Tuesday, February 22, 2011

[On Why I Have High Expectations and Might Not Be Teaching Within a Year or Two]


One of my graduate school classmates, Eric Sentell, posted a link to this article on his Facebook page earlier today, and holy moly, does it ever make sense.  Go read it, then come back here.

Did you read it? No? Then go read it. Then come back here.  My reflections will make a whole lot more sense after you've read it (and the comments).

Ready? Okay, here goes.

As most of my regular readers know, I was fortunate enough to go to Truman State University for four and a half years.  Truman, let's face it, is not an easy school.  Occasionally, one will come across the "easy-A" class and get a break, but for the most part, my professors and instructors had high expectations of their students and expected us to be independent learners.  Their office doors were open (during office hours and by appointment) whenever we needed help, but for the most part, they expected us to read the instructions, work it out, and write the papers by the due date.  If we didn't bother to take note of due dates or class expectations, well, that was our own fault and we dealt with the consequences.  And lest ye think that I'm pulling an old fogey "back in my day," let me remind you that I'm 27 and graduated from Truman in 2006. It hasn't been that long.

At Truman, my "straight-A" arrogance got humbled in a hurry, because I was competing with a school of overachievers.  I was the one in high school that got the art scholarships and even an assistantship coming into college, and so I had every confidence that I'd ace the art program and be able to pile on a minor or two--maybe even a second major.  Boy, did I learn fast, and by mid-term, I had changed majors so I could keep my scholarships.  Fortunately for me, I've got a boatload of interests, so it was a matter of finding out which I had the most potential in (pardon my dangling participle... I couldn't work that one out so it became perfect grammar-wise but still non-pretentious), and finally at the end of my sophomore year, I landed in creative writing.  It was still a challenge, don't get me wrong, and while I stayed above the scholarship-retention level, my GPA did progressively decline. I'm smart (I'm not going to lie--I am), but far from genius, and there were a lot of classes that nearly made me crazy.

But I learned.  I learned a lot.  My toughest teachers are the ones for which I am most grateful, because they're the ones that equipped me for graduate school.  Truman also had a writing-enhanced requirement. As an English teacher, looking back, this makes me giddy with joy (though not at the time of having to write those papers).  We had to take classes, often outside of our curriculum or traditional "writing" courses, that were labeled "writing-enhanced." For the life of me, I don't remember the exact number, but it was enough to be intimidating.  In fact, my introduction to world religions class required a three-page paper almost every week, plus several longer researched papers.  It was a pain, but boy am I ever glad I had to do them, because I learned about those religions much more in-depth than I otherwise would have learned, and by sophomore year, I could spew out a lucid three-page essay, without having to BS my way through, in under an hour or two.  Shoot, most of my blog entries, were they MLA and double-spaced, would verge on 5-10 pages these days, and that's usually without research to expand my arguments.

And here's the thing--no one taught us step-by-step how we were supposed to write a paper.  They gave us some guidelines (strong thesis statement at the end of the first paragraph, clear organization paragraph by paragraph, focused argument, and trustworthy research to back the claims) and the rest was up to us to work out. I wrote some good papers, and I wrote some not-so-good papers, but each one was a learning experience, and I gained critical thinking skills that extended beyond English because I did so much of it myself.  And here's the other thing: I wanted A's, but if I didn't get an A, with rare exceptions, I figured it was my own fault for not putting in the effort.

Now, fast-forward to 2011, and I'm an adjunct instructor.  For those of you who don't know what that is (namely, I would imagine, some of my students who have wandered over to this blog entry from the class blog), it basically means that I'm a part-time instructor with no guarantee that I'll be hired again next semester. I can teach, at most, four classes in a normal semester, two in the summer, and I'm paid by the credit hour.  Last year, by teaching the maximum number of hours possible, I made just over $20,000, and there are two months in the year (IF I get to teach every semester) that I don't get paid at all.  This semester, I'm teaching three classes, and this summer, unless more classes are added on and I'm one of the lucky ones who get a second class, I'll be teaching half of what I taught last year. And I'm in good company; many, if not most, of the instructors at community colleges (and increasingly at universities) are part-timers like me with no job security or benefits, and as Benton explains in his column, "Now undergraduate teaching relies primarily on graduate students and transient, part-time instructors on short-term contracts who teach at multiple institutions and whose performance is judged almost entirely by student-satisfaction surveys" ("Perfect Storm").

So it is any wonder that I find myself in a difficult position, wanting to have high expectations of my students so they will benefit (not so I can be mean or get by on doing less as a teacher), but I'm afraid to do so?  I tried to push my Comp II students last semester to do more (though, granted, it was my first time teaching that specific class, and we lacked the advantage of Comp I students in having a computer classroom), and my student evals were quite low.  The paranoid side of me is wondering how much of that affected my class load this semester and next, though I hope, sincerely hope, it's more to do with having classes spread thinly among too many instructors.

In spite of my fear that I might not have a job after a few more semesters due to dissatisfaction, I still intend to have high expectations of my students.  I hope with all my heart that down the line they'll understand why, even if it frustrates them now.  How on earth can I have high standards for myself and, heck, even my dog, and not extend it to the classroom?  Seriously, I even push Sassy outside of her comfort zone (not too far, but within reason) so she can face her fears (i.e., the treadmill, which after getting off last night, she almost acted like she wanted to go some more, which was unimaginable less than a month ago) and grow to be a dog I can trust around my friends' kids and that I can take to a nursing home to cheer up some sick elderly folks that miss having a dog of their own without fearing she'll knock them down.  I put her in social situations in which it's not easy for her to be calm and not jump and pee excitedly all over with joy because she has to be challenged to be a better pet--one that I can take with me anywhere that allows dogs without fear.  And while she's still got a long way to go, she's come even farther as a result of these challenges.

So I challenge my students.  I know it's not easy to critically analyze a classic film. I know it's not easy to come up with your own topic and its focus (rather than writing a paper of trivia).  I know it takes time to flip through the manual to learn how to cite your references on a case-by-case basis, but let's face it, that's always going to be the case because the rules change (even for me!) and every source has different information available. And yes, I know I'm expecting you to do a LOT of writing by blogging 300 words every week (especially if writing isn't your "thing"), but guess what: with discipline, you can do it (just think of my religion class if one page seems like a lot), and it's going to help you to be, not just a better writer, but a more complex thinker.  By looking at a lot of sources and determining your own arguments, you're learning to look more in-depth into what you're being told and not just accepting things at face-value. I know it's hard to read an assignment sheet and be expected to figure out, based on the instructions, what the assignment requires, but as you get further along, it's the norm, and remember, we do conference over every paper, so even if you do it completely wrong, you'll get feedback and plenty of time for revision before you receive a grade--and one that your essay and your growth as a writer has earned, not just a pacification grade.  I don't just leave you hanging.

I know I'm doing the right thing, but I'm not going to lie--it's scary to do it.

Work Cited:

Benton, Thomas H. "A Perfect Storm in Undergraduate Education, Part I." The Chronicle of Higher Education. 20 Feb. 2011. Web. 22 Feb. 2011.

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