Mentoring New-ish Faculty

In my last blog post, I promised I’d continue my thoughts on the horrors of adjunctification/causualisation in higher education, but I’ve got to take step away for a bit. My adjuncts friends are facing an awful reality in the upcoming year, and I’d rather think about practical ways I can help them on my campus.

Before I do, I need to tell y’all about this awesome soul funk band I heard last weekend. For Seattle folks, this band isn’t anything new, but I have never seen Grace Love and The True Loves live. Hot diggity dog they were awesome.

Let me be clear, I dislike jamband funk ala Phish or what I call frat boy funk (sorry, if you dig that music). The real deal is influenced by James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and/or Curtis Mayfield, and if I don’t hear that influence, it’s not my brand of soul funk. And y’all, Grace Love and The True Loves are the real deal. My hip still hurts from dancing in the grass at Bellingham’s Subdued Stringband Jamboree. What a fun party for kids, musicians, and friends. And I like the way Grace Love works it; have a listen:

I’ve fallen off the jobby job horse a bit over the last few weeks; I’ve lost a bit fire, but holy hot damn, I think I’m back in the saddle. For this post, I’d like to write a bit about my work with the eLearning Council and a fun puzzle we’re facing in my department.

First of all, I sometimes can’t believe how lucky I am to have stumbled onto working with such an amazing group of eLearning Directors in Washington State. Not only have they embraced me as a friend and colleague, they elected me chair-elect of our council. Maybe I’m the only one dumb enough to fall on this sword (I’ve been told) or they actually have faith in me. Either way, it’s a huge honor. We had our first meeting this past week, and Chris Soran is our new chair.

Chris and I were interim at the same time, and we bonded over our unknown status of employment when we first met. I also didn’t know what I was doing and he was really generous to help me out. We also worked together on a work group, and we were the only ones who routinely showed. People get busy and such, but Chris was always there when I clicked on our Collaborate link. As our current Chair, he reports to our Instruction Commission (IC), and this is also my destiny in less than two weeks. Our entire system is going through an upgrade and Tacoma Community College is the first to “go-live,” he needs to be at the home institution. I’m going to interrupt my vacation and head to Big Bend Community College to hang out with all of the Vice Presidents of Instruction in Washington State. You know, no pressure.

I could have said no; I’m on vacation. Honestly, I want to be as close as I can to this caldron as they brew up plans for the upcoming year. I presented to the IC back in May 2014. My colleague, Peg Balachowski,  presented virtually while I stood there and watched the group take notes. Or check their email. Or Facebook. What I noticed was all of them looked up when we mentioned funding and data. I closed the presentation, and many of the VPIs had positive feedback.

At the time, we were short on data with our work, and we still are. And now some of our institutions are even shorter on funding. This year is going to be interesting.

Fun drinking game digression: Drink if you hear the word “austere” or “innovative solutions” or “budget uncertainty” or “tough decisions” or “educational technology will save us money” or “the flipped classroom is a new style of teaching” or my personal favorite, “we can do more for less.” Drink!

As a council, we have work groups to help with state-wide initiatives based on the IC work plan. The eLC meets quarterly in person and monthly OL. It’s a fun side project, and I think this year, we’ve got some awesome momentum with three topics: Accessibility, Professional Development, and Open Pedagogy.

Open Pedagogy?! Did I hear that right?! If I could have skipped arm in arm with my mates to meet as a group, I would have. That’s how excited I am for this work. We still need the stamp of approval from the IC, but I think we’ve got a great start. Usually the IC tells us what they want, and this year they’ve asked us to come up with a plan as subject matter experts. Be still my heart. Perhaps it’s the legacy of our eLC Chairs passing the torch to Chris, the leadership at the SBCTC, and/or a changing of the guard at the IC. Whatever it is, it feels a bit like I could see a mermaid swimming by at any minute.

And back at the home institution, we’re using this summer to solve a data collection problem as we reorganize a bit as a department. Back in 2012-2013, we won a Title III grant. At that time, I was hired as a faculty mentor along with three other faculty members. We collaborated together to create our Associate Faculty Academy. This work is near and dear to my heart because it A] benefits adjuncts by paying them to learn about our institutional culture, B] helps them establish a network with other new adjuncts, and C] it was my second gig as an Instructional Designer.

