On Teaching Again
by John Yohe
At the urging of friends, after moving to Salem, a little south of Portland, I apply for the part-timers teaching pool at the local community college, just to see. If it doesn’t lead to another full-time position, it’s not worth it. It’s a gamble. Which thousands of other adjuncts, young and old, are taking across America. Maybe being back in the ‘system’ will allow me the chance to be hired full-time again. I have doubts, based on what I’ve observed over the years, that no matter the experience, committees prefer younger candidates spouting the latest Comp Theory buzzwords. Though they have to also value experience. Though curious too to see if I still enjoy it, if there is a value beyond the monetary. If I can help, if I can give back, if I can make a difference, all the clichés. But I don’t want my experience to be a cliché. Something real happens. Or, it did. Of which I was a part: Learning. Real learning. My own, but more importantly ‘my’ students’.
And lo, they offer me a couple classes. So, I come back to teaching.
Teaching developmental writing again, which was what was offered, but which would have been my first choice: more at stake, and if I’m good at anything I’m good at helping students feel comfortable, and gain confidence in themselves after having it beat out of them in high school, or life. I do that, or I used to do that, by having students actually write in class, so that I’m not lecturing or ‘professing’ anything, but there to help out more as a tutor. Which was one of the good things about my last school, the administration were on board with that idea, and all writing classes being in computer classrooms, so students could grab laptops when needed and not have screens staring at us the whole time.
But, well, this school doesn’t seem to have that going on: To even request a computer ‘lab’ (what they call them, not even classrooms) is an odd and logistically difficult task. I don’t want to ask other instructors, for fear of coming off as judgmental (which I most surely am) but from what I can observe, writing classes here consist of the instructor sitting at their desks speaking at the bored students, all sitting in rows. The implied pedagogical implication being the very old-school idea of the passive students supposedly absorbing information from the professor. I fight this, coming to class a half hour early (for which, let us not forget, I’m technically not getting paid) to rearrange them into ‘pods’ or circles. Students facing each other. Students learning from each other.
That implied pedagogical emphasis also seems to manifest itself in the type of writing assignments assigned, like analysis and research papers, even in the developmental writing classes. This despite one of the school’s supposed core ‘values’ of “creative thinking.” I can teach those types of assignments, but they’re not fun. I like stories, I like reading people’s stories, and I know students like sharing them (mostly, as much as any of them like writing, period) and I think working with narrative is the best way to build confidence, build writing skills, and to think about one’s self, one’s life. Assigning two-page response papers to Frederick Douglass’ “How I Learned To Read and Write” are just exercises in bullshit. The real response would be creative, would be to write one’s own essay on how one learned to read and write.
The developmental writing classes all have both a ‘reader,’ a very thin book of essays, and a workbook containing lots of exercises on writing, many of them fill-in-the-blank. The workbook is thicker, so right there I see which is considered more important. Which is just anathema to me. The only way you become a better writer is to write, write actual sentences, write actual paragraphs. I know some people, some teachers, will disagree, but here, again, I find that most, 99%, of students, know how to write, know the basics, don’t need insulting workbooks. They just need time, and space, to write. Many have shit going on at home, not a good place to be alone and write and think (writing is thinking, btw) and many have jobs, and families to take care of.
I say the only way to learn to write is to write, but reading is important too, and many students don’t like to, or think they don’t, having been bombarded with safe (and therefore boring) readings in school. I’m exaggerating, because I’m getting worked up (despite being exhausted from teaching yesterday). But, for example, the ‘readers’ we use, thankfully, are cheap, self-published, using a lot of essays in the public domain, and without ‘filler’ explanation, and not those publishing-house-scams which cost ninety bucks and turn obsolete in three years, like at my last school. I hated, hated, using those, hated that my students had to pay that much. And kinda hated my colleagues for acquiescing to that bullshit. But even though I love Frederick Douglass’ “How I Learned To Read and Write,” or George Orwell’s “To Kill An Elephant,” the Orwell contains some old-school British English I’m not sure is right for beginning readers (feel free to prove me wrong) and the Douglass one sounds inevitably oldish, though at least takes place in America. I’ve always brought in outside essays, and poems, to supplement, and to show students some more wilder contemporary writing, risk-taking stuff that could be potentially offensive, which I know in these days of trigger warnings is frowned upon. But, I submit to you, Gentle Reader, that my students totally like essays by Charles Bukowski and Kim Addonizio and poems by Allen Ginsberg. Even when they don’t like Bukowski himself, and his drinking, they like that they’re reading about real shit, real (lower class) life. Even when they’re shocked by Addonizio’s talking about (kinda kinky) sex, they’re at least interested, because here, finally, besides on they porn sites we all know they (and we) visit, they are reading someone who is brave enough to write unapologetically, and confidently, about sex without sounding like a victim.
