by Karen Hellekson — Independent Scholar
November 25, 2009 – 15:51
This semester, I am adjuncting an online-only science fiction class at a nearby university that caters to full-time workers, bringing my number of simultaneously held paid jobs to three. Because I am primarily a freelancer, I think of things in freelance terms: maximizing money earned, minimizing time and effort. It all comes down to the hourly rate you command. When I taught before, I agonized about every decision: what books, what organizational scheme. This time? Not so much.
Here’s a rundown of how I approached adjuncting.
1. It’s not about the money.
Everyone knows this, right? Nobody adjuncts for money; the pay is pathetic. I ran the numbers. I make more money teaching aerobics.
But working for the university system has its rewards: they take taxes out for me. That is a huge bonus for quarterly-tax-paying me. I decided it was worth it because it provided me with practical online teaching experience, which I may be able to parley into something later. It also connects me with some colleagues, thus expanding the academic side of my network.
2. Don’t reinvent the wheel.
The first thing I did when I got the online class was contact a colleague, a fellow member of the Science Fiction Research Association who regularly teaches online-only classes, and ask him for advice. I was able to modify my colleague’s syllabus: he’d found the perfect textbook to replace lecture and to organize the readings.
I’d done prep work before—and I’m an expert in my field. I’ve taught face-to-face SF classes many times. I had a pile of desk copies. Rather than agonizing over every title, I selected an anthology with historical breadth, and novels that I knew well that were short, famous, or both. It was easy to fit readings into the textbook’s rubric.
Forget the students and their reading load; it was all about me. Bonus: I won’t have to rewrite modules and quizzes from scratch next time I teach the course. I can just reimport the entire class into the online teaching system, Blackboard, and tweak it.
3. Don’t be afraid to drop things that aren’t working.
I spent hours—hours!—doing link roundups for every unit, to provide extra sources for the students to look at, to make up for the lack of face-to-face opportunities for questions and discussion. I even offered students the opportunity to do the link roundups themselves in lieu of another assignment, because creating them was so enlightening (no takers, alas). I found audio recordings of primary sources! I found cool YouTube vids on aspects of the science! I found gorgeous illustrated covers! I linked to authors’ personal Web sites! I found other teachers’ pages on the texts!
My students didn’t look at any of it.
Similarly, I kept online chat office hours, except the interface was annoyingly buggy and only one student visited me—and that was to, well, chat, not talk about the class.
I no longer create link roundups, and my office hours are now by appointment.
4. Go for generalities, not specifics.
In my midterm survey, students asked for study guides. Study guides? I thought. (I had linked to some in the links roundups, but see above.) I dutifully wrote two study guides, only to discover that they prepared you to take the quizzes, which are open book and open note. So it duplicated effort: I had two tools for a single learning objective.
I inferred that a request for study guides really indicated a desire for strategies to know how to pinpoint what is important in a text. So I wrote a general 2-page study guide for our nonfiction book. It can be used to help understand what is important in every chapter. And I stopped providing specific prompts for the discussion board posts, because it was constraining discussion around a single topic. Instead, I replaced it with a single general question: “What insights into the week’s subject stories did the reading from the textbook provide?” I requested that student responses consider why I assigned a particular story to a particular unit.
It’s the student’s job to link the specifics of the readings to the generalities of the unit, not mine. Once I realized this simple fact, everything fell into place. I provide the overview and organizational structure, and they populate it. And I guide them as needed.
5. It’s an online class, but don’t assume online knowledge and skill.
About half my students don’t seem to have reliable Internet access, and some don’t even have computers. I had these Grand Ideas of promoting media literacy, but my students seem barely able to keep up with the minimum weekly requirements: taking a quiz on the reading, and making two discussion posts. I’d love to ask them to create artwork, or do a group report on works derived from Wells’s War of the Worlds, or, heck, even do link roundups, but with this population of students? It’s not going to happen. And that’s okay.
Similarly, I had hoped to prepare slide shows and record lectures for presentation online, but the university’s accessibility requirements put the kibosh on that. I am supposed to provide all such media to the university at least 2 weeks ahead of time, so that they may create DVDs of content to give to the students upon request—and I’m honest enough to say that this kind of forethought is not going to happen.
I am able to cobble together all these jobs because I am on my husband’s health insurance. This puts me in a huge position of privilege, one I know is not shared by many adjuncts. And I’m also privileged because I do not rely solely on adjuncting for my income. As copyediting work increasingly goes offshore, I have to decide how I want to proceed: retrain, perhaps in the fitness industry? write? get a job teaching? accept an in-house job, which would require my moving away from my husband? Part of my decision to adjunct a class came from my exploration of these possibilities.
Despite my relatively privileged position, the drawbacks of adjuncts affect me as much as anybody. I get no special library permissions or access to locked library holdings. Even if my class had a face-to-face component, I wouldn’t get an office, even a shared one. I feel isolated from the larger university. And I engage with everyone via e-mail asynchronously. The only reason I’ve had contact this semester with my department and the dean is, I had to handle a plagiarism case and was required to do considerable paperwork.
The problem with my current workload is that it is crushing. I thought that adjuncting would permit me to reconnect with the text-based, English-teacher side of me, but I’m too overwhelmed with keeping my head above water to make more meaning out of the experience—a situation I imagine many adjuncts are in. To free up time, I’ve dropped every single thing I can, and I’ve streamlined so extensively that I can streamline no more. I’ve ruthlessly applied Getting Things Done techniques to freelancing and teaching. I’ve sacrificed some interpersonal engagement on the altar of expedience.
However, one thing has become clear: I need to decide how adjuncting fits into my larger goals. I suspect it may not fit at all; my goal is not, and has never been, to seek a tenure-track job. Considering the poor rate of pay, I would probably be better off teaching a few extra aerobics classes a week—at least that helps me with my presentation and personal fitness goals.
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