Thursday, July 2, 2015

A Celebrity Professor! But Can He (or She) Teach?

I have worked in higher education for 17 years, much of the time as an adjunct instructor teaching courses in business and communications.  Throughout this period I have invested considerable energy learning how to teach.  I continue to add to my skill set, with the goal of having opportunities to instruct for many years to come. My course evaluations have been strong, which I believe reflects my conscientiousness and unwavering commitment to the education of my students.  

I also have worked as an administrator in higher education.  In that capacity I have interacted with countless tenure-track and adjunct faculty members, as well as other professionals responsible for recruiting, training, and managing these instructors. 

This body of experience fuels my skepticism about the practice of hiring individuals without prior teaching experience as adjunct faculty. These professionals, recruited for their celebrity, industry experience, fundraising skills, and/or political connections, often have little to no teaching experience. I have witnessed situations over the years when such adjunct faculty failed to develop and submit syllabi; neglected to include written assignments in the syllabi they did submit; and relied on a bevy of industry colleagues to complement long lectures on related topics in lieu of structured lesson plans, among other foibles. 

Hiring administrators highly value the social capital potentially delivered by such luminaries. Thus, what and how they conduct their class is moot, or at least it appears to be.  Yet inevitably I’ve seen that once the initial glamour of the celebrity faculty member wears off students grow frustrated with the lack of organization; long, rambling, and (on occasion) repetitive lectures; failure to engage the class in meaningful discussions; and lack of responsiveness to their concerns. The academic experience thus suffers, and with that student learning and their overall assessment of the course. Students share their sentiments with peers, which in turn can influence the program’s ability to recruit students. That’s especially important as every individual matriculating student matters a lot to the institution’s bottom-line, especially for small and/or less well-known academic programs. 

Indeed, I have worked with countless professionals who devote the time and energy to teach effectively during their service as adjunct faculty.  They are committed to their students’ learning, spend considerable time preparing for class and working individually with students who need support, and take seriously the feedback they receive to help them improve. These individuals contribute as much to the classroom, and occasionally more, than full-time, tenure track/tenured faculty members. 

Yet I’ve lived through enough frustrating high profile faculty hires that I believe my concerns merit further scrutiny. My question thus becomes: Is the prospective adjunct faculty member ready and willing to accept responsibility for teaching and everything that it entails or simply show up on class day ready to pontificate?  

Given the current state of higher education, I believe we can ill-afford the participation of even the most illustrious professionals who are not held responsible for their performance in the classroom.  In short, no matter what your experience, pedigree, or education, they’re no substitute for learning how to teach well.   

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