Adjunct at/with heart: Gaining from others’ pain

For the second time in two terms, I’ve just received a good news/bad news notice from one of the schools I work at. The good news is stark: I’ve added a class in the middle of the term, which means a bit more work but also a paycheck that will double, starting in two days. This is surprise money out of the blue, six months after summer scheduling showed me I had only one section of one small course and was far, far down on the list for any chance of adding more. Because it is a different section of the same class I’m teaching, it will require little additional preparation and not much additional grading time. The money will buy me a computer to replace the one that’s been a rugged travel companion and is, now, in need of gentle rest. Cheerfully taking the class with short notice also (possibly?) endears me a bit more to my department.

But every benefit I’ll gain is now denied to the faculty member who can no longer teach. Speaking generally, part-time faculty members have little to fall back on when they have to unexpectedly leave a class. They are also more likely to have to do so, simply because many adjunct faculty are both constantly on the job market and under-insured, meaning what might be a minor, week-off health issue for someone full time can quickly become an ignore-it-and-it-didn’t-go-away-now-I’m-hospitalized condition for a PT faculty member. I also know that most of us non-contracted faculty members cling to our assignments like so much precious gold, both because it provides our livelihood and because it is a vocation. This means that a class left in mid-term is being left with regret and out of necessity.

I’ve read that many colleges experience competition between non-contracted faculty members (and contracted faculty, for that matter) to gain preferred times, dates, classes, assignments, etc. I haven’t much experienced this, and I’m glad, but I do know that I’m hyperaware of my place in the pecking order at both places I teach. When someone else falls from the seniority list, I’ve been trained by the situation to silently cheer — and then to equally silently mourn the reasons for their departure.

I’ve seen plenty of posts and tweets and comments recently about how full-time faculty could better recognize and support part-time faculty. There are many great ideas about professional development, paying for training, offering mentorship, etc. One of the great kindnesses, though, that I rarely see extended is the offer of substitute teaching. At both institutions where I work, I think this comes down to simple economics: If I’m sick and ask for someone to step into my class, because of our contracts, part-time faculty would be paid (hourly rates) to teach, while full-time salaried faculty would receive no additional money to do so. I understand that they face the same problems of having multiple demands on limited time that part-time faculty members do, and I will enjoy the money that comes from substitute teaching this course and others in the future. Still, even the gesture of once a term substitute teaching would go quite a ways in proving that our contracted colleagues have our backs.

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Open Source meets OER

As part of a graduate course this term, I’ve been playing with Scribus, an open source desktop publishing application. Scribus is many things, and it can do many things, but it is first and foremost exactly what it says on the box: a program built for publishing, when the definition of publish meant the act of physically exporting a digital design onto paper.

I decided to learn Scribus through doing, and so in the last two or three weeks, I’ve made approximately 9 different projects (most of them posters designed to promote an upcoming conference). As I’ve worked, each one has taken less time and become better looking, which is exactly the pattern I’d expect. Yet even simple tasks still take longer than I desire: I wrestle with the text box formatting every time I use the program.

One thing I’ve learned about myself when using an Open Source program is that the idiosyncrasies I adjust to in proprietary software are things I immediately chalk up to under-development in OS software. For example, when I click into a text box in Scribus and highlight what I’ve already written, that selection goes away (sometimes) after I’ve made my first change. So then I have to re-highlight everything to make another change. This is set up in deference to those who know what text size, alignment, spacing, color and font they’ll be using before they start typing. I’m a words-first person, so this annoys me.

Of course I’ve adjusted my behavior before around the expectations of a software application. I fix the after-paragraph spacing in MS Word by habit, now, even though they are so so wrong about putting in that extra 6 points. However, in Scribus, because I know the community could solve this problem, I’m annoyed when I find they haven’t.

I’m not sure what to call this phenomenon yet, but I’m working on it.

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Pocket watch

Against Deadlines

It’s the time of the term when I have a chance to consider, up close, the effect that strict deadlines have on my students. Noon today was the deadline for my grades to be entered at both campuses, the first official interaction between me and The System every year. This one interaction — adding letter grades next to a list of names and clicking submit — is basically the one proof I provide to my departments that, yes, I’ve been doing work this whole time. (One assumes that if I weren’t, they would hear complaints, but there’s no official check in that occurs before Week 11).

