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Monday, January 14, 2013

My On-and-Off Teaching Career, Part II


Although I found my feet, so to speak, in teaching my own classes as a graduate student (see Part I of these reminiscences, only if interested), my first junior college experience as an adjunct instructor meant starting all over again. Gone was the support group of other graduate students. Gone also was the comfortable familiarity of an office and phone shared with four other graduate students: as an adjunct I was a stranger in a strange land, with not so much as a coat hook to call my own! From the parking lot to the classroom, with a stop in the department office to pick up messages and mail and to make any copies I might need for class, then back to the parking lot, carrying my “office” with me, I went, feeling—at first--almost invisible and hardly part of the world around me.

I won’t say that the first class I taught as an adjunct was a disaster, but it wasn’t good. Brought in at the last minute, I inherited textbook and syllabus from the faculty member originally been assigned that section, so the whole structure of the class was someone else’s, not mine, and I let the materials dictate the content of each session. Not good. That initial error continued through the semester as students and I force-marched through consecutive chapters of an introductory textbook, all of us uninspired and the students overwhelmed by too much material in too little time.

Things improved markedly in subsequent semesters. Still “homeless” in terms of an office, I did get to choose my own textbooks from then on, and that change improved every aspect of my classes. I don’t recall when I had the idea of starting Intro to Ethics with the Golden Rule rather than with Plato, but that helped, too. My reasoning was that the Golden Rule should be familiar to my students, common background cultural knowledge, and so we would be starting from home ground, as one does when setting out on any travels to new territory. The first day launched the class almost immediately into discussion, which was good; when asked to write one-sentence formulations of the G.R., however, half the students unintentionally threw me a curve ball. Although they’d heard of the G.R. all their lives, many of them understood it as conditional, as in one student’s “Be nice to someone if they’re nice to you.” I was glad I’d asked the question so the confusion could be addressed and (for most of them--sigh!) banished!

Survey classes in philosophy tend to be narrowly Western in scope, and starting Intro to Ethics with the Golden Rule, in addition to launching us from somewhat familiar ground, also let me bring in Confucius and Hillel. There was a wide range of ages among my community college students, but their backgrounds were otherwise fairly homogeneous, so the Golden Rule was, for me, a wedge to let in (I hoped) a bit more the world. 

Students from age 17 (high school seniors taking college classes) to late middle age initially responded to practical questions of ethics, as most of us do, with whatever beliefs they brought with them to class. My task was not to change their minds but to encourage them to explore more deeply both their own convictions and other points of view. When questions of crime and punishment came under discussion, for instance, my students automatically imagined themselves and/or their children (present or future) as victims of crime, never as perpetrators. Every murderer also has parents, but their considerations of punishment never addressed that unhappy reality. There I needed a different wedge, and one that served other purposes, as well.

High school teachers and college instructors across the country worry about cheating and plagiarism. There’s one concern. Another concern in teaching theories of ethics is making them more than theories to memorize. And finally, coming back to the homogeneity of background among my students, there is the question of taking perspectives other than that of one’s own life. One way I addressed all three concerns came at the end of the class. The final was an essay, written in the classroom on exam day, and it was permissible, even encouraged, that the students use their books and all class notes. There were two or three topics from which they were to choose one and write for the entire period. Here is one of my all-time favorite essay exam topics: “You are a parent whose child has been accused of murder. You have the choice of Thomas Hobbes or John Locke as your child’s lawyer. Which one do you choose, and why?”


Different semesters brought different pleasures and challenges. Dedicated, knowledge-hungry students stood out from those merely needing credits. On the other hand, one semester there were two young men—not, fortunately, in the same section—who were both convinced, despite their lack of background, inability to listen to points of view of other students, and, in the case of one, a dismaying failure of logic, in the other, a disinclination to turn in assignments--that they, not I, should be leading the class. That was a difficult semester. Looking back over the years, I see that what we graduate students first observed when teaching two sections of the same class remained true always: every class has its own personality, its own conglomerate identity, unlike any other. The material and assignments may be the same, the building, and even the classroom, but the individuals who make up the class will assure that each class is itself a unique individual. Quite fascinating! And at the end of a rough semester, reassuring.