If I may be a bit nostalgic here with a lesson that I learned the hard way, let me just advise, never ever say to three fantastically motivated brilliant teachers: “Send me all of your stuff and I’ll figure out how to organize it.” Oh dear!

At that time, we were transitioning from ANGEL to Canvas, so everything we had was smoldering pile of nonsensical repository information. The mentors have since revised and revamped that original class, and when I was promoted to my current position, I had to let this project go. It was like mourning a lost love to me, but I rejoice every time we share this this idea with another institution. Five institutions in our system have all tailored the course and the process for what works for them culturally and financially. Interested? Contact me and I’ll send you everything we have.

From the get-go, we’ve been talking about proof of cost. How do we pay for this once the grant runs out? How do we institutionalize this? How do we make this work? How do we know this will work? How do we mentor such a broad spectrum of teachers? These are the big questions I love to try and answer.

At that time, I had also published an article on what I thought could work but I had no idea. My main point was to make sure we set up interdisciplinary mentorships. In short, if you want educators to talk about pedagogy, you’ve got to get folks from different disciplines together. It’s also safer adjuncts to network with people who are outside of their departments. Honestly I was pitching what I wished had existed when I was an adjunct by passing this idea off as research. It’s creative non-fiction disguised as research. (Drink!) Somehow it got published and other folks have since embraced this idea.

I still have no data to prove I’m right (a memoir). So I keep reading and researching. Hoping. Listening. Learning. Asking. Wishing. Waiting. Trying.

Today I read 10 Ways To Support New Faculty by Tanya Golash-Boza, and I have to say, it’s nice to see other writers talking about mentoring. Everybody is all a-twitter with talk about Week 0 for students. (Drink!)

And here’s the thing, we need to also talk about Week -1 for teachers. My institution has a good story that we could connect to Golash-Boza and others. We’ve got great anecdotes. Narratives. Quotes. Examples. Ideas. Visions.

Great stories don’t cut it with peer reviewers; they want data. We’re short on data. We can’t say for sure that what we’ve done helps student retention. We can’t say for sure we help make good teachers better. We can’t say for sure that our way is the right way. We can’t say anything for sure. Nothing. For sure.

The more I think about our lack of data, I think I have one idea to generate numbers. But first, I need to give you some historical context.

At the time we transitioned to Canvas in 2012-2013, three major institutional shifts took place. First, we started the Title III Strengthening Institutions Grant establishing the mentors, the Associate Faculty Academy, and a precedent to mentor new faculty. We defined “new faculty” as new-to-our-college. We decided to care about the majority of the teachers who teach our students. We call them adjuncts. (Drink!)

Second, our math department began linking their third party integration publisher materials to Canvas or they started using OER in greater numbers. Students were starting to identify Canvas with their course schedule. If they didn’t see their math class, they called eLearning. Peg made a template that the math department could use guiding the students to whatever the teachers used, WAMAP, MyMathLab, etc. Our phones stopped ringing and help tickets connected to math classes ceased. One simple message to students was all it took.

Third, we also started an academy for full-time tenure track faculty. Peg, who is the mentor/teacher of this academy, uses Canvas for her cohort of new FT teachers. Canvas, unlike the labyrinth of crappy folders we call ANGEL/Blackboard, is easier to use for both students and faculty. I’ve been arguing that Canvas forces good design on teachers for about a year, and I think this is true, BUT I don’t know for sure. I don’t have the data to prove it.

Maybe we don’t get as many tickets and problems through eLearning because teachers are better supported. Is it Canvas or is it our investment in professional development for teachers? Is it both? Is it my Instructional Designer? Our departmental collaboration? The way we communicate to our faculty? Is it the students themselves? Maybe new faculty are more comfortable with technology. Depends on the discipline. We just can’t say for sure.

I have a theory that what we’re doing to support teachers directly impacts students who are using Canvas. I also believe that we can trace student retention if we got smarter about how to use the Canvas analytic functions. We also need to collaborate with Institutional Research, and currently we don’t work with them at all. More importantly, we need to teach teachers about how these analytics and statistics work. Or don’t work. We also need to educate the administration that this data does not reflect what the students are actually learning. This love affair about analytics is dangerous while at the same time potentially useful. We just need to make sure we ask the right questions.

Quick disclaimer: I want to kill all LMSs forever and ever, but we’re so invested as a college and as a system that I have to live with it. I also understand that I overwhelm people with these ideas, and I have to get smarter about the way I explain why this needs to be the future of teaching and learning. I have to learn how to talk about this idea to people who have never heard of a Domain of One’s Own. Worse still, I think I need to take a statistics class again. (Drink!)