Because this is the dire end of the term, it is also the last possible moment at which a student can turn in work. Of course, I set other deadlines: drop-dead revision deadline is usually Friday of Week 10, and the other major assignments come in at three week intervals.

Over the past two years, I’ve started running an experiment: I’ve allowed students a “flexible deadline” on the final draft of their second essay,  which would otherwise be due in Week 7 of the term. The essay still has a first-draft deadline for collaborative review in Week 6, but after that, students are allowed to take as much time as they need (through the end of the term) to revise the essay. I encourage them to make full use of the campus Writing Center, which many don’t find time to visit during the swift essay cycles we run, and I offer additional conference appointments and office hours.

Very few students take me up on the offer of personal meetings for conference. In addition, few also seem to use the Writing Center during these extra weeks. I have found two outcomes are likely:

  1. Students submit on time anyway, eager to see a grade.
  2. Students wait until the Very Last Minute to turn in a paper to which they have made few changes.

So this experiment seems like a failure. Yet — from each class, I have noticed a side-effect: students become much less stressed about the turn-in date for the paper. Knowing that I’m not monitoring to the moment when they hand it in, they lose a little of the wild-eyed stare that accompanies most learners in the middle of the term.

In theory, I’m against deadlines in writing courses. Yes, I think students should be learning how to construct essays in a finite time span. It’s a valuable skill in college and the “real world,” of course, and one that they need to learn somewhere. However, in a class with Writing in the title, what I want is their best work, the writing work they’ve most deeply considered, the piece with insight and creativity and sharp observation. That piece rarely (I won’t say never) appears from an all-night deadline-inspired writing binge, which is what 75 percent of my students seem to engage in.

But clearly, without a deadline, writing falls in priority. Without a place on a student’s crowded calendar, that paper is less urgent and less necessary than tests, quizzes, readings, even attendance in classes. So I need to find a way that balances these two impulses: the urge to free students of deadline stress and the need to provide instructive boundaries.

I don’t know what that is, yet, but Jan. 5, the start of the new term, is my deadline to figure it out.

picture of I-5

Writing + Sound: My Robot Carpool

I commute about 45 minutes to work at one of my jobs, driving to the next county’s community college twice a week. It’s not a bad commute, all things considered: it’s pretty swiftly moving, smooth Interstate, and the scenery is mixed farmland and hills, and in the vernacular of back home, everyone is about their business on I-5. Because at home I have a 3-year-old and at work I have 3 office mates, this is the most quiet time I can count on in any one stretch.

I rarely, however, let this actually be quiet time. I fluctuate between listening materials: often it’s NPR, and occasionally it’s music (recently, the Hamilton soundtrack) or audiobooks. However, thanks to Bluetooth technology, I also frequently carpool with a calm robot voice.

I use Scrivener for most of my creative writing, and it has a handy “Speech” feature where it will read your work back to you in one of a handful of robotic voices. Through bluetooth, I can stream this over my car speakers, meaning on some drives, I’m accompanied by my own words, made external.

This is a strange thing. The first few times I used it, I was experimenting with trying to recall an old, long work that I wanted to pick back up. It was surprising how even the flat, robotic voice made the writing change as I heard it aloud. Suddenly, just having what I’d written — what had until then never probably even been printed, had only existed in digital form — enter the world in sound, in some other voice, was pretty amazing. It felt official, like a kind of publication, even though I was the only one in the car.

Now, I use the audio feature to read back things I’ve written more recently. I can hear gaps and understand the way pieces aren’t working better when I interact with my words as a listener than when I try just re-reading. This is an interaction I’m quite interested in: this enforcement of distance is one that I’ve tried and, so far, largely failed to recreate for my students as they work on revision skills in our writing classes.

My robot friend is nameless. He is also free of judgement, free of confused pauses, free of mistaken mis-reading (though he does sometimes autocorrect things, changing “rep” to “representative” even when that’s not what I mean). I wish everyone could hear a reader just like this present the work they’ve done. It’s a time when writing is made more real by moving beyond the written form.

To hear the robot in action, reading this post, check out the Soundcloud link:

car balancing on edge of steep riverbank

The Featured Image

There’s this tiny box on WordPress that asks, every time I write, if I’d like to include a “featured image.” That image then appears at the top of my post, and it attaches itself whenever I share my writing — on Twitter, say, or Facebook. I’ve never spent much time considering the featured image beyond thinking sometimes it makes things look “nicer,” more professional, or at least more attractive.

