Lessons Learned: Reflections of a First-Term Lecturer

Having the opportunity to teach a variety of courses while in graduate school was by far one of the greatest benefits of attending The Ohio State University. When I arrived, the university was still on the quarter system, and the English Department still regularly assigned survey courses to graduate students in literature. This meant that in my five years of funding I provided direct instruction in first-year writing, the British Literature survey, Introduction to Shakespeare, Introduction to Poetry, and the Bible as Literature. Writing courses were capped at twenty-four: literature courses at forty-five. Teaching assignments shifted a little after the conversion to semesters. The college decided to lump literature surveys into larger lecture sections with direct instruction provided by senior faculty and smaller discussion sessions (still capped at forty-five, mind you!) led by graduate student graders. It also meant that rather than teaching four courses per year we were only teaching three – if we were fortunate enough to receive summer assignments.

Teaching as a graduate student is like having a crash-course in the academic precariate. In most cases, we would receive our teaching assignments with only weeks to prepare a syllabus and with little or no parameters within which to work. (For example, in my first year of teaching the British Literature survey, the department still required use of its in-house anthology. It was something of a cash cow for the department. It also made selecting books, assignments, and an assignment sequence a little bit easier. But, by and large, there were few instructions for what a syllabus should include or what the course should cover or measure.) Much of this translates readily to other campuses, where graduate students also struggle to pull courses together on short notice, with little guidance about how or whether their class rosters will fill, and often with no initial sense of what instructional resources will be available or functional. Nothing like on-the-job training.

It is because of five years working in an environment like this that I was confident to join the adjunct circuit in my final year of “dissertating.” Little did I know how sheltered I had been by my home department. Below I offer five observations from my first month of stumbling through life as an adjunct. They are relatively obvious, but frankly, it was their apparent obviousness that probably hit me the hardest.

  1. Resources. Resources. Resources. Who has the resources, and how do I get them? In my second year of graduate teaching, I taught classes at 7:30 AM, which was great for my schedule since I could get to campus at around 6:30, put in about eight hours, and still be home in time to get the oldest daughter from her bus stop. But it presented some difficulties in terms of planning. Any copies needed to be made the day before (The office was locked until well into my second hour of teaching, and we were not at the time allowed keys to the main offices – a policy that has since changed.), and if anything went wrong with the technology in the classroom or if, for example, there were no chalk or markers for the boards, there was no one to call that early in the morning for help. As I said, nothing like on the job training. When I began teaching as an adjunct, then, I was fully prepared not to have immediate access to classroom essentials.

    What I had not realized until this term was that “access” is a peculiarly relative term. At OSU not having “access” to the copy machines in the morning simply meant that I could not get into the room to use the copiers for which I had a code and had already been taught how to use. At two of my three campuses this term not having “access” meant something entirely different. Being hired the week before classes started not only meant ordering books and developing a syllabus on short notice – as I said, graduate teaching had prepares us in certain unexpected ways – but it also meant not being entered in the HR system by the first day of class. I did not have an official ID with the campus. And without a university ID, I could not login to the faculty resources page to see a class roster before class. I could not e-mail my students to introduce myself or give them instructions on what to do while we waited for textbooks. At two campuses, I could not unlock my classroom doors because they were key-card entry only. I could not login to the instructor’s terminal, could not use the campus-secure wifi, could not post materials to the online learning platforms, and at one campus could not make copies not because I could not get into the copy room but because there was no campus contact to tell me where an available copy machine could be located, what my password was, and how to use it. To be sure, all of these problems have been resolved. But it made for an interesting first week of classes. And it was a series of problems that I had never dealt with as an instructor, that I had never even anticipated would be an obstacle. In graduate school, we already have access to the resources we need for teaching because in large measure, we have been using them as students: campus internet and e-mail services, classroom management software, the library, the main offices, the bookstore, and so on. How do you prepare to teach in a classroom that you literally cannot open and one in which you cannot use or rely on anything in the room that you have not brought with you?

