My Best/Worst Semester
Dropping from full-time to a single course reveals losses and gains.
The semester wraps up. I take stock on what it’s meant to move from teaching full-time to staffing a single course as an adjunct instructor.
Some things I learned (or re-learned).
1. Weekends are fun.
When teaching first-year writing full-time, because of the combination of that work and trying to manage the deadlines and responsibilities associated with my writing career, when an assignment came in on Thursdays, I would spend the bulk of my waking time Friday-Monday grading. Six weekends a semester were given over almost entirely to this process. In between those grading periods I needed to use weekends to write to make up for the days I’d later give over to grading.
I enjoy both teaching and writing, so it’s not that I was torturing myself, but having weekend days where I didn’t have to work at least part of the time has simply made me happier, and even more productive during the weekdays. I am not experiencing the usual exhaustion that accompanied the end of the semester.
2. My teaching and my writing has always been fundamentally in conflict.
I’ve spent many years believing otherwise, but the fact is, as contingent faculty, my time has always been zero sum. Even though the totality of my work looks a lot like what tenured faculty do (publish/teach), because I was never receiving the salary of tenured faculty, all time spent teaching was an opportunity cost on my ability to support myself writing. There was no payoff, which leads to a corollary finding…
3. There is no such thing as a contingent “career.”
I know, duh, but teaching full-time, when my day-to-day looked and felt a lot like a career, it was easy to delude myself that it was a career, but no, that wasn’t the case. I had a job teaching college, but outside the tenure track this is not a career.
If I could pass one bit of wisdom on to the next generation of academic aspirants, it is this.
4. When I’m teaching, I’m at my “best.”
Yes, I believe that I am an effective instructor, but more than that, I recognize that doing the work of teaching allows me to feel competent, engaged, and vital. David Brooks would say it’s my “calling.” I find teaching both intellectually and emotionally stimulating. The grind of three sections of first-year writing was starting to put strain on that belief, but reducing that strain has renewed it.
I wonder if this is what tenured faculty experience after a sabbatical.
5. My most effective teaching is done in small groups or even one-to-one.
More and more, I’ve come to believe the primary experience of the current generation of students is one of alienation. So much of what they do in school is a kind of “distance learning” where they are asked to separate their academic selves from their actual selves in the service of achievement. Education is now largely mass production, and it’s doing damage to students. Teaching one course allowed me to have (at minimum) two 30 minute conferences with every single student, and if nothing else, it reminded the students and me that learning is a unique, human process.
Periodically, over the course of the semester, things would crop up where I thought I could be of help, but I had to force myself to not participate in order to not be even more culpable in my own exploitation. As the department begins to discuss possible changes to the first-year writing curriculum I know that I could be a voice in that conversation. As they worry about declining majors and figuring out how to help students bridge their educations to careers, I know that my experience outside of academia allows me to provide a useful perspective.
But I am no longer a member of that team, if I ever was in the first place.
The reality of the contemporary university is that much of the potential of faculty of all stripes to make a positive impact on students is simply wasted. Call it the inefficiency of efficiency.
7. Twitter can (partially) fill the hole of loss of community.
Reading the work of others who are interested in answering the same questions I’m wrestling with, and interacting with them on Twitter has staved off some measure of the isolation and alienation I’d otherwise be experiencing now being merely adjunct to the college.
For me, social media has been the opposite of a bubble, but a way to keep expanding my knowledge and engagement.
8. I want to keep teaching for the foreseeable future, but I will probably stop teaching relatively soon anyway.
One of the following things is likely to happen: 1. The college will not offer any unstaffed sections of what they need me to teach. 2. While the $2850/course wage is not causing me financial hardship because of other privileges I possess, at some point I will no longer be able to stomach being complicit in a system that puts so little economic value on something I believe to be so important. 3. Some other opportunity will arrive that requires sufficient time and attention that I won’t be able to justify doing the low-paid labor of teaching to myself or my family.
I do not look forward to that day as I recognize the things I will lose (see #4), but at this point, it seems inevitable.
But for now, I’m on the books for one course next semester. I’m looking forward to it.
 Once I finish sorting through these thoughts I think we can expect a blog post, but if this notion resonates with anyone else, I’d love to hear about it in the comments as a way to focus my own thinking.
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