Let’s Let Them Talk Amongst Themselves

I’m not sure where the idea came from, but I decided to try something new with the class discussion in my class last night. Normally, I would stand in front of the class or gather them in a circle and try to pull (sometimes, it seemed, with brute force) conversation out of them. However, I decided that I didn’t want to do that last night. Instead, I decided to write each of the discussion questions that I typically bring to a class discussion on the whiteboard. Then, I announced to the class that they would be responsible for the class discussion for the evening.

My only role was to be an observer and, if need be, moderator (keeping an eye on that student who chimes in too often). I also told them that each of them should contribute to the conversation at least twice over the course of the next hour and that I would track those contributions for class participation.I wasn’t sure exactly how well this would work, but I’m always willing to give something a shot. So, I did. What I found was very encouraging. My students (this particular class happens to be infamous for its lack of engagement and effort) rose to the occasion, and for the most part, dug in deep. My goal was to get them to engage in critical thinking and critical discussion rather than passively taking information from me–something I had noticed they attempt too often.

I did notice that they still looked to me for comformation that they were on the right track, and they seldom looked around at their peers. I’d appreciate any feedback on how I might help my students build on one another’s commentary more deeply. It often felt that the commentary that came from one student was not built upon the previous student’s opinion. Instead, it seems like my students were mostly focused on planning their ideas rather than listening to the points of others. Of course, this is a problem with conversationalists in general, not something unique to my students.

As a result of this, I noticed that it was often hard for me to just let them go; I often saw occasions where we could take particular point that one of my students made and dig in deeper with it, but I had to force myself to bite my tongue and not take control back.
Overall, I feel like this activity was a great step towards building great conversations amongst critical thinkers rather than passive observers, which is a major goal for me, as a teacher. I’d like to work on this approach more, I think I will try it again with my Monday night class–a group that is far more talkative, but who tend to struggle with moving beyond surface level observations.

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Drawing the Line in the Sand

I’ve been continuing to enjoy my reading of The Adjunct Professor’s Guide to Success for the most part. The chapters I have read, since I last posted have primarily been review for me, since they mostly discuss securing an adjunct position and oriented yourself with the college or university that hires you. The chapter I’m currently finishing up discusses the nature of the 21st century student.

The chapter identifies the complexity of the life and learning challenges of both traditional and nontraditional students. Much of the authors’ discussion is quite successful in reminding me that many of my students are facing challenges that, thankfully, I was not forced to encounter during my undergraduate (or graduate) career. Some are working full-time; some have children; some are overcoming learning difficulties; some are coming back after years away from academics, etc. It is good to remember these situations that impact our student. I believe it is important to remember that each student is an interesting individual with a specific set of challenges, fears, strengths and beliefs.

However, how much should we let our understanding of the challenges they face impact our instruction? This line is one I have been having trouble deciding where to draw. For example, in Lyons et al’s book they explain that “given the nature of your students’ lifestyles, you can assume some common problems will inevitably affect your classroom: tardiness, absence, being ill-prepared for some examinations, occasional lack of focus, and perhaps other. Rather than becoming upset and taking punitive action, we suggest you plan for the situations and build a solution into the design of the course. For example, since students will occasionally be late from work or family obligations, we suggest you minimize the impact of their tardy entry into your classroom by reserving a section in the room for late-arrivers. Should you find, several weeks into the course, that the overwhelming majority of the class is a few minutes late, you might delay the beginning of the class ten minutes and reduce the length of your break by a commensurate amount of time” (40).

I always ask late arrivals to take a seat close to the door, and I also ask those leaving early to use a seat by the door. However, should I make global changes to my course in response to my students’ lack of ability to better plan for their courses? Many students have complained to me about a number of issues causing them to not be able to complete the work (“I’ve been at work all day.” “My son was sick.” “My husband was sick.” “My book was in my Jeep when it rained last night and its too wet to read.” Etc.) Should I decrease the work load to accommodate the class’s outside lives or should I expect students to be responsible for the work since they knew it was a three credit college course and simply let it go? Should I change the time my class begins despite the fact that teach student knew the time they were signing up for before the first day of class?

As a teacher, it is my responsibility to make sure I schedule myself into courses that I can allow myself enough time to devote myself to and to arrive on time for and to stay the entire period. I know that I have agreed to these things when I consent to take a course for the semester and that I have an obligation to the students to hold up my side of the bargain. I too face exterior problems and conflicts. But I am held required (by myself and the university) to keep my word and do as my contract dictates I will. Should I not expect the same of my students? Regardless of maturity level or degree of outside pressures, each student should know what they are signing up for when they register. They should have that factor reiterated by reviewing my syllabus. It is my duty to make my expectations and the workload of the course clear to them through the syllabus. Beyond that, where do I draw the line? These students are adults—albeit, in many cases, young adults, but adults nonetheless. What is being sensitive to their needs and what is simply holding their hands?

