If you are a university faculty member, you know that the typical semester ends between May 1 and May 10, and grades are typically due within a week or two of final classes. This means you have already resentfully witnessed, or will in the next few days, the exhilaration of your students as they submit their final papers, breeze through their exams, and get the hell out of Dodge. Not so for us. We get stuck with the grading. If, like me, you teach Composition & Rhetoric, this means you are left with an average of 40-80 student papers. And God help you if your department utilizes the formidable “portfolio system,” the nom de guerre for “roughly 2000 pages of student writing,” give or take depending on your course load and total enrollment. I happen to be on the portfolio system. My classes ended yesterday, leaving me with 40 papers to grade and comment on by Thursday, with portfolios expected to arrive on Monday.
So of course you understand why I chose this precise moment to begin this blog.
A little about me before I go on: I am a teaching artist based in New York and have adjuncted at various institutions in and around the New York metropolitan area for nearly 7 years. My primary field is Composition & Rhetoric at the first-year level (read: freshman comp), though I have also taught ESL Writing, Creative Writing: Fiction, and Research Writing. Because working as an adjunct is never enough to pay the bills, I also tutor with a nonprofit program for urban youth. When I have the time (read: rarely/never), I work on my own writing, which spans academic examination of pop culture, novels, memoir, and the occasional poetry. I volunteer with nonprofit writers’ groups. I attempt to maintain a minimal social life on the weekends, pay my bills, and keep my apartment clean. I am a self-proclaimed cyberculture, graphic novel, video game, and anime geek and I incorporate these and other forms of pop culture into my classrooms as a regular part of my pedagogy. I’ve themed courses around cyberpunk, Batman, and Neil Gaiman and constructed essay progressions examining Watchmen, the Rockman X and Zero games, music videos, Persepolis, Fun Home, Maus (obviously); Facebook, MySpace, and 4chan.org; role-playing games such as the Final Fantasy series; and cartoons and anime and manga such as He-Man, Ghost in the Shell, Akira, Death Note, and Fullmetal Alchemist, to name a few. My teaching philosophy, like yours I expect, is three single-spaced pages long, so suffice it to say that I promote active learning and critical thinking and writing skills through exploring pop culture forms and exhibits, which result in high levels of dynamic student engagement in a subject that is mostly viewed as uninteresting. Freshman comp, after all, is stigmatized as “that Gen Ed requirement I’m forced to take.” Thus, my approach is to make the students want to be there.
I hope to use this blog as a forum about academia, ranging from pedagogical strategies to the situation of adjuncts in today’s economic climate. I am continually surprised by the rampant misconceptions about adjunct faculty positions–Popular Fallacy #1: We’re well paid–and by the pressures we face within academia, from departmental politics to any number of difficulties with students. Good teachers are often ousted by not-so-good senior faculty. Former colleagues of mine (and myself) have faced racism, sexism, subtle requests to not outshine senior faculty, and grade inflation issues, to name a few. Be creative, but not too creative. Be approachable, but not too approachable. Don’t give out too many A’s, even if the work is at A-level; similarly don’t give out too many (or any) F’s, even if they’re merited. Pray on observation days that the students are well-prepared and energetic and ready to participate, because that observation report will follow you to your grave. I am lucky enough to currently work at an institution where most of the above is a non-issue, and the department is friendly, approachable, and refreshingly human, but in my experience, this hasn’t always been the case.
It’s not my intention to bash this or any other institution where I’ve worked. But I do think that there should be more openness about the problems within academia. It’s often presented as somehow sacred, a bastion of pure, unrestrained, free-forum education, but often this is not the case, and fear of not being asked back prevents most of us from implementing experimental strategies we have proven effective, or from criticizing the higher education industry openly. Because it is an industry, more so today, though it pretends not to be.
Obviously I can’t redress any of this, but I can at least vent. And procrastinate reading those papers. Because no one can screw me over like I can.