The fall term is under way and the hallways outside faculty offices are swarming with students. For adjuncts, the good news is that we usually don't have to deal with students filling out degree paperwork, declaring majors, or setting up senior thesis committees. But we still have more than our share of face time with students, because we teach more courses than the full-timers, and have more students.
And those students want us -- dead or alive, rain or shine, come hell or high water. Well, at least it can feel that way. It can feel like students are taking up so much of your time that they are undermining your ability to get your work done in all of your classes. But if you spend a little time setting some boundaries with your students, you can manage this human demand on your time to the satisfaction of all involved.
Part of our job description as adjuncts is to be accessible to the students, not just in the classroom but in office hours. In my very first column, I addressed the common adjunct dilemma of having to hold office hours without an office. However you handle with that dilemma, the point is to be available in person at some point during the week and then to rely on electronic means to handle other student needs.
A common problem, however, is