My First Article for the GC Advocate:
Considering the frequency and urgency of articles across both academic publications and, although less so, public news sources warning students not to go to graduate school, it would be ignorant of me not to ask myself why I am entering my first year of a humanities doctoral program at CUNY. I do not have a trust fund or a stable supplemental income, therefore I am the prime target of these authors. However, I am not entering into this solely for the love of reading or with the naive belief that I will land the perfect tenure track job at MLA while finishing the last pages of my dissertation. My masters program prepared me and trained me for the current reality. The teaching in two year colleges internship and certificate program at DePaul University in Chicago gave me the practical knowledge, mentorship, and experience needed to enter the workforce with an M.A., and that is exactly what I did. Within two weeks of graduation I was offered classes as an adjunct instructor at seven different colleges in Pennsylvania. As perhaps some of you are aware, most colleges only allow adjuncts to teach two or three sections a semester, so I taught the maximum possible: three schools, two classes at each school, and over 120 students. Most people call this insanity. However, despite the hardships I faced as a freeway flyer, it was the best experience of my life.
To be clear, I am not supporting the abuse and exploitation of adjuncts, because it is the students who suffer from the working conditions of the contingent work force in higher education. However, for a twenty-something without a family to support, teaching a plethora of classes at multiple institutions was a rewarding and informative process that led to immense personal and professional development. The learning curve was steep. First, there was the culture shock of moving from Chicago to a middle-of-nowhere coal mining town that inspired a satirical representation as the setting of a factious paper supply company office. My quick commute on the Chicago El train was replaced with a forty-minute commute through the mountains navigating the constantly under construction highways to make class times that were barely an hour apart. This only intensified the fact that I was lost in a world of prepping and teaching three different courses.
A lot of ink has been spilt on why teaching your own course for the first time is terrifying. In m first semester as an adjunct I was faced with constructing three composition courses, a remedial writing course, and an Early American Literature course on three different campuses with three different sets of departmental requirements and guidelines. It was impossible to hide my performance anxiety. Dr. Laurie McMillian, the interim chair at the university where I was teaching a variety of courses, gave me some sensible advice: “You don’t need to reinvent the wheel.” She was right. Even though I had not taken an Early American Literature class since undergrad, and had never taught from a grammar-based workbook, I did have training in the classroom. I was not only armed with the wisdom garnered from the articles on pedagogy by Bartholomae, Murray, Lunsford, and Elbow that I devoured in my coursework at DePaul, but I also discovered brilliant blogs such as Prof.Hacker, which offer practical approaches to teaching in today’s technologically advanced classrooms. To my dismay, many tenets of the teaching philosophy I composed were replaced by realistic approaches to the limits of my students. I quickly realized that my idealistic notion of assigning dozens of novels was absurd. Not only did I need to teach from an anthology, I also needed to search for the cheapest one available. The chairs who hired me were more than willing to provide me with sample syllabi and desk copies of potential textbooks, which I enthusiastically spent the summer annotating and analyzing until I had composed my course outlines. So even though my color-coded filing system complete with traveling filing cabinet failed, I learned two key tools for success: first, most department heads want their faculty to succeed and many schools have resources for new teachers, and, second, technology can help you conquer the classroom.
As a born digital Jerome McGann groupie, my proclivity for technology informs the central doctrine of my political approach to teaching. I strongly believe we should be teaching students technological skills across the disciplines. But as many of you are aware, finding support for digital endeavors is unbelievably frustrating, if not infuriating. I needed to build six courses on three separate LMS formats, and due to the bureaucracy of human resources, I had very little time to orient myself with the systems. My inquires about faculty workshops were met by a middle-aged woman in a kitten sweatshirt and Crocs who printed out the 400 page Moodle manual and handed it to me – single sided. Clearly, I was on my own. The sink-or-swim style of survival actually benefitted me greatly. I was forced to teach myself how to build an online course and navigate various models of smart classrooms, and those skills have saved me every semester. The freedom of paperless grading is essential to my success as a freeway flyer. My wrath for the Windows operating systems aside, Track Changes can be a powerful teaching tool and an advantageous agent for managing hundreds of students’ papers. After coming to terms with the snide responses from anti-tech colleagues, I found a community of like-minded professionals online who nurtured my desire to present students with the digital tools that are redefining the education system.
Aside from navigating virtual worlds, adapting to the office culture of three different schools was a daily challenge. At times, this was a scary and hostile world. These encounters often made me question my desire to pursue my doctoral degree. Luckily, the faculty members who were kind, enthusiastic, and welcoming far overshadowed these ill-spirited apparitions. Three of my colleagues invited me to join a panel at CEA last spring, giving me the opportunity to present at a conference with funding from our university. One of those professors, a CUNY alumnus, encouraged me to apply to this program and advised me through the application process. Despite a significant age gap, I fostered great friendships with my fellow faculty, and these are important professional relationships that will be fruitful throughout my career. I learned to constantly contact the chairs of each department, keeping them abreast not only of my triumphs, but also my concerns in the classroom, and the result was a steady supply of courses each semester. Even when an unprecedented drop in spring enrollment devastated the region, my chairs fought to give me at least one course. I was not only a teacher to my students, but also a student to my fellow teachers. On the same note, my administrative assistants were possibly the most vital resource during my time as an adjunct. There is no possible way to manage copy quotas, departmental meetings, registrar deadlines, campus calendars and grading procedures without them. If there is one valuable piece of advice I can share, it is to respect your office managers. They can and will rescue you when all else fails.
