Sunday, October 22, 2006

Confessions of an ambivalent adjunct

The more I apply for academic jobs, the less I want one.

Maybe it's a function of all the lecturing I have to do this quarter. When I was a TA, I'd have occasional opportunities to lecture in front of a class the size of the one I have this quarter (100 students). But that was usually well into the quarter, so half the students in the class knew me and my sense of humor--and seemed to like me for it--and totally had my back. Other times, I've lectured for classes where I wasn't working with the students, where I was invited to talk or where I was a reader and the professor had to leave town for a week. And then, too, the students were responsive.

But now that I'm in charge? Frequently it's like talking to a wall. I mix it up with small group activities, "turn to your partner and tell them. . ." moments, video and audio, etc.

Would it be inappropriate to wad up a ball of paper and toss it at the student who sits directly in front of me and then proceeds to nod off during every class? Seriously.

I know I'm not yet a great lecturer, but relative to the other stuff the kids have had to sit through, I imagine my lectures aren't bad.

Last class, we read a chapter from Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. The chapter covers the diverse communities in Kansas, from trailer-park-dwelling meatpackers to wealthy McMansion owners. In it, Frank illustrates that the vast majority of Kansans--working class folks--vote against their own economic and social self-interest by supporting Republican candidates. He also makes references to Populism.

As a companion to this reading, I chose some of the artifacts and phenomena Frank mentions in the chapter and elaborated on them as well as on some popular conceptions of Kansas. So I talked about Populism, The Wizard of Oz (and Populism), megachurches, and Thomas Kinkade. I showed a video of Kinkade talking about his work. I made connections among these phenomena and talked about the shift in values over the course of the 20th century. We finished with a discussion of middlebrow culture.

Throughout the lecture, I used music to evoke a response from students. I opened class with "Carry on My Wayward Son" by the band Kansas (of Topeka). I played the smooth jazz Frank calls the soundtrack of "Cupcake Land" (one columnist's name for the developers' suburban haven of Overland Park, KS). I played a piece by Rush to flesh out Frank's illustration of Emporia. I played praise music by Kathie Lee Gifford. And I played a union song ("Bread and Roses," as performed by Utah Phillips and Ani di Franco--it's wonderful and available on iTunes).

Have you ever tried to lecture to a background of smooth jazz? It's not easy. (I promised the students I would turn off the music if they answered my questions. Hands went up.)

For the most part, however, the students just didn't get into it. And I'm frustrated. I can't just stand up there and explicate the chapter for them--that's their job, and if they have questions about the text, they can discuss the chapter with their TAs in section. So instead I've been putting together these mini-lectures, which I intersperse with activities or discussions that ask students to make connections among what on the surface seem to be divergent phenomena.

After all, that's what American studies is supposed to do: make connections. In the past, I've been successful at getting students to learn how to do this, but I'm thinking 100 students just might be too many for me to reach at once.

Finally, a question for you all: When I was a TA, I didn't like it when faculty told me what to do in section. I knew my students, I knew what they needed, and I knew how to deliver to those needs. Sure, if a professor wanted me to cover something generally, that was fine--but I wanted to cover it in my own way. Accordingly, I haven't been telling my two TAs what to do in their sections. And now, my friends, I've hit a roadblock.

The first assignment for the course is a very short (2.5-3 page) paper that gives students the opportunity to practice writing what will be for many of them their first college essay. Therefore, it's a fairly highly structured and focused prompt. I'm asking the students to:
- watch M. Night Shyamalan's The Village
- identify what the villagers perceive to be the threats to their community
- name what the students believe are the actual threats to the community
- argue whether or not these threats are ones that have been perceived by or experienced by the historical communities we've read about and discussed in class, and then explain their significance.

One of my TAs discussed The Village in her sections, helping students see how to address the prompt. The other one feels very strongly that students should have to interpret the movie on their own, that we've done enough hand-holding with them on the course readings about the historical communities. As a result, she has not discussed the movie in her sections. (FYI, I agree with her approach.)

How the hell am I going to norm the grades for this essay? My experience has been that the TAs and professor get together and all read the same 4-6 essays, then decide by consensus (or by the professor's declaration) what grade each paper deserves.

