That Adjunct Life: Year Two

I can’t believe an entire year has passed since I first began my journey as an adjunct professor.

No matter how many months pass or how many courses I teach, I still have not quite come to terms with the fact that I’m not a student anymore. I still feel like I’m a teaching assistant just playing at being a professor and waiting for my next term of courses to start. I still have not fully realized that I AM a professor and this IS what I do for a living now.

I have to admit that going to a job I love every single day is a fantastic feeling. My classrooms see both good days and bad ones, but the positive factors far outweigh the negative ones. I love my students and cherish the time I get to spend with them. I love trying new activities or assignments in the classroom and seeing how they turn out. I love improving as a teacher with every semester that goes by. While my wages are still rather modest comparatively speaking, I’m making more money than I’ve personally ever made in my life before. I’m feeling more secure in myself financially, professionally, and personally and am preparing to move out in a few months. Even though I’m certainly not without my complaints, life as an adjunct has treated me pretty damn well so far.

Do I still want the higher wages and higher stability that a full-time teaching position could offer? Absolutely. But am I content in the meantime doing what I’m doing now? You bet I am.

Year two, here we go.

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Humble Beginnings

As the semester begins to wind down to a close, I find myself reflecting on how I’ve gotten to where I am today.

As lame as it sounds, I honestly wouldn’t be an adjunct today if it wasn’t for Harry Potter. Without Harry Potter, I probably wouldn’t have fallen in love with teaching. I might not have majored in English. Heck, my entire life might have looked quite different if HP had never existed.

Allow me to explain.

I was first introduced to Harry Potter at the age on nine, when my third grade teacher began reading the first book to us. As we moved through Sorcerer’s Stone, I quickly became enamored with the magical world-building, the lovable characters, and the suspenseful storyline. Once we finished Sorcerer’s Stone, Ms. Masten moved onto Chamber of Secrets, and I was completely in love by the end of the year.

From that point, I started to read more and more. I read the third and fourth books, then I began looking for something else that could excite and inspire me as much as HP. While I found other books I loved over time, nothing could quite fill the Harry Potter-shaped space in my heart. Determined, I became an insatiable reader.

Around the same period of time, I began writing my first short stories. I figured that if I couldn’t find the books that were as good as HP, then I would write them. I quickly discovered that I loved writing just as much, if not more, than I loved reading. Every time a subsequent Harry Potter book would come out or I would encounter another excellent series, I just felt more and more motivated to write. By seventh grade, I was working on an elaborate book series and a handful of other written projects.

Needless to say, I have not become a best-selling author or anything like that (yet…), but my interest in writing fiction prompted me to major in English in my undergraduate studies. In college, Harry Potter became the quickest and easiest way to make new friends, especially with other English majors. We geeked out over our favorite moments, bonded at midnight movie releases, and took our Hogwarts houses very seriously. My friends’ house was even deemed the Hufflepuff Common Room, and they had a giant Hufflepuff crest fixated above their faux fireplace in their campus house.

By the end of college, I was still determined that writing fiction was what I wanted to do with my life. I applied to both MFA (fine arts programs in creative writing) and MA (regular English) graduate programs, and got accepted into one of each. After a lot of deliberation, I ended up deciding to stay at my undergrad institution and earn my MA so that I could apply to higher-caliber MFA programs later on. I was offered a teaching assistantship to fund my graduate studies, which meant that I would be teaching sophomore-level composition my second year in the program.

Sophomore-level composition at my university is theme-based, meaning that each individual instructor’s class is a different theme. I had a whole semester to design a course around whatever theme I liked, and I, of course, picked Harry Potter. The course was titled “From Hogwarts to the Humanities” and had units on identity, gender studies, religious studies, and philosophy, all connected to HP. When I finally got to teach the class in my second year, it was even more amazing than I had expected. I loved going to class every single day and reading all the great insights my students were bringing to the HP series in their writing and research. On the last day of the semester, one of the students asked if we could take a “family” photo. It was in that final class period, as we shed tears over a nostalgic HP tribute video and the end of our time together, that I knew I wanted to teach composition for the rest of my life. It probably goes without saying that, when I finished my Master’s degree, my graduation party was also HP themed!

