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No One Is an Island, But How Can We Build a Continent? (Part 1)

The EvoLLLution | No One Is an Island, But How Can We Build a Continent? (Part 1)
All educators perform the same work, but the divisions created by naming conventions ultimately isolate and devalue large sectors of the professoriate.

It’s not easy being an online adjunct, and if you have ever taught online remotely before, you know this to be true. One can certainly feel a bit isolated—as if all alone on an island. In many instances, you’re only communicated with at the very beginning and end of the term. Outside of those opening and closing communications, the only people you communicate with consistently are the students.

It can be a little lonely in that way, and it is certainly hard to feel like you are part of something special, or a valued member of the organization. Furthermore, motivation to excel can diminish if hard work and effort go unnoticed by the associated institution.

This can result in instructors feeling like what they do doesn’t matter, that they are somehow less than a full-time instructor, and that their efforts have no meaning.

Sound a little depressing? It is.

Establishing Questions for Change

The question is, how can we change this? How can we bring people together in a way that grows a collaborative, engaging and fulfilling culture and community for online adjuncts within an institution? How can we make teaching online a fun and enjoyable experience? The answer lies within. We must ask ourselves first what makes us happy at work. Why do I enjoy my job? What makes for a positive work environment?  What motivates me to try new things and refine my craft? What qualities do I appreciate in a leader? What makes me feel satisfied and appreciated? What makes work fun? Adjunct instructors ask themselves these same questions. So the answer is to find a way to replicate what makes you happy and share that with your online adjuncts.  Create a virtual environment that mimics your own. Happiness breeds happiness. Often exponentially. Any happiness we experience finds a way to come out in everything we do. I firmly believe this. Therefore, happy people spread happiness to those they come in contact with, and happy people are often productive people. In a recent study conducted by Warwick University, it was demonstrated that happier people are more productive because they are more efficient with their time. In addition, Dr. Oswald, who conducted the 700-participant study titled Happiness and Productivity, wrote:

We have shown that happier subjects are more productive, the same pattern appears in four different experiments. This research will provide some guidance for management in all kinds of organizations, they should strive to make their workplaces emotionally healthy for their workforce.[1]

While our workplace is virtual, it should not limit our efforts to make it an emotionally healthy space for online adjunct faculty. As mentioned above, happiness comes through in all that we do. Because of this, we should consider the likelihood that happier online instructors will ultimately lead to a happier, more satisfying learning experience for students as well.

Overcoming Hurdles

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome is the one created through words. What do I mean by this?

The words “adjunct” and “instructor” are exclusive words. They pull people out of mainstream education and classify them as something other than a full-time professional. They contribute to the hierarchy of teachers that already exists within universities. This hierarchy is detrimental to the concept of collaboration and community. In a 2011 article by Jennifer Lorenzetti titled, Adjunct by choice: Getting past the stereotypes of online instructors, the notion of stereotypes is addressed.  Lorenzetti describes the stereotype of a traditional adjunct as:

… a harried and underpaid soul cobbling together a marginal income by racing from campus to campus, teaching a class here and a couple of classes there, using their car as a mobile office, and hoping for the day that someone offers them a “real” tenure-track job on a single campus. [2]

While this is Lorenzetti’s description of a traditional adjunct, it remains the perception of those working as adjunct instructors regardless of whether on campus or online.  In her article, Lorenzetti references a qualitative study completed by Laurie A. Bedford, a PhD from Capella University who studied professional online adjuncts. One adjunct from the Bedford study stated the following with regard to their preparedness to teach in comparison to full-time professors:

Some people believe that my part-time status somehow makes me less qualified. This I don’t understand. I have the same degree and much more experience in the online classroom than many of the full-timers. [3]

We can assume that the above online adjunct is not alone in their perception of how others view them within the professional education community. This creates a barrier that is hard for some to surmount. Furthermore, these stereotypes establish the need to be on the defense as an adjunct and foster an “us against them” mentality. At the conclusion of the Lorenzetti article she cites the Bedford study once again:

Bedford concludes that institutions should “acknowledge the full-time professional adjunct as a legitimate career path. In this way, efforts can be made to understand the characteristics associated with those professional adjuncts that can bring quality, rigor, and unique expertise to the instructional staff. … Through this perspective, they can be seen as collaborative partners in the educational process and be treated as unique individuals with diverse needs and assets.” [4]

We need to eliminate the title of adjunct instructor and move to using language that envelops us all into the community of education.

My word of choice is “educator.” We are all educators and all part of the educational community together. Furthermore, the word educator speaks to a higher calling and service to society at large that surmounts the belief that the job is more important than the purpose. Education, and being an educator, brings people together in one of the most valued, honorable and service-oriented professions within society alongside those individuals within the medical field, police/fire/rescue, and our servicemen and women who all believe in giving of themselves to serve the greater good. This word unites us in a common purpose and goal and naturally brings us together.

By transitioning to educator, we are all working to help students learn and achieve their goals, and working together makes us stronger together. This is the foundation for collaboration and community.

This is the first installment in a four-part series by Jamie Holcomb discussing what it takes to create an engaging and inclusive faculty community. In the next installment, Holcomb will discuss the creation of educational partnerships and the importance of expectation management. All references will be listed in the conclusion.

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