I left teaching like I entered it: ambivalently. Teaching friends encouraged me to try adjuncting, and when I found it was something I was good at, and that my students seemed to think I was good at it, I went back for an MA in The Teaching of Writing at Eastern Michigan University, and obtained a full-time position back at my old school, Jackson Community College where I had been a student, long ago. I was happy to ‘give back,’ if not exactly to be back in Jackson, and didn’t plan on staying, to go on to another full-time job back west somewhere. And if I’d gotten out in time I might still be full-time. But I was hired right at the tail end of a boom in enrollment, after the feds passed a bill giving two free years of community college to people laid off from work, which in Michigan, was a lot. When that fed money dried up (which everyone knew? Must have known? But didn’t?) surprise, enrollment dropped. I’m still amazed that the administration didn’t just hire us on two-year contracts, perhaps, which would have saved everyone time and effort and expectations. Instead, as full-timers, each year for three years, we were expected to write our own ‘teaching portfolios,’ attending any and all committee meetings, writing some kind of meaningful reflections of each, which ended up being as much work as my master’s project. This in addition to being new full-timers and having to learn how to teach a full time load, very different from our older colleagues who, when they were hired, had the opposite experience: they were ‘protected’—didn’t have to be on committees or do anything but teach for the first three years. All of which one person, one dean, one Decider, would read at the end of the year. If we didn’t ‘pass’ we were let go.
With the enrollment drop, the deans had to get rid of full timers, to get down to its minimum amount of classes taught be full-timers, about 60%. I.e., to save money. So they were looking for anything, any excuse. But even then, even with no excuse, even when people were good little drones and did everything they were told, they still canned a bunch of us after two years. Not that my tenured colleagues did anything to fight this. They were too busy fucking and divorcing each other, and yelling during Department meetings. So, in a way, though I was (and am) bitter, I was also relieved, to just get out of that toxic atmosphere, leave toxic Michigan, and move back out west. I’d thought I would get a job before I moved, but this seemed ok too. I sent out resumes through higheredjobs.com, and I did get a few job interviews with schools around the country in that first year, meaning I was in the top three candidates. But just didn’t quite ever make it.
I resisted the idea of being an adjunct again, out of pride, and because I’d already done the math. When I did try community colleges in the Portland area, they were having the same problem: enrollment down. The PCC chair told me they were having a hard time even getting classes for their full-timers. Plus the fact that everyone and her sister in Portland has an MA in English: I had to do an interview just to teach one class at a satellite campus. At the end of it, the hiring committee of two said they’d call me back for a follow-up interview. I have a horrible poker face: my eyes bugged out. A follow-up interview?! To teach one class?! I didn’t get called back.
So I didn’t teach. I just decided to live on savings and be a writer, to write. And I did. Moved up writing plateaus, got published a lot, though didn’t make any money. Meanwhile, offers for interviews dried up. So, after two or three years, I just kinda let go of the idea of teaching. And, that was ok. I have always refused the idea that teaching is a “calling.” That kind of thinking is ego-driven at its core. I went back to working for the Forest Service again, which I’d done for many years as a firefighter, only this time as a fire lookout, where I can sit on a mountain all summer and write and read and play my guitar. It’s nice. Doesn’t pay well either, but nice. If one must live in poverty, better to be doing it while surrounded by lightning storms.
