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Where Have All the Practitioners Gone? Securing the Active Practitioner for Adjunct Instruction

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Hillary Knepper
February 5, 2018

What’s the Problem?

Having recently completed my first three semesters as a graduate public administration department chair, this topic is fresh on the pile of “things to worry about.” As a former practitioner who transitioned after 20 years into academia, pulling practicing public managers into the classroom as adjuncts is a priority. Professional public managers who serve as adjunct instructors bring the current events of their daily work life into the MPA classroom. Whether it is a sitting city manager, the CEO of a health care system or the HR Director for a large nonprofit, each contributes meaningfully in ways that I no longer can. On perhaps a less obvious, but no less important, note, the need for these types of adjuncts also lies in the relevance of their voices. In an era of vocal distrust for all things public service, it is critical we hear from our colleagues who are battening down the hatches as they push forward with their duties. But this remains a struggle for my program for a few reasons:

  • Public managers are too busy working their day job to commit to teaching.
  • First-time instructors are worried about their lack of classroom experience.
  • They worry about whether there is sufficient support.
  • The on-boarding process can be daunting.
  • They don’t realize how much they’re needed.
  • The pay is almost sacrificial-it could count as service.

Why Professional Managers as Adjuncts?

These days, I have no shortage of recently retired professionals who want to earn a few dollars and share their experience with students. While this is a rich vein to mine, it doesn’t necessarily match my purpose of having active practitioner-adjuncts. While the recently retired are beneficial resources on multiple levels, they no longer carry the active voice of the public manager. The story shifts from the present, “today, this is what I wrestled with” to the past, “when I was city manager.” It is a small, but important distinction. I say this with the utmost respect as a former practitioner. Students gain a deeper understanding of public service with real time stories. They hear first-hand how a strategy worked or didn’t. As partners for scholars, practitioner-adjuncts make excellent research partners — injecting practicality of the every-day world.

According to Letzmann, Nickels and Stockdale inEngaging Students to Connect Beyond the Text: A Reflection on the Value of Professionals as Adjuncts,” the adjunct practitioner is an invaluable resource to supplement faculty. They go on to identify benefits active practitioners bring to the classroom as adjuncts:

  • Networking
  • Insider tips
  • Internships
  • Mentorship opportunities
  • Real-time case studies
  • Deep connection and engagement

In considering my motivation behind finding these elusive practitioner-adjuncts, I reflect on Newman, Guy and Mastracci’s Beyond Cognition: Affective leadership and Emotional Labor. After all, if we’re looking to graduate “affective” public managers, to borrow their term, then hiring practitioner-adjuncts is necessary. Practitioners bring real-time situations and problems directly into the classroom after a long day serving the public. This is where students can apply “affective” and “effective” public service leadership theory.

But What’s In It For them?

Practitioners can press their agendas forward through their interactions with their students. But there is more. Practitioner-adjuncts can benefit from:

  • Networking- our students are often professionals
  • Developing quality interns-adjuncts can identify talent in the classroom
  • Innovation in real-time problem solving- the fast pace of change and technology make students a natural source for ideas when they challenge business as usual.

So Now What?

The International City/County Managers Association Graduate Advisory Board calls for ICMA members to get out and teach, particularly at the graduate level. Why? Because adjuncts who are still on the job bring rich narratives and extensive experience to the classroom. Ok. So we’re in agreement. How do we negotiate with our busy practitioners and identify just the right fit for our program? Through our own networks, our alumni and our associations of course. But how do we support these stalwart professionals who want to help us graduate effective public managers? One opportunity is to make sure you’ve put into place a number of safety mechanisms to protect adjuncts and students:

  • An adjuncts-only section in the faculty handbook.
  • Department chairs and faculty should actively welcome and mentor adjuncts.
  • Create an atmosphere of inclusion in departmental activities.
  • Provide opportunities for learning:
    1. NASPAA Adjuncts Corner
    2. ICMA’s “Go Teach A Course”
    3. Almost any university faculty center for teaching & learning
  • Evaluate their performance and provide substantive feedback and support.
  • Promote their participation actively via social media and other digital outlets.

Let’s get recruiting!

Author: Hillary J. Knepper, PhD, MPA, Associate Professor, Chair, Department of Public Administration, Pace University [email protected]

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