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Learning to Adjunct

Monday: February 2, 2015

I have two friends who have embarked on the adjuncting train this semester and I have shared some insights with them that I have learned along the way so I thought I would catalog these here. Remember, I have only been adjuncting since 2012 and in no way do I have things figured out – veterans of teaching will be able to expand much more (or laugh at) but as an early adjunct, I think it worthy to explore what I’ve discovered on my own (and what works for me personally, as these will certainly not work for everyone!).

1. There is so much out there on how to teach the subject I am teaching. I need to read and research everything to make the perfect course.

  • STOP. Your students will not know the difference between the perfect course and whatever course you create. Your students will not know that although you picked article A to go over, article B made better points. Your students will never know the effort you already have put into creating the class.
  • Going down that hole saps all of your time and increases your anxiety as you begin juggling ever-dwindling time with ever-more-creative ideas. You must stop collecting data and just analyze what you already have! Just. Stop.
  • Perfect courses do not exist. You will always be tweaking a class to keep it current. You will find what worked awesome in one semester flopped in another because the student base changed a little. You’ll get better over time. You’ll get bored and want to try new ideas. You must always be dynamic and you can look for new ideas each semester rather than all of them right here and now. Just STOP.

2. I can’t tell if my students are bored or if the material is over their heads. 

  • I pause in lecture and ask recap questions of what we just discussed, or present a question that would be answered with the next segment of lecture.
  • If they know the answers, they are likely bored and I can speed things up, skip over material, or add more complex examples on the fly.
  • If they have no clue, I backtrack to make the questions easier to find out where I lost them. Then I work very slowly over examples – or if time is an issue, I re-present the information differently during the next class with a warning that they need to study that part of their homework before we meet again.

3. My lectures are too short.

  • I drink a lot of tea during lecture – this helps me pause between segments, and the slowed speed lets their minds catch up. It also helps me not answer my own questions too quickly if no one has a response.
  • See above – I ask questions a lot. Just random things I think of on the fly. Or I throw out an example that was in the news recently, to bring it back to why it is important they learn this stuff.
  • Sometimes I have them work with a partner on a “minute” paper – come up with their own example, or answer a tough question together, or something like that and then we go around the room.
  • Depending on how short – is it bad to let them out early every now and then? I think not.

4. My lectures are too long.

  • This was often the case when I first started. I felt the need to cover everything in the text book, provide my own examples, and have a lot of prepared questions ready. What I’ve realized? I am not the textbook’s author and there is no reason I need to cover every detail.
  • Go through the lectures and chop out things that really don’t matter for the big picture. They will read the details in the book. Sometimes I cut huge sections out because it doesn’t jive with what I want to talk about nor have time for. That’s ok. Sometimes I still hold them accountable for it; sometimes, I don’t.
  • I’ve given up on prepared examples and questions for the most part. These easily come to me on the fly because I look for current events almost daily in the news or through internet memes, or whatever I think students might come across.
  • I use the learning management software to send messages out a lot – here I can add small bits of information we did not cover in depth in class, to make up for lost time.

5. One student always answers all my questions.

  • I learn my students’ names within the first week usually. This will obviously not be easy if you are teaching large classes, but I find that a few classes of 30 or less is easy for me.
  • Instead of posing questions to the class, I will start asking individual students. Usually, that one student gets the hint and I can go back to asking the larger group, but if not, at least everyone can have a chance throughout the semester.

6. How do I learn my student’s names?

  • I take formal attendance (as in, I call out their names) the first few days of the semester.
  • During break, or after class, I will jot their names down in the order that they sat in rather than just having an alphabetical list.
  • On day three or so, I will make it a game with them and go around the room trying to figure out their names. They do not seem to mind (and actually seem happy to see me struggle), and I start as soon as people walk in, so that I am not wasting class time. (I usually am a few minutes early.)

7. How do I get my students to talk?

  • Learn their names – and have them learn each other’s names. Not in any formal way, but by hearing you use names all the time, they will pick up on it. Instead of sitting by a stranger, they are sitting by an acquaintance. That is a step away from friends – you are building a camaraderie through names! It becomes a safe place.
  • First, even if I can present questions to the whole class rather than individuals (see point #4), I still call on specific students every now and then.
  • I start by calling on ones that I think will not mind speaking up (these are easy to spot – they answer your questions from day one, or had a lot to say about themselves if you do a quick intro of each other on the first day of class).
  • Then, a few weeks in the semester, everyone is fair game. I’ve noticed that it seems to help prevent the same student always saying they don’t know. Seeing classmates who – to them, at least – appear confident but trying to answer anyway seems to give them support to try themselves.
  • I do not tell a student when s/he is flat out wrong (at least, I have not had to). Instead, I always say something like “well, not really – can someone explain why?” or “sort of, but let’s think of a better way to explain that”. Softening the blow keeps their mind open – they are not as embarrassed and dwelling on those emotions right after you respond. Instead, they are open to hearing the correct explanations.
  • I always ask for others to help out if a student takes too long in answering or says they do not know. This way, they have each other’s back (see the first bullet – create a safe place!).
  • I have seen a student give a crazy answer or ask a silly question, and the class snickers. This is no good! But, it is always easy to stop – quickly, deliberately, but non-chalantly, I will say something like “Now, don’t laugh – it is very easy to understand what so and so is saying when you think about looking at it from this way. Remember, all of us started out in different places, the goal is to end up in the same place when the semester is over.”
  • (That theme, of starting out with different levels of skill/knowledge is something I harp on throughout the semester – and I celebrate it. Each student brings something unique to the table, and I allow them to see that and feel good about it.)
  • I put them in changing groups a lot. By mid-semester, there are no more strangers in the class. They feel fine speaking out.
  • I seem approachable. I get told that to my face, and in my reviews. I am not exactly sure what I do any differently than their other teachers, except I know I do not feel like a teacher (cosmic joke, and all that). Personality probably just plays a huge role here. Try relating to them. I tell them stories about how I sucked at learning this particular segment, but what helped me was studying this particular way. I tell them information and then relate it to their immediate culture – twitter, Harry Potter, ironic hipster memes, whatever. I show them news articles or youtubes that just get me. I think I look like a real person instead of an authority figure. I dunno – I haven’t figured this one out yet.

