Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Adjunct’s dilemma – how much do you tell your students?


Among the many streams of things happening these days is keeping tabs on some interesting things happening in my various internet circles.  I've resolved to just dip into my RSS stream and look at things periodically over a couple of days and not be as 'vigilant' as I have been in the past.  Too many things to focus on, not enough time for news.  That said, I came across an interesting post by Rebecca how  How much should you tell your students about the constraints/environment you are operating under when you are teaching? What do you think? Rebecca is teaching a course that I had taught before at UMass, and is teaching the introductory course in instructional design I taught last semester.

This is a really good question.  I've only taught credit-courses at UMass Boston (unless you count my internship last semester in Athabasca's  MEd program) and my own experience I've seen (and heard of) institutions that design everything for the instructor, and there is no leeway, and I've seen institutions that give a lot of leeway to their instructors.  Both extremes are problematic for me because they don't take into account the realities of hiring people to teach your courses.  You are, presumably, hiring experts to teach your courses because they are experts. So, the one extreme of giving them no leeway is problematic because it negates that expertise.  On the other hand, a lot of leeway, which at the extreme is actualized as "Here is the description and the learning objectives, you've got 13 weeks, do whatever you want...ah and class starts tomorrow! See ya!", is also problematic because it doesn't give that expert enough time (or guidance) to design an implement a good course.

That said, I think that it is important, for students in all levels, to know under what constraints the instructors are operating.  How much detail you provide really depends on what you are teaching, and who the learners are.  If, for example, you are teaching a group of History 101 students (college freshmen), I'd expect that you are not going to provide them with a lot of detail about the constraints. The reason for this is that a History 101 course has a diverse group of students, both majors and non-majors, people who are really interested in the topic, and people who need to get it checked-off a list of required courses.  Obviously the more interested the learner in the topic, the more detail they might want on constraints and the general environment.

In my own context, graduate courses in instructional design, people are there because they want to learn about instructional design, so there is a baseline motivation.  Furthermore, I would argue, that for a class taken by instructional designer the environment and the constraints are crucial to know.  We, as seasoned instructional designers and pedagogues, are expected to teach and mentor future instructional designers.  If our students know what that we operate under constraints as well (and not the rosey vision of academia that they've formed in their mind), I think they gain greater appreciation for the process of ID, and (hopefully) it gets them thinking about working through an ID process in a more agile way with the tools, skills, and constraints that they have at hand.

I think regardless of the audience (students in the class), it's important to explain to the students what's been decided on by the department's curriculum committee as a must and what is discretionary on your part as an instructor.  The reason for this is really to raise awareness of what we, as instructors, have and do not have control over.  If students complain about me because I always given them feedback late, and my feedback stinks, then that's on me.  If students complain about me, but the complaint is really about the materials assigned for class (and those materials are assigned, and the instructor does not have the ability to change them) then it's important to let the students know that.

From my own perspective - the case of 619 (aka 684):
The course that Rebecca taught last fall was something I had inherited previously from another instructor.  I considered the first semester of me teaching that course as a stop-gap measure for the department. The instructor that had taught it (and other courses) for a long time (11 years at that time, by my estimates).  I inherited a blackboard course with all the materials, I went through it, but I didn't agree with all elements of the design, and I wanted the course to be updated, but I considered myself a one-semester person (in other words I didn't expect a callback).  I kept the course as it was for that semester to get to see it in action.

In a subsequent semester I was called back to teach the course again - but again in a last-moment fashion, so I didn't have time to hit the library databases to find better readings (or heck - redesign from scratch).  I also didn't feel empowered to change the course in total because  I got the vibe from the department that they were pining for this person to return, and that the course was the pinnacle of good design.  Well, semester after semester I got to teach the same course, so I decided to go with a plug-and-play approach to design.  Change readings and different modules as I went along, instead of a wholesale re-design (my preference).  During this time I had conversations with learners in my class about instructional design, and the realities of both working on something from scratch, and having to work off something created by others, within specific organizational contexts.  My own experience teaching, and tweaking, the course I was teaching seemed like a good real life example for them; and I hope it made them more appreciative of the constraints and environments in which ID takes place!

In retrospect, I think that back then I could have gotten away with doing it my way, but being an adjunct means that you are not in a position of power, so you need to tread lightly. If the department doesn't give you the vibe that they are welcome to change (and how much change!), then it's hard for a newbie to really get invested in such a time consuming process.  New course developments carry a development stipend at my institution (subject to approval), but course re-designs do not usually, and if they do it's much smaller than the original course development stipend. This, too, keeping in mind, that a course isn't an island and that it needs to connect meaningfully with other courses in a curriculum. So being an adjunct means that you generally have only a piece of the overall curriculum puzzle, and if you're only hired to teach a specific course, it's important for that department to tell you explicitly what the connecting pieces are that need to be covered, and what the discretionary pieces are where you can discuss more emergent themes.


Well, that's it for me.  At the end of the day, the answer is "it depends on the audience".

Your thoughts?


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