Working the Undergraduates

Yesterday, a student came to office hours and laid this on me: “I e-mailed the rest of the class, and there are a lot of us that think the workload for this class is excessive.”  Something like that, anyway–the short of it was that he and other students have been talking about how hard my class is compared to their other classes.

First, I gotta give points to this student for having the courage to come talk to me about this.  Maybe it’s because I’m just an adjunct and not as intimidating as proper professors, but to confront the person who assigns your grade is pretty gutsy.  Kudos to him for that.  And I’ll take some kudos, as well, for creating an environment where students feel comfortable approaching their instructor in such a way.  Yeah, I’m pretty sure I can take all the credit for that.

Second: How the hell am I supposed to respond to that?  I mean, my immediate response was to thank the student for letting me know, because this is something that I want to be aware of; then I rushed into a muddled explanation/defense/set of suggestions for dealing with the work load.  But obviously I need to address this somehow in class.  A group of students are now grumbling about my work load, and that grumbling could very well turn into stubborn resistance to fully participating in the class: if the students feel that the work load is unfair, they will feel justified in withholding their labor in whatever ways they can and still be safe.  We’re not talking a full-scale rebellion–they’ll still come to class, submit their work, etc.–but it’ll be like pulling teeth to get them to talk in class.  And as it’s a discussion-based course, that’s going to make my life miserable.  So: what to do?  A few options come to mind:

  1. Tell them all to go to hell.  They saw the syllabus a week before class started, and they could have got out while they had the chance.   Hell, they could still leave.  Nobody’s got a gun to their head.  If you don’t like it, fuck off.  I am sooooo tempted to say this.  But no matter how correct it is–and I’m right, right?–it would be unproductive.
  2. Show them how much I’ve reduced the work load in this particular class over the past five years.  When I first started this course, I assigned five books for course reading (each with a book review), plus a semester-long original research paper requiring ten secondary and ten primary sources.  As it is now, they have to read three books for class, and they have a series of assignments leading to a research paper proposal, not an actual research paper, based on three secondary and three primary sources.  So I could basically waltz into class and say, “You think this is hard?  You should have seen this class three years ago!  That’s hard.”  Again, though, I can’t imagine this would be productive.  The students could simply respond with “Okay, it’s better than before, but it’s still bad.”  Which would probably drive me to response #1.
  3. Address in a delicate manner the fact that college is meant to be challenging.  I’m thinking of using a series of analogies, like: if you want to get stronger, you lift heavier weights; if you want to play an instrument better, you play more difficult music; if you want to be a better chef, you cook more challenging dishes.  Somehow the students need to come to understand that this class isn’t meant to check what they already know and can already do, but to get them to learn more and to improve their academic skills.
  4. Provide the students with some strategies on handling the work load.  Stuff like scheduling your work week; forming study groups; etc.  These are first-year students, mostly, and they’re still figuring things out–although, unlike the fall, they now have some confidence that they’ve figured out the game.  Come to think of it, this is probably a pretty big part of the problem: these students have developed a bit of arrogance about what college is supposed to be like (based on the four classes they had last semester), I come along and push them harder, and they kick back. Hmmm….
  5. Talk with some other faculty about their work loads for similar courses.  The student who visited me yesterday said friends of his in similar courses reported work loads ranging from a bit harder to much easier.  I explained to the student that there’s a delicate balance between leveling course expectations and providing professors the freedom they need to teach the way they best see fit.  But I can also understand the student’s frustration.  Frankly, though, I’ve lowered the bar as much as I think is responsible; if there really are professors who teach similar courses with a reduced work load, they’re letting these students off too easy.  Which, to me anyway, indicates a basic lack of respect for what these students are capable of and what they deserve.

Obviously, this little talk left me shaken.  It’s some combination of anger, frustration, self-righteousness, and confusion, and I’m not sure how this gets resolved.

