Cut Your Adjunct Instructors & TAs a Break
Flickering lights in the bowels of the library basement. Burning the midnight oil grading papers while simultaneously trying to finish that 25 page term paper for a graduate course on 18th century British literature. Teaching courses at three different colleges and also attempting to get a few hours of sleep every night. Trying to have a social life but constantly running into your students at bars.
No, it’s not the plot of a horror film. It’s the life of teaching assistants and adjunct instructors.
Chances are, you’ll encounter a good many of these exhausted, overworked souls through your college career. And, if you decide to pursue graduate studies, you may even end up experiencing it all for yourself as a teaching assistant or graduate instructor.
I taught undergraduate composition courses through the entirety of my master’s program—all while taking a full load of graduate courses, working on my thesis, raising a puppy, and still trying to have a social life. Of course, I didn’t do this as gracefully as I like to pretend. I had my fair share of breakdowns, including entire weekends where I was practically catatonic on my sofa with my dog and never ending episodes of Supernatural on Netflix—all just to avoid thinking about the mass of work I had waiting for me on my desk. And in my office. And in my email. And you know, the dirty dishes in the sink.
When I accepted my graduate assistantship teaching composition, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into, as I imagine most first time college instructors don’t. I had a really inflated sense of what I was capable of handling in terms of a workload. But, I quickly found out that trying to balance being a teacher and a student wasn’t going to be a lovely stroll through that metaphorical park.
Now, as a PhD student, I’ve taken on adjuncting to make some extra money and stay in the teaching loop as I finish my final degree. But, for most adjunct instructors, adjuncting isn’t just a source of a little extra income, or a means of gaining more teaching experience. Most adjuncts teach a handful of sections and most make less than $35k per year—and that is a generous number. The average adjunct instructor of an English class at a four year public institution, for example, makes about $3,100 per course. For a 15-week fall semester course, that only averages out to be around $200 per week. And, since they’re considered part-time employees, adjunct instructors don’t receive benefits like health insurance.
So, why should all this matter to you as a college student?
These graduate and adjunct instructors take on a great deal of work and responsibility by planning and teaching the courses you take, assisting tenured faculty with grading papers and tests, and holding office hours. It’s easy as a student to see your instructors in a kind of vacuum: they exist inside the classroom, and they exist to serve the needs of those students in that single class. But, that’s definitely not the case. Graduate instructors and teaching assistants are taking courses of their own while teaching, and many adjunct instructors are working other jobs outside of academia, raising families, or also pursuing further education.
This means they might not always answer your email ten minutes after you send it. They might not be readily available outside of class and/or their set office hours. They might not be able to remember your specific paper or situation without a little reminding. But, they work just as hard—if not harder—than any other instructor or professor, and it’s important that you try your best to cut them a little break.
Here’s a few ways you can help make your adjunct or graduate instructor’s lives a little easier.
Limit your demands and expectations.
I’m not saying to expect less from your adjunct or grad instructors in terms of the quality of instruction, just expect a little less in terms of things like communication outside the classroom. So, if you email your instructor at 10p.m. and are peeved that you haven’t heard from them by the next morning—chill out. Their lives outside of your classroom are likely full and busy, which means they can’t be there 24 hours a day to answer your questions. Ask your questions during class or during office hours, when their time is yours. If you do send emails, be courteous and respectful in your wording.
Go to office hours.
If you want these busy instructors to know you better, go see them in their office hours. Not only will you be able to get the extra help you need without making them go out of their way to do it, you’ll also develop a better academic relationship with that instructor. I can tell you that I spend most of my office hours sitting there alone, doing my own work. More likely than not, your instructor will be sitting there waiting and willing to help you out.
Show them you’re listening.
As a grad instructor, I struggled with getting my students to participate. They tended to think showing up and sitting there half awake constituted being “present,” but all it did was make my life more stressful and difficult as an instructor. I had to sit through a lot of awkward silences after I’d prompted a discussion, and in the end, the ones who missed out the most were my students. Your instructors have spent time planning lessons and discussions. Do your part and help them out by engaging with the material and participating in the course. Not only will you help out your likely stressed out and overworked instructor, you’ll also end up benefitting as a student from more lively and interesting discussions and class meetings.
And finally, if you’re considering adjuncting or working as a TA or GA through your future graduate studies, remember: it might be difficult, and you might lose some sleep along the way, but working as a college instructor is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever invested my time in. Hopefully your future students will heed some of this advice and make your life just a smidge less stressful.