Alice Umber

adjunct professor of human development at a university in California

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I Used to Be a Good Teacher

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Original image: Norman Rockwell's "Happy Birthday, Miss Jones."

Alice Umber is the pseudonym of an adjunct professor of human development at a university in California.

I spent five years on the tenure track. Now I’m an adjunct, and the move has affected my teaching in ways I didn’t anticipate. I’m not the teacher I once was, largely thanks to the lack of support I receive as an adjunct. Sadly, my students suffer the loss.

I was an excellent teacher on the tenure track, and my evaluations—both from students and colleagues—consistently said so. When I began the job, I had a heavy 4/4 undergraduate teaching load and little classroom experience. But thanks, in part, to my departmental colleagues, who generously gave me their time, advice, and encouragement and shared ideas and materials with me, I quickly improved. In those early years, the countless conversations I had with them about pedagogy, students, and classroom content inspired and helped me to hone my teaching skills. Meanwhile, I dedicated myself to revising old courses and developing new ones. I guest-lectured in my colleagues’ classes and later co-taught with them too.

I also got university support—in the form of course buyouts, seminar funding, professional-development workshops, service-learning resources, etc.—that allowed me to take my teaching to the next level. I designed community service-learning courses and collaborative research seminars. I took students to conferences to present their original research. I helped run internship fairs for students and mentored them throughout their required senior practicum. I got to know them and the university well, and was therefore able to mentor themin their studies and help them navigate campus life. I served as the department’s undergraduate advisor and gladly supervised students’ honors theses, wrote them recommendation letters, and helped them complete graduate-school applications.

I did all this with the backing of my department, which was invested in building my teaching skills. And I did it through hard work—spurred by the enticement of tenure and paid for partly in a lopsided work-life balance.

In hindsight, I probably did too much: I willingly let teaching eat up my time, and when I tried to dedicate more time for research, I couldn’t seem to find a path that would also allow me to have a home life. I searched for successful academic mothers, and what I saw were models I couldn’t imitate. I convinced myself that I didn’t really have the drive for the tenure track, even at this somewhat small-time state university. Teaching was all I really wanted to do and I thought I could focus on it in a different kind of position. So I quit before going up for tenure.

I had other reasons for walking away: worry and stress from campus politics; financial anxiety from the high cost of living and my low assistant-professor salary, made worse by the fact that my husband hadn’t secured permanent work locally and by my family’s dislike for the region where we were living. I relinquished a tenure-track job so that my family could move back to the city my husband and I still considered home, and so he could take a job there. (Yes, I know. Volumes could be said about that choice, including its gendered nature. Suffice it to say that thanks to the economic downturn, I soon realized what a dumb mistake I’d made. And lest I forget, my father—himself a Ph.D. who worked his entire career for the same national lab—kept reminding me that I’d “thrown away my career.”)

After we moved, I had a second child and then started teaching as an adjunct at an institution similar to the one I left. I’ve now been an adjunct for almost as long as I was an assistant professor, and feel like I’ve been regressing, slowly negating the strides I’d made on the tenure track. The experience students have in my courses is a weak approximation of what I once provided. That pains me, as teaching is important to me, even more so now that I’ve lost the other assets of my tenure-track job (prestige, career advancement, stability, and a pension), and the pride I derive from my mission as an educator is all that’s left.

I’m not suggesting that adjuncts are poorer teachers than tenure-track professors (except in the fiscal sense), only that the very limited institutional support so many of us receive undermines our teaching; at least it has mine. No matter how dedicated I am to my teaching or how hard I work, I simply can’t do for students as an adjunct what I could when I was an integral part of a department and a university.

For starters, I teach in a vacuum. While I’m assigned classes and (sometimes) given course outlines or sample syllabi, after that initial exchange of information, I teach my courses in almost total isolation. In my previous job, one of the first things I learned was how the sequence of required courses in the major fit together to create a foundation, continuity, and a discipline-specific education for our majors. That I ever possessed such knowledge now seems like such a luxury to me.

These days I focus on the courses I teach without any sense of how they relate to the overall curriculum, the hoped-for outcomes for majors, or the sequence of skills or knowledge being developed. The unfortunate side effect of this is that I’m less aware of any prior training and experience students might bring to my classes. And the less I know about them, the less able I’m able to tailor my classes to their needs.