I thought it might be possible for the TA who helped her students with the prompt to grade the essays a bit more harshly than the TA who didn't, but it's becoming increasingly apparent that such an approach isn't going to work.

Meanwhile, the students are floundering. I had one freshman in the second TA's sections come to me with a "thesis" for her essay that wasn't arguable and that showed she didn't really understand the movie. Argh!

I see a major fiasco on the horizon. What to do? The paper is due on Thursday, and the second TA's sections meet, I think, on Wednesday and Thursday after lecture, so it's too late to command her to talk about the film with her students.



Anonymous said...

Not to skip over all of the other stuff in your post, but if you don't have the _entire_ "The Past Didn't Go Anywhere" CD, you should. It's spectacular.

In a different lifetime, I did some work with Bruce and his wife. Them be great folk.

Anonymous said...

frist off, your last class sounded super interesting! i know i would be interested and i'm not an american studies person... you are really teaching in a way that I think shows the characteristics of a great prof.

that said, 100 ppl is a large class. Even in a small class, there is always a bottom of the grade distribution...

in terms of participation, is it part of their grade? can you in some way insinuate participate or get out ;o)

in terms of grading, i'm not sure about that one... its hard when they each have differnet sections, in some ways, i feel they should be graded separately, but just my opinion...

good luck!

Ianqui said...

Dealing with TAs and sections is tricky to me too. I'm more than happy to let them decide the content, as long as it's more or less similar between them. But I've often wondered how much management they want. I think that they're capable of running the sections without much management, but what if they want more input but aren't saying? Then are they annoyed that I'm not giving enough guidance? I could and should ask them soon, but it's an interesting problem in general. (For the record: I'm happy with my TAs and the students appear to be too.)

ArticulateDad said...

Ignoring the latter part of your post...

The more I apply for academic jobs, the less I want one.

[SIGH] I know this feeling all to well, and of course, I've been applying for more than two years now. Problem is, I'm not sure what else I would want!

You get used to thinking that the PhD is the hard work, that slogging through 5 or 6 or 7 years of graduate school, and pulling off that piƩce de resistance, then seeing it bound on a library shelf is, after all, "paying your dues".

It's just so hard when that proves, for whatever reason, not to be the case. When after paying your dues, you look forward to paying more dues in applying for job after job, so that one day, you'll be offered a junior post somewhere, and you guessed it, pay more dues.

Of course, it's not all misery. But focusing on those aspects of it would be quite enough to bring even Polyanna down.

Whatever it takes, my friend, we're in this together. Getting down is the easy part. It's figuring out which mountain to climb that takes effort.

Queen of West Procrastination said...

I'm not sure what you can do about the upcoming essay (I'm really not the person to help with that), but I do have two other comments. First of all, as a TA, the profs I've worked for have always specified what topic we're discussing in seminar. I have free reign over how I structure the session, and I can choose whether or not to use the supplied discussion questions (although the students like to talk about them, because the prof also supplied those questions to them), but the topic is always picked by the instructor. You have every right to ask the TA to discuss the film in seminar, without being the sort of instructor who micromanages seminars.

Secondly, I'm interested in your usage of music, and especially the fact that your students aren't getting into the whole music-in-the-background thing. In my undergrad history courses, I was always most imapacted when the lecturer used music. But it tended to be that the instructor would lecture and discuss the song, and then stop and we'd listen to the related song. (Most powerful usage of music in class, a prof talking about living in Windsor, ON, during the Detroit race riots, followed by playing "Black Day in July.") Could it be that it's difficult to concentrate on both the music and the lecture at the same time, when there's music playing in the background?

Anonymous said...

You sound like an awesome lecturer, and your class sound so interesting. I think the students may be in that mid-semester slump: mine sure are. Far from the beginning, yet not close to the end. I'm hoping they pick up soon, and have hinted they should make that last good impression before the end of semester...

As for ambivalence, that's my life story. And reading ambivalent dad's comment, I see how very early in the dues paying I am (just a pre-comps PhD student).

Of course, I have friends in my dept who say "Yes! This is what I want! Get outta my way!!" And they send out zillions of job applications. I may need to climb another mountain, or more likely create my own mountain to climb.