Add-Junk or Instructor?

A long-time adjunct evaluates non-tenure-track jobs based in part on how much control you have over the curriculum -- and explains why the issue is crucial.

July 6, 2009

Whenever Hollywood considers university instruction, it almost always presents cool, edgy professors presenting paradigm-shifting ideas to engaged and attractive students. Barbra Streisand lectured with passionate intensity on literary patriarchy in The Mirror Has Two Faces, Dennis Quaid in the DOA remake made the tenure process lethal, and even Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones’s students seemed enthralled in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The real world, or at least as close to the real world as academe gets, is often much less cinematic, less flashy and, sadly, not edited as well. It is even worse for adjuncts, for whom the script is often not their own. The adjunct, even more than non-contingent faculty members, often teaches materials that are departmentally mandated, chosen or required. So, how does an adjunct deal with teaching materials over which she has no control?

As contingent faculty, you will have various levels of control over your material. The best of positions will let you practice your expertise with merely a pre-semester submission of your syllabus, book list, etc. These are rare and precious posts. Guard them well.

Most likely, you will have the opportunity to “facilitate” a course whose materials have been centrally chosen (even if that central “committee” is the individual department chair). This facilitation will, unless you are working for a particular university from the Southwest (Arizona), allow you some measure of latitude in which to exercise your creative expertise. You will be allowed to supplement with your own lectures (sometimes), exercises, tests, etc., but usually only to a point. That is, once you have passed the period of observation/probation, you may be able to begin compiling the course materials around your own methods, practices and convictions. These are the not-so rare and precious posts, but they are tolerable. Once you wait out your time, you should be able to pass through the velvet ropes into the Instructor Club, where the music swells, the select few chat and the vibe is pleasant. You will be in charge of your own class.

Then there are those positions where you only facilitate; you do not deviate. The materials are rigidly controlled for “quality,” which means that they are disseminated from a central source, your activities are well monitored, and you will be judged on the quality, quantity and substance of your classroom interaction, which may not sound like it deviates from the norm, but you should keep in mind the nature, tone and tenor of the rubric under which you are being judged. You will use only the approved materials, in the sequence dictated (sometimes even down to the minute), with a customer-pleasing smile. You will be handed a “course packet” with all the materials you need to facilitate with a smile, and you will not be allowed to move outside the rubric the department sets for all its adjuncts. In this case, you will be a marginally paid presenter.

You are, in these positions, stopping just short of asking the students if they would like fries with your grades. Run from these positions. They are not teaching. They are not worth the effort to acclimate into the climate. They will rob you of your individual teaching skill and undermine your confidence in your area of study. If I am still not being clear, do not work for an institution where you have no control over the curriculum. You are an educated mind. You would be better served to wait tables (and probably make more) than to lobotomize yourself for the glory of adjuncting.

Assuming you have landed an adjunct job where you can at least inject some of your own approaches into courses, choose to make the materials as much your own as possible. If you are given a class master set of materials, rewrite them. Take the time, put yourself into the material, even if you are adjusting only the layout. Write the quiz questions, map out the arc of the written assignments, engage the awful material that you wouldn’t have chosen in a million years as if it were your own. Then slowly move it to your own, gradually, semester-by-successful semester. Look for spaces where you can inform, adjust or insert your experience, your approach, your pedagogy, your Self into your materials.

A personal example is in order: There are two basic ways to teach composition. The first is to pair the writing assignments with the reading of literature, most often Canonical. The second is to focus on the Process/steps of writing. There are some, to make a third, who mix the two. My preference, through my years of experience, moves me toward the non-literature method. I don’t think that a composition class can take on both the act of Reading and Writing in one semester, especially if that class is online. I wouldn’t say that it can’t be done, but not very well by me.

One of my colleges presented an “instructor pack” of materials, which included the short story “Once More to the Lake” by E. B. White. The story chronicles the narrator’s journey back to a childhood vacation spot with his own son, which brings out a sudden and intense realization of his own mortality. The last sentence brings this awareness:

"I watched him, his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he pulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment. As he buckled the swollen belt suddenly my groin felt the chill of death."

My online discussion, after serious prompts encouraging the students to continue through the often florid and meandering prose, was ultimately derailed when one confused student asked, “So, the Dad felt like dying when the cold water racked him? Weird.”

Realizing that a rather long, and way-too creatively-interpreted discussion of testicular flight was not the most socially appropriate way to teach style and grammar, I worked to get that reading assignment moved out of the syllabus. I finally reasoned that the comments demonstrated student engagement moving in the wrong direction. Luckily I was working at an institution that allowed deviation from the master class set, and I changed my course materials to move department-mandated pieces of work

No, the current plight of the adjunct professoriate may not align with cinematic ideals of teaching, but with effort and the right administrative structure, you can ease the material into a course that works for both you and your students.

You can be Indiana Jones, whose passion and intensity captivates his class… just leave the whip at home.


Piss Poor Prof is the pseudonym of the blogger Burnt-Out Adjunct. His adjuncting numbers: 11 years, 9 institutions, almost 100 classes, 3 platforms, every conceivable course structure (lecture, online, hybrid, etc.), thousands of students.


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