Back to what I’d like to investigate:

What if we could track the use of Canvas post-Academies? In other words, what if we ask all of our new and former mentees to connect one outcome to multiple assessments in their courses? Just one. It doesn’t have to be huge. Just one. We could take it one step further and ask teachers to connect that outcome to their course evaluations via the IDEA form. I really dislike this teacher evaluation form, but nobody listens to me. It’s meaningless for teachers and devalues the potential of student feedback. It’s a giant waste of money, but it’s how we do it at my institution. (Drink!)

If we could do this one-outcome-multiple-assessments research during the tenure-track process alone, we’d have three years of data on one outcome per teacher. We could advise our new teachers to join “an innovative pilot” to collaborate with eLearning. (Drink!) This will help them in the dog and pony show we can tenure track process. It doesn’t seem threatening to me, and we’d let them choose the outcome. They can work with my Instructional Designer on that one-outcome-to-multiple-assessment alignment. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll take a sip of our Kool-Aid and join our little club. We’re fun people. We care. We want their students to succeed. We respect them as subject matter experts.

This is just a nascent idea, but I’m trying to think of how we can generate data to show that teachers improve when they A] use Canvas, B] understand alignment, and C] value continuous improvement in their courses post the academies. I’m willing to bet they have better retention numbers. Better classes. Happier students who enjoy learning. Teachers who love working with us. Happier people who enjoy learning together.

The pieces are there; we just need to figure out how to bring them together. Maybe I need a mentor to help me stitch these pieces of quilt together. Maybe I need to get smarter with statistics. Maybe the answer is right in front of me, but I can’t see it.

Here’s the heart-breaking reality of this work of mentoring new-ish faculty, many of them say that this experience is the first time somebody welcomed them to an institution beyond showing them how to make copies or how to call security. They report that they feel cared about and it’s nice to have a network. I’ve walked by some of them on campus and they light up because they know somebody. I don’t always remember their names or their disciplines but I say hello and smile. I have no data to prove this, but I think we’re making teaching a less lonely profession.

“I don’t feel so all alone for the first time ever as a teacher,” said one faculty who had almost 14 years of adjunct teaching experience.

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About Alyson Indrunas

Always learning about instructional design, educational technology, #OER, professional development, adult education, and the federated wiki. A Memoir.
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2 Responses to Mentoring New-ish Faculty

  1. CogDog says:

    It may not be directly relevant to your interests in adjunct faculty but your post reminded me of my years at the Maricopa CC system; our office ran faculty development and professional growth programs. We operated a FPG program for adjuncts (looks like it’s still there https://mcli.maricopa.edu/adjunct-fpg) and we helped run an annual conference just for adjuncts. It looks like there’s an association for them too http://www.myafa.org/about.html).

    I was impressed then that there was at least some support for adjuncts; at the same time a lot of the success of the distance learning college (Rio Salado) was built on a handful of FT faculty (department chairs) while the bulk of instruction is by adjuncts)

    Oh and thanks for sharing the sounds of Grace Love- I dig the soul sound.

    Liked by 1 person

    • First of all, that band just blew me away from the first song. Grace Love also did that very James Brown-esque introduction of the band where each musician got a highlight “This is Jimmy James on the guitar” and so on. Before she did that breakdown, she said, “This is best part of the night because all I have to do is stand here and look fine.” The crowd roared. Good stuff!

      Thanks for these resources, Alan, I’ll check them out. Our consortium is interesting because so many of teachers work between two-three schools. We call them “I-5 flyers” which is a horrid way to make a living. Some upper-administrators hold the belief that we shouldn’t invest in adjuncts because they will just go someplace else for a job. Which is so ridiculous I don’t even know how to address that mindset. Most of our former PT faculty stay in WA State. I try to argue that it’s a good investment as a consortium which works at the state level but not locally. I like the idea of a conference so I’m going to think more on that one. We have a lot of FT faculty who value their adjuncts, so we may have their support.

      The radical side of me wants them to separate from union and organize for themselves. They contribute union dues yet their needs are often ignored. It’s a mess really. If I may use a dog simile with you–it’s a bit like digging holes all over the yard looking for that bone that got buried years ago. Eventually, you just want to take a nap on the deck.

      Liked by 2 people

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