One of the things that jumps out from our two surveys on the life of adjuncts and life after adjuncting is that most respondents who currently serve as adjuncts only spend 1-5 hours each week on their own professionalization (which we define like this: ‘publications, conference papers, etc.; i.e. things that ostensibly count towards tenure’ outside of teaching). This is surprising because the majority of respondents also claim to only be teaching two courses per term and spending 40 or fewer hours in all teaching-related activities (with most people responding in the 30-40 range, and some reporting as high as 60 hours each week). Which leads me to this question: What are people doing with their time?
Some people are clearly spending a lot of time caring for dependents – a fair number of respondents reported serving as primary caregiver for their children – and a number of current adjuncts reported working other, non-academic jobs (yes, people with PhDs do seem to wait tables). Here’s one example that I find particularly staggering:
I get up with three kids, get them dressed/fed/ready for school. Drive them to school. Drive to my workplace. Teach two classes on MW and three classes on TTH. I hold office hours between classes on TTH. I pick up my kids around 4:15 PM (later on Wednesdays). I am with my kids from 4:15-9:30PM. Then I prep for classes and grade until midnight-2:00 AM. If I get a lot of grading done on the weekend, I can go to bed earlier during the week.
But this doesn’t capture everyone, and, in fact, it doesn’t seem to capture most respondents. It seems like people are consistently underreporting the amount of time they spend working – either that, or most people are really committed to working a 40-hour work week. For most people, this is what should be the goal for adjuncting job – a policy of ‘minimal effort’:
I prep a lecture (recycled usually), do the reading, and teach the class. I have a new policy of minimal effort for anything adjunct related, so it doesn’t take long.
I have a couple theories on the under-reporting. One is that people systematically under-count the amount of time they are doing things related to work, but not work itself – e.g. sending work-related emails – that add up to significant amounts of time. Alongside this, we also under-count the amount of time we spend doing certain things, like course preparation, grading, reading and writing.
But that might fly in the face of the numbers we’ve collected so far. If people are only teaching two classes per term, and they’re spending 40 hours doing that, they’re spending way too much time teaching. Part of this may be that people are teaching new courses each term, in which case they’re constantly put into the position of developing new course content. Even if that’s the case, 20 hours per class per week if an awful lot of time to spend prepping, teaching and grading, especially when students are unlikely to spend anywhere near that amount of time working on course content.
The usual rule is that students should spend two to three hours prepping for class (depending on your institution) per hour of contact time. So for most students who are enrolled in full time course work, they end up working the equivalent of a 40-hour work week. If they’re spending that much time prepping, and the content is something we know, we shouldn’t be spending more time than they are. My general rule for a new prep (which usually means developing a powerpoint slideshow and rereading most of the readings) is two hours per day; after I’ve taught a class two or three times, I just make sure that I go through the slides prior to lecture so there aren’t any surprises.
One of the downsides of many adjuncting positions is that your courses are selected for you, rather than you selecting your own courses; or, as in the case of a close friend, your adjuncting position is dependent upon your willingness to teach a course well outside of your expertise (she works in Europe and was asked to teach on Native North America). In the first case, one of the things I’ve learned over the past few years is that every course is largely interchangeable. You might tweak the content a bit, but if your specialty is medical anthropology and you’re handed a course on kinship, just purge everything that isn’t in some tangential way about kinship from the Intro to Medical Anthropology syllabus and repopulate it with stuff you already know. Which is basically to say that you should always be teaching to your strengths, and that the need to master a new body of literature for one class is unreasonable and unlikely. More importantly, if something is wildly out of your wheelhouse, you have two options: 1) just say no – another adjuncting job will come along, and preparing for a class you have no expertise in and don’t plan to do again is a colossal waste of time, or 2) develop a new expertise – if the job offer could turn into a steady gig, it might be worth investing the time in developing a course that meets the institution’s need as well as your own. But, ultimately, you have to judge between those two positions.
The bigger time sink that has almost no potential for a positive payback is grading. (I have never heard a student say anything like ‘I want to thank you for the way you graded my paper – it really changed my life!’). Do you use take home essays, in class short answer or scantron tests, or something else entirely? I’m watching many of my adjuncting friends on Facebook complain about the hundred+ essays they currently have to grade, and I can’t believe that’s a good use of anyone’s time. For some reason cultural anthropologists want to assign papers all the time, but do students learn any more from writing a paper than taking a well-written exam? I would say no, and that the only thing that keeps us focused on papers is our individual resistance to tests. And if we’re grading papers as if we’re grading tests – looking for key concepts and definitions – why not just assign a test?
One of my best educational experiences was as a grad student in a class where we had to take in-class exams. They were so well written that they forced students to synthesize their thinking in the context of taking the test. And they probably took about 10 minutes each to grade – at the most – and more likely 5. A good test can do that in ways that papers should do, but often don’t. Because students wait until the last 24 hours to write anything, because they don’t revise what they write, and because they have multiple time pressures (like ‘as soon as this paper is done, I’m on vacation’), papers rarely get the attention from students that they deserve. And then faculty are in the position of having to attend to them, and attend to them carefully. The only place students should be writing papers are in upper division classes, where the student to teacher ratio is more conducive to supporting everyone’s full attention and students know enough to write a sensible paper that helps further their learning. So, with that in mind, try writing in-class exams for your next class – a little time spent writing a good exam can save tons of time on the backend.
If you insist on papers, develop a grading rubric. For my large, upper division lecture courses, which have teaching assistants as graders, I have students do two take home essays that are no more than three pages apiece (short writing forces students to either really consider what they’re writing or just fail the assignment); in both cases, I provide my TAs with rubrics that outline the expectations of the assignment. At first, the rubrics take a little getting used to, but eventually TAs report that grading papers gets down to 5 minutes or so, which is perfect. They don’t need to provide robust commentary – studies show that students don’t read most of it anyway – but students who want to talk about their papers can come to office hours. And if rubrics also include a list of possible grammatical and syntactic errors, you can identify problem areas for students while you grade. And rubrics also help to standardize what can often appear to be a rather subjective looking process for students – since I’ve started using rubrics in all my classes, my complaints related to grades have plummeted to maybe one per test.
This is primarily to say that in any teaching position – adjuncting, tenure track, or post tenure, it’s vital that you find ways to preserve your time while maximizing the educational experience for your students. Within limits. Especially in adjuncting positions, minimizing the amount of time you spend prepping for class and grading is necessary to be able to tend to your own work — five hours each week is not enough to break the adjuncting cycle. In the end, it’s not going to be that you’re willing to teach a course on Native North America that will get you a job – it’s your record of publications in your area of specialty.