The Adjunct Writing Teacher’s Life

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower

I don’t subscribe to the Atlantic any more, largely because I barely have time to read Harper’s every month.  But I saw a link to this piece on the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s web site.  (Yes, I check their job listings every day.)  The upshot of the piece is that the American college system has pretty much overextended itself and is now taking in students who don’t really need college and lack the ability to handle college, but my favorite bit is when he talks about his jealousy for his colleagues in the science and math departments:

How I envy professors in other disciplines! How appealing seems the straightforwardness of their task! These are the properties of a cell membrane, kid. Memorize ’em, and be ready to spit ’em back at me. The biology teacher also enjoys the psychic ease of grading multiple-choice tests. Answers are right or wrong. The grades cannot be questioned. Quantifying the value of a piece of writing, however, is intensely subjective, and English teachers are burdened with discretion. (My students seem to believe that my discretion is limitless. Some of them come to me at the conclusion of a course and matter-of-factly ask that I change a failing grade because they need to graduate this semester or because they worked really hard in the class or because they need to pass in order to receive tuition reimbursement from their employer.)

At UGA, I’ve been teaching some of the best that Georgia has to offer, so I don’t get the really awful papers very often at all.  But I have gotten good and tired of Novembers and Aprils–the times when students of average ability come to my office to demand that I mark their papers above-average so that they can retain their lottery scholarships.  I’ve stopped even smiling when I ask them, “So what did your chemistry teacher say when you asked him?”

They don’t like that much.

At any rate, the article isn’t a bad one, even if it is depressing.  But having been in front of those evening classes as a night adjunct myself, teaching people who have children older than me, I know he doesn’t make any of that stuff up.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Adjunct Writing Teacher’s Life

  1. Jonathan

    I do feel for English professors (even if some of them piss me off…not you). Some of my teachers seemed to grade subjectively. Quick story, my first semester of college I took English 101. Our ‘adjunct’ professor told us straight up that he only gives out one A per paper. That is it. For every paper, he would give out one A, maybe two B’s, almost all C’s, and a couple of D’s or F’s. I think I got a C on almost every single paper (as did most of the class). It was such BS. How can a professor have a rule to give out only one A per paper no matter how good (or bad) the papers may be. I ended up with a C in that class that semester. I was pretty pissed. If he didn’t have that insane grading rule and if I truly earned a C then I wouldn’t have been so mad. The next semester I took English 102. Thankfully, I had a different professor. My writing style was exactly the same as it was during the previous semester. It didn’t change at all. You know what my final grade was for English 102? An A. That is what is frustrating to students. It seems like grades are just picked out of thin air…especially with subjects like English. I feel for English professors because I know that grading is probably difficult. However, I really feel for the students on this one as there seems to be such a discrepancy in the grading from professor to professor. Well, I don’t what that really had to do with anything. 🙂 I hope you liked my little story.

  2. Jonathan

    I just read the article. Good stuff. I have had a few ‘Ms. L’s’ my classes throughout college. Those are the people that I really feel for. They’re usually older and have come back to college or are going for the first time. They have forgotten the basics that they learned (or should have learned) in high schoool over twenty years ago. It’s not that they’re lazy or that they’re not trying. They just aren’t ready (and may never be ready) for the college level. Our culture likes to push college on everyone, but the sad truth is college is not for everybody. This ‘college for everyone’ puts both the ill-prepared students and the professors in difficult situations.

  3. I did enjoy your story, Jonathan, and as someone who takes my vocation very seriously, I really do wish you had gotten together about five witnesses who had heard your teacher say that he grades on that screwy quota system and taken it to the department head. Idiocy like that only makes the job harder for those of us trying to give genuine professional judgments of students’ writing. If the department were worth anything, they’d take folks like that off of the frosh comp beat, and any department not worth anything students should probably stay away from.

    With regards to “Ms. L,” I actually had my most egregious examples in speech classes, not writing classes, so I was able to fall back on my lack of experience and grant clemency where a real oral comp teacher, I imagine, would not have. I don’t know for sure, of course; I still don’t know much about teaching speech, even though I’ve taught three sections of it! 🙂

    I’m half expecting an ambush from El Ick, who is much more of a taskmaster when it comes to writing than I am. I’m waiting, O Icky one…

  4. Jonathan

    Where I saw the most ‘Ms. L’s’ were in the mandatory, lower-level math classes. I really feel bad for them.

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