Sustainable Teaching Fail
In response to the President's panel on Contingent Labor at the MLA, my own story of how my labor conditions negatively impacted the students' learning environment.
I’m publishing this, inspired in part by the Presidential Forum at the 2013 MLA on Contingent Labor issues in higher education. I am telling my story. As the New Faculty Majority is promoting, faculty working conditions are student learning conditions.
I’ve been going over this idea in my head for a while now, even before the doldrums of grading struck: the majority of faculty (non-tenure-track) are set up to fail as truly effective pedagogues. That, of course, is a really dangerous thing to admit, because I would be admitting that I, as a non-tenure-track faculty member, am failing at my job. But, this is the truth that I am increasingly forcing myself to face, as disappointing and frustrating it is for me personally and professionally. But we need to start talking about this issue, loudly and forcefully. The conditions of non-tenure-track faculty are setting us up to be failures as effective pedagogues.
What has crystalized this for me has been some recent posts (and responses to posts) floating around the web lately. Mark Sample wrote about “intrusive scaffolding” in the classroom, inspired by his sons’ experiences in learning to ride a bike both with and without training wheels. The example rang very true for me, particularly as someone who used to teach swimming lessons. I could always tell the kids who were put in the water with lifejackets before coming to lessons; they never had the proper body positions (you can’t swim standing up and the entire point of the lifejacket is to keep you vertical and thus keep your head up). And then I had two children in rapid succession and was often stuck going to the pool alone with two kids under the age of three. Lifejackets became a necessity, lest one of my kids drown. Was teaching them how to swim more difficult? You bet. But I couldn’t physically keep both kids safe in the water while they were learning, so I had to use intrusive scaffolding out of necessity.
And that brings me to my thinking about my own teaching. I recognized my own practices in my Freshman Writing classroom. I’ve been wrestling with how to make it peer-driven (like my other writing class), but at the end of the day, I can’t figure out how to make it sustainable for me, as an instructor tasked with the implementation and grading of potentially 100 completely different assignments. So, I create (and in some cases, am forced to assign) artificial writing assignments, because it makes things more manageable for me. And please don’t mistake this for laziness; I work damn hard for my students. But there are only so many hours in the day, and I am many things, but I am not a martyr. I am a human being who happens to teach.
I would love to spend more time offering my students useful feedback on their writing assignments. And creating personalized, meaningful assignments to under-prepared students (I can’t recommend strongly enough the Storify of the backlash to this on Twitter). But at the end of the day, we are teaching in an environment where most of us face increasing external and internal pressures to standardized curriculum; what we read and write in the classroom is becoming less and less our own. The majority of the conversations about teaching that take place between the non-tenure-track faculty at my institution are not about best practices and pedagogy, but how to manage our workloads; it isn’t about the students, it’s about us. I don’t think we are an exception. We brazenly ignore best-practices for class sizes and teaching loads for FYC classes. We are afraid of speaking out, because of contracts are insecure, variable, and thus our livelihood is constantly threatened. We often take the path of least resistance (and thus less pedagogically sound) not because we want to, but because the system is set up in such a way that we are left with little other choice.
The flip side is burnout. This doesn’t serve our students, either. Of course, I am always aware that I am in a relatively privileged position because I have a full-time, year-long contract at a single institution. Nonetheless, I feel the effects of this pace, however "slower" it may be compared to others. My colleague from Hybrid Pedagogy, Jesse Stommel recently had a discussion on Twitter about how those people who do value critical pedagogy are often the same ones who are marginalized, silenced, and ultimately pushed out of higher education. Personally, I’m not sure how much longer I can live with the cognitive dissonance, knowing at once that I am not doing my best for my students but also that I am acting in a system that won’t allow me to do what’s best for my students. Our university doesn’t have a writing center, so I’ve experimented with a student-funded outsourcing solution, so I am well aware that I am as much a part of the problem. But what can I do? We’re getting First Year Composition MOOCs in 2013. If a bunch of videos can “teach” FYC to 10,000 students, why should the university even retain my services (PS Good luck with the peer-review system in this context)?
Perhaps, this is why we rarely receive any training in pedagogy during graduate school; the cognitive dissonance might dissuade too many of us from continuing much sooner.
If I have been particularly negative and pessimistic during the waning months of 2012, it is, I think, largely a manifestation of my frustration with my own performance in a system that makes it increasingly difficult to do my best as a teacher. I have spent many hours agonizing on how to improve my FYC course while maintaining some sort of balance and sanity, hours that have led nowhere. I know what I need to do, I just am at a loss as to how to do it.
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