Adjunct Adjustments

When searching for new sections to teach at new colleges, it's important for contingent faculty to show they can customize a syllabus for a new institution, writes Luke Niebler.

July 24, 2013

Across the country, many adjuncts have found their hours reduced in anticipation of the Affordable Care Act. Meanwhile, department heads need to hire more adjuncts in order to make up for the reduced adjunct hours. This means that countless contingent academics will begin peddling our classes at multiple colleges and universities in order to make ends meet.

On paper, most of these instructors will be teaching the same introductory course that they’ve been teaching for years (English 101, World History, Pre-Algebra), but with a new student body and in a new department. In most cases, this means that you have to change your syllabus to reflect a new set of academic, social, and administrative standards. Properly adapting your syllabus will not only impress new department heads who are making hiring decisions, but will also allow you to adjust your pedagogy for new student bodies.

Of course, this process isn’t limited to adjuncts. All educators have to adjust their syllabuses each semester. However, moving between colleges during the same semester represents a unique challenge and opportunity for adjuncts. Having taught at three institutions of higher learning in the past three years, including a community college and a research university, I relate to this challenge. It’s more than just tweaking assignments and using a new book.

Here’s how to do it.

Talk to other instructors.

It’s essential to understand how the troops on the ground actually teach a class at a given college or university. For all of the high-minded language of course goals and standard outlines, different institutions will emphasize certain learning outcomes.

For example, at my community college, I discovered that the second-level writing course often incorporates a lot of literature, while the four-year college that I teach at focuses strictly on academic research. Both styles offer a significant amount of freedom for an instructor, but in different areas; you need to know how other instructors teach the course.

Know your administrators and secretaries.

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for contingent faculty to have a good working relationship with department secretaries and administrators! They often have an amazing knowledge of how the department really works, whom to talk to when you have problems, and what resources are available to you. Additionally, most department secretaries collect course syllabuses each term, which gives them a deep understanding of how years of instructors have taught the same class.

Use the textbook, but don’t let the textbook use you.

Textbooks often reflect a long process of evaluation and selection for a particular program of study. At colleges that employ many adjunct instructors with little or no orientation, the textbooks can also provide strong connection between sections of the same course. It may be annoying to have to adjust your syllabus to a new composition reader, or teach the same material in a different order, but it can definitely promote student learning and keep you in good graces with a department chair who may happen to believe only one textbook does the job.

That said, don’t throw out the baby with your old copy of Rules for Writers. Bringing in your favorite lesson plan, or a new way of thinking about the subject will engage students more than following any book.

Talk to your students.

It’s all well and good to get the party line from your department head and coworkers, but students often have a particular insight into the inner workings of a college. Yes, the math department thinks that the $2 million tutoring café will transform student learning. However, a quick chat with your class may reveal that the majority of students don’t even know where it’s located. Familiarizing yourself with local knowledge, traditions, and subcultures will help you personalize your syllabus so you don’t accidentally assign a major essay over a weekend when the student body is partying.

Every college has different divisions and cultures that impact how students learn. For example, the community college I work at has a strong nursing program full of students who have been working in the field for a long time. They are used to a professional environment with clear expectations, goals, and deadlines.

These students tend to be mature, self-directed learners. Meanwhile, the four-year university that I work at is known for its performing arts program. These students are used to working long hours on projects that require critical thought, but are more successful when I divide large projects into smaller, more directed assignments.

Prepare for failure.

This is one of the hardest tasks for any instructor, but it’s important when we move material between contexts. A lesson plan that works beautifully at a community college class of adult learners may fall flat in a room full of fresh-faced 18-year-olds.

In my first composition class at the four-year college at which I teach, I brought James Paul Gee’s essay "What Is Literacy?" in order to introduce students to the idea of discourse. It was a lesson plan that I had successfully taught to five sections at the local community college, and I was proud of the conversations around language, identity, power, and community that it brought out of my students. At the four-year university, I had two days of discussion slated for the article. We finished it in 40 minutes.

Most of my students at the community college had just returned to education after years (or decades) of work, child rearing, and military service. While they needed time to dig through the difficult academic language, they also had navigated power structures and discourses intimately and intelligently. Suddenly, among recent, high school graduates, I wasn’t prepared for students who could get the surface meaning of the article right away, but had a harder time connecting it to their lives.

Since then, I always try to have a secondary activity prepared for every new lesson plan that I teach. That’s not to say that I’m a lesson plan overachiever with two lessons prepared for each day. Instead, I like to keep a video handy that relates to each lesson but isn’t essential for the assignments. This can help redirect the course when a lesson goes awry.

What other techniques help you edit a course syllabus for new schools or contexts?


Luke Niebler is an English adjunct working wherever he can in Pittsburgh.


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