I likewise know little about the goals of the department, and, frankly, I miss having a shared vision of departmental mission (or at least an open debate about it). In my current position, I decide how to portray my discipline in my courses. But I don’t know how that portrayal jibes with other courses in the department, or whether there’s any overlap. When I was on the tenure track, such disciplinary questions were regularly addressed in departmental meetings or planning retreats, and in conversations with colleagues down the hall.

My office is far removed from the rest of the department, and, as I share it with three other instructors, I spend no time there beyond designated office hours. The remoteness leaves me few, if any, opportunities to exchange information about students with my colleagues. That’s a shame, as knowing students and sharing that knowledge made me a better mentor in my previous job.

While I once used my involvement with the broader university community to help first-generation students successfully navigate the university, I now have only general advice to give, as I don’t know the players or the campus, and I’m not around much. I’ve tried, of course, to familiarize myself with this university on my own, but, from my place on the fringes of daily campus life, and sans any formal or informal support, it’s easier said than done.

What’s more, there’s scant support for offering professional development opportunities to adjuncts. Programs that once helped me create service-learning courses and interdepartmental research seminars, and learn new technologies aren’t as readily available to me now that I’m off the tenure track. While I understand why the university wouldn’t want to expend resources to enhance the skills of “temporary” employees, isn’t it troubling that so much teaching is done by workers who have so few opportunities to perfect their pedagogical skills?

Of course, the university doesn’t actually bar adjuncts from taking part in some of the professional-development opportunities on campus, but we must pursue these on our own uncompensated time. (To which I say: What time? If you’re teaching numerous courses just to make ends meet, these opportunities might as well be prohibited.) I try to take advantage of them when I can. But my sub-prof status sometimes makes me feel unwelcome at these events.

Here’s a case in point: Shortly after starting here, I received an email invitation to attend an instructional-technology presentation in the department about an important software update. I opted to go and while waiting for the presentation to begin, I was asked by a professor, who had interviewed me when I was hired, which department I taught for. I was taken aback by the question, as everyone in the room was from my department, and he was one of the few people in the room I had met. There was, I suddenly realized, no expectation that adjuncts would take advantage of this type of resource, so my presence was a surprise. These days, I understand why: Now that I usually teach a full load of four courses for the department, I have little time for such sessions.

Yet I’m still expected to learn new skills. So I’ve adopted a do-it-yourself approach. For example, in recent years the department asked me to teach courses online. When I was first offered these courses, no one seemed bothered in the least that I hadn’t taught online before. While my chair kindly suggested I talk with someone in the instructional-technology center, that was the extent of the departmental support I received. So over the winter break I met with the center’s helpful online-course-design maven, who showed me the ropes. I started teaching online two short weeks later. I’ve taught online every quarter since then, and am slowly improving, but it requires a whole new pedagogical approach and a lot of trial and error. I even took it upon myself to sign up for a MOOC about online teaching, but it imploded in the first week under the burden of high enrollment. (It’s probably a bad omen when a MOOC about online teaching crumbles under its own weight.)

I worry that my online teaching kind of sucks, but my department doesn’t seem concerned. Perhaps I should take that as a sign of its confidence in me, but I fear that it’s an indication that my chair doesn’t have time to worry much about the job I’m doing. I recently shared with her my concern about the quality of my online classes, only to have her encourage me to make less of an effort. “You don’t have to read all their writing,” she told me. “Sometimes you know before the final who is going to get an A or a B.”

The sad thing is, I really miss the conversations I used to have with colleagues about teaching -- the shared ideas and collaborative problem-solving. I miss, too, the expectation that I should be a skilled teacher who is regularly evaluated and who works to improve. I worry that I’m slipping into stasis, that I’ll find myself making less and less effort to up my teaching game, as there’s no long-term benefit to adding to my already overburdened schedule, and zero opportunity for professional advancement.

I doubt most students know which of their professors are adjuncts or even what an “adjunct” is, but my status as one surely affects their experience. Instructor well-being and student-learning outcomes are linked, as labor activists say. But, as my experience shows, it’s not just a slogan. Poor labor conditions affect the product of that labor, and I’m a poorer teacher partly because I’m poorer. Without recognition, backing, career prospects, or job stability, I’m less than I could be if I were better supported. Even if I had an indomitable spirit and deep pockets, my teaching would be diminished by my detachment from the department, the university, and the students. I think students should be bothered by the fact that I am a one-off. I think students deserve the teacher I was and not the teacher I’ve become.

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