  2. Let’s talk about books. I fully acknowledge how spoiled I was to teach at OSU as a graduate student. The rooms are not the best, and the technology can sometimes be feisty. (I still maintain that the fifth floor copier has it out for me!) But on the whole, if there was ever a problem, not only did I know who to turn to for help but that help typically arrived in a timely manner. The same was true about late book orders. In my first summer of teaching the Bible as Literature, I received my teaching assignment two or three weeks before classes began. I met with the course supervisor, ordered books as soon as I could, sent an e-mail to the enrolled students telling them what to read for the first day (it was a short session, so yeah…we read for day one), and attended the first day of class without giving a second thought to whether the books would arrive in time. And of course, they did.Life is not so sweet at smaller campuses. Whereas chances are good that I was not the only one at OSU-Columbus ordering the Norton edition of the KJV for students, the same cannot be said when adjuncting. Simply put, we have struggled to get books. Shipments arrive to one campus bookstore only on Friday, and the bookstore seems to order just enough to meet what they sense is the current demand. Long story short, at the end of the first month, I am only now confident that everyone has had a chance to purchase a book. (Part of this, I should say, is also a function of BOTH of my texts being issued in new editions this year – a circumstance that I simply did not account for when making my book orders.)
  3. Resources again. Where do I send my students who need them, and how can I be sure that they are getting help that is available to them? Again, part of what makes graduate student teaching easier is that, as a student, you know where many of the resources available on campus can be found. When going to a new campus, it can be difficult to identify and locate those resources and to direct students to them. This is not a simple matter of knowing what a campus offers. I want to be able to tell my students how to get there, when the facilities will be open, how to make appointments if the site does not accept walk-ins, and what they should expect when they get there. This is more possible at a campus where you spend a bulk of your time: less possible as an adjunct skipping from one campus to the next with little downtime at any one location.
  4. Sometimes it really isn’t you (at least, not entirely). Providing course instruction can encourage certain forms of narcissism. When something goes really well, good instructors talk about how good their students are, how smart they are, and how much energy they bring to the classroom. But when things go poorly, the first thing young instructors typically do is to engage in some existential-crisis-level soul searching. As a graduate student teaching one course per term, when an assignment or activity did not go as well as hoped, I would tinker with it and wait until the next term to try it again. Only then could I really evaluate what was working or not working. And in the interim, I would often just feel like a bad instructor, dwelling over the fact and the feeling that my approach had failed. Teaching similar classes (similar syllabi, in fact) in three of my classes has prompted me to hold off on some of my usual self abasements this term because I have been able to see how a lesson plan works or falters simultaneously across sections. When these things have not developed according to my hopes or expectations in one section, I have made minor adjustments and been able to see how other sections have approached the lesson. I still return to my plans and revise for future use, but I have stopped allowing the thought that when a lesson goes poorly, it must be a direct result of my actions, preparations, presentation, or development. Having always considered my approach to be student-centered, I have been shocked to see how much of my reactions to student learning and engagement revolved around my perception of these things and would therefore seep into my preparation for the next lesson.
  5. Finally, let’s state the obvious because the obvious clearly needed to be stated. Not every student is the same. (Duh.) And students at one campus are not the same as students at another. (Double Duh.) Ok, fine. Anyone who has ever even thought about pedagogy knows this. What is often less clear are the structural reasons for the apparent disparity in student performance both within and across sections of the same course. Why, that is, do the approaches to student learning need to be different for each course when the student learning outcomes are similar, if not almost identical across classes?I began the term with three largely similar syllabi for three of my four classes, and we have made radical revisions since then. One of the things that I did not understand when I was hired at one university – and once again did not even thing to ask – was how students were placed into the first-year writing courses that I was to teach. Whereas the regional branch of OSU follows the same procedures that the Columbus campus uses and therefore offers the same sequence of introductory writing courses, this other university has far fewer resources. Depending on the term, I would find out by making a trip to introduce myself to the coordinator of the writing center who also does the placement for first-year writing, the university offers one or two remedial writing courses. Each of those courses is capped at twelve, and he tries to identify the twelve (or occasionally twenty-four) students who show the exhibit the most need for writing help. Everyone else in the incoming freshmen class gets enrolled in the first-year writing course, of which there is only one designation. In any given section of first-year writers, then, there are students who would have tested out of first-year writing at another institution as well as students who might have been placed in a more technically focused writing course if a second section had been offered in their first term of enrollment. The result is a range of writing competencies that stretch from a handful of quite gifted writers to a handful of young writers needing sentence-level attention (punctuation, capitalization, subject-verb agreement, and so on) with the majority of students falling in the middle.

In many ways, graduate teaching prepared me quite well for the classroom experience I have been facing as an adjunct, and I am extremely proud to have taught during my graduate work. But there have been quite a few obstacles for which graduate teaching could not have prepared me – elements of the profession, basics of being an employee rather than a student-employee, and being on new campuses. There were a set of assumptions I had about my students at OSU, for example, that simply are not true at these other campuses. Many of my students in two sections work full-time jobs when they are not in class. Nearly half of my students in one section have told me privately that they do not have a computer at home, so they have to do all of their work when they are on campus for classes. Many of my students this term are reliant on financial aid for their book money, which has made the trouble with the bookstores doubly annoying since Amazon purchases simply are not financially viable options for these students. Working in these new environments has revealed to me assumptions about student placement, expectations about classroom behavior for college freshmen, and tolerance for certain forms of distractions that I can no longer cling to so unquestionably, unreflectively. There are other idiosyncrasies and I am sure much, much more to learn. The first month has fostered a renewed appreciation of my time teaching at OSU and encouraged me once more to look forward with hope to finishing my degree and doing this thing for a living.

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