The math: An adjunct gets paid thirty dollars a class hour, which sounds great, but that’s only class hours. Two classes are only eight hours per week. (I was supposed to have three, but one got taken from me at the last moment and given to a full-timer). So, $240/week, before taxes. But you have to factor the other hours: of prep, and answering student and staff emails, and time spent asking my own questions about how things run here, not to mention the HUGE amount of time reading and responding (with marginalia and letters) to student writing, both little stuff (like poems or letters to me) and two big essays, including rough drafts. Which, with two classes of 25 students, is 100 essays. At 30 minutes an essay that’s about 50 extra hours. In a ten-week quarter, that becomes 13 hours a week, instead of 8. Add 2 hours of prep a week: 15 hours a week. Instead of $30/hr, it’s (240 divided by 15=) $16/hr. That’s maybe being generous. It’s probably more like more like $12/hr. Which is what fast-food workers would love to be earning, sure, but that’s because it’s barely a living wage. Which is why those crazy adjuncts who teach at three different schools and have six classes are crazy. You’d be better off teaching a couple classes and being a bartender on the weekends.
I still have ‘it.’ I’m not floundering, like I was (a little, though not as bad as I could have) back when I started as an adjunct. I may not have this school’s logistics and operations down, but I at least know what I can do and expect inside the classroom, away from all the bureaucracy. What is the ‘it’? I think it’s my teaching personality, the most important thing a teacher has, or develops, and what I think we all really are working on in getting our teaching degrees. Comp Theory is all bullshit wars between expressionists, who think all writing is creative and creative thinking is what saves our souls and makes a better world, and whatever the brutally-logical-form-of-teaching-with-no-sense-of-humor is called these days. Your teaching personality is what moves the class along, motivates students. It is, in part, a plan, or a system, an approach, but it’s also what happens in the classroom right now, involving some improvisation. And some people have it, and some don’t, and having it or not doesn’t seem to matter in getting hired, doesn’t seem to hardly come across in a job interview, or a resume. I think we all have the kernel, and we can all develop it, though some don’t, which seems to have something to do with hiding up in front behind your teacher’s desk and talking a lot, keeping the students at bay, their learning at bay. Not having it has something to do with fear of failure, yours and theirs. I’ve failed big time, but not so much this year. For now. Always a possibility though.
I had forgotten just how physically taxing teaching is. After a day of only two classes I am raw and exhausted. Thankfully I’ve been biking to and from work, getting a little fresh air, using my body so I can let my brain rest. Some of this exhaustion comes from the new newness, the getting used to the new system, and with time I might get a little used to it. But I always felt that rawness after teaching, that never went away. When I was full-time I could retreat to my own apartment, my own bedroom and just relax, but now back to being poor (err, I mean, back to voluntary simplicity) and the economic necessity of having a roommate, to return to my apartment and have it invaded by humans is too much: I retreat to a movie theatre, a dark place in which I can be alone and watch the Magnificent Seven remake and be reminded of doing the right thing, of helping others, even though, to think about it even just a little, the main cowboys seem to be mixing helping others with revenge or redemption and/or other issues, which makes me wonder how we teachers may be doing the same—like me with my last school (admin and faculty both) who treated me badly. Like, “Oh yeah muthafuckas? This other school likes me! I’m good! You blew it!”
As before, but even more so now, I find colleagues, fellow writing instructors, to be…literal-minded? Right before the quarter starts, my immediate supervisor gives me the rundown via email on where every thing is, including that my office is in Building 37. Which, in an attempt at humor, I reply back sounds like a place where they do research on aliens. She replies to my reply: ‘I like your analogy.’ Analogy? It was a joke! It might not have been that funny, but it was a joke. I fear for her students. What if someone tries to be funny in their writing? How will she respond? But I think her students, my students, our students, all students, would never try to be funny. They’ve had that ground out of them long ago. This is why students don’t think they can write, because they have a literal-minded system grinding all the human-ness, and humane-ness, out of them. Everything, all writing, must be SERIOUS. Must be analytical. Must have an argument. Must have a thesis statement.
