The True Meaning of Being an Adjunct
They needed someone to teach Exhibition Design in the undergraduate School of Art at a local University. At the time, I was the curator at a contemporary art museum. I had previously run my own contemporary galleries, showing emerging artists, for four years before that. It made sense.
An artist and friend of mine had graduated from this university and recommended me to a friend, who was the head of the graduate MFA program. He, in turn, passed me down the line to the head of the undergraduate BFA program and we were off and running.
My museum job paid worse than a first-grade teacher. Yes, I’m serious. So some side work sounded good to me. I just didn’t realize that working as an adjunct professor would be much more work than the side (as in side money) part.
I was inspired to write this story after reading so many stories from Jessica Wildfire about her experiences teaching at the university level — the students, the expectations, the pressure and the administration.
How to Teach College Students
I had few rules. I think I wanted to be the “cool” teacher. I didn’t realize that there were a lot of cool teachers. Some because they were trying to impress the students because of something they were lacking. And some because they were just cool in real life. And interested in teaching. Even if it fell on deaf ears some semesters.
I knew I would be up against phones and social media. My college professors were up against paper. As long as I had it, I could make lists. Play categories. Anything but take f*cking notes for the entire class.
I actually had only one rule. Don’t disrupt the class. Look on Facebook, text your friends, watch a YouTube video with no sound. I really don’t care, just don’t be disruptive. Wait, I had a second rule. Don’t ask me what you missed if you were in class. Sorry you were texting all class, but ask someone else.
No one told me what to do. As an adjunct they just assume you will be lost. Or they assume you won’t. Either way they don’t really care. You are filling a void in their teaching schedule. There is no adjunct holding pen where they have sample syllabi and e-lessons on how to interact with the “new student.” Nothing at all to assist you in your new endeavor as an adjunct.
“Cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.”
— Mark Twain
The Making of a Syllabus
When I was in college, I would look at the syllabus right away just to see how much sh*t was due. I never even read the words. Or looked at what we would be learning. Even though I knew my students would do the same, I wanted to make a legendary syllabus. As if that wasn’t an oxymoron.
One that would make it clear what the expectations and assignments were. The grading policies. The absence allowance policy. All the stuff that they wouldn’t read. Until they missed too many classes. Or forgot where they put their copy of the actual syllabus. Or until one of their parents asked them a question about the class.
I got an example from my advisor and put my spin on it. In three years, not one single student ever told me, “Great syllabus. You really knocked it out of the park with this one.” F*cking ingrates.
Understanding the Modern College Student
I think I got off to a good start. A couple students didn’t think I was the teacher when they arrived. Points for me. I don’t know why though. Shouldn’t they have thought I was the teacher?
Was it because I looked young or unprepared?
And this is when you realize that teaching anyone is as much about you as it is them. Because we are all driven by ego. But you also realize that the only way to get through to the modern college student is to make sure you are making it about them. And not you.
You also soon realize that nothing is clear to some college students. Nothing!
And depending on how they were parented, that is how they behaved in class. Probably in life as well.
If they were coddled as a child, they were always questioning why. But not in a good way. In a condescending way. Like they knew better because their parents always told them how smart they were. And all of their teachers in high school hated them because of that. They challenged me, but disrespectfully. As if I was there to serve them.
If they were allowed to be free thinkers by their parents and their family was one open to dialogue, they were great in class. They asked smart questions. They listened to the answers. And sometimes they challenged me, respectfully. I loved these students.
Then there was the third lair. Who probably had nice parents who didn’t take much of an interest in their schoolwork. Or were too busy working to be able to. These students were the middle ground. They just kind of sat there. Didn’t talk much. Did the assignments. But unless called upon, would never speak. I wanted more for these students.
The Adjunct Life — Office Hours
I was an adjunct teaching one class when I started. So there was no office for me. But I had required office hours. So they gave me a room number, and a key, and told me I could do my office hours there. Sweet!
Until I got there. They gave me an “office” in a large storage/file room. A modernized closet. With 1980s computers and chairs that looked like they would break really soon.
There were no desks. There were just tables facing the walls. With sh*t all over them. And so the adjunct life began. And persisted like this for three years. Even when I was teaching multiple classes and advising an entire Masters program.
Still the closet was mine. After the first time, I never used it again. I just did office hours before or after my class. Which was always once a week. At night.
Which Ratings Matter and Which Don’t
I was told early on that my students will fill out evaluations of me at the end of the semester. This sounded fine with me. I wasn’t too worried about it either way. Unless someone said something bad about me.
I don’t think the school was too worried about at first either. Since I was just there to take over one class. But that one class turned into more and I stayed there for three years. And grew my position.
The funny thing is that I don’t remember anything about the actual evaluations. All I remember is obsessing over Rate My Professors. Because I was an adjunct. And like I said before, all teaching starts with ego in some way.
I only ended up with 9 ratings. Because one thing you learn about college students is that if you don’t have a prize (or grade) for them for doing something, they don’t do it. Unless they are really nice. Or they hate you, a lot.”
Sweet level of difficulty, huh? It’s out of 5 by the way, not 10. So my overall quality was decent. If not for that one averager, I really would have had high marks.
