Jean Mandernach: Why Empowering Adjunct Instructors in Scholarly Activities Matters

An EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) Member Profile

min read
hands keying at a laptop

Like its natural namesake, Grand Canyon University (GCU) is a large entity — although you might not believe it at first glance. The university has only a small number of its 3,000 faculty members on campus serving Phoenix-based students. The rest of its faculty includes 2,738 online adjunct instructors who labor behind the scenes along with GCU’s fulltime online faculty.

They’re serving roughly 60,000 online students, who make up nearly 80% of the university’s entire student population.

As executive director of  GCU’s Center for Innovation and Research in Teaching (CIRT), Jean Mandernach sees herself and her team as enablers for all faculty, including these remote adjunct instructors.

“We help faculty to identify gaps as a means of rounding out their expertise,” Mandernach said. “At CIRT, we offer a wide range of programs to enhance our faculty members’ strengths — whether they’re teaching on campus or online — and also support them in engaging in scholarly activities.”

Beyond Traditional Scholarship

When you think of traditional scholarship, peer-reviewed journal articles and academic conferences likely come to mind. However, GCU uses Boyer’s Model of Scholarship, which expands upon the traditional definition of scholarship and research to reflect a broader and more flexible set of activities. These could include volunteerism within professional associations, discipline-specific public speaking engagements, and other real-world applications of faculty expertise and knowledge.

Although such scholarly activities may not be typically associated with adjunct faculty, in the university’s case, they were necessary in order to meet accreditation standards. It can be argued that rounding out faculty members’ experience in a holistic manner also has a positive impact on student learning.

Reaching the adjunct online instructor contingent proved to be a new challenge for CIRT, however; specifically, how to effectively motivate adjunct instructors to voluntarily participate in external activities beyond the scope of their teaching contracts. (And you thought your job was difficult!)

Supporting Various Adjunct Populations

It goes without saying, then, that encouraging scholarly activity among adjunct instructors isn’t exactly an easy task.

“While Grand Canyon University has several groups within our own faculty (on campus, online, adjunct, etc.), we had been treating them as if they were homogeneous,” Mandernach said. “This was an oversight, but one that our team was equipped to change — and by remaining inclusive while recognizing their inherent differences and motivations, I’m very pleased to say that we did, with excellent results.”

A deeper dive into the university’s online adjunct instructor population revealed three main groups:

  • Working professionals and retirees who are teaching as a means of ‘giving back’ to the community;
  • Aspiring academics, whose terminal degrees need to be complemented with real-world teaching experience;
  • ‘Professional adjuncts,’ who often hold several adjunct instructor roles at a number of institutions.

The CIRT team discovered early on that working professionals and retirees — while enthusiastic about sharing their expertise in the classroom — were (perhaps not surprisingly) the least likely to volunteer to take on projects in the name of scholarship. This was often due to time constraints, or a desire solely to teach.

Professional adjuncts had seemed to be in the same boat.

When the CIRT team shared that faculty wouldn’t actually be layering on more work, but rather, simply acknowledging professional contributions in the community at large, things got interesting.

“A lot of opportunities started blossoming, and we now have a very robust participation from our adjunct faculty,” Mandernach said. “They might be speaking to their local rotary club about their industry or discipline, and now they understand that this absolutely counts as scholarly activities.”

Aspiring academics, on the other hand, are eager to enhance their experience and build their CVs. As a group, they’re most interested in CIRT’s remote mentoring and collaboration. CIRT has established grant programs to assist the university’s postdoctoral instructors in attending academic conferences; they also support these instructors by connecting them with on-campus faculty and helping them to design research projects to be done remotely.

“The bittersweet part of all this is knowing that if I and my team do our jobs well, we are probably going to lose these people. They’ll gather the experience needed to move forward in their careers, and on to teaching and tenure-track assignments,” Mandernach said of the aspiring academic cohort.

“It’s a great feeling to know that we are helping faculty in building their careers. Now that we’ve started this effort for our adjunct faculty at GCU, there’s no turning back.”

Jean Mandernach is Executive Director for Center for Innovation in Research and Teaching Grand Canyon University. An active member of the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, Mandernach recently led an ELI course on the subject of evaluating online teaching. Resources including Grand Canyon University’s online classroom review and peer support review instruments are accessible for download here. For more information, be sure to check out her EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative webinar Improve Your Teaching: Integrating Evaluation and Feedback for Pedagogical Change.

Kristi DePaul of Founders Marketing provides editorial support and regular contributions to the Transforming Higher Ed column of EDUCAUSE Review on issues of teaching, learning, and edtech.