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My first adjunct job interview was at a local technical college. When the dean told me that he and his assistant would evaluate my interview and teaching demo, I found it unusual, since neither had a background that qualified them to assess my ability to teach in my subject area. I was surprised to learn that the dean’s assistant is a current student at the technical college, but a student perspective can be valuable. And although I had chaired and served on hiring committees as a tenured associate professor at my previous university, I hadn’t been on the job market in more than a decade. Maybe this is the way they do things at technical colleges, I thought, and I tentatively set my reservations aside.
I was offered the job shortly after I left campus. I didn’t receive an orientation or a resource packet, and though I’d asked about learning outcomes and whether or not there was a standard syllabus and course text, I was told I could do whatever I wanted. This, too, struck me as irregular, since learning outcomes and outcomes assessment are crucial issues on most college campuses today.
In the week after I was hired, which was the week before classes started, I tried repeatedly to obtain exam copies of the texts I was considering for my course. But the publisher refused to give me access -- perhaps because I’m now an adjunct or perhaps because I have no history with the technical college where I’m teaching.
In either case, my course prep became even more time-consuming. I could read the table of contents of the texts. I could, in some cases, even download a sample chapter. But I couldn’t carefully assess a text’s fitness for the students I’d be teaching. And I knew -- because I had studied the demographic data of the technical college -- that my students needed a very, very good text. I also needed to find one they could reasonably afford.
I emailed the dean and his assistant for help with procuring exam copies, thinking surely they would contact the publisher and assist with access to digital copies of the books. Nothing. I asked the publisher to contact the dean or his assistant directly. Still nothing. I phoned the publisher’s customer service specialist. Nothing. I was running out of time.
Finally, after looking up, one by one, many of the articles listed in the tables of contents of the texts I was considering, and after checking the student costs at sources such as Amazon and eBay, I selected a text. I purchased it myself and had it shipped to my home via express mail.
On the third day of class I received an email from the dean. “Oops” was one of the words in the subject line. That I could not use that text was the gist of the message. Apparently, they didn’t have the text on campus. Apparently, some students were eligible for free access. Apparently, I was the last to be informed. And apparently, I should just use the text they did have on campus.
Maybe some administrators at this institution were overworked and didn’t get the support they need. Maybe some were incompetent. It doesn’t matter. That kind of mistake doesn’t just make teaching more difficult; it compromises students.
I was not a welcome messenger on the third day of class when I told students that if they had already ordered the text listed on my syllabus -- the syllabus we’d discussed in detail the day before -- they’d have to return it. I was so mortified that I offered personally to refund students’ costs if they were unable to return their texts. On my adjunct salary, that would have been a much harder offer to make if my partner didn’t have a job that paid a living wage.
But it wasn’t just that. It was messy and unprofessional. I learned from my students that similar mistakes happen all the time, and I was humbled by how bad they felt for me.
I confess that when I received the email about the book, I momentarily considered quitting. A good administrator would have purchased the books and had them delivered ASAP. A better administrator would never have put a teacher or students in that situation. But I felt a tug of guilt about quitting. For lots of reasons, especially when I thought about the students in my class, it seemed to be the wrong thing to do.
So I began to draw on my experience with copyright and creative commons to assemble course materials that I could provide my students for free. I love doing it. Among the most important decisions an educator can make is choosing materials that meet the needs of his or her students. It’s just really, really time-consuming to start from scratch on the third day of class, not to mention that I’ll never be able to account to the environment for the number of paper copies this requires.
My adjunct contract pays me for the five hours of instructional time that I’m in the classroom each week and for one hour of course prep each week. Before I even walked into the classroom on the third day of class, I’d already dedicated more than 15 hours to course prep. I’m teaching a developmental-level course with 20 students. I knew when I accepted the position that I’d never be paid for all the time the course would require. It embarrasses me to admit that I treated teaching for such low pay as a privilege that, thanks to my partner’s job, I could afford. As long I had the opportunity to teach well, I wasn’t concerned about how much time I’d need to spend. I just hadn’t anticipated how rapidly the hours would accumulate.
A quiet series of thoughts began to grow louder: This is not sustainable. The college is compromising the students it exists to serve.
After my sixth day in the classroom, I was hopeful I’d have access to the college’s online course management system. After inquiring at the dean’s office about the CMS during the week before classes started, and again during the first week of classes, and after repeatedly getting no answer, I contacted the technology office that manages it. When I didn’t get a response via email, I searched the college website for the contact information of anyone who might be able to help. For the past 10 years, I’d relied on a CMS to manage grades and to make links, course resources and other supplementary materials available to students. For me, it was an accessible class list as well as a tool for communicating with students.
I realized how much I had taken that tool for granted when I contemplated how to develop an alternate system for recording grades and for calculating each grade’s weight as it figured into the overall course grade. My course still isn’t on the CMS, and I just gave a quiz. It will take more time, but I will be developing a spreadsheet of grades soon, and I can use my personal web space or a free wiki to publish course materials. But students are paying for the CMS, and I can’t answer why our class does not have access to it.
I’m not required to hold office hours. For anyone who has been in a tenured or tenure-line position, this might even sound great. But I don’t think it occurred to me before what it meant to be entirely inaccessible to students outside of class. I don’t have an office. I don’t have a campus phone number. And I am not paid to meet with students or to support their learning outside of class. What this suggests to me is that the possibility that students may have questions or concerns outside of class isn’t a consideration when hiring adjuncts here.
It’s fortunate that I have my own laptop and my own adapter. Although the room I’m teaching in does not have a computer station, it does have a projector, and sometimes the Wi-Fi even works. I’d love to say that I can teach without technology. That sounds incredibly romantic. I even feel a little wistful for those bygone days that existed long before I entered higher ed. But I’m preparing students to live and work in the 21st century. I can cover a lot without a screen. I could use exclusively print materials. But at what cost to my students’ education? I’m still trying to find someone who will reply to my request to teach my class in a computer lab from time to time. A lot of my students don’t have computers at home.
Yesterday, I printed an article published in Newsweek on Campus in the late 1980s. It was written by a college student attending a prestigious West Coast school. He came from an impoverished background and felt as if he were “Living in Two Worlds.” I included a large copyright notice at the bottom as required for fair use, and my students and I read the article in class together. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen students read with such intensity and deep understanding. They recognized the unemployment, poverty and struggle of the author’s hometown. “Just look out the window,” one student commented. “I saw three homeless people on my way to class today.”
I thought back to a homeless woman I’d met and fed when I visited campus for the first time for my job interview. On the adjunct pay at this institution, there’s a very good chance that instructors can’t afford decent housing. Like many of the students in my class, they may need to share a room and scrimp for grocery money -- as well as book fees -- just to get by.
But the greatest cost, it seems to me, is borne by the students. The veterans in my class who enlisted for the sole purpose of earning money for college through the GI Bill. The high-school student hoping to get a head start. The gutsy ex-con who is starting over. They’re paying to be here. They have very real goals, and they are working very hard. Why, I wonder, isn’t this college giving them what they deserve?