And this is the underbelly of university teaching. Wondering whether the students actually like you. And for many, wondering if you still “got it” as an adult. Why else would the site have a hotness meter?
My favorite review quote:
“He is very flexible, friendly, and sarcastic, and insightful. That being said, he will fail people who take advantage of his easy nature.”
In the end, I realized that none of the ratings mattered. I wasn’t trying to teach full-time so there was no statistical correlation for me with the higher-ups. All rating systems play on our ego by giving the power over to others. And sometimes this is a good thing. But not always.
People take out grudges in reviews. They also write fake reviews because they are given something. There is some middle ground, but reviews tend to run very hot and cold.
How Not to Fail and the Stubbornness of College Students
I only failed two people in three years. They both deserved it. But neither of them had to fail.
The best advice I ever gave my students was about math. I graded by letters, not numbers. So an F was 55 at my school.
I told them if they didn’t do the homework and handed me a piece of paper that said “F*ck you,” they would get a 55. But if they turned nothing in at all, they would get a 0. Because if I don’t receive anything I can’t even give you an F.
Not one student ever handed me a piece of paper with F*ck you on it and I am still perplexed. Several students over the years didn’t turn in an assignment. And they took a 0. When you only have 8 assignments, a 0 hurts.
So why wouldn’t they write a piece of paper out that said, “I didn’t do it” or “Give me an F please”? Because they were stubborn. And embarrassed.
I would have gladly turned in a paper that said F*ck you if it would have gotten me a 55 over a 0. And this is how I couldn’t even teach basic math to college students.
It’s a control thing. Even when you give them the way out, they won’t take it. Because of collegiate pride. Or parental guilt over their shoulder. Or because they think they are smarter than you. Or because they think they will turn it in late. They never do.
“Success is never final, failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.”
— John Wooden
How I Got Lost in the Shuffle of University Academia
Red Tape and a New Position
Colleges have a lot of red tape. More than anyone would ever think. Odd requirements. Old rules. Things that make no sense. And I encountered this red tape over and over throughout three years.
I was hired to be the advisor to the Masters Museum Management program. At the time there were about 25–30 students in the program. I was the advisor to all of them. There to help them get jobs. To make sure they were on track to graduate. And for all of this extra work, I got paid what equalled one 3-credit class per semester. Ah, education.
It went well. The graduate students were much more focused and mature. They were getting their Masters to advance their career goals. And for most of them it worked. But the university that they paid all this money to stopped working for them.
When a School Gives Up on its Own Students
When there were 10 students left in the program, the new head of academia in my sector told me they were shutting down the Museum Management Masters program. So I had to graduate everyone out of the program.
So I went over all the required classes needed for each student and I made a chart to make it an efficient process. And here is where the red tape comes in. There was no class left that everyone had not taken so the class sizes would have to be smaller than normal since we only had 10 people left in the program.
But the university refused to run a class with less than ten students. Even though ALL of the remaining classes to graduate these kids with a Masters degree would have less than ten people because of their decision to close the program.
After a public fight, the students still lost. The major was closing and this was not what they paid all this money for. A program that will later be defunct when they were on job interviews.
But what made it even worse is that the school made me do Independent Studies with many of the students to close out their requirements. And although I was a good teacher (I think), independent studies were for the birds. No one gave a sh*t about them. As a student, I only did one. I got an A and I think I wrote one paper. My students didn’t do much more.
And Then I Got Lost
I was on the student’s side and rallied hard for them. Reminding the administration that I was previously an attorney. Haha. A big university doesn’t give a sh*t about 10 students who are about to be graduated out. They don’t care about what their parents think. They just don’t care.
Because they are too big. And someone above them told them this was the plan. Everyone was passing the buck to someone else. And in all that passing, I got lost. I was nobody again. I came to realize I was never anyone to them.
And as I got lost, so did my students. They didn’t even bring me back the final year to graduate these kids. And as much as I tried to help them and the school, they wanted me to get lost too. And stop shining a light on something they were looking to close the book on. That is the world of university academia as I experienced it.
What I Learned from Students and Teaching
I learned that I did matter. When my heart and mind was in the right place. I learned to be proud of trying to teach. Whether or not I was any good at it. I was giving of myself to students who wanted to learn.
I learned that some students were just a product of how they were brought up. And their inability to listen to simple things would plague them when they left college and throughout their lives. I couldn’t change that no matter what I did.
I learned that college is a business. And while I was a caring advisor, most were not. Some were, but most were not. Even when the teachers care, the gigantism of the school didn’t. It was a numbers game. As with most big businesses.
I learned that my kids don’t have to go to college. I want them to, but I don’t take the same stock in college that I used to. If my kids are bored now, why send them to a standard college where they will regurgitate high school for the first two years?
I learned that you can make a difference by teaching. It doesn’t have to be at a university. Or at a school. It can be to friends. To your kids. To anyone who wants to learn about what you are good at. And when you do, you add something to someone else’s life. By giving of yourself.
“The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.”
— Mark Van Doren
If you liked this, you might like this as well — my views on the current standardized education cycle in America and how our kids feel about it:
Why Our Kids Hate Going to School Every Day
How I Got Lost in the Shuffle of University Academia was originally published in The Ascent on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.