The Five Things I've Learned in my First Year as an Adjunct Professor
By Christopher Cody
I must admit the last two semesters at St. John’s University have been a complete revelation for me. In that time, I have supplemented my demanding PhD work with the equally rigorous endeavor of being an adjunct Professor of History.
At first, it was slightly bizarre transitioning from being the one listening to the professor to the person standing in front of the classroom hoping my students would listen to me. But, the beauty of being a newly-minted adjunct professor is that I am learning something new with each, and every, class. While it is difficult to boil down the many new experiences I have had to date, I would like to list five key lessons I have learned in my first year teaching college students.
Class, pay attention and take notes. There will be a quiz after you finish reading this blog.
1) Poise - While I've made countless presentations as an undergrad, graduate student and, now, a doctoral candidate, nothing really prepared me for the feeling one gets when 50 pair of eyes are expecting you to lead an hour-long discussion on the intricacies and complexities of the French Revolution. I must admit to having a serious case of the butterflies before my first lecture, but I soon learned that projecting poise and confidence is critical to being an effective academic instructor. While I am by no means an authoritarian, I am now very confident in my ability to take, and maintain, control in a classroom.
2) Listening – I have always prided myself on my listening skills but, as I've evolved in my role as an adjunct professor, I've taken great pains to listen to my students. And, I've learned that listening includes many elements. It consists of the obvious: listening to what my students have to say. But, it also includes reading verbal and non-verbal clues that tell me if I have struck a nerve, truly engaged my class, or need to adjust my presentation style to try other ways to connect. I've learned that the better listener one is, the more engaged and enthusiastic one's students are.
3) Sensitivity - While I've been careful about the words and phrases I use in my day-to-day life, I didn't think ahead of time before discussing a book or showing a film. Since I teach American history, I refer to books and other content from various eras in our country's history. In one instance, I realized I needed to contextualize a discussion of a film depicting the New York City draft riots of the 1860s that used racially charged language. I apologized to my class for the inappropriate language and explained it reflected the tenor and attitude of the past. I now review ALL content in advance to ensure I pre-empt any potential hurt feelings by asking my students to understand the words they are about to read or hear are indicative of the times and are, in no way, intended to offend their sensitivities. That's been a great learning lesson.
4) Toughness - I like to be liked. I have a wide array of friends and family who I like and who like me. So, when I began teaching, I wanted to be liked by my students. I quickly learned my job was to teach, not to be liked. So, while I do my best to keep my classes upbeat and energized, I won't hesitate to chastise a student for poor work quality or, likewise, poor behavior (i.e. sleeping in class). Likewise, if I review a dismal paper, I make it very clear why the student's work came up short. I have grown into a teacher that’s not afraid to flunk a student if she or he simply is not putting in the effort. I hate to be seen as unkind but rather, to hopefully light a fire under them and motivate them to aspire to do better.
5) Impact - In my life, there were three or four teachers and professors who truly made a difference in my life. They did so by transforming teaching into a fascinating, almost theatrical experience that mesmerized me. While I am still light years away from being that one-of-a-kind faculty member, I aspire to be that type of professor each, and every, lecture. I have had students come up to me and say that my class has been the best History class they have ever taken. It felt great. But I’d love it even more to one day be told by a former student that I had a profound impact on his or her life. For me, that's the ultimate goal of any academic.