Friday, February 4, 2011

Adjuncting and a Modern Literature Disaster

When I was a graduate student, I taught an intro course in comparative literature, comparative Canadian literature, to be precise. This was my exact area of expertise, so, other than the boring early discovery/settler literature, the class typically went well. This was my first experience teaching undergrads; I had previously taught English as a Second Language to bored and resentful teenagers over summers, so the literature thing seemed really easy to me.

When I moved out to California, I taught various levels of writing and composition as an adjunct, from basic developmental writing to an advanced course to upper division students. While I didn't have much experience, I had wonderful mentors, great colleagues, and so, once again, generally ended up doing ok. I even like teaching developmental students because of my experience there.

Then, I hit what I thought was the jackpot: I was asked, at the last minute, to teach a upper-division class in Modern Literature. I was excited because, while not exactly my area of expertise, I longed to teach literature again. I also knew how important it was to have experience teaching upper-division courses while on the job market. I was just beginning to think of new ways to use technology in my courses to enhance the students' learning, and I thought that this would be a chance to try something new.

One problem: I had no idea what I was doing and virtually no guidance in order to do it. When I asked if the title of the course meant what we would consider Modernist literature or just simply modern, as in during more modern times, I was met with a shrug. Looking at old syllabus didn't help because it seemed that the course was whatever the professor wanted it to be. So I decided to focus on the "greats" of the Modernist movement, mixing in some authors who may not have been considered Modernist, but wrote during that period (most notably Langston Hughes and others from the Harlem Renaissance). I found a wonderful and inexpensive anthology of short stories, all virtually from the time period, which allowed me to hit the greats without a tone of large novels intimidating the students. The novels I did pick, I thought, were accessible, interesting, and a good illustration of certain aspects of the Modernist period. Virginia Woolfe's To The Lighthouse, Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, Langston Hughes Not Without Laughter (I was told not to do poetry; this was a literature class), and James Joyce's, Mr Modernist himself, Dubliners.

The short stories I had selected were not particularly well-known (ie, you couldn't use Google to read up about them), so I had students select one short story each to create a Wikipedia-type introduction to be shared with the class and then lead an online class discussion through Blackboard on that story. I moderated the discussions about the novels and had groups of students create annotated bibliographies for each of them, in some cases limiting them to critical works from the past 20 years. These bibliographies were shared among all of the students before they had to go off and write their major essay assignment, which was an open topic.

If all of this sounds good to you, it was. On paper. I had to teach the class and get the students to buy into what I was selling. I wasn't terribly successful. The students almost universally resented having to participate in online discussion forums (I loved it because it game me a jumping off point for class discussions; they hated that part, too) and didn't understand why I wasn't just teaching them what they needed to know, rather than making them do it. On top of it, they either thought my lectures and expectations were too hard or too easy. The final exam, which I had to give, wasn't fair (although I'll never understand why students complain about getting the essay questions in advance; would you rather go into the exam blind?) and I didn't do enough to prepare them for it.

Which is, in a lot of ways, fair enough. I was used to only having to be one step ahead of 100-level students, and while there were students who weren't too challenging to stay ahead of, many of my students were at the 400-level. It became clear that I was in over my head. I was reading some of these works for the first time cover to cover. Why the Dubliners by Joyce and not the more "Modernist" Ulysses or Finnegan's Wake? Because I didn't want to have to teach them! There were so many different ways that I could approach or access these works that I became overwhelmed. It showed in my lectures. While it was easy to focus in on one element to work on in an introductory writing class, it was really hard for me to do in a 400-level class with works that have inspired thousands of pages of criticism and analysis.

It was the first time I ever received more negative than positive feedback from my student evaluations. One read that I wasn't qualified to teach the course and didn't even have a clear definition of what the course was supposed to be about. Another wrote that I was too demanding and not at all helpful. Yes another resented my attempts to integrate technology, calling it a waste of time and effort. I was chastened. This was my first failure as a teacher, in an area I most wanted to succeed. I figured that because of the poor evaluation, as an adjunct, I would never be asked to teach the course again, and thus never have the opportunity to revise and refine my approach.

I think that this is a huge double-bind that adjuncts often find themselves in: wanting or needing to say yes to a course they have no business teaching. Because I got the course relatively at the last minute, I didn't really have time to prepare, read, and reread any of the works I was teaching. And, while where I worked had an extensive network of people and support to those teaching writing courses, there wasn't anything in place if you happened to end up teaching something else.

But I did end up learning some things about myself and my teaching. I think the majority of the students in the class learned something too, however grudgingly. I am particularly proud of the student who created a multi-media final essay that integrated jazz recordings with an analysis of Langston Hughes' work. Another professor might not have allowed the student to experiment like that. So for those students for whom the class, they felt, was a waste of time, I am sorry. I would promise to do better next time, but unfortunately, I probably never will have the opportunity again. And for that, I am doubly sorry that your experience was, in a lot of ways, for naught.


  1. (I was told not to do poetry; this was a literature class)

    I'm speechless.

    I'm also glad that my committee didn't share this perspective when it came time for me to file my dissertation (on T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, and William Carlos Williams).

  2. Hey, this wasn't anyone's finest moment. The chair of the dept at that time was a linguist from China, so he didn't really know what to advise me. My dissertation was on modern (Canadian and French Canadian) poetry, so telling me to go the poetry route might have been better.

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  4. I had an ancient literature disaster my first semester teaching Roman Civ. It was because I felt the entire time that I was teaching someone else's -- which I kind of was, I'd taken it over the person who taught it before, so even though I was technically very qualified to teach it, it wasn't my own material at all. Those were definitely my worst evals (I was also inexperienced at lecture classes, so no surprise there).

    From then on I taught the stuff cared about and threw out the 'ought to'. I figured if one of my profs could throw Vergil out of a Roman civ class (unthinkable heresy to many), so could I!