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Checking the Price Tag

A week or so ago, while I was perusing the library catalog, I found, what seemed to be just the book I had been looking for. It’s The Adjunct Professor’s Guide to Success by Richard E. Lyons, Marcella L. Kysika and George E. Pawlas. Essentially, this book is designed to prepare the first-time adjunct for their first teaching assignment. In many ways, the book is geared towards those instructors who are experts in the workplace, who for sundry reasons decide to pursue part-time teaching position. Nevertheless, I have found the text to be extremely helpful thus far (I am currently only a fourth of the way through).

For example, one suggestion that the authors make is to “take a moment to calculate the pay on an hourly basis and the nonmonetary benefits you believe you will receive from teaching. Factor in the hours of preparation you will need to invest outside of class (especially for the initial teaching assignment) and any additional costs, such as travel, that you will incur. If the financial and potential psychological rewards do not outweigh the costs, terminate your pursuit of adjunct teaching, or at least delay it until the inherent limitations become acceptable” (24).

I like this suggestion quite a bit. Focusing purely upon the monetary gains for the position, I have found that I am receiving a more suitable compensation rate than I first thought. I currently teach 9 credits. I assume one hour of prep time for every hour I teach—thus, 18 total hours per week. When I calculate my hourly rate based on these figures, I find that I am actually being compensated at a rate approximately 25% more than the hourly rate I receive from my other part-time job. Not too bad.

Granted, my teaching position carries with it much more heartache (have you ever taught a concept all night, only to find out 20 minutes before the end of class that most of your class checked out mentally two hours ago?). It certainly drains me more—physically and emotionally—and my mind is much more likely to be occupied with thoughts of my curriculum and students, when I’m outside of the classroom, than my mind tends to be absorbed in thoughts of my other job. Regardless, the pay per hour actually spent prepping and teaching actually isn’t too shabby. It won’t pay the bills by itself, but a little perspective on it goes a long way.

Also, the nonmonetary gains that I take from teaching far outweigh those that I take from my 9-5 (really a 7-3). Overall, I don’t feel as if my day job makes much of a difference—neither to the world around me or my psychological fulfillment. However, I feel my teaching does make a difference. I feel fulfilled by teaching because I see change in my students’ abilities. I see students who barely speak the language enter my classroom (I teach writing, primarily), and six months later, I assign a grade to a student who has identified their weaknesses and is taking great steps towards eliminating them. My students grow and change in my classes. The learn about themselves and about the world around them. They stop taking things for face value and learn to question what the world throws at them. They are not mindless consumers when they leave my class, they are critical thinkers. My students thank me for giving them confidence and appreciate my wiliness to help them learn. These things I cannot put a price on.

I feel like I make a difference when I teach. That’s what makes me face the challenges that come with the job. The day I stop making a difference, will be the day I let myself full-heartedly apply for those technical writing or editing jobs, which one rather obnoxious professor once assured me were the only things “worth” doing.

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Hear ye, Hear ye!

With all the joys that naturally come from teaching, a multitude of challenges also develop. As a Graduate Teaching Assistant, I faced these challenges with a certain degree of confidence that I have yet to rediscover as an Adjunct Instructor. As a GTA, I had a social network of like-minded teachers—the other GTAs. We could turn to one another to discuss problem students, to pool lesson plan ideas, and to generally encourage one another. In addition, the graduate program assigned each of us a teaching mentor whom we met with at least once a week—mine, luckily, had an office about two doors down from my own.

As an adjunct instructor, I experience nothing like this. I do not have an office to myself, instead there are shared areas where all instructors from the division can meet with students or talk with one another. This office arrangement would be tolerable if the schedule from my other part-time job afforded me time to visit it. As a result, I have only met a handful of other instructors (adjunct or otherwise) and each of them only once or twice. I have an adjunct mentor figure (called, much to my dismay, my “buddy”) but again, scheduling conflicts prevent us from seeing one another.

My point here is not to complain about the wildly over amplified problems with adjunct teaching. There are plenty of resources out there that do a fine job in making such complaints. Instead, I aim here to devise ways to overcome the challenges I face in my new teaching environment. It is my hope that I can find a community of fellow adjuncts and develop a teaching network that would allow us to pull together, despite distance and schedule conflicts.

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