One year I was asked to teach in the summer session. (I cannot resist here a parenthetical note: sessions are named, here in northern Michigan, "Spring," "Early Summer," "Summer," and "Fall." "Spring" begins in January and runs until May. Someone's PR idea? Pretending winter doesn't exist Up North?) Summer sessions at our community college run for eight weeks rather than the sixteen weeks of the usual semester, and so my morning section ran from something like 9 a.m. to noon. That may not be the exact hours—my point is that it was a long class period, longer than any class I’d ever taught, and before our first meeting I wondered how we would ever fill that much time productively and keep everyone awake. Turned out there was no problem. Turned out one of the most enjoyable classes I ever taught. In some ways, it was the peak experience of my on-and-off teaching career.


The class was Contemporary Ethical Dilemmas, a required class for students in nursing, law enforcement, and business. In this course it was even more important that the readings and classroom experience provide practical tools with which to address dilemmas students would face later in life and in their careers. Learning to listen to others with views different from their own was one such tool. Investigating their own views on specific topics in depth was another. There was also, almost always, a need to gather more information on a topic.

The long class period proved a real boon. In a 50-minute class, too often discussion on a topic is just warming up when the bell rings. Not a problem in a 3-hour class. Isn’t three hours an awfully long time to sit in one room, though? We didn’t just sit. In three hours there is plenty of time to shift gears, to move from mini-lecture to class discussion to small group work, and there is also time to take a 10-minute break and move out into the hallways, visit the restroom, get a cup of coffee, and chat. Of the 16 class meetings we had that summer, only twice were the students ready to leave at the end of the time period. Fourteen times they wanted to stay longer! The capstone of the course, after two teams did extensive research, was a debate, at the end of which a guest came to visit the class, someone who had experience with the topic they had debated. It was reality, not just theory—life, not just a class. And we all enjoyed ourselves immensely.

A lull followed in my teaching life, as I was very busy with my bookstore and doing as much as possible to bootstrap that little operation to higher levels. Then one year a regular faculty member died unexpectedly, and I was called in again to teach a couple sections of one of his (Dilemmas) class. Imagine my surprise this time around to be assigned an office of my own! Nominally, it was a shared office, but the other instructor was only there twice, as she taught her classes online. An office! A door and a key! A window! A desk and a computer and a telephone and a couple of bookshelves! It was Spartan in appearance but luxury to me! I could post office hours on my own door and see students in my own office rather than in the snack bar. My classroom was in the same (new) building as my office.

The office was a happy, welcome change. Other changes were a bit nerve-wracking. All communications from administration to faculty now came by e-mail, as did most communications from students, and everyone seemed to expect that instructors would be sitting at computers receiving e-mails seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Students wanted to e-mail in their assignments. They wanted personal and near-immediate responses from the instructor as to what they had missed when absent. (Hint to students: Never ask, implying a possibility that nothing worthwhile or important occurred in an entire class period, “Did I miss anything?” The train kept moving without you on it.) I’ve read that instructors who teach online rather than in a classroom spend much more time on the various aspects of their teaching, and I can well believe it. It goes along with e-mail and now texting and other forms of communication: the more instantaneous sending messages becomes, the greater the expectation that replies will also be instantaneous, that everyone is "on call" at all times.

But my teaching was in a classroom, and it was good to be there again. The classroom part of teaching is the best. Meeting with students, reading their papers, talking with them about their work—that’s good, too. I also enjoyed preparing for class—thinking through my plan for each session and how to connect meaningful assignments to lectures and assigned reading. Grading? No one likes grading. No one. (Agree or disagree?)