I have to admit, there were times when I thought I was going to fail. Upon reading the writing samples of my composition students in Northeastern Pennsylvania, I thought that there was nothing I could teach them. Unlike the overtly diverse, street smart, low-income population of the urban community college in Chicago where I had interned, the students in these rural suburbs seemed privileged, homogenous, and apathetic. Their diagnostic essays were polished and organized, with clear thesis statements, and well constructed support. However, one truism echoed across the pages: the students professed their abhorrence of writing. Since the majority of the students came from the surrounding towns, they had all been educated in Pennsylvania public schools wrought with corruption (Google NEPA teacher kickbacks). They complained of inadequate teachers who only provided exercises designed to help them obtain high scores on the PSSA tests. Each of their essays was a formulaic replica of the last without any personality or creativity expressed within the well constructed lines. I did not need to teach them basic writing skills, they needed to find their voices. We worked on using critical thinking skills to develop opinions on controversial current events. We debated, defined terms, and read newspaper articles. They challenged me to change my approach to composition. I adjusted not only the course objectives, but the assignments every semester to meet the needs of that particular student population.
The hundreds of students who sat in front of me each day taught me more than any textbook ever could. Unfortunately, it is from the extreme cases, the “bad” students, that I have learned the most. In my first semester of teaching I had a remedial writing class. I was privy to the scores they received on a very basic grammar test, and all of the students had missed more than 50% of the questions. When the first full length paper from one freshman football recruit came back practically perfect, I knew I was in for a fight. As he slouched back in my office chair, headphones blaring, no books or pens in tow, he mumbled something about his coach “helping” him write his paper. With his arms folded and sunglasses on, his coach declared to me, without guilt or regret, that his facilitation was acceptable because it was the student’s ideas, but he had put them on paper. I was outraged. My chair informed me that this was not unusual, and that the most I could do was fail him on that assignment. The administration did not remove him from the class, nor did they suspend him from play. This Division III school made athletics a higher priority than academic integrity. The next semester a student forged an e-mail from me and delivered it to academic services as proof that I was changing her grade from a D to a B. When the director called me with the student and her mother in her office demanding the grade change, I laughed. My outrage was replaced by confidence in my documentation of this student’s work through my online course site. Although I defended my position, this girl paid tuition, therefore she remains a student in that university despite this astonishing act of academic dishonestly. These are the realities of academia today.
The most radical realization about how the private university system works came from a student in my most recent summer composition course. Her diagnostic was at the lowest level I had ever seen in a college classroom. From what I could abstract from her remarkably poor writing was that she was a foreign student who had transferred from a large public school to take this class for the third time. Her ESL issues seemed beyond my ability to address, especially considering the high level of writing I received from the other students in the class, even those from her country of origin. I contacted my chair and international student services to assist me in providing supplemental support for her. Since this was a summer class on a compressed schedule, by the time a representative from the school had assessed her situation, the student had handed in an obviously plagiarized paper. The chair of my department said he had never seen such blatant plagiarism, and that he would fully support my decision to fail her. However, the representative wanted to speak with the student to ensure it was intentional plagiarism and not simply a misunderstanding due to cultural differences. During that conversation the student confessed that she had not taken the TOEFL exam and did not believe herself to be capable of composing a paper without outside help. Even after this stunning admission, the representative warned me that the student would not be removed from my course because the university did not want to damage its relationship with the embassy. When she failed the next assignment, she promised me that she would revise it and declared her dedication to my class, while at the same time threatening academic services that she would tell her embassy that the university treated foreign students unfairly. Further investigation revealed that the student had falsified not only her test scores, but also her address and sponsorship information. Now it was my integrity that was being questioned, and I was forced to use every resource at my disposal to ensure that neither my standing nor the standards of my classroom would be jeopardized any further. While in the previous cases I conceded to the pressure from the administration, this time, I held my ground.
I know tenure track jobs are scarce. I have read the dozens of articles and hundreds of comments that demoralize those going into graduate studies in the humanities. To the naysayers I ask, “Who will be teaching your children some day?” I do not believe, as the cynical ABD once proclaimed, “That a monkey can teach composition.” If you are disgusted by the injustices I have described, then consider that we need highly educated, well trained professors in our universities. It is not for some lofty love of literature that I dream will manifest itself into a million dollar book deal that I am in graduate school. Despite earning under the poverty line, without benefits, as an adjunct, I refuse to retreat back to the world of public relations where I could have a high paying “real job.” I am dedicated to enacting the change necessary to ensure your children will LEARN. The students in my classroom will not be given grades in exchange for performance on the field or tuition checks paid in full. I am here at CUNY pursuing my path to a PhD because of my time as an adjunct. To my fellow students, I ask “Why are you here?” The day will come when the lack of funding demands that you adjunct, and upon graduation it is statistically proven that you will spend time outside the tenure system, so take this time and explore the world of teaching. That is why I am here. I want to teach. Do you?