So, while the concept may sound strange, Harry Potter truly changed my life. It impacted my hobbies, my friendships, and my career path. Without The Boy Who Lived, my life would look very, very different. Thank you, J.K. Rowling!

This post originally appeared on my instructor blog, Composition is Fun! You can view the original post here.

Adequate Inadequacies

Honestly, I have to admit that I’m feeling pretty sorry for myself this week.

I’m overworked and over-stressed, a result of a perfect storm of professional obligations, student assignments, and a healthy dose of procrastination. My hands have been cramping from all the handwriting and typing I’ve been doing, and, no matter how many hours I work, I just don’t seem to make a dent in the pile at all. Once I cross one thing off the list, two more just seem to pop right up.

Now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve felt this way since I finished graduate school. Even though last semester I was teaching two more courses than I am currently, I did not have any “coursework” of my own. Signing up for a professional development course requiring 6+ weeks of graduate-level work was probably not the smartest move I could’ve made, especially since I found out shortly after that I would also have 3 weeks of extensive training for a new online teaching position.

Needless to say, after I accidentally attached a blank document to a training assignment and was not familiar with the course management site enough to fix (or prevent) the issue two hours before the final deadline, I had a full-blown academia-induced breakdown. I’ve been about a year overdue for one, so it felt sickeningly familiar in some way.

This little breakdown has been the crowning glory in my feelings of inadequacy this week. I’m a perfectionist with a fear of failure, so every little mistake I make seems detrimental. I’m feeling like an inadequate instructor because I can’t keep up with my grading because of my professional obligations, and I’m falling behind in my professional obligations because of grading. I’m feeling inadequate in my field because I don’t have a Ph.D. and, at this rate, don’t know when I’ll get one. I’m feeling inadequate because my boyfriend from an upper-middle class family finally realized how run-down and cluttered my home is compared to his. I’m feeling inadequate because I can’t look the way I want to or dress the way I want to or do all of the things that I want to do.

I’m feeling inadequate because I’m 25 years old and still waiting for my life to really start. But, I guess this is a rather adequate inadequacy to have.

 

I Guess This is Growing Up

In two weeks, I will turn twenty-five.

Back in high school and even in undergrad, I thought I would have my whole life figured out by now. I thought I would be settled in a career, married, and maybe even a mother by this point. I truly believed I would be a full-blown adult by now. The closer I actually got to the age of twenty-five, the more I realized that the vision in my head was a flat-out joke.

Instead of living some picturesque version of adulthood, I’m mostly flailing about, trying to figure out my life while holding my shit together. In fact, with each new phase of my life that I enter, the more chaos I seem to encounter. My mid-twenties are definitely the most tumultuous years I’ve experienced so far. Especially without the structure of school, life is incredibly freeform right now. While some people might find that to be exciting and freeing, I find it to be utterly obnoxious and, at times, utterly terrifying.

Over time, the pieces of my life puzzle have slowly started to fall in place. While I’m still not in a full-time job, I at least have a clear-cut vision of what I want to do with my life, and I’m working my ass off in multiple part-time positions to make that vision a reality. I’m still living at home, but I have concrete goals for moving out and am actively trying to become more independent. I’m over a year into the best relationship I’ve ever been in and have started to seriously consider the fact that this might be the man I’m going to marry. The players are all lined up; now the wait is on to see if they all fall into position to play the game.

I’m so close to having the life I want for myself. In some ways, this terrifies me more than the periods in which I have felt totally lost and directionless. I’m so afraid I’m going to screw something up that will prevent this rather feasible dream into becoming an activity. I’m afraid that I will have to reinvent myself yet again and set off on a totally new path, a path that, for once, I don’t want to venture down.

My friends seem to be in similar states of disarray. Everyone is in the middle of career changes and identity crises. It’s kinda like we’ve been living these semi-artificial lives and now we’re all in flux, transforming into the people we’re really supposed to be. It is a crazy, scary, exciting, fun, awful, weird period of life to go through.

Well, I guess this is growing up.

The Great Escape

I have lived in one place my entire life. It only seems natural, then, that one of my main goals since high school has been to get out of my hometown.

