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April 18, 2002

Teaching ethics: Do students benefit from adjunct faculty members' real-life experience?

Panelists at a recent conferences on ethics agreed that in theory professionals from the working world can add significantly to the in-class experience of students by discussing real-life events and ethical dilemmas.

In practice however, the panel agreed, the system of employing adjuncts was rife with pitfalls.

"Ideally, every course that touches on professional ethics should be team-taught," with an academician there to cover the conceptual and a professional to cover the experiential, according to William McKinney, dean of the College of Humanities, Fine and Performing Arts at Slippery Rock University. "If we're serious about getting more ethics in the classroom, then both should be there all the time.

"In reality, of course, it's too expensive and will never happen," he quickly added.

McKinney was joined by other regional educators, including several adjunct professors, at the session titled "News From the Front: Adding Value by Engaging Practitioners," part of an all-day conference on educating ethical leaders sponsored last month by Pitt's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA).

David Korman, who holds a law degree, is a hearing officer in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County and has been an adjunct professor at Pitt for 16 years. "An adjunct professor brings real-world experience different from regurgitated facts," Korman maintained. "I think it's sort of like hitting a baseball: You can read all the books in the world about it, but that isn't as valuable as an hour watching Ted Williams in his prime."

But Jim Weber argued that a practitioner is not necessarily equipped to handle teaching. "When you invite a guest speaker to come and tell 'war stories,' which I'll admit are fun and usually engage the students, that's one thing. But what about the application of a concept? Do the students learn anything?"

Weber, who is professor of business ethics and management, and director of the Beard Center for Leadership in Ethics at Duquesne University, continued, "Also, we need to make a distinction: Unlike an accounting class, where you can hire an accountant easily, in business ethics you can't find too many adjuncts off the street, especially if they're supposed to be full-time in the classroom."

Weber added that universities sometimes hire adjuncts "if they have a pulse and a social security number. [At Duquesne] we've had a law office manager teach legal ethics."

Nancy Koerbel, an adjunct in Pitt's English department, agreed. "I was a warm body working as a free-lance technical writer. The department agreed to let me teach written professional communication," Koerbel said. "I think we're questioning, very basically, the ethics of using adjuncts to begin with. The English department [at Pitt] needs them to meet student demands, but they're second-class citizens, with little or no training and much less pay."

Allyn A. Morrow, associate professor and director of the Master's of Business Administration Program at Chatham College, agreed that using adjuncts merely as cheap labor is counterproductive, although she said that it was much less common in professional schools than at the undergraduate level. "We need to have better adjunct orientation and preparation," Morrow said. "I think it's the responsibility of college administrators to interview them thoroughly, before and after they teach; to look at their exams; to sit in on a class now and then. And don't rehire disasters."

Morrow said that Chatham's was a small enough program that a more hands-on observation of adjuncts was manageable.

Korman added that most of what he learned about teaching came from trial and error in the classroom over a number of years and from his own initiative to use resources at Pitt designed to help teachers.

"Looking back 16 years ago when I started," Korman said. "I see that there's a lot Pitt could have done: Faculty development, not required; continuing education, not required. But using adjuncts is here to stay in our educational system and I think they make a valuable contribution — when it's done right."

–Peter Hart

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