Yet this week two readings have combined to bring that silly featured image to mind: this blog piece by Yin Wah Kreher (on accessible images and Twitter, and the introduction by Kevin Hodgson to this week’s theme for Digital Writing Month: Visual Literacy.

Where I’m coming to is that many of the tools I use to communicate have made it easy for me to thoughtlessly replace words with photos. Because I’m a terrible photographer — unless you like out-of-focus shots with random background noise — I’ve relied heavily upon the Creative Commons-licensed resources online. And this has made me wonder what I’m giving up, what I’m abdicating, when I put someone else’s image at the top of my own writing. Sure, I choose the image, but I never choose how it’s interpreted by the reader. This is true of writing, too: we all bring our own understanding to what we consume, whether through digital writing or photography, cartooning or sculpting, music or graffiti. Yet when I write a piece, I at least know what I meant to say. When I select someone else’s image to go before it, I’m trying to send a message through someone else’s creation, a creation that has its own history and its own intent.

One of the differences between digital writing and printed writing is this process of self-selection and the ability to find, at a moment’s notice and with sometimes less than a moment’s thought, a representative picture to replace my 1,000 words.

I don’t have a conclusion here except to think that this interaction between photo and word is one that I need to consider more. To call a photograph simply a decoration is to devalue the ability of images to speak above and beyond the text they accompany. Yet to stop featuring images seems a terrible use of the digital realm and its possibilities. In everything, I guess, there must be a constant fight for balance.

Photo of Field with purple flowers and sunset in background

Paths of Desire

Kate Bowles had a lovely piece up at the Digital Writing Month page called “Traces” today. Everyone interested in digital writing, consuming it, creating it, discussing it, thinking about and defining it, should take a look at her meditation on its meanings. I can’t summarize: please read the whole thing.

This section spoke to me particularly about my own DigiWriMo and writing goals. About walking (well. kind of), she writes:

And over time we make paths by following each other’s line of thought: that way is the shorter line between points, that way avoids the tree, and so on. Gradually these paths become visible to everyone, and then they tell us something important about the gait, the weight, and the lean of our bodies. We call these desire paths, and many other names—vernacular paths, goat trails, elephant paths—but it seems to me that they’re a kind of collaborative writing of our common selves onto the surface of the earth.

Ahh. There’s a phrase I love: desire paths. This made me think of my own students and my own learning. And — you know, there’s so much safety in the metaphor.

We start the term at the edge of a grassy field, but not the picturesque meadow on the cover of the You Too Can Write textbook: a big field, endless, swampy, thick with weeds, with snakes, rotted in places, with hidden bumps and holes. Some of the students are already equipped with scythes, heavy gloves, work boots, and some show up the first day barefoot, short-sleeved, without sunscreen or hats. I see them and know the term will burn them. They’ll blister their hands. They’ll stumble into mud, trip on rocks. They will struggle. Some will not make it to the other side.

Even some of the well-equipped students won’t make it to the other side; despite their gifts (from nature, from nurture, from luck and privilege), they’ll tarry along the way, forget to cut a path until it’s too late and the grass is too thick. Some will stand at the edge for the whole term, waiting for someone else to plow down the grass for them.

And then what’s my role, anyway? Should I be cutting the path for them? Leading them around the biggest rocks and sneaking them past the snakes? Or should we stop and observe these obstacles? Should I let them suffer the pitfalls, and then pull them to their feet? And how can I help them (make them?) tell one another when they’ve found an easier way? More than all of this: How can I help them want to make a path here? How can I help them get into the field at all?

I teach writing. Sometimes. Sometimes, I teach survival skills: here is how we will get you through this assignment, this week, this term. Here is how we will work on developing your voice so you can tell your parents/partner/adviser that you do not actually want to be here. Here is the other side of the field. Here are the signs we have written together.

Photo credit: Field by Trond Kristiansen.

AltCV to kick off #Digiwrimo

You guys, I like committee work.

There. I said it. I wasn’t even under duress. Those aren’t words I generally hear around either department I work in: some of the contracted (we don’t have tenure at my community college campuses — we have contracted vs. non-contracted, but this is an entirely different post/story) faculty seem to enjoy their colleagues and chances to collaborate with them, others may roll their eyes, but no one seems to really like being locked in a conference room (or computer lab) for prescribed hours of service.