I know people who teach online classes and have been asked if I would ever want to do that. No, it isn’t me, and quite honestly I don’t see how it can be philosophy, either. Formal logic, sure. Mathematics, no problem. But so much of philosophy is argument—and by that I don’t mean people shouting at each other but learning to listen and hear each other and addressing each other’s questions and concerns and finding ways to express their own in such a way that they will be heard and understood. It requires practice, and it requires courage. Ethics in particular applies to how human beings live together, at work and in community. Meeting face to face brings all that to life.

Last September on vacation in the U.P., going to Marquette to visit a friend, we drove through the campus of Northern Michigan University, and I realized for the first time that I have moved into a new phase of life. It used to be that visiting a campus would start me thinking about being a student there and what that might be like. Later, for a few years, I saw each campus through the eyes of a prospective graduate student. In more recent years I’d look around and wonder how it would be to teach there. Now I don’t imagine myself at all on a new campus. It isn’t my world any more. I'm only passing through.

I had my college and university experience--as a student, a graduate student, a graduate assistant, and as an instructor. There were some bad patches along the way, but overall they were good years. I learned a lot about the world and about myself and am glad I had that time. But I don’t see more teaching philosophy in my future. It’s someone else’s turn now. --Is it yours?


8 comments:

Kathy said...

I enjoyed reading about your teaching experiences. It would have been interesting taking a class from you. (But, like you, college-attending thoughts have basically ceased to arise.) Mostly I listen to my son tell about his teaching experiences, the challenges and successes. He's been a TA for 4-5 years now during grad school teaching discussion sections and taught his first "real" class last summer. I think he really likes to teach; it may be his calling.

Perhaps you've shared this somewhere, but how many years did you teach?

P. J. Grath said...

So glad to hear your son likes teaching, Kathy. What is his area?

How many YEARS did I teach? Ooh, what a question! It was never fulltime, you realize, so I was always doing something else--going to school, working on my dissertation, working in an office, editing, running my bookstore. Even just counting semesters, which I could probably do if I dug through enough old files, I'm not claiming a long career in the classroom, but it was important to me and something I'm happy to say I learned to do well.

Dawn said...

I loved graduate school...both times. I loved being a trainer. I've thought about doing community college adjunct...and then I think about how many hours I"m working and I know it isn't possible.

For me, walking through a campus makes we wistful for the days of being in school. Even though sometimes it was hard.

P. J. Grath said...

Oh, Dawn, you've reminded me of my first month in graduate school! I was on a fellowship and didn't even have a work assignment, other than to go to class, study, read, and write. And they paid me! I could hardly believe my good fortune, although by the end of the month I was eating nothing but beans and oatmeal. My apartment was bare, but I had a whole university library at my disposal. To me it was a life of luxury. I had TIME!

Dawn said...

Time. What a gift that is! :)

P. J. Grath said...

The most precious gift we are ever given, isn't it? And the most precious gift we can give one another.

Kathy said...

If they were sequential semesters, I can see it would be impossible to answer that question. Chris is writing his dissertation in sociology. It's about planning commissions and the environment and what shapes the differences between an environmentally-conscious community and one that is not. (I am sure he would be rolling his eyes at the way I butchered his dissertation.)

P. J. Grath said...

Actually, if the semesters I taught had been sequential, without gaps, it would be easier to look at how many years it was. I know exactly how many years my bookstore has been around, because it started in 1993, and while it changed locations several times and was sometimes not open in winter, there was never a year I was not a bookseller, which means the 20-year mark comes up this July.

Your son's work sounds fascinating. Would he roll his eyes? One thing I learned at dissertation stage was that when someone asked casually about the topic of my work, they didn't want a half-hour lecture. A one-sentence summary in a nutshell sufficed. If anyone wanted to pursue it after that, they could ask follow-up questions, but those were rare! Your son's work, though, with its practical, governmental slant, would much more interesting to many more people than my dissertation on theories of metaphor. :)