Experiencing One School’s Commitment

Whew! I’m exhausted.

Ahem. Let me start again. Like many adjuncts, I teach for more than one school. These schools vary in their commitment to, and treatment of, their adjunct faculty, as well as to the quality of instruction they provide. Yesterday, one of those I got a chance to take part in efforts by one of those schools— Baker College— to raise the quality of its writing instruction. Since Baker uses mainly adjunct faculty, this meant the day was devoted to helping adjunct writing teachers teach better.

Baker held its First Annual College Writing Conference yesterday. It was a one day event. For schools with a single campus, organizing such an event would be relatively simple: book the space, plan the day, and call it done. However, Baker has numerous campuses throughout Michigan, as well as a thriving online program, so just bringing everyone together meant a tremendous commitment. It meant some faculty members drove hours from Cadillac to Clinton Township—and that the online faculty flew in from California, Washington, and in one case, Australia. (Melissa travelled for something like 26 hours.)

On Baker’s end, it meant providing hotel rooms for everyone, flights for those of us who flew in, and paying everyone for our time. Since they brought in around a hundred people, and paid hundreds of dollars, even without the catered food and the transportation, that’s tens of thousands of dollars in expenses.

I call that commitment. What’s more, as the event’s title indicates, we’ll be having these each year. Other schools, take note: this is one way to improve the quality of your writing instruction, and one way to show your commitment to your adjuncts. (Well, three ways, actually: training + money + promises for the future.)

Future conferences may focus on flashier content, and we’re promised big name speakers. This one, though, focused on two things in the context of a third. First, we graded papers using a new rubric Baker was establishing (mostly done—still tinkering with a bit) for use throughout its system. We graded them in groups.

Second, we discussed our scores, which led to one of the primary goals of the day: raising and regularizing standards throughout the system. Students frequently complain one instructor asking them to write one way (and grading accordingly), then having to learn an entirely new way of writing for another instructor (and seeing their grades suffer until they do so). When we explained to one another why Instructor Smith gave this a 3 out of 4 for argument support while Instructor Jones gave it 0 points, we learned many things. Of course, we learned the reasoning for that specific evaluation, and for other evaluations of organization, style, etc. More importantly, though, we learned one another’s assumptions about what writing is, what good writing should be, and how we should teach. This led to useful (if meandering) broader discussions of pedagogy.

We changed groups throughout the day, and so got a chance to work with a number of different peers. Along the way I made notes on how to teach specific elements of the essay, as well as general approaches I might take (or avoid) to writing in general. This was part of the general third function of the day: building a community, and specifically a community of practice devoted to writing.

The day had specific and focused goals, and largely met them. It also, though, inevitably did and taught other things. I was reminded of how radically differently people can conceive of writing. At least as important, I was reminded of how the grind of daily practice can rigidify us in our writing pedagogy, until one valid way to teach writing becomes the only valid way to teach writing.

Watching peers grade, I was reminded of the pressures on all of us who teach writing, but especially adjuncts, to falsely simplify the process of evaluating writing. I saw some of my peers doing this through becoming overly rigorous in a single area (one spelling error = a letter grade deduction, commas left out of the in-text citations in an APA-formatted paper that was otherwise perfectly presented = zero points in this area, etc.), so that they could move through swiftly and with the illusion of high standards. I some of my peers doing this through departing from the rubric provided through the lure of compassion (“The student clearly tried so hard!”). (I do not excuse myself from either of these flaws, alas.)

Taking part in the collective grading started the process it was intended to do: we all learned from one another. In the process, we sharpened our abilities to articulate what we wanted from students. We transformed some of the collective expertise that had gone nonverbal through the years of accrual and practice back into words, allowing us to construct shared models and, again, to practice sharing them with students.

Other things happened as well, things related to writing and writing instruction, but more tangentially. As an online faculty member, I half expected to feel excluded or out of place. I realized that that some of the adjuncts teaching in the traditional classroom at the distant campuses were far more isolated than I. They may never see peers, never discuss teaching, etc. Politics roiled around the day, irrelevant to this post but shaping the context in which we all worked and taught and occasionally felt.

The day, then, was valuable in itself, as a tool of community formation, and as a sign of the school’s commitment. It was useful for us as teachers, as writers, and as adjuncts. And you know what? If one school (in cash-strapped Michigan!) can do this for their adjuncts, so can others.

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