I like that stuff, though. Committee work has been some of the most rewarding work I’ve done for my schools (outside of teaching). It has made me feel a part of the community of scholarship in a way that simply floating about, trying to read/write/keep up rarely does. I hardly ever get to sit on committees, and not even because the opportunities don’t exist: both community colleges I work at offer plenty of chances to get involved. I just usually can’t find the time, what with shuttling between two schools in two separate towns. It’s also pretty hard to justify the time when it’s unpaid (and childcare is not free, it turns out, even when you really really really want to talk about curriculum changes).

So, that’s my unofficial bio and the big invisible line on my CV: I’m Jenn, and I like committee work. Assign me at will.

Photo of a record

Three Topics for Higher Ed Discussion: A First Try at Podcasting

Hey! I made a podcast! As an assignment for a graduate education course I’m taking, I needed to record some audio. So I played around with Audacity, polled my educator friends about what they were thinking about, and came up with this “Three Quick Discussion Starters” podcast about higher education issues that have been on my mind. Check out the recording on SoundCloud or read along with the transcript below.

Continue reading

Back to School, in a few ways

I’ve just started back to school for the fall. This has a few definitions: I’m back in the classroom, teaching three face-to-face writing classes at one community college; I’m back online, teaching two connected courses for another CC; and I’m now taking classes, as a graduate student in Education at Western Oregon University.

Through some experiences with designing curriculum and reviewing online courses last year, I dipped a toe into the instructional design, and it’s made a difference in my teaching. I’m learning more, and I’m also learning again what it means to be a student. There’s vulnerability and unpredictability that I’ve forgotten. I’m comfortable in front of a class; I don’t mind revealing pieces of myself in my teaching because I control what’s revealed and how. I forget, sometimes, that my requests for equal sharing from students are compulsory, and I’m being reminded of this very directly by my new classes.

Anyway, all learning is an adventure. This term is going to be plenty adventurous.

Status: Grading, but not hating it

We’ve hit the part of the term where nearly everyone I know who is teaching is complaining. I have to imagine that this happened before social media, too, but I suspect that it happened in more civilized and limited ways: professors stood in the hallways outside of their offices and complained quietly, sardonically, about students and paperwork and grading. Maybe they met for drinks. Maybe they told their partners detailed stories about the day’s new frustrations. However, with Facebook and Twitter at hand, and with assignments being more and more graded not in offices but from home, from the coffee shop, from a hotel on the night before vacation, it’s so much easier to vent immediately about the stress and strain of this work. It’s solitary. It’s frustrating. It’s sometimes boring.

Grading isn’t my favorite part of my job, but — let me admit this with the understanding that it makes me a weirdo — I don’t hate it. Evaluating their work and providing supportive and critical feedback is one of the ways that I get to interact with and help my students the most. Yet I sometimes fall victim to this urge to complain about grading, how much I have, how much time it takes, how annoying it is to correct the same things again and again and again, too.

So this term, I’ve decided to enjoy it. Yep. I think it might actually be that simple. First rule: I designed assignments that I’m interested in evaluating. Second rule: I’ve given myself ample time to dedicate to the task instead of demanding the kind of turn-around that makes grading feel like a weight always on my shoulders. Third rule: I look at every paper like a new, exciting work that needs my interest as much as it needs my help. I’m meeting my students where they are, and looking at each story as a way to interact with another human being, another writer, instead of as a piece of useless, abstract nonsense. This is how we want students to see our classes, after all.

So far, it’s made me a better teacher and a better writer. My completion rate to this point in my online writing class is in the 90 percent range; the average in my department is well below 60, and online classes often dip below half. Beyond all of that, I don’t have to approach each new stack of papers with dread. That, in and of itself, is worth something.

Basically, it comes down to this: if this is the profession I’m choosing to pursue, then I have to find a way to make the work work for me. I can’t picture spending 30 or 40 years hating this task the way that so many of my colleagues do. Besides, teaching, while sometimes a vocation, is still also a job. There will always be work attached, but getting to read and evaluate writing — that’s just about the best work I can think of. If I can’t find a way to enjoy it, I definitely need to consider a new career.