Supporting Adjunct Faculty: Whose Job Is It Anyway?
The changing higher education landscape has implications for students, faculty, and the profession, and utilizing a structured approach to adjunct faculty support is one way to reduce negative impacts on students.
Consider this context. Budgetary realities of declining enrollments, reductions in state financial support, and a reduction in collective bargaining units in higher education have led to full-time tenure-track faculty being replaced by adjunct faculty hires (or occasionally full-time nontenured faculty members) as a cost-saving measure requiring minimal investment or commitment to the faculty holding these positions (American Association of University Professors, 2019). According to the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), in 2017, adjunct social work faculty accounted for about 60% of all social work faculty in CSWE-accredited programs, up 5% since 2012, and social work students in 2017 had only a 1 in 3 chance of having a tenure-track professor teaching their course (CSWE, 2018, p. 16). Effectively addressing this shift is key to maintaining program excellence.
Overworked social work program faculty and administrators doing more work with less resources can easily become overwhelmed. It may help motivationally to remember that there is an ethical obligation inherent in teaching that cannot be ignored. Social workers have an ethical responsibility to colleagues, and cooperating with them for the well-being of clients (in this case, students and their future clients) is an accepted standard of practice (National Association of Social Workers, 2017, standard 2.01). Effective supervision and support of adjunct faculty colleagues is another way to meet ethical obligations to colleagues and to the educational institutions serving as the social work educators’ practice setting (National Association of Social Workers, 2017, standards 3.01–3.02). Considering the ethical principles and standards in the Code of Ethics, faculty support should hold a priority position when determining service workloads in social work departments. This ensures educational quality is high and that upon graduation social work students have the necessary competencies required for practice.
Approaching adjunct faculty support in an organized manner and from a strengths-based perspective can lead to a more positive experience for all parties involved. In fact, hiring, onboarding, and supporting adjunct faculty members during the semester (while time consuming and littered with a variety of potential pitfalls) can be a fulfilling endeavor yielding rich outcomes for students, faculty, and administrators. The following is a description of a unique system of support for adjunct faculty that has led to high retention and increased quality of instruction at one public teaching university in the southeastern United States.
Effective identification and recruitment strategies include attending community activities and events, noticing strong teaching sessions, and asking about interest in teaching. It is not uncommon to find strong potential adjunct faculty leading continuing education (CE) sessions, speaking at public events, or attending community offerings. High-performing graduates meeting CSWE post-MSW experience requirements also offer a potential source of adjunct faculty. Simply asking about their thoughts on teaching can lead to them to consider it. At the point of expressed interest, find ways to involve interested parties in the department. Consider having potential adjunct faculty members work with your department in a variety of ways with an increasing level of responsibility rather than hiring them outright to teach a course. Perhaps they could serve as a guest speaker for a topic in a class, teach a three-hour CE event, or serve as a volunteer field instructor so that seasoned faculty and administrators can evaluate their teaching skill level and their interactions with students. Departmental advisory committees are also potential sources of adjunct faculty. Providing thank-you notes, certificates of appreciation, and small marketing items as appreciation for volunteer efforts such as these goes a long way toward building an interest in continued participation.
Grooming potential adjunct faculty is most effectively presented to full-time faculty and administrators as an investment in the department in order to facilitate the use of these strategies by the entire department; however, program administrators are the main drivers of these initiatives, and all faculty and staff identifying potential adjunct faculty members should funnel names to the administrative staff for follow up. Once you have identified and decided to make an offer to a potential adjunct faculty member, it helps to have an organized and systematic hiring and orientation system.
Often, institutional rules require that until the person is officially hired, they are not allowed access to e-mail, the institution’s learning management system (LMS), or any institutionally sanctioned instructional training. Since the hiring process sometimes takes weeks, this is a significant barrier for orienting and training someone hired within a few weeks of the start of class. Orientation can start during that wait time so that the first few days and weeks of class go smoothly.
In order to prepare adjunct faculty with teaching skills prior to hire, the department faculty in coordination with the universitywide center for innovative teaching and learning have started the process of developing training that covers multiple aspects of social work teaching. The plan is to incorporate the basic teaching content within the online self-paced course outside of the university LMS in order to provide some credit or a certificate for social workers interested in teaching and provide a learning community with discussion boards, feedback, and various learning exercises.
This initiative will provide training for adjunct faculty as well as offer much-needed training for those considering teaching. Interested potential adjunct faculty can learn about teaching and what it entails without the commitment to teach a course. They may find the training very interesting and choose to move forward with securing a position. If they self-select out of teaching after learning more about the expectations, that is a great outcome, too. Either way, offering this training on a platform other than the educational institution’s LMS makes it accessible to potential and not-yet-hired adjunct faculty.
Faculty mentors, assigned at orientation, provide adjunct faculty with course information and technical support as well as assistance with handling student concerns, understanding various assignment options, planning teaching activities, and keeping up with departmental events. Mentors and mentees regularly meet via telephone or in person to discuss the course, and over time, they often develop close collegial relationships. Professional development is often a point of discussion, and adjunct faculty with successful teaching experience are partnered with to improve curriculum and course design. It is not unusual for faculty mentors to collaborate with seasoned adjunct faculty on course revisions, assignment tweaks or development, and textbook and reading selection, particularly when the adjunct faculty member has identified that as a potential area of growth or interest. With virtually 100% of our adjunct faculty currently employed in the field, they provide an invaluable feedback loop regarding employment readiness of social work graduates. They often suggest content needed to fill curriculum gaps in order to better prepare social work students for work in the region.
Departmental office associates support our adjunct faculty in a variety of ways. Tasks such as establishing textbook orders at the university bookstore, ordering course texts from publishers, and making sure adjunct faculty are officially hired and listed on the course listing are very important functions that save faculty mentors and the adjunct faculty considerable time. As the first point of contact when adjunct faculty call or visit the department, office associates are the friendly voice that will doggedly search for the answer to any question the adjunct faculty member might have when faculty mentors are unreachable. Office associates serve as problem solvers in the event of a locked classroom or unexpected student situation, and they are masters of assisting adjunct faculty in accessing course-related office supplies and assisting with filing paperwork for mileage reimbursement or other perks. Lastly, office associates are instrumental in planning and holding recognition events for our adjunct faculty. The department always earmarks funds to celebrate adjunct faculty accomplishments and excellence that includes providing a program, meal, and various marketing items that serve as thank-you gifts for dedication to the program. While certificates are typically given, a few adjunct faculty earn special plaques for their excellence in teaching or in field. Several of our adjunct faculty have gone on to earn adjunct faculty teaching awards at the college level, putting them in the finals for the universitywide award. It is a point of pride for them and for our department.
The increasing use of adjunct faculty in social work programs necessitates the development of robust adjunct faculty support systems to ensure the quality of education for social work students across the United States. While the system may take time to establish, priority should be given to initiatives designed to enhance the professional teaching skills of colleagues and provide support to new faculty members who may experience challenges as they begin careers in education. Without monitoring and support of new faculty, it is ultimately students who will be shortchanged. It is up to all of us to make sure that everything possible is in place to support new faculty and, ultimately, student success.
— Patricia Desrosiers, PhD, LCSW, is an associate professor and head of the department of social work at Western Kentucky University.
Council on Social Work Education. (2018). CSWE 2017 statistics on social work education in the United States: Summary of the CSWE annual survey of social work programs. Alexandria, VA: CSWE.
National Association of Social Workers. (2017). NASW Code of Ethics. Washington, DC: NASW Press.