Teach the children well

4 03 2009

Do I go with Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young—or Pink Floyd (‘Teacher, leave those kids alone!)? Do good, or try not to do harm?

Eh, I go back and forth. My colleagues Jtt., D., and I spend a fair amount of time dissecting just what is required of us as professors, both by the college and our own senses of obligation. We deplore efforts to sex up the curriculum, or to put a shiny happy face on the educational endeavor generally, but none of us is quite willing to write off what we do.

In short, we take teaching seriously.

As an adjunct, however, there are limits as to what I’m willing to do for my students or for the college. As I mentioned to a colleague at another institution, the shitty pay of adjunct-ing is somewhat compensated for the by the release from meetings: if I am paid only to teach, then that is all I will do. My current college is good about paying for adjuncts to attend enrichment seminars (perhaps at the, ah, urging, of the union), and, knowing that I have a long commute, my department chair schedules all of my courses two days a week.

That said, there are things I won’t do as an adjunct that I probably would do as a tenure-track professor. One, I refuse to correct for grammar and style. However important I think good writing is, I’m a political science prof, not a composition teacher. I grade on synthetic and analytic abilities, not syntax.

Second, I refuse to agonize over late papers. This is a recent conversion. Most students hand in work on time; a few do not. I used to believe that the principle of fairness required me to penalize the latecomers, but I’ve since decided that any ‘real’ penalty often assumed an importance disproportionate to the offense. And it was a pain in the ass to determine a fair penalty across all categories of tardiness—this one had to work, that one’s kid got sick, the other one hit a wall—when to penalize and when to waive? It was more trouble that it was worth, and I’m far more interested in the students’ mastery of the material than in their promptness in delivering proof of that mastery. That I no longer penalize lateness has had no effect on the percentage of students who hand their work in on time.

Finally, I refuse to agonize over the grading process itself. When I first started teaching, it was very important to give students plenty of feedback, to try to help them improve their performance over the course of the semester. This evolved into a practice of having students write a rough draft of the first part of a paper, which was graded and returned with about a page of notes, and then writing a complete final paper, incorporating the changes suggested in the marked-up rough draft. Only it didn’t work. Oh, one or two students would actually rewrite their drafts, but more often they would simply paste the draft into the final version—often complete with spelling and grammatical errors. I then switched to a modified version of this: I offered students the option of writing a draft (which would be graded), or just going with the final version. More than half would take this option, although, again, they often ignored the comments on the drafts. I stopped this practice completely after a student complained to my then-department chair that I gave too much feedback. Too much feedback! Fine. Done.

Were I not an adjunct, I might feel a more-than-minimal sense of responsibility to the college and the standards it was trying to raise or maintain. As such, I might reconsider how my standards do or do not match the standards of my institution. Now, however, I worry about the standards of effective teaching and whether I live up to my own understanding of those standards. That’s enough, I think.

Still, my understanding of those standards does lead me to ‘non-required’ work. My college uses Blackboard, which is a kind of online syllabus and bulletin board for students and professors. I haven’t been trained in this, so haven’t made use of it. I like the idea, however, of having some place my students could to refer to additional course-relevant resources, or even just copies of syllabi and paper requirements.

So I set up a blog for my students. Although it’s still not where I want it to be, I put in a fair amount of time and effort setting it up—time for which I will not be compensated. But if I’m to measure my performance by the standards of efficacy (as opposed to, say, institutional demands), then it’s worth that time and effort to at least try to increase or deepen that efficacy.

I like my institution, but I won’t forget that I’m in a mercenary relationship to (with?) it. Can’t say the same about my relationship with my students, however: in the classroom, good teaching reigns.