This the same full-timer who said, with a roll of her eyes, that she doesn’t assign narrative essays anymore because people always write about their childhood abuse, “which just makes more work for me.” I find myself returning to the reason I teach, re: other teachers. To paraphrase Charles Bukowski on other writers, “It’s not that I’m so good, it’s that they’re so bad.”
Be human in your classroom, Gentle Reader.
Some consolation: I arrive already having an ally: My Dean turns out to be a reading instructor from back at JCC when I first began. I hadn’t known she worked up into admin, but I’m glad. The trend nowadays in many schools is to hire the deans and other admin folks from business schools, i.e. people without teaching experience, and i.e. people who think schools should be run like businesses. She is not. No teacher is. When we get a chance to catch up a wee bit she shocks me, and makes me laugh, with her unhesitating criticism (in front of everyone in her office) of everything I criticized (or harbored bitterness) about at our old school, from the President, to his admin bulldogs, to our (literally I guess) fucking crazy. I’m grateful to her. I’m not crazy. And I’m grateful I got out of Michigan before I became one of the crazies.
I send out my first resume since I’ve been hired, to a school in Colorado. Their HR writes back in a couple weeks, saying I’m highly qualified, I’ve made the first cut, and I’ll be notified by phone of the next round. Farther than I’ve gotten with them before. Perhaps proof that being (back) in the system puts me back in the race. Back in the potential saddle again?
New development: in one class, three of my students claim to prefer writing on their phones, versus a keyboard. That is, they can type faster with their two thumbs than their fingers on a keyboard. At first I don’t believe them, but I say ok. And, they do. They bring up GoogleDocs on both their phones and the computers in front of them, which saves changes as they go. At the end, they switch to their computers to make any formatting changes needed, and to print. It works. I feel sad somehow. And old.
For the first rough draft of our first essay (which I call a ‘working essay’ so as to build up to the ‘long essay’) more than one student (three? four?) tells me when I check in with them that they’re saving some stuff for the long essay. No, I say, give it all to me now! They are unconvinced, and don’t. And yet, when I reflect on it later, in bed late at night when I should be sleeping, I fear they are right. They are being smart, since I’ve explained that I grade on process, and also that the long essay has a greater percentage of their grade than the working essay, and I’ve told them that I’m looking for how their writing will improve over time. Well, if they do hold back and put more stuff in the long essay, I actually will probably give them a great grade, and I would be happy, perhaps I guess ignorantly so. I feel not so smart. Now my whole system seems rigged, or beatable. And yet, what else can I do?
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, outside the classroom, I get sucked into The Table Wars, getting an email from the department secretary, accusing me (I mean, really) of leaving one of my classrooms in “disarray,” when in fact I’ve merely moved the tables into another configuration. The problem is, or appears to be, that I haven’t put them back the way they were, because apparently there are Table Standards: all tables must be in rows, facing front. I’ve nowhere seen these Table Standards posted or written down, nor have I ever been in classrooms like this in my college career, except a few large lecture halls. But, the email (and I’m not sure if the language is coming from my anonymous accuser(s) or the secretary) makes it seem like all the other instructors who use the room are in an uproar. I write my defense, that the room is too small for the amount of tables in it, that rows seem to favor a certain pedagogy, i.e. ‘blank slates’ supposedly absorbing the professing of the professor, who must stand up front and talk for an hour and a half. I make my case for a student-centered classroom, for students learning from each other as much as (or more) from me, and that this cannot be accomplished in a room of rows. I also explain that I have to arrive early to move the tables, for which I don’t get paid, and that I could argue that the tables are in fact in disarray for me. I CC my two supervisors, just in case, to make sure I’m not getting railroaded by the secretary or whatever instructor is making a fuss, highly aware that I’m on the verge of sounding like a crank.
Fortunately, my Dean ally comes to my rescue, or at least keeps a clear head, and explains that the class after mine has two students with disabilities and my moving the tables makes access difficult for them. Ok, that’s all anybody had to say. I mean, I think the way I configured the tables, in pods, actually creates more space for people with disabilities, but ok. I apologize, but also note that I wish the instructor in question had just come to me directly. I would have listened. But now I not only have to come early to move the tables, I have to stay late to move them back. Hopefully I can enlist students eager for participation points. I hope I haven’t lost my ally.
