Well, my first semester as an adjunct History professor ended less than a month ago. The students in the course that I was teaching, HIST 037, “Women in American History,” took their final on Monday, December 14, and I spent the next few days grading those exams and submitting their scores online. Now that a few weeks have passed, I wanted to start a new series of blog entries that would do two at least things. First, extend my gratitude to everyone who makes these courses possible, from the staff and faculty of Solano Community College (SCC) to the maintenance crew, and to the students themselves, who gave me the benefit of the doubt when I was less prepared than I should have been, and who extended excellent feedback during our last seminar. Second, share some initial reflections about life as an adjunct (part-time) professor at a community college generally, and as a teacher of “Women in American History” specifically. This blog post is intended to start an ongoing exploration of these topics. I plan to follow-up with more posts throughout the year.
During my short time at SCC, I was struck by how much work went into making our History course a reality. The staff of the School of Social & Behavioral Sciences were indispensable in this effort. They were always available to ask for help regarding such topics as setting up the classroom, understanding the rules and regulations, obtaining instructor copies of the textbook, establishing office hours, and more. The staff of the school have created a strong support network for first-time teachers, and I did not hesitate to go to them whenever I needed help. Adjunct teachers do not typically have their own office space, but SCC has set aside a private adjunct history lounge as a community space for these teachers to meet, mingle, and work. In addition, there are specific staff members at the school whose job it is to help new teachers understand both Canvas and MySolano, the two online tools that are necessary for staff to conduct their courses. Finally, my classroom suffered storm damage on a number of occasions. On two instances, parts of the ceiling had actually collapsed and water was covering the floor when I first entered the room. But the maintenance staff was very responsive, and the class was cleaned and prepared for use on both occasions. During the semester, I did not have to cancel class once or relocate to another room.
As a first-time teacher of “Women in American History,” I spent the majority of my time combing through the textbook (Through Women’s Eyes: An American History with Documents by Ellen Carol DuBois and Lynn Dumenil) and creating lecture materials. I was struck by the enormous potential of Canvas, the online course hosting system. Faculty can break down their courses into individual modules on this site. They can post everything from PowerPoint presentations, discussion questions, lecture notes, homework assignments, extra-credit opportunities, advice for students seeking help at the University, tutoring opportunities, final exam questions, weekly readings, and much more. The students can access this information, as well as their grades, from any device, including their smart phones. Often times, students downloaded materials from their phones only minutes after I had posted them. They immediately notified me when assignments had not been made available for public view, or when there was some sort of conflicting information on course materials. In general, Canvas operates as a virtual middle-ground between students and the teacher. The more detail a teacher puts into their Canvas site, the less likely they are to encounter confusion among their students.
The actual potential of Canvas is limited only by the imagination and the time commitment of the individual professor. If a professor wanted to, for example, they could record their voice lecturing, overlay the audio on their PowerPoint presentations, and then post the presentations on Canvas for each week of their course. This way, students who are not present for a certain day can still follow along with the material at home. They can play the presentation from their personal device like a movie, complete with visuals and audio. Teachers can also create online forums that will allow students to discuss topics among themselves. This is especially helpful for students who are shy and do not like sharing their voice in class.
But time commitments are a huge problem for adjunct history professors. The pay for an adjunct instructor is very low and determined by a hourly rate, not a salary. Moreover, adjunct instructors are only paid for the time that they spend inside the classroom. For example, I was teaching a course that met on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 12:00 to 12:50 pm. The total weekly hours that I was paid amounted to 2.5 hours. On top of this, I was paid for half an hour of office time each week and I was offered a few hours of “Flex-Cal” time for the entire semester. (These hours allow you to get paid a few extra hours for attending one or two professional development activities during the semester.)
But the reality is that I spent at least 20 to 25 hours a week preparing for my course. The most time consuming activities were creating week-by-week lectures and grading student assignments. Since there is no specific time set aside for teachers to be paid for these two activities, the teacher is financially encouraged to do them as quickly as possible. In this sense, teachers are more willingly to give multiple-choice or scan tron tests, simply because these are easier to grade than open-ended questions or essays. When they do give essays, they are less likely to give in-depth feedback on their students’ writing because there is no incentive for such close work. Teachers are also less likely to update their lectures with new material because any additional research they undertake is unpaid.
The way that adjunct professors typically circumvent these problems is by teaching as many sections as possible of the same course. Once a course is initially designed, teachers can re-use all of their materials. They can literally carry over their completed Canvas website from one semester to another. While this decreases the amount of time that a teacher spends making assignments, lesson plans, and lecture materials, it does not help the issue of grading. A teacher who is teaching three sections of “Women in American History,” for example, might have 120 papers to grade each time that a project is assigned, as opposed to those teaching only one section, who would have 40. How can we expect adjunct teachers to give detailed, personal feedback on 120 papers in one week, especially when they undertake all of that effort at no increased incentive? These teachers will be paid exactly the same whether they grade a paper with a simple check mark in the margins or a set of detailed comments addressing style and argument. Our education system is expecting a lot from these part-time teachers, essentially taking advantage of their desire to “make a difference,” milking it to the very last drop.
This is perhaps the essential dilemma of an adjunct instructor. Many teachers choose to teach at a community or a city college because they are driven at least partly by social activism. They believe that these schools serve the most diverse and at-risk sections of our country’s population (which they probably do), and the schools are, therefore, a safety net or a last bastion for the most vulnerable parts of our society. In this sense, the central question of whether our society can actually meet the needs of its most-marginal groups takes on very real dimensions at so-called “junior colleges.” All of this can create or add to a burden that adjunct teachers feel to compensate for their shortcomings in resources. But if an adjunct teacher tries to hold their classes to the standards of full-time, salaried professors at four-year Universities, they could create a lot of mental strain for themselves. Adjunct instructors could drive themselves to the brink of insanity trying to provide the best services for their students (the services they feel their students rightly deserve) in unpaid time. For this reason, adjunct instructors often need to draw boundaries between what they would give their students if they had unlimited resources, and what they are actually capable of giving them in the time allotted. Just the act of drawing this boundary can test the mental will of adjuncts.
Well, that’s it for now. Just some initial thoughts on my first experience. I will continue to update this blog series with more reflections from my time as an adjunct History professor throughout the year. In the future, I will expand on such topics as what it is like to work as an adjunct, as well as some of the issues that are specifically related to teaching a course on “Women’s History” rather than History in general.
Thanks for reading!