The Unfortunate Passion of an Undergraduate History Major

While working on my dissertation, I’m adjuncting (more on my efforts to unionize in some other post), and a couple of “my” students have asked for my advice about graduate school.  Like many people, my knee-jerk reaction is to tell them to run the other direction.  But I also understand that for some of these students, there really doesn’t seem to be any other option.  And I’m not talking the “I’ve-never-been-out-of-school-so-what-else-am-I-gonna-do?” student, who clearly should not go to graduate school.  I’m talking about the students who are truly passionate about doing the work of history, who love to read, research, write, and teach.  I met with one such woman yesterday, and I went through the litany of problems with getting a PhD in history: the crazy faculty, the even crazier (and sometimes nasty) grad student colleagues, the meager allowance, and, of course, the horrid job prospects.  When I took a moment to breathe, the student asked, “Well, I’m not sure what to do, then.  Just abandon my passion?”

Ouch.  She didn’t mean for that to sting, but it did.  A few reasons: first, have I become so cynical, materialistic, and bourgeois that all of my decisions are based on career opportunities?  When did that happen?  And second: what kind of hypocrite am I?  I mean, I know damned well what’s going to happen in a couple of years: I’m going to get bitch-slapped by the job market.  And I’ll come back for more, because I frankly don’t know what else to do with my life.  Part of that comes from having done this for the last 10+ years of my life, and at this point, I’m all in, baby, win or lose.  But the more important part is that I can’t think of anything else worth doing–that this is important work.

So I told the student, no, don’t abandon your passion.  Go for it.  You’re going to do really well in graduate school, and don’t worry about the job market.  There’s no way of knowing what it’ll look like in five years, and there’s no point in worrying.  Do some smart things if you can–take a resume-boosting job between undergrad and graduate school; build good relationships with your family (you’ll probably need them more than you think you should in five years); marry money (just kidding.  Kind of).  And prepare yourself for the suckiness of graduate school and the job market.  But don’t give up on the only thing you know and want to do, because you’re exactly the kind of person we need doing it.

Post-Fellowship Season, AHA, First Semester, etc.

Yet another long spell since my last post.  I’ll get better, I promise.

Beyond the usual December/January personal business (holidays, etc.), I’ve been attending to some important or at least interesting things over the last few months:

1) Teaching.  I taught a class on African American history last semester, and it kicked my ass.  I had a lot of background reading to do just to keep up with the students’ excellent questions–seriously, these folks were brilliant, and I had to be on top it in order not to look like a total fool.  But there was also the challenge of teaching history to some students who were clearly more interested in hitting the picket lines and protest marches now. In suggesting that we pay understand and appreciate historical context and change over time as well as continuity, I’m pretty sure I came off as a reactionary.  Maybe, in the eyes of some of my students, a racist.  I think my student evaluations came in yesterday, so I’ll write more about this after I process that information.

2) Fellowship applications.  I love teaching, but it chews up a lot of time each week and doesn’t bring in much cash (at least when you’re adjuncting).  So I’ve been sending off fellowship applications like a mad man, trying to get myself set for next year so that I can pound through my dissertation.  To date, I’ve applied for four major (year-long) fellowships and three research travel grants, for a total of about $90,000.  Wouldn’t it be great to get all of them?  Or one of them?  Or at least a thank you note for having applied?  We’ll see if any of that comes through.  Doubt it.

3) AHA (American Historical Association) Conference.  For the first time, I hit the AHA.  It’s like most other conferences I’ve been to, but with all the annoying factors amped up by degrees of magnitude: graduate students kissing the asses of big-shot historians in some vain hope that they will be remembered; big-shot historians giving speculative presentations that a graduate student wouldn’t get away with; etc.  But there’s also the job application process, which is fucked up.  I had heard rumors, but didn’t expect this level of craziness.  It’s like this: if you’re lucky enough to get an interview, you show up in the job hall and take a seat in the waiting room, along with everyone else who’s applying for jobs–including the one you’re angling for.  When your name is called, you walk down a long hallway–you can almost hear shouts of “Dead Man Walking!”–and head into a cubicle for an interview.  I don’t know what happens in there, exactly, but there’s probably some other medieval ritual, possibly involving a torture device.  I’m glad I went to check it out so I know what to expect when I go on the market.

With all that behind me, I’m headed into research and writing in earnest now.  You know: the actual writing-a-dissertation part of being ABD.