Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Ghosts in the Classroom: Stories of College Adjunct Faculty—and the Price We All Pay edited by Michael Dubson

Dubson, Michael, ed. Ghosts in the Classroom: Stories of College Adjunct Faculty—and the Price We All Pay. Boston: Camel’s Back Books, 2001. Print.

Based on their transcripts, transfer students arriving at Ursuline should be familiar with MLA format, the academic essay genre, and how to spell “they are,” among other niceties of writing. At the first class, the student may even tell you that he or she has written a research paper before and has all the knowledge and skills needed that your course is supposed to provide (usually in the midst of a complaint about having to take your class in the first place, particularly if it’s outside of her or his major, implying, if not explicitly stating, that he or she considers your class a waste of her or his time).

Then when this "superstar" student turns in her or his first piece of writing for your course, it’s horrible.

What’s going on here?

Ghosts in the Classroom, a collection of essays written by adjunct instructors, helps to explain why transfer students often arrive at Ursuline without the writing skills they should. The book also vividly details larger problems in American higher education such as exploitation, greed, and incompetence, but since this blog’s focus is on writing instruction, that will be my focus in this post.

Like most adjuncts, the writers of the essays in the book appear to be dedicated and talented instructors, but they work under impossible conditions. Because pay for adjuncts is so low, many adjuncts string together multiple classes at various colleges and universities in order to put together a living wage. This situation is far removed from the adjunct ideal of the working professional who is noble enough to teach the occasional course in her or his field of expertise in order to give back to the community or discipline. Exacerbated by a variety of factors, most principally by the oversupply of college instructors in relation to demand that makes for cheap and contingent labor, higher education has come to rely on adjuncts to teach many, many courses, leaving them and the rest of us exasperated. Michael Dubson, the editor of Ghosts, claims that 50% of all college faculty members are adjuncts (vii), a percentage that likely has only grown in the ten years since the book’s publication. Furthermore, as we all know, adjuncts teach many introductory courses since full-time faculty often prefer, or are the only ones qualified to teach, upperlevel courses, so many of our transfer students arrive having essentially been taught by adjunct faculty. The stories in the book vividly explain what our transfer students likely experience before they arrive at Ursuline. For example, an English instructor, Kate Gale (which may not be her real name since many of the adjuncts, for obvious reasons, use pseudonyms), describes teaching at least ten classes each semester at six different colleges and universities. How is that even possible? One can say that she doesn’t have to do research or service activities so she can just concentrate on her teaching, but any time savings from those duties is surely eaten up just driving from campus to campus. And Gale teaches writing, making her courses even more labor intensive than many others. With at least ten classes to juggle, she surely has trouble providing the bare minimum of instruction for her students, and that's assuming a superhuman effort on her part.

Without much guidance, how then do the students pass such a course? Are they superhuman as well?

No, likely they pass because it is in the system’s interest to have them pass. Students who fail a course often drop out entirely. Instructors, particularly adjunct instructors whose jobs are tenuous and often dependent on receiving good student evaluations, have a motivation to pass even the worst students, as Andrew Guy illustrates by recounting the story of how he gave an A to a plagiarizing student named Shirley: “She didn’t give a damn about the class, and she also knew--as I had not realized until that very moment—that I didn’t give a damn either, not even about so much as trying to teach her the basics of right and wrong” (125-26). Guy would like to fail the plagiarizing student, but he realized that pursuing proof of her infraction would only lead him to the unemployment line, so he, like seemingly everyone else in higher ed these days, pursued the path of least resistance. Can we blame him?

Probably not. Guy is just doing what he needs to in order to survive in his environment. The problem lies in the environment itself. Whatever the cause, the result is that Shirley ends up in our classes when she transfers to Ursuline and often gets shocked when she finds out that her writing is deficient. We aren’t perfect, nor are all other institutions to blame when students show up here underprepared. We have to work with our students wherever they are skillwise. But, Ghosts in the Classroom explains why so many students show up unprepared to write at the level we would expect. This is one of those problems similar to those I discussed last year on the blog which explained why the studying time of students had decreased over the decades with predictable results. The issue is at a level above the individual instructor’s control. The only things we can do is try to improve the environment whenever we have such an opportunity so our adjunct colleagues don’t have to face such an impossible situation and our students get the full value of what they’re paying for.

The book is available through OhioLINK.

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