat about professionalization and faculty expectations. The NCFDD’s webinar on mentorship suggests that we need to cultivate more than one “guru” for the varying demands in the academic workplace, and that we also need “sponsors,” people who can speak on our behalf when we’re not in the room.
- For those maintaining a research and writing agenda (even one outside the traditional journal article or book process), it may help to join online writing-support groups, either within our department, via the NCFDD, or other social media outlets. If our own departments don’t host a writing group, it’s likely that our colleagues will thank us for starting one, too, if we have the time.
For more resources on professional development for teaching, see TLI’s planned semester schedule on the Faculty Support Programs page.
This section is going to talk about longer-range planning, but there is an important caveat to be mentioned before going into those details. No plan survives reality intact—opportunities arrive, interruptions occur, and our professional lives change course. As a movie villain once intoned, chance favors the prepared mind. We do need to make long-range plans, but we also need to be prepared to accept and take advantage of abrupt changes that might present opportunities.
- Teaching: If we are suddenly assigned a new course we haven’t taught, it might be worth reworking the semester’s writing goals to make that course’s work generate a new publication, possibly in a new direction. As Richards and Levesque-Bristol (2016) point out, scholarship of teaching and learning has a venerable history and has been increasingly valued in a variety of disciplines.
- Service: If an opportunity arises to take part in departmental service, it might be worth making the time to contribute, if the task will give us more familiarity with important aspects of academic work, if it will play a role in how we teach—or, again, if the work we do might lead to a publication. Richards and Levesque-Bristol (2016) provide an overview of possible research avenues in “scholarship of engagement,” and Carter (2007) published an effective article based on participation in a program-review process (though admittedly, neither of these articles directly addresses or arises out of the situation of adjunct faculty).
- Collaboration: If we hear of interesting projects that need collaborators, but aren’t within what we think of as our core research agenda, we may still want to get a foot in the door and try on the new project. Collaborations, particularly across disciplines, are increasingly valued in full-time higher education work.
- Job Openings: If we find a full-time job call that’s a bit of a “left turn” from where we’ve been so far, and if it sounds like something we’d enjoy doing, and to which we can make a contribution, it may be worth applying. There are many job opportunities beyond the straightforward teaching and research tracks, so look for openings that match what you love about your work so far!
Planning for Conferences
Conferences, as we are often told, can serve as useful networking opportunities, ways to remain current in the discipline, or ways to develop new professional competencies or contexts. But let’s be honest about two things:
- Unfortunately, at present there is just not a lot of support for adjunct faculty members to travel and attend the most sought-after conferences. This guide will endeavor to suggest avenues to pursue, but there is no straightforward “pot of money” for adjunct faculty to draw upon.
- There is a cottage industry in academic conferences, and they seem to get more glitzy and expensive every year. This guide will suggest some ways to do some cost-benefit analyses, and as a general rule, it’s worth asking whether attending that conference really is worth the time and money involved.
Why conference? The realities of conference-going differ considerably from discipline to discipline, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach. This guide offers several suggestions, to help decide how to balance what we need with what we can afford.
But first it may be worth considering purpose and means: If the purpose is to network with high-profile members of the discipline, or to disseminate research among a specific target audience, it may be true that only a few venues will suffice—but some of these goals may be within the reach of online media. The UT Libraries have an array of resources to help us get our research into the hands of those who might need it—take a look at their Scholars’ Collaborative page. But if the purpose is professional development or an opportunity to test-drive ideas for upcoming publications, there may be less expensive options closer to home.
The following recommendations are intended to help us think through the decision-making process, rather than provide final answers to the inherent challenges of conference-going while adjunct-teaching.
Some disciplines seem to emphasize “presenting in order to attend” rather than “attending in order to present,” and this cultural emphasis may originate among funding policies for full-time faculty—but it’s sometimes also responsible for a less effective writing process, and for less exciting panels (or sparsely-attended panels!). For those newer to conference-going, it’s worth taking the time to get to know which conferences people tend to “present in order to attend,” and whether we’ll be able to achieve our goals in disseminating our work and making connections. It’s also worth considering what ideas we feel ready to disseminate, and which conferences might be the best vehicle—and maybe forging new connections here at UT, with those who have been highly “conference-active” may help, if we’re new to the business (also, a “publication mentor” or “theory mentor” isn’t always the best “conference mentor”—it may be worth shopping around).
