Survival of the Fittest (or Most Organized)

by Shari Dinkins

I SIT IN a departmental meeting. To my right is a woman I do not know; she is young, blonde. Sitting to her right is a young man I don’t know; he clutches a pad holder. As the head of my department talks, the young woman scratches notes at a frantic pace. The young man makes no notes. He stares at the agenda, a confused look on his face. At new business, my chair announces the new adjuncts. Four of them. The two next to me are newbies, as is a woman in the front row. When the chair announces one name, there is no response; this new adjunct is not at the meeting.

“Big mistake,” I think.

I turn to my right and shake hands with the blonde woman and the man with dark hair, who looks up from the agenda just long enough to shake my outstretched hand. She is shuffling papers later, shoving something into her tote, then taking out a class list. Her eyes run up and down the list. I want to lead her, take her by the hand and help her. Instead, I settle for a friendly smile and a nod-invite to share in the conversation between myself and the poet.

How are these adjuncts going to survive? I have been a newbie, too, many times, at many different campuses—with different deans and chairs, and with varying levels of support from staff and administration. How did I survive?

I shifted into survival mode.

Here’s what it looked like: What do I have to teach in this course? If there is a course outline or objectives, does it clearly state what I need to get the students to do? Also, how will this be measured? Writing of papers, tests, quizzes? Is there a specific goal? As an English instructor, I look for word count. How many words does a student have to read and write in this course? Does the outline list the number of papers they have to write? And length? What about my syllabus?

Textbook. Do I get to choose or does the chair chose? Is there a committee that helps decide? Is there a list of approved texts for this course, or should I start polling more experienced teachers? Do I want to order a supplemental book or reference book that will be “optional” for my students? What is the deadline for turning in my book order? To the department secretary, chair, dean or bookstore? When will the books be available for my students? Once I decide on my textbooks, I immediately call or e-mail the publisher’s representative. I’ll want an instructor’s copy right away—and if I can get a desk copy, I’ll put that on reserve at my campus library.

Where are copy machines? What’s my copy count for the semester per course? How is that counted? Do I need a “copy code” to access the machines? Who supervises this counting and reporting? What happens if I go over? Where are the closest four machines located? What are the hours in these buildings?

Where do I get supplies? Can I have legal pads? Red pens? How is my department charged for what I use? I have found, however, that there are limits. When I want to provide ruled paper for an assignment in class, I need to visit every morning and afternoon, gathering a hundred sheets each time until I have enough for my students to each have a few sheets.

How am I going to organize all my class materials? Can I manage one class at this campus and two classes at another? What will I haul in my bag—and what can go into my car? This can be tricky. Many adjuncts complain that they feel as though they are living out of their cars. I found that if I carry one attaché or bag per campus, I have less of a chance of bringing in the wrong materials.
Is there an evening instruction office? What services will they provide? Evening instructional offices have staff working late; they may provide parking permits, copy machine keys, computers and printers, paper and the basic supplies, and a live person to help with general questions. On one campus I work, a Miss Castro has saved me repeatedly. She gets me a voicemail box. She’s a lifesaver. I keep her e-mail address in my book.

I also bookmark my campus Web site (and any internal Web sites or links) on my home computer. This way I can quickly log on and access class lists, schedules, paycheck dates, and other important information.
By my second year of part-time teaching, I had developed syllabi that listed major deadlines, quizzes, midterm and final—and what we were working on each day. It was not too specific; I could slip in a “grammar capsule” if I wanted, or a short study of an essay if we ran long on time. I know some instructors like to present each week’s activities as they go along, but I need structure—and I had many “high-context” students who wanted to know right away when papers were due and when tests were scheduled. This helped me plan my time—and adjunct survival is about juggling time, people and concepts.

Organizational skills and the ability to know one’s limits seem to be crucial to a successful part-time career in education. It may sound petty to some, but for adjuncts, it’s all about survival. If we can get through the first week, get the forms in on time, get into the textbook, get to midterm, we know we can survive, even thrive. It’s about gaining confidence, in oneself, in one’s campus, in the educational system. Once we get through the first stretch, we turn to bigger things.

During the second semester at a community college, I came to be more concerned about the long-range goals of my campus. I served on committees to ensure that courses were doing what they should, and that they fit into the sequence. And I have found mentors among my colleagues—tenure-track professors who knew what was appropriate to teach at what level, and how to get things done without treading on toes.

And every semester I work to assist in holistic grading of a common exam that stretches across all sections of one course in my department. I do it whether I am teaching a section of this course or not. Why? I want to keep my hand in. I want to stay fresh. I want to see whether I am in line with my more experienced colleagues. And, as a surviving adjunct, I know how important it is to achieve and be visible.

Some day, when budgets relax and friends retire, I want to be there. Last semester, I took a new teacher around campus and gave her some tips: Here’s my secret copy machine location. Parking is bad; if you can get here before 8:00 a.m., you’ll find a spot. Here’s the cafeteria—it’s okay, but for God’s sake, don’t eat at this lunch shack… you’ll have abdominal cramping before your night class starts.… And so it goes. Another semester, another group of survivors.

It’s not a bad job; just one that requires some shifting and poking, some reaching and the occasional embarrassment.

Education. I have to admit, I wouldn’t have it any other way. And one last bit of advice—at the yearly office party, ask the other instructors about their classes, their spouses, their houses, their commutes and their dogs. Be a good listener. And for God’s sake, don’t get drunk and dance all night in front of the tenure-track professor who plays the sax. Just good common sense, really.

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