By Helene A. Matheny
With now ten years of experience teaching as an adjunct, I’ve faced quite a variety of class formats. From the traditional daytime, twice-a-week course, to an extension course taught to adult students at Newark Airport, so close to the runway we could feel the rumble of take-off, I’ve had to create multiple formats and approaches to the same course material, sometimes in the same semester. Each class format comes with its unique challenges.
The Usual Stuff
Meeting twice a week during the day is the format most traditional students (and faculty) are used to. This situation offers enough time to delve into a topic and hold students’ attention, with possibly some time for discussion. Harder here is to include use of other media that I like to incorporate into my history classes, such as movies or documentaries. In these classes, I may rely more on still images such as maps and photographs and/or paintings. Occasionally, I can use segments of video – such as screening a clip of “Paths of Glory” to show what trench warfare was like, or a clip of Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” for discussions on Nazi Germany. It is also easier to leave any left out material you didn’t have time for till the next time you meet-since students are less likely to forget the material in just a couple of days, rather than over a weekend of who-knows-how-much socializing. A couple of times I taught classes that were three times a week, for 45 or 50 minutes each. These I found quite rushed, and offered even less time for discussion and the like, once we finally got settled in and took care of any other business such as reminders.
Burning the Midnight Oil
Most evening classes I have taught met once a week for three hours, usually from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Occasionally, they went later into the evening. The advantage of these classes is that most often the students were adults returning to school, and as my Freeway Flying colleague Jenny Ortiz so eloquently pointed out in her post about four year vs. two year students, even if these students are more rushed, they tend to be more serious about learning and offer a ripe environment for discussion. In these extended class sessions, I often divide the class time into sections: lecture, discussion, and hopefully a video or Powerpoint. I always include a break of five to ten minutes as well, and that provides a brief renewal as well as a good segue into the next section of the class. Another benefit I have found, especially to the Freeway Flyer, is that traffic is at a minimal after these classes! For someone like myself, who likes long drives for thinking and listening to music or books on CD, the commute on fairly empty highways was an added treat.
Easy, Breezy Summer Sessions
Hardly! Most summer sessions I have taught met for up to four times a week for two or three hours each, for a period of five to six weeks. These classes almost created the opposite situation from the classes with large breaks in between meeting times. With so much material to cover at break-neck speed, I would often feel the students had little time to really digest, link, and understand the material and get the bigger picture. Often, these classes force me to pull all of my educational approaches out of my sleeve and use various types of media, artifacts, articles, etc. to bring the subject home. It’s not that I wouldn’t employ these in my other classes, it just helps even more in these situations to make sure the students kept up with the concepts.
Stranger in a Strange Land
More challenging still, and often stranger, were the extension courses I taught at various locations. These were mostly special course offerings that a couple of the New Jersey colleges I taught at offered for adult working students to make it easier and more accessible to them in achieving their degrees. The three that stand out are: Courses at Newark Airport for airport staff, courses at the headquarters of Horizon Blue Shield of NJ in Newark, and classes at St. Peter’s Prep School in New Jersey. The airport courses were small and conducted in a conference room in one of the administration buildings. The building was very close to one of the runways and planes landed nearly right outside the window. One year, two of my students were from airport security and they escorted me to my gate after class for my departure to help an ailing aunt of mine who was living in Florida. A nice perk, indeed. However, in each of these situations I never knew in advance what the room would be like or what equipment would be available, so I’d often have to wait until the first class to size up the environment and make decisions about what I’d be able to include.
Besides the obvious differences in location and time structure, another challenge was, when teaching in several of these situations in one semester, I had to adjust my course material for each one – even though I might be teaching three sections of the same course. So what should have been one lesson prep — could turn into two, or three, or more.
This semester, I am teaching World History Part I, and since I have access to projectors linked to the in-class computers, I’ve added a new video resource for the first couple of classes, a National Geographic documentary called “The Human Family Tree,” which genetically traces our common human ancestor’s migration out of Africa — filmed on the streets outside my best friend’s New York city apartment in Astoria, Queens — one of the the most culturally diverse neighborhoods in the United States.
As I migrate from course to course, campus to campus — I can hopefully continue to find a workable system for adjusting my class material to the broad array of situations I teach in.
How do you prepare in these situations as a Freeway Flyer?
About the Freeway Flyer: Helene Goldstein Matheny received a B.A. in history from Rutgers University, an M.A. in Russian History and Literature from the University of London, and an M.S.Th. degree from The New Seminary, where she was ordained as an Interfaith Celebrant. She has lived in Russia and England, and traveled throughout Europe, Israel, Russia, Ukraine, New Zealand, Fiji and Australia. Helene has taught most frequently as an adjunct professor of history for the last ten years in New York, New Jersey and Mississippi, in addition to teaching history, comparative religion and astronomy at museums and other learning institutions. She is also an accredited pet dog trainer, writes freelance, and has presided over hundreds of weddings as an Interfaith Celebrant and currently lives in Purvis, MS with her husband, three parrots, a cat and a dog. Her writing also appears on examiner.com, and her blogs about life in the South and interests in science, spirit and history.