As a former adjunct English professor, Elissa Caruth knows how to support these educators, deepening their connection to campus and colleagues.
Professor of English Composition, Literature, and Chair of the Letters Department,Oxnard College, in Oxnard, California
MA in English, MA in Shakespeare, BA in English
Nobody knows the challenges of the adjunct professor better than Elissa Caruth, who dubbed herself a “Roads Scholar” while traveling among four campuses in the Los Angeles County area when she was an adjunct professor herself. “It wasn’t uncommon for me to drive hundreds of miles every week,” she says. “You learn to eat in your car, and your trunk becomes your office.”
In addition, being an itinerant teacher creates a degree of separation that can be isolating, says Caruth. “When you’re an adjunct, it’s hard to attend department meetings, and it’s hard to connect with faculty because you’re so busy shuffling from one campus to another.”
In 2000, Caruth was finally able to reduce her annual mileage (and quit her concurrent part-time job at the mall) when Oxnard College made her a full-time English professor. Today, as chair of the Department of Letters, Caruth has made it her mission to provide extra support to her commuting colleagues. “Adjunct professors are integral to our team at Oxnard College,” she says. “I want to recognize my adjunct colleagues and make them feel welcome and part of something. The most important thing I want them to know is that I’ve been there, I’m here for them, and I’m happy to help.”
Below, Caruth shares her secrets to help educators make their adjunct colleagues feel as welcome and supported as possible.
Caruth’s roadmap to ease the adjunct’s journey
Adjunct educators are a vital and vibrant addition to the faculty of many U.S. campuses. To ensure that they feel welcome, wanted, and valued in her department and at her college, Caruth employs these strategies:
Provide a personal orientation and tour for new hires
Caruth welcomes new adjunct professors by scheduling a one-to-two-hour meeting in which she goes over essential information, one-on-one, and then gives them a campus tour. This tour includes key details to help them succeed. “When we go to the copy center, I make sure they have a code so they can make photocopies,” she says. “When I introduce them to campus police, I help them get their parking permit.” She also shows them where they can direct students in need of resources, such as learning support and financial aid. Along the way, Caruth introduces new professors to everyone who crosses their path. “I want them to see faces that become friendly and familiar,” she says.
“I want to recognize my adjunct colleagues and make them feel welcome and part of something. The most important thing I want them to know is that I’ve been there, I’m here for them, and I’m happy to help. “
-Elissa Caruth, MA, MA
Have an open-door policy and flexible “office hours”
Throughout the semester, Caruth goes out of her way to spend time with adjunct professors whenever possible. This sometimes means being available for “office hours” during the evening, because that is when many of them teach. Caruth also makes it a point to actually invite them into her office. “Mostly we sit in my office and talk about things—and it can be anything. ‘This is the book I use. This is what I’m observing in class.’ Basically, I make myself as available as possible to support them in any way I can,” she says.
Email invitations to everything (even if you think they cannot come)
Many adjuncts have little time for meetings, but Caruth feels strongly about treating them exactly like full-time faculty. So she includes them in all invitations—no matter what. This includes calendar invites to departmental meetings, emails soliciting colleagues for research purposes, and requests for suggestions (such as a list of books they use for a particular course).
Caruth also sends out all of the dates of departmental meetings at the beginning of each semester, which has resulted in more adjuncts participating. “I’m delighted about that,” she says.
Use the learning management system as a virtual meeting room
To share as much information as possible, Caruth uses Canvas to post anything and everything she thinks may be of use. “This is a great way to invite participation and promote inclusivity,” she says.
Caruth has uploaded the faculty handbook, the substitute teacher policy, the syllabus checklist, the college’s policy on plagiarism, and the information on DACA and dreamer students, as well as course outlines for each of the disciplines. She also posts the agendas and minutes for all meetings, as well as meeting reports written by full-time faculty members who attended.
“This wasn’t intentional, but I noticed that after creating this meeting space, I got fewer emails asking for information,” says Caruth. “I’m guessing that now they have everything they need—and they use it.”
Encourage group work to get everyone on the same page
Caruth organizes mini-workshops that help facilitate connection and develop community among all instructors. For example, if someone investigated a subject they find interesting, she will schedule a session where they can share their learnings with the larger group.
She also regularly organizes “norming sessions” where several instructors (usually those teaching different sections of the same course) get together to grade essays collectively. “We all teach in very different ways, but norming sessions keep us on track with one another by seeing if we have disparate grades,” she says. “They also open us up to a larger discussion. Where are our disagreements in grading? What are our common values?”
Sometimes, Caruth adds, a norming session can turn into a venting session or a support session. Other times, these group meetings lead to one instructor mentoring another. “It is for English faculty to help us communicate our ideas and practices, sometimes it helps us share assignments,” she says. “If we have issues grading, we find support with one another to discuss what may be going on.
“But it’s always an exchange of ideas,” she adds. “It’s lovely to see all faculty members working side-by-side.”