It started with dreams to go away for college. I really wanted to go to a school about an hour away from home, but my family simply couldn’t afford it. As it turns out, I didn’t even apply to any schools outside of the two universities in my hometown. There was no point in getting my hopes up.

So, college was not my chance to break away. In undergrad, I started to look at grad school as my opportunity instead. In addition to the graduate program at my  home institution, I applied to schools in other parts of my state, as well as schools in other states. My mother was a little concerned about me potentially moving several hours away, but I was confident I could handle it.

The possibility became tangible when I was accepted into a MFA program in northern Ohio. While I liked the idea of establishing my independence and studying creative writing, this particular program was definitely not the program at the top of my list. Suddenly, three hours from home felt really far for a program I wasn’t completely in love with, especially with two less-than-healthy parents. Surprising myself, I turned down the offer of admission, even though I thought the decision meant that I would have to take a year off from school.

Of course, as it turned out, choosing not to attend that university for graduate school turned out to be one of the most important decisions of my life.

A few days after I turned down the offer, I was given full funding to attend my home institution’s MA program. During my time in the program, I fell in love with teaching, fell in love with rhet./comp., and met the man I would eventually fall in love with. The decision not to move away from home changed the course of my career, my love life, and my identity. I wouldn’t be who I am or where I am today if I had moved away right after undergrad to pursue an MFA.

So, with my Master’s degree earned at home, I set my sights on moving out for my PhD. This would be a move out of necessity, not choice; the closest PhD programs in my chosen field are both about an hour away. Getting into any program I applied to would be a guaranteed ticket out of my hometown. But, then, life happened. I got so caught up in trying to teach, grade, attend courses, do homework, meet department requirements, and attend conferences that I didn’t have any time, energy, or sanity left to apply to PhD programs in my last year of graduate school. After a significant mental breakdown, I resolved myself to taking a year off to work and focus on preparing my materials.

That did not go quite as planned either. I taught five classes last semester and barely made enough money to recover from a summer of no employment and the new financial responsibilities I had recently taken on. I couldn’t really afford the large amounts of money needed to take the GRE, send my transcripts, and cover application fees. With five classes, I also had so much grading and course prep to do that I hardly had enough time leftover to work on application materials and still maintain my meager social life. I finally resolved myself to the fact that I needed to put off applying for another year.

Now, I’m about a year away from the next application deadlines, and, for the first time in my young adult life, I don’t know if I really want to leave. It all appears in my mind so vividly. I can see myself taking a full-time job and getting a little apartment in an artsy neighborhood. I can see myself creating my own little life here with my boyfriend.

And, for the first time, I can see what a good little life it would be.

 

All’s Well That Ends Well (or Something)

The end of the calendar year is officially upon us.

Of course, anytime that one year comes to an end and another one is set to begin, we as humans naturally resort to nostalgic reflection, introspection, and prediction. We think about what went wrong in the last twelve months, what went right, and what we can do to make the next year an even better one (or, at bare minimum, a slightly less disastrous one). Every new year is chance to start again.

So, how does 2016 rate?

I think most Americans (and people in plenty of other countries) can agree that 2016 has been far from the brightest star in our collective sky. With notable celebrity deaths, global travesties, and a shit-show of a presidential election, I wouldn’t be surprised to find many people breathing a quiet sigh of relief when the clock strikes midnight and 2016 finally slips away for good.

Putting all that aside, though, 2016 hasn’t been a bad year for me personally. In fact, 2016 has been packed full of firsts and milestones, both good and less-than-good. In the past twelve months I:

  • saw my first published academic/scholarly article in print
  • started dating my coworker/classmate-turned-friend
  • got into my first car accident
  • bought a new-to-me car for the first time
  • turned 24
  • went to Seattle with two of my TA friends
  • presented at an academic conference in Seattle with those TA friends
  • presented at writing center conference
  • graduated with my M.A. in English with a concentration in writing
  • had an awesome Harry Potter themed graduation party
  • got hired as an online writing tutor
  • went on vacation to a place I had never visited
  • celebrated 6 months with that coworker/classmate-turned-friend-turned-boyfriend
  • witnessed more than one major parent-related health crisis (again)
  • got hired to continue teaching at my home institution and to teach at the local community college
  • taught a total of seven college composition courses
  • had a final-round interview for one of my dream jobs
  • celebrated the holidays with friends, family, and my boyfriend’s family

