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Adjunct Survival

August 3, 2009

The adjunct life is full of hard choices: Will my semesters of service pay off with an offer for a more secure position? Will my classes pay enough to justify my commute? Will the six nameplates on my cubby-hole/office door flag me for instant student disrespect? In the adjunct world, decisions are precious because they are few. You often live from class offer to class offer, semester to semester, taking what you can get. You apply to lots of colleges hoping that a few will have work for you.

There are times, in the adjunct “career” when one may be compelled to teach in unnatural teaching situations. Because department schedules are often not set until the week before the semester starts, it is difficult, if not an outright gamble, to arrange the perfect teaching schedule — “perfect” stretching into a very wide semantic spectrum.

I had the (un)fortunate experience to receive offers, one Winter semester, from all four colleges to which I had applied. Not having any steady work, I told myself to “make hay while the day was good” or some such from the Grandfather/advice voice in my head, and I accepted all 10 sections. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

It should go without saying that before you accept a class section, you have done the math and figured out if you are able to meet the minimal time requirements (prep, in class, grading) to successfully teach it. I did not perform this task. I jumped right in, thinking that the extra money would really be nifty, especially with the relatively lax summer class schedule to follow. Perhaps I could go crazy and purchase some health insurance for my spouse and daughter. I could go all out.

There is a definite point when you realize that you have seriously over-committed yourself. Upon reaching this point, you need to make some brutally serious choices about what you will and will not do, and institute rigid, unbending schedules. In order to help yourself out, I recommend that you organize your daily/weekly schedule so that you have a set time for each class. That is, your in-class time will be dictated (hopefully you have not overlapped on-ground commitments — if so, you have become a bad episode of the Brady Bunch), so follow suit with your out-of-class time. Create a folder for each class with the class roster or seating chart, the class syllabus and copies of the assignments. These are especially helpful when you need a quick refresher as to which class you are focusing on at the moment. When juggling more than 3-4 classes, don’t rely on memory alone.

I also found it helpful to create a master schedule, color-coded by institution and class. This way I could anticipate heavy grading times and work to smooth those out — move up an assignment here, delay one there, grade, grade, grade right here, etc. I spent a complete couple of days in the creation of the master schedule, but I was able, even with 10 classes (4 of which were 6 weeks long, meeting daily online) to “smooth out” the demanding spots of my schedule.

You should also use online technology to your advantage. Six of my classes that semester were completely online and for the remaining four I had the option of adding an online component. I jumped at that chance. Even though I was working two platforms (BlackBoard and WebCT before they merged), I was able to “front-load” the materials, scheduling the materials, assignments and quizzes, to appear according to the specific class schedule (the 6 week classes had a new folder-set available for them each week, the 15 week classes were spaced out every two to three weeks).

By front-loading, I was also able to “copy” one class set for other sections of the same class. That is, by loading all of my Comp I materials into section 1, I was then able to copy the entire class (assignments, quizzes, grading rubric, etc.) to the five other sections. I saved a tremendous amount of time doing this. In effect, I had only three distinct classes to set up. I then copied those three master classes to the remaining sections. The students were added, and we were off. My time was then spent interacting with the material, the students and the assignments. I didn’t have to make physical printouts to take to class, I didn’t grade reading quizzes nor worry about answering student questions about what their grades were. All of this was handled by the online software.

As a corollary to this, I accepted all submissions online. I didn’t accept printed out submissions at all. If there was a paper due, I had the students submit their paper online through the class Web site. I graded online using a generic word processing program (RTF-formatted files work in virtually all of the word processing applications) and posted the submissions back through the appropriate grade book. Even if I presented a pop-quiz in my on-ground classes — handy to pulse for compliance to the reading requirements for the day — I would present the quiz online. The results were instantly added to the grade book, the feedback immediate, and the software did the work. I had few papers to keep track of, and I could work on a class from anywhere there was internet access. Also by setting up the grade book through both BlackBoard and WebCT, I was able to, at the end of the class, enter only two or three grades per student (participation, etc.) and let the software compile the final grade — extremely handy when you have exactly four days to complete the final grades for 250 students.

One final tip, when adjuncting on an overloaded schedule, is to always be working. That winter semester was my harvest time, my time for 12-14 hour days, for working weekends and for squeezing every last amount of work out of each day that I could.

When faced with an impossible schedule, organize, prioritize, automate and grade at every stolen moment. And keep in mind that summer, with its lull in classes, will eventually come.

Bio

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. In retrospect, he says with reference to the schedule discussed in this essay, one should not willingly sign up for such an arduous schedule without serious consideration to the opportunity costs: to oneself, one’s family and to one’s students.

 

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