Stuff like this, and the continual answering of emails, even the continual checking of them, remind me of a quote from Harrison Ford about why he doesn’t direct, re: “because it’s like getting pecked to death by penguins.” This is how teaching feels: lots of little things outside of what happens in the classroom, none of which is awful, but collectively consume me. For a full-timer, earning 45,000/year or plus, it’s easier to take. For an adjunct, every peck becomes a reduction in how much one is paid by the hour.
I knew this: adjuncting is only ever worth doing if it leads to a full-time position. But I begin to have my doubts about even that. Not if/whether I’ll ever get an interview again, but whether/if I’d even want another full-time position. And, to my chagrin and fear and self-loathing, it’s a question of money. Because if I ask myself the Alan Watts question, “If money were no object, what would you do?” I think (Maybe? Do I dare say it? Even think it?) I would not choose teaching composition. Anymore. Teaching used to be part of my answer: writing. That is, it seems, is, a writing-related job. So if, as Watts would suggest, I follow my curiosity, writing, it would lead naturally to teaching composition. One would think. And yet: the dirty little secret of composition teachers? They don’t write. Anymore. If ever.
That school in Colorado sends me a form email saying I didn’t make the next round.
For one assignment, as an experiment, I give my students an ‘option X’—any kind of essay they want to write, thinking that this will encourage them to get creative (which is what I would have done). Instead, some opt for a ‘research paper,’ which I think they think of as something easy they did in high school. Unfortunately, what some of them seem to have learned is that a research paper in high school is easy, because easy to plagiarize on: rough drafts come in, some having fairly blatant plagiarism—whole paragraphs from Wikipedia pages, and even essay-for-hire websites. All discoverable by me with a simple Google search.
Teacher fail! I’m caught having to be re-active rather than pro-active, devoting a class to discussing plagiarism, which is not enough time (many of the plagiarizers are absent), and most of students not even doing this type of essay, so wondering what the hell is going on. Thus I learn the danger of giving students too much freedom. Or, freedom without explanation of responsibility. And, more work for me: the school has a new policy of reporting plagiarism to the Dean, with a form and copies of the essays and sources, so that students’ names will be on a list: if they do it again, future instructors will know, and evaluate accordingly (and probably more severely). Reporting is voluntary, I could keep this to myself, but I want to be a good worker and impress my boss. My own policy is, if blatant, to give a zero on that draft, with a warning about the possibility of failing the whole class. Fortunately the rough drafts aren’t worth too much, percentage-wise. I have talks with each student, and most admit to cutting and pasting. They start over, and write much better essays.
My Dean though, sends me an angry email, saying that, to her, the students just don’t know any better, even the one copying from the essay-for-hire site. I feel shamed, and get angry back, questioning her decision, and throwing buzzwords back at her, saying I’ll bump up those zeros to 2.0/C’s, “so that the students can be successful.”
I have lost my ally.
No full-time job offers, not even a phone interview. And, due to the regular drop in enrollment after fall term, me being low-adjunct on the totem pole, I won’t get any classes to teach for the winter. I’m not sure if I’d get any even if.
I’m tired. I’m cynical. A batch of student essays comes in. I head to my favorite cafe downtown, Friday afternoon, and read. I offer suggestions, thoughts for expansion or clarification, maybe to be careful about mixing past and present tenses with verbs. I don’t touch grammar or spelling or other ‘surface convention’ stuff, I’ll leave that for their peers. I read as a reader, because I am, seduced into their stories. Not all, but some, some are just fascinating. This from supposedly ‘developmental’ writers. Three hours passes like nothing.
Born in Puerto Rico, John Yohe grew up in Michigan and lives in Oregon. He has worked as a wildland firefighter, deckhand/oiler, runner/busboy, bike messenger, wilderness ranger, fire lookout, as well as a teacher of writing. www.johnyohe.com
Photo: Philippe Yout