In total, 2016 has been nothing short of a hectic, stressful, rewarding, surprising year full of twists and turns. While not everything that occurred this year was ideal, I don’t really regret anything; good things always seem to come out of the negative ones. In a lot of ways, this year wasn’t so much about being perfect…it was about setting the stage for where I want to go and who I want to be. I’ve accomplished so much professionally since I graduated in May, and my love life is more fulfilling than it has ever been before. I have good friends, supportive family, and a job I love. I’m not quite where I want and need to be, but I’m definitely headed in the right direction. I’m on the cusp of something wonderful, and that’s what I think 2017 will bring.

So, friends, let’s say goodbye to 2016 and welcome the possibilities that 2017 holds. It’s going to be a great year.

 

Anxious Academics

I don’t really talk much about my anxiety. I don’t know why I don’t. I’m not exactly ashamed of it. I guess I just always feel like I would sound like I am looking for attention (which I’m definitely not) or exaggerating a nonexistent problem (which I’m pretty sure I’m not).

Some of my friends are less bashful than I am when it comes to talking about issues with anxiety. Among my peer group (broadly conceived), not having anxiety issues seems to be less common and more unusual than actually having them. Since a lot of my friends are around my same age with graduate degrees in English, this makes me question whether this simply generational, if this is a product of the high-pressure world of academia, or if English as a discipline simply happens to attract individuals with similar idiosyncrasies. Or, you know, a dangerous combination of all three.

When I think about stereotypical portrayals of academics across disciplines, a few things come to mind. The absent-minded professor that is so wrapped up in their own research that they forget things like scheduled office hours, committee meetings, and whether or not students turned in an assignment. The tenured faculty member that is still teaching off the same syllabus they first developed thirty years ago. The pretentious professor that looks down upon any student that can’t name five prominent theorists off the top of their head. In six years of taking courses and two and a half teaching them, I have definitely encountered professors that have fit into each of these categories.

So is that what I and others like me are becoming? A new option on the list of possible professor personality profiles? Anxious academics. Introverts forced to fake extroversion in order to make each class happen. Instructors that cry over their piles of textbooks and ungraded essays from a combination of stress and exhaustion. Fake-it-’til-you-make-it individuals that somewhat dread meeting a new group of students every term.

Anxious Academics. We’re a burgeoning demographic in academic departments everywhere. New tenure-track professors and full-time lecturers might be them. Your TA is almost certainly one. The trick is getting us to come out of hiding.

The Compositionist’s Song

Oh, sweet literature. The pride and joy of English majors everywhere.

My boyfriend studied literature in his Master’s program. In fact, most of my friends from my graduate cohort focused their studies in literature. My uncle, too, has a graduate degree with a concentration in literature. Out of a pack of literature scholars, I am the lonely compositionist.

I became an English major in undergrad simply because I loved reading and writing more than I loved anything else. While I certainly did love the reading I got to do in college, I found myself not enjoying the writing as much as I had hoped. I loved the writing I was producing in my creative writing courses, but I hated academic writing. I did not enjoy literary analysis papers at all, and, naively, that’s all I thought English majors could ever write. I thought that was the extent of research for English majors.

Everything changed, of course, when I entered graduate school.

As an M.A. student, I selected writing as my concentration. I was still operating under the impression that I was going to pursue an MFA and be a prolific fiction writer, and the writing concentration allowed more easily for a creative writing course than the literature and teaching tracks. But, since I was a teaching assistant, composition studies quickly became a large part of my coursework whether I wanted it to or not. Since we all had to teach composition, we were expected to know composition pedagogy and be familiar with significant research in the field.

These studies, paired with my experiences working in the campus writing center and my first ventures into planning my own second-year writing course, eventually made me start falling head-over-heels in love with composition. Being in my own classroom later on pushed me right over the edge into full-blown obsession. I couldn’t remember what life was like before composition, and I didn’t want to imagine a future career without it.

