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From Out of the Shadows

From Out of the Shadows
May 11, 2011

The advice started coming in, unbidden.

“Take the course -- if you just want to teach it for the money,” said one well-meaning friend.

“Teach it, but don’t put it on your vita,” said another.

Shrouded in such wishes, I agreed to teach a hybrid course for a local for-profit college in need of a last-minute instructor. I actually had made the decision before my friends’ input, a few minutes after I got the call from the school. I raised the prospect of the course with my friends gently, not to elicit unguarded quotations to use in an opinion piece but rather because I know a strong anti-for-profit sentiment pervades some circles.

I did not need anyone’s counsel, really. Although I may like to get input on thornier decisions, this one was an intuitive yes.

I have taught writing -- off the tenure track but for many years -- at a moderately selective liberal arts school and subsequently at other private institutions, a large state university, a community college and in the work place as a continuing education instructor. I have had jobs outside of universities, often writing or editing.

When I got the phone call from the for-profit, I felt the concern in the secretary’s voice and I wanted to help. Furthermore, I wanted to experience for myself both what it’s like in the classroom -- and in an online course management program -- at a school in the heart of a struggling urban area, a school whose category is sometimes maligned by others. Plus, the opportunity appeared during a semester when my expected course load at other schools had been reduced due to enrollment declines. I might add that, due to my own personal experience, the words “for-profit” do not conjure up demonic images for me.

I attended a small, privately owned “business school” at age 17, which equipped me with skills that allowed me to be self-supporting within one year. Small classes gave me confidence after a difficult adolescence. Several years later I attended college, and those skills learned earlier were a factor in getting a job as a academic secretary in an English department. I can type, handle basic bookkeeping and write grammatically. Admittedly, the fine art of filing never quite stuck.

The owner of that school had been a high school math teacher who -- as he told me -- grew tired of coping with bureaucracy. Despite the risks, he ventured out on his own, hired his own teachers, designed his classes and taught his way. I will never forget him.

I suspected that the pace of the English review class at the for-profit would be fast, and I was not disappointed. I figured that students would be of varying levels of confidence with the course management system (on which I had been trained in the previous semester). I expected a blend of all ages and life experiences, including U.S. military veterans. And yes, students hoped to follow a vocational trajectory, even as liberal arts courses were offered.

There was also an interesting trait I can best describe as no-nonsense coupled with fear of failure. Some students had lives of considerable, prior struggle. Above all, in class they listened, asked questions, and were engaged with the course and with one another. Those that stayed focused and productive passed; those who were spotty attenders and did not submit work failed. The intimate class size (under 10) made it a rewarding setting in which to communicate more completely with each student.

All in all, that stretch early this year proved to be an exhilarating eight weeks for me, and I was rehired for another term now over, teaching a survey of literature. I used all the skills in my teaching repertoire, and students were respectful, motivated, and eager to learn.

Some people do not understand what motivates adjuncts to teach at all -- or, in some cases, to teach so much. I taught a 6-6 load this year, wrote monthly for a business publication, and tutored. This amount of work does not comprise a part-time job; it is a vocation.

One popular media narrative focuses only on economic desperation. I sigh whenever I read the verb “cobble” in journalists’ accounts -- as in “cobble together a living driving from school to school.” Who started this epidemic of cobbling? Given a choice of trades, I am a weaver, arranging courses and curriculums each term. Weaving classes is not a random, sloppy, or frantic process -- though there are weeks that anyone would groan under the load.

News accounts of studies notwithstanding, it has not been my experience that I drive students away. I know few adjuncts who do. In fact, positive class response keeps many of us in a profession where we get little recognition from other sources. We may not be part of the loop in major campus decisions or discussions -- or on the radar of the average person with no connection to colleges or universities -- but we touch our students’ minds, and they touch ours.

I rediscovered this term that students at for-profits are burdened with the same life circumstances and graced with the same hope and potential as others. There is nothing second-rate about their desire to learn and advance. I wish there was more open dialogue on issues that span all institutions: retention, application of knowledge in other settings, interdisciplinary collaboration, default on student loans. Perhaps I wish this because, as an adjunct, I do get a bird’s-eye view.

One night at the for-profit when we were discussing a reading on education, several class members began an impromptu digression, sharing stories about other institutions they had attended. Whether instructors were full-time or part-time at these schools, some students remembered what they described as painful rejections -- of their writing, of even their presence in the classroom. I don’t write this to judge other teachers, merely to reflect that students of all economic standings, backgrounds and ages want to be heard and respected, challenged and supported.

The same holds for teachers. No one wants to teach -- anywhere or for any length of time -- where being unappreciated or ignored is the norm. Conditions of mutual support and conducive to creativity can be fostered (or destroyed) in almost any setting. Thus, I marvel at the good/bad, right/wrong, strong school/weak school rhetoric that swirls around me as both teacher and parent.

With a high schooler of my own approaching his first year of college (at about the same age that I was in business school), I despair at the highly charged (in every sense) environment around “the college choice.” I thought a viable college choice was partly due to goodness of fit and partly what one makes of any choice.

Occasionally when communicating with fellow adjunct faculty members across the country, even the world, I have been admonished not to say or to write that “I love to teach” -- as if affirming that will undermine attempts at improved compensation, respect or professional stability. But I doubt that “I hate to teach” or “I’m an adjunct, so I’m likely hampering retention rates” would be more likely to effect change. If I believed those mantras, I would leave the profession.

The emotional domain is a powerful pathway, and I could not teach if I didn’t have a passion for students, learning, the writing process and expressing myself. This passion is portable.

Even at the for-profit?

Yes, I loved that, too.

Bio

Maria Shine Stewart teaches and writes in South Euclid, Ohio.

 

 

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