If the goal is to network with key groups, or make our research visible to specific audiences, then prestige does matter. Because resources are limited, we need to attend conferences that will add to our CV, and subject our work to rigorous critique. For those of us new to the conference-going process, it’s worth considering the structure and selection process—are submissions peer reviewed? Is the review process blind? Look at past programs—who tends to attend these conferences? Do you recognize “big names”? If the answers to these questions are not apparent, it may be worth starting a conversation with experienced conference-goers in our departments.
For professionals adjuncting as a side-gig, employers will often fund travel to conferences under the rubric of continuing education, so if policies around this haven’t been clarified, it’s worth asking! For those on the step-stones toward full-time academic work, the truth is that most departments will not automatically fund travel by adjunct faculty members, but some conferences themselves have special rates or rebates for part-time faculty, and it’s worth asking conference coordinators if there is no clear written policy.
If the conference-going goal is networking, then planning ahead is essential. Sousa and Clark (2017) offer a startup plan, with five key pieces of advice, backed by a little review of the literature, and Davis and Warfield (2011) offer a study of minority students’ experiences with conference networking.
For those nervous about giving a conference presentation—either because we’re new to the business, averse to public speaking, or presenting something we know will be controversial—TLI offers the Teaching Presentation Tuesdays, allowing a practice run before a live audience. Click the link to apply for a spot!
If the “best” conferences are out of reach, it may be worth considering which is the most prestigious local conference, and how to get the most out of that experience. If the goal is professional development, many local conferences (and workshops and trainings offered through UT) may be just as useful as national resources.
Planning for Publications
For those who have not been publishing regularly—and who want to (hey, not all of us do!)—maintaining a research agenda and moving it forward require planning ahead, beginning at the semester level, but working down from there and making sure tasks get done on a week-by-week basis. This is mostly a technical process, one we can perfect, if we do it right:
“I’m going to get that article published this semester” is not the same thing as “I’m going to get a draft of that article complete this semester.” Weekly goals need to be manageable too, so that we can make daily, incremental progress. The NCFDD offers a useful webinar on setting and maintaining a manageable daily writing habit.
It’s problematic to write an article because we think it’s “publishable”—according to Nir and Zilberstein-Levy (2006), when the stakes are high, academics tend to avoid unnecessary risk, even when on the tenure track (as Nir and Zilberstein-Levy’s participants were). But this kind of risk-averse approach to publication can also stifle innovation, an outcome that Hardré and Kollman (2012) argue isn’t good for institutions, let alone individual faculty members. Particularly for those engaged in adjunct teaching, who want to move to more full-time work, writing highly innovative work may seem risky, but with an effective writing-support and mentoring network, it can also provide us the attention (sometimes known as “zing”) we need to get our CVs noticed.
UT has a site membership with the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD), so you can join and access their writing support resources for free! They provide writing buddy connections and online fora for conversation.
Carter, Michael. (2007). Ways of knowing, doing, and writing in the disciplines. College Composition and Communication, 58(3), 385-418.
Davis, D. J., & Warfield, M. (2011). The importance of networking in the academic and professional experiences of racial minority students in the USA. Educational Research and Evaluation, 17(2), 97-113. https://doi.org/10.1080/13803611.2011.597113
Hardré, Patricia L., & Kollmann, Sherry L. (2012). Motivational implications of faculty performance standards. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 40(6), 724-751.
Nir, Adam E., & Zilberstein-Levy, Ronit. (2006). Planning for academic excellence: Tenure and professional considerations. Studies in Higher Education, 31(5), 537-554. doi: 10.1080/03075070600922725
Ramsay, Crystal M., & Brua, Chas. (2017). Understanding professors of practice: Leveraging expertise, empowering potential. The Journal of Faculty Development, 31(3), 25-30.
Richards, K. Andrew R., & Levesque-Bristol, Chantal. (2016). Assisting in the management of faculty role stress: Recommendations for faculty developers. The Journal of Faculty Development, 30(1): 7-14.
Sousa, B. J., & Clark, A. M. (2017). Getting the most out of academic conference attendance: Five key strategies. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 16, 1-2. doi: 10.1177/1609406917740441
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