8. I have students who are failing. Is it me???

  • I thought so, at first. It was hard giving Fs out in the beginning at the end of the semester. But honestly, you have to earn that F the same way you earn an A. It’s not you – it’s them. No matter what sob story they are telling you, it is them.
  • I had a hard time getting over C’s being acceptable to these people. Wow. I mean, even D’s seem to be what some aim for.
  • You can easily separate students who do not try and those who do by seeing who talks to you. If they continually ask for help, and tell you they are trying the things you are suggesting (with proof, like flash cards or something), that is effort. And, they will not get an F. It is illogical that they can try and still fail that badly.

9. Several students dropped at the beginning of the semester. Is it me???

  • No. I use to think it was. But they don’t even know you yet. They signed up thinking they had a blow-off class and realized it isn’t. Or, they signed up to too many classes and had to cancel one. Or, they were on a waitlist for the class they really wanted, and finally got in. Etc, etc, etc.
  • In fact, I use to try to keep students in my class. My naivety assured me that if I could just help them, and they could just try, they can pass the class! Then I realized that some students know themselves better than I do. They know they will not do what it takes. Let them go.

10. What excuses are considered excused absences?

  • Personal choice. My opinions vary much differently than many of my own teachers. But I think this is because I was out in the so-called “real world” for a long long time, while most professors stay within Academia since they entered its doors as undergraduates. I went to a college where school was second to full-time jobs and family responsibilities. I get it – life happens whether it works with your semester schedule or not. For me, punishing students who have outside responsibilities pisses me off because I was one of those students. Instead, I believe these students – who are being responsible, mind you – need more support to get through college than someone who doesn’t have outside responsibilities. It is really easy to have perfect attendance when you do not have a job, a mortgage, or a family. Duh.
  • I write in the syllabus that it is only University approved matters, or things arranged with me prior to their absence. And these things, for me, must be something I would have missed class for. And, with proof. “I got called into work.” Ok – show me some sign of your time sheet. “I will need to take my sister to the airport.” Ok – show me a selfie with the terminal screen that has the day/time. “I was sick” – show me a note (I hate this one because I never went to the doctor myself, but this one is way too easy to fake otherwise). “I had a funeral to attend” – show me the memo card (I hate that! So uncouth to ask for proof of a dead loved one but what can you do?). “I had car troubles” – well those troubles better have resulted in a receipt (which I also hate, but again, too easy to fake).
  • Of course, I am more lenient on good students. Is that fair? I dunno, I guess it depends on how you determine what “good” is. I do not mean A+ students. I mean engaged students who are objectively putting effort into the class. It is a system that works for me.
  • Sometimes I ask students to do a small assignment to make up for it. Something simple, like finding a current news article and writing about how it pertains to class, or something. Be adaptive to whatever happens.

11. I was only going to have one class this semester which I spent all summer prepping. Then, the week before classes started, I was told I would have another type of class to teach, so I am freaking out trying to get it ready. Then, when the semester actually started, I only have one class.

  • Welcome to adjuncting.

I’ve also had to learn how to teach the same subject in a number of different ways: twice a week (1 hour 15 minute classes), three times a week (50 minute classes), once a week (2 hours and 30 minutes), twice a week in the summer (3 hours each), and online (random hours as needed). It’s a mind game, especially when trying to do two different kinds in one semester!

I’ve realized that I do not dislike teaching, but I do dislike adjuncting. Separating the two is a little confusing, I admit, and took me a while to figure out for myself (and is not the fault of any of the departments I work for). Some universities have a less wonky system than others, and some states have gone as far as having adjunct unions. A quick web search will show you that there is a nationwide problem that does not seem to be getting addressed. To summarize what I’ve read on the topic:

  • Enrollment seems to be low no matter where you are in the country, which greatly leads to last minute changes in scheduling.
  • Schools are allowing their full-time professors (with all the great benefits) to retire without replacing them with new full-timers.
  • They are hiring adjuncts (with zero benefits or job security) in their place.
  • These adjuncts now increasingly need to hold PhDs in order to compete.
  • (This prospect, of getting my PhD to only be an adjunct anyway, is one of the reasons the time and investment of a PhD is not on my plate right now.)
  • Without incentive of benefits or permanent positions, adjuncts move around a lot, not investing in any one university.
  • Without better pay or benefits, adjuncts often work second jobs outside of academia, or hold many positions across many campuses. Thus, they are not investing in the universities as much as they would probably like to anyway because their time is spent in other endeavors or commuting.
  • This is all bad news bears. Un-invested teachers lead to un-invested students and un-invested programs.
  • The internet talk urges for change, but no one has an answer. Universities continue to cut budgets (a problem for faculty). Tuition fees are being raised (a problem for students). (All the while, apparently, they are paying higher in administration salaries.) Times are tough, yeah?
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  1. […] She has her own blog australopithechic, where she describes her professional adventures. This recent post in particular, partially inspired by my own entry into this profession, has a lot of great […]

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