I love how composition studies is so heavily based in the real world. This is what our students, regardless of background, major, or career plans, are doing on a day-to-day basis. They are composing constantly, for school and otherwise…essays, research papers, lab reports, Facebook updates, group texts, tweets, blog posts…the types of writing our students are doing is practically limitless. Composition instructors are not just teaching students how to write a paper that will get them an A; we are teaching them how to be effective communicators and critical thinkers in our classes, in all of the students’ others courses, and in students’ professional lives beyond college. Campus writing centers further serve to help students become more independent thinkers, writers, and students, and don’t even get me started on how many other wonderful things writing centers do.

Will universities ever truly appreciate the work that composition instructors and writing centers do? Probably not. Will students ever truly appreciate it? Definitely not. But that’s okay. We as compositionists will continue to quietly serve our students and our universities anyway.

 

The Peer Review Problem

As a composition instructor, peer review is one of my favorite things. In fact, it might be my favorite thing about teaching composition. I love hearing students engage in dynamic conversations about writing. I love watching them realize that they do know how to recognize good writing and that each individual has a unique way of approaching the assignment. I love how peer review truly allows students to become active agents in their own learning.

Ironically,  I hated peer review as a student. I didn’t like the written feedback method, and reviewers never really said anything. So, in my first year as a college composition instructor,  I took it upon myself to experiment with different styles of peer review in an effort to find a method that students would benefit from and, maybe, actually enjoy.

Amazingly, I was successful in this endeavor. I found not one, but multiple, methods of peer review that my sophomore students liked better than the standard written response. As I would walk around the room, I would hear genuine and in-depth conversations about the papers, writing in general, and the students as writers. I continually received strong essays from students who took peer review seriously. It was fantastic.

Now that I’m in my second year of teaching entirely on my own, I have tried these same methods with my first year students at multiple institutions. With one group of students, peer review is going fantastically. In the other classes, though? Not so much. They try the methods, sure. They follow the directions, yes. But they’re breezing through the workshops as quickly as possible. For the most part, these students are not having the genuine conversations I am trying to encourage them to have.

It’s all so frustrating because I don’t think they understand how important this is and how beneficial it can be when given the proper amount of time and effort. I don’t think they care about helping their classmates become better writers. I don’t think some of them even care about becoming better writers themselves. But I will keep trying. I will keep experimenting with new styles and gaining student feedback. I will conquer the peer review problem.

Fellow composition instructors, do you have particular methods of peer review that you like to use? Leave them as a comment! I’d be happy to share any of my methods as well!

 

Under Pressure

Before my 8 A.M. class the other day, I ran into one of my friends from grad school out in the hallway. This friend is currently in her second (and final) year as a MA student and teaching assistant, and we were catching up about how classes were going when I asked her if she was still applying to PhD programs.

I knew her answer before she even said the words.

“No,” she said. “I think I’m just going to do what you did and work for a year.” 

Why was I not surprised by her answer? Because I had made the same decision myself, not just once, but now two years in a row.

Since our university only offers a terminal MA program, the pressure to apply to and be accepted into PhD programs is incredibly high. We get this pressure from our TA advisers, our professors, and our department chair. Alternative careers are pretty much only discussed at the grad students’ requests, and, while the faculty would never openly admit it, such alt-ac careers are somewhat looked down upon in the department.

Because of this emphasis on PhD program placement, professional development for MA students is highly prized in our department. We hear about the importance of attending and presenting at conferences over and over again, with CFPs being passed along to us all of the time. In every class, we are told how much having published writing matters and receive tips on how to revise class assignments for publication. We are encouraged to participate in workshops, join department committees, volunteer for campus events, and chair presentations for conferences on campus. All of this is, of course, on top of a full load of graduate courses. Oh, yeah, and we have two classes to teach.

As MA students and teaching assistants,  we are split into three different roles: that of student, that of teacher, and that of emerging scholar. We are supposed to be the best we can be in all three categories in order to better our chances of getting those coveted positions in doctoral programs. Beyond our coursework, class planning, and grading, we are so consumed with conferences and publications that GRE scores, writing samples, and personal statements fall to the wayside. We’re so busy trying to become the best candidates that we can be that we run out of the time and energy necessary to actually apply for these programs when application season rolls around. So, we put off applying, hoping to give our materials the time and attention they deserve the next time around.

And the cycle begins again.