As many commentators have recently noted, more than 75 percent of American college instructors are adjuncts (among them full-timers, part-timers, and graduate students). I’ll leave the political implications of this alarming statistic to others—many of whom write for Vitae—but I’d like to highlight an overlooked side effect of this new state of affairs. With so many of our college teachers contingently employed, it’s easy to conclude that a majority of those teaching courses this term (and starting to think about courses for next term) are, at the same time, on the job market for something more permanent. That’s a lot of people spending months putting together dossiers of job materials, even while they prepare for tomorrow’s class.
A recent column by Rebecca Schuman called attention to the almost incredible number of hours the academic job market requires of its applicants. As I probably don’t need to tell readers of this column, crafting individual cover letters, updating a CV, tracking down letter writers, choosing and formatting writing samples, composing research statements, creating sample syllabi, and coming up with the dreaded statement of teaching philosophy can turn into another full-time job. No wonder the fall semester is the hardest time of year for many teachers.
Might there be a way for some of this seemingly wasted work, all of this material sent into the ether, to be made into something useful for our teaching?
One option might be to think of the statement of teaching philosophy—that much-maligned document—as a blueprint for next semester’s syllabi. The only way I’ve ever been able to come up with a teaching statement I’ve even been remotely happy with is to structure it around my pedagogical goals, in particular my goals for my students. I think about how I want my students to grow in my classes, what skills I want them to acquire, what habits I want them to adapt. In what ways would I like them to have changed at the end of my course? Keeping the focus on students is itself a teaching philosophy, of course, one that encourages active learning. It also helps me avoid the platitudes and generalities that too often plague teaching statements.
That’s an approach that’s worth remembering when it comes time to write the syllabi for next term’s courses. James Lang writes in On Course, his practical guide to college teaching, that teachers often spend too much time worrying about “coverage”—what they will teach—when putting together their syllabi. It’s tempting, when introducing a course to your students, to lay out the rules and regulations, give them a schedule of readings, and call it a day. But just as thinking about your students while writing your teaching philosophy can help make your case to search committees, it can also be useful in making your case to your students at the beginning of a semester.
Lang recommends thinking about student outcomes when writing a syllabus. Where do you want your students to end up at the end of the course? What do you want them to learn? How do you hope they will change? What are some challenges they—and you—might face along the way?
It’s worth being upfront and explicit about these goals in the syllabus itself. That will make clear to your students, right from the start, precisely what you expect from them, and how you intend to help them meet those expectations. This can be as simple as laying out what students need to do to get various grades, or as thorough as turning the whole syllabus into a contract between you and the students. Lang suggests including a section of “course promises.” Be creative: The point is to let your pedagogical goals—your goals for the students—guide you every step of the way.
If you’ve read this far, I probably don’t need to tell you about the soul-crushing realities of the academic job market. The fact that many of us will put in hundreds of hours on job applications that will most likely lead to nothing is not easy to stomach. It’s cold comfort, I know, but I’d like to think that if we don’t benefit from this arduous process, maybe our students can.
David Gooblar is the author of The Major Phases of Philip Roth, published by Continuum in 2011. He lives in Iowa City and teaches literature and writing at Mount Mercy University and Augustana College. Find him on Twitter at @dgooblar.