Almost Academic

On writing a dissertation while also teaching 9 classes at two different colleges, but also wandering into amateur astronomy, mountain biking, and taking care of 5 cats, three dogs, and a spousal equivalent.

Location: Midsized City, Square State, United States

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

I teach at two different schools right now, and have taught at two others in the past. At every school I have been assigned a textbook. Since I have so far been either a grad student or an adjunct, this doesn't bother me too much. I understand that a university, college, or communty college has a general idea of what should be happening in its composition classes, and I think the school has the right to assign a textbook that it believes satisfy that idea--to a certain extent. I think fulltime and tenure-track faculty, and even longterm adjuncts and advanced/experience grad students should be able to choose their own texts.

Today's Inside Higher Ed has an article about the trend toward standardization in colleges--not just in textbook choice, but in lesson plans. And faculty are starting to wonder how much of our autonomy is about to fly out the window...

I'm guessing, almost all of it.

At the four-year school for which I adjunct, Drive-Thru U, standardization is key. We not only have no choice of textbook (although the administration DID give us--adjuncts included--a chance to evaluate its top three choices), but we have no choice as to what gets taught, when, or how. We have a 1,000 point grading scale, and cannot choose how much or how little weight to give to any particular assignments. The university wants to be able to tell its freshman students that no matter which section of Comp 1 they sign up for, they will get as close as possible to the same experience they would have found in any other section. I have no earthly idea why anyone believes students care about this. I also have no idea why, if students DO care, a university should be catering to them. I can't see much value to this kind of standardization.

It's really strange teaching this class. We have a Blackboard shell, complete with a set of internet links, reading assignments, tutorials, and boilerplate writing assignments. Sure, I have the ability to modify the assignments a tiny bit, but I can't, say, decide not to give points for attendance. I feel like I'm being shoehorned into an uncomfortable box. It's a lot harder to teach when you aren't the author of the lesson plans. It's also unfair to the students, and here's why:

In my classes at other schools, I get to know the students. Every class is different, just as every student is different. Each class has its own personality. In some, all of the students will have a pretty high literacy rate and might be happy to contribute to class discussions. In others, they'd rather chew off their feet than say anything out loud. Some class cultures resist the idea that anyone really cares about plagiarism. Others become sure that the teacher can't tell if they've really done the reading assignments. My point is that, whatever the particular class culture, I change my teaching style and my assignments to adapt.

Here's an example: one of my classes at the community college was having a hard time understanding why professors and writers care about academic honesty--partly because they had never really been taught how to integrate their research into their writing. For this class, I threw out my usual lesson plan and instead I prepared a series of "student-written" paragraphs. Each paragraph attempted to integrate a statement from a book into the "student's" argument, and each did it incorrectly. I brought the books from home, so that the students could see the original text and also see how the "student" had tried to cite it. We worked through several of these until we could all see how to properly give credit, and also how to construct an argument by using other people's thoughts. They really seemed to "get" it. I could almost see the lightbulbs go on over their heads. After this exercise, they could not only understand how to use sources, how to paraphrase, how to quote, etc., they could also understand that teachers can usually tell when a student mixes his or her own words with those of a professional writer. I hope they could tell that writers feel some ownership over their work, and get angry when someone steals it.

At Drive-Thru U I could never do an assignment like this, no matter how much I thought my students could benefit, or how much I thought they needed it. There is no room for individual instructor modifications that respond to particular students or classes. And I wonder, why even have faculty with graduate degrees? Once a lesson plan has been designed and loaded into Blackboard, it doesn't take a genius to implement it. I can see a time when colleges don't require their faculty to have a graduate degree in the subject at hand, provided someone with "expert" status has designed the course. Right? You have experts design your content, and then get technicians to deliver it.

It's just like eBay. How cool.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Welcome to my latest excuse for not quite keeping up with the dissertation schedule!

Actually, this is the first semester I haven't hated the thing. I have been ABD for a year and am just now beginning to write. I spent the summer after my General Exams just being vastly relieved that I didn't have to study any more, and then I was teaching too many classes, and then too much time had passed, and then I was teaching fewer classes--so I had time to write, yes? But no, I needed to first prepare my Prospectus.

In my department, a Dissertation Prospectus is not really required. At least my advisor doesn't think it is, he's not sure, and neither of us has bothered to find out. He thinks, and I agree, that it's a good idea to write a prospectus, so that a person knows what the dissertation is going to look like. Also, so that the committee has an idea. That didn't help me write it, though. I just kept seeing it as one more obstacle to actually writing my diss.

Anyway, I spent the last year falling into a depression. Teaching fewer classes, when you're an adjunct, means making less money. Adjuncts get paid just about enough to live on dirt and day old bread, you know. I haven't bought new clothes in nearly two years. Haven't bought the tires I need, haven't been to the dentist or the eye doctor. I buy my own health insurance, and fortunately I'm healthy enough not to have needed it so far. But there's something about not having money...I don't mean social status...or maybe I do...just constantly knowing that I can't buy much more than groceries, that I'm not able to help Spousal Equivalent pay the cable bill, the utilities, or very much else, kind of wears on me.

So I wasn't writing, wasn't teaching much, had to close a bank account, couldn't pay my student loans that began to come due...what I did do was get into pretty good shape riding my bike. We have a little trail through the woods here, with some nice little pallet bridges and whoopty-doos. It's about a 5 mile trail and I had worked up to completing it in a personal-best 33 minutes. I was up to riding 3 laps, and my heart rate monitor tells me I was using well over 1,000 calories per workout. Listen, getting ready to ride--filling the Camelbak, making sure I had my helmet and shoes, seeing that my tires had the right pressure for that day's trail conditions, getting the pre-ride nutrition dialed in, and then driving to the trail, spending a couple of hours riding, then getting home, drinking the protein shake (I found one that tastes so good it's like liquid crack), showering... this takes up a fair amount of a person's day. I didn't have time to do this and grade papers, do course prep, teach a class or two, and work on my dissertation.

Oh, of course I had time. I just didn't do it. I felt like the only thing I was really able to accomplish was lowering my resting heart rate and body fat percentage. Not that this is bad, but when it's a know what I'm saying.

What has changed?

I'm not sure, but something has. I got a forebearance on the student loans. SE loaned me enough money to pay my back tuition, so I can enroll this semester and not get kicked out of the PhD program. I emailed my advisor (I live nearly 200 miles from my grad school) and told him I need to work on the dissertation itself, and not the prospectus. Otherwise I'll never get anything done. I also told him that I need more structure and I have to have deadlines or I can't force my immature self to actually do the necessary work. So we have a meeting in September and I will have completed and sent him a chapter draft a week before that meeting.

Therefore, a chapter draft must be written. So far I have 14 pages. I mean to have about 50. I have a set structure in mind, I know what the chapter needs to say, and I'm in the process of digesting the research and spitting it out on paper. It's going slower than I had hoped, but it is going. The prospectus will be done, too, just not before the first chapter.

I wish I could find some more balance, though. Since I've been writing, I haven't been riding. My Rockhopper sits all alone in the garage, its front tire deflating at about the same rate my ass is inflating. Must leave Doritos at Quick Shop. Get more leafy greens.

As for teaching...that's my next entry.