At first, I was offended when Gretchen Whitney recently posted to the JESSE list, which she moderates, a simplistic estimation of the differences between the teaching of part-time faculty and adjuncts and that of tenured and full-time faculty in LIS programs. I took her comments personally, I suppose, because I have been a part-time and adjunct faculty member at more than a half dozen LIS programs for more than 50 years.
The discussion triggered by Whitney’s assessment calmed my anger and reassured me. Several strong deans and LIS administrators showed that they understand and appreciate that adjuncts share the values and goals of the entire faculty, that they enrich the curriculum with their experience of having applied research and theories from the academic “ivory tower” to the practice of the information professions.
Even so, one point Whitney made still sticks in my craw. She asserted that “student evaluations are based not on challenges to learning but liking the teacher.” What a demeaning snub to both those students and the teachers they appraise. Even Whitney must remember the difficult and long struggle it took to win the right of students to judge their faculty. It was never welcomed by many in the tenured and full-time faculty elite, especially the burned-out cases who didn’t care to teach. But the strong and smart faculty found, and still find, student assessments to be of immense value in improving and enhancing courses and developing strong curricula. Every semester I get useful suggestions to improve course content, learning experiences, and procedures from student evaluations. They are a crucial part of my preparation for each subsequent term.
So I was delighted to read the response from Scott Barker, who chairs the Informatics Program at the Information School at the University of Washington (where I taught one summer long ago).
“Quite frankly, not only do I disagree, but I believe it is insulting to suggest that as a group adjunct instructors are delivering a lesser experience to students. I also think it is problematic that [Whitney seems] to have such little respect for student evaluations,” Barker wrote. I was glad he added, “I care a lot about what students say because more often than not, they are right.”
Others agree. “Adjunct instructors are not only good for our LIS students, with their frontline experience in professional practices, but also essential for their collaborations with regular faculty in both teaching and scholarly activities. In addition, they are an important constituent group for the program’s strategic planning and curricular development,” was part of the response to Whitney from Ling Hwey Jeng, professor and director of the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman’s University, Denton.
While it is sad that Whitney found it necessary to use half-true assumptions and all-too-common attitudes about student views to try to demean the contributions of both adjuncts and students to the LIS educational effort, the discussion she started is a useful one.
We need to be reminded of the struggle—in that rebellious decade so long ago—that won the right of students to participate more actively in the planning and development of their educational programs. There was strong resistance to the idea from the very beginning. There is still a residual rejection by many of the notion that students can and should contribute to the evolution of their LIS education. Fortunately, student evaluations of faculty, student participation on curriculum committees and other bodies that run an LIS program, and student contributions to the learning experience in the classroom are now an expected part of every good LIS program.
It is a crucial duty of all faculty not only to recognize and appreciate this fact but also to remind students how important their thoughtful input is. It wouldn’t hurt to remind everyone connected to a program, including Whitney, that even if they don’t already realize it, adjuncts make an equally important contribution.