Be the Voice of the Irritated Edge!
In his recent (2009) book Designing the Smart Organization author Roland Deiser primarily focuses on learning in the corporate environment. In fact, one of his starting points is the claim that traditional models of education (such as those that happen in classrooms) are too limited in both scope and definition. He overstates his case a bit—he seems to be working with a slightly aged straw man at times, and not looking at the numerous educational initiatives focusing on team work, new technologies, applications in the world, etc.—but his book is still quite useful in several ways.
First, it looks at how education can be reconceived to address numerous arenas that are indeed too often shorted, such as ethical action and incorporating learning into corporate growth and strategies. These are useful, and the attempts made by institutions as different as the U. S. Army and Novartis to learn in more functional ways are exciting in themselves. For the most part, however, they aren’t directly applicable to the work of adjunct faculty (though they are to those who hire and manage them); we are too loosely connected to our institutions, too far from the strategic core, and work with a population who will by definition be moving on.
However, Deiser made several points about the shifting nature of learning that do apply to adjuncts, and that will apply in an even more focused fashion as higher education becomes more corporate. First, he points out that businesses function less in isolation and more as part of a supply network that is often international. This applies to higher education on the literal level: more students are attending more than one institution than ever before. It can also apply to the adjunct writer. We can use this in our pedagogy and our politics: we can use students as sources of information about other institutions, which empowers them and teaches us. We can also use this in our scholarship. We have in our classrooms every day students new to college and well-versed, students new to online and cyber veterans, and students home grown in our institutions, transferring in, and just visiting. This provides raw material for any number of essays and studies, and could be extended to analyses of how different institutions use resources they share (such as Turnitin.com, which is used very differently by different schools).
Second, Deiser details ways in which standardized learning is falling short. Adjuncts could build on this in to ways: by documenting how increasing standardized curriculum falls fails to serve higher education’s corporate masters (ahem), and by writing pedagogical articles on the dubious challenge of working with standardized curriculums.
Third, Deiser points out that, “Learning requires irritation, so the major task is to provide the right irritation…” and that in the contemporary environment, institutional growth and innovation is most likely to happen at the periphery. This is where adjuncts live: on the irritated edge of higher education. On a visceral level, we know what changes are pushing up against higher education. Long before our administrators do, we know about new sources of plagiarism, new trends in student-student communication, new writing habits born of video games and chat rooms. We know about the inappropriate irritations, in which students can’t register for this or can’t get an answer for that because of the institution’s rules. We know what new sources need to be evaluated as credible or not.
We already respond to these trends as teachers. We need to do so as writers as well. Write for Wikipedia. (I’ve got a great short lesson I use in my composition classes about how the Wikipedia entry on me is flawed and shouldn’t be used as a source that I use in composition classes.) Write for students, to legislatures. Design research assignments writing proposals to change the things that irritate them, have them submit those proposals, and document the changes. Help them analyze how Microsoft’s grammar checker works—and write articles about it. Work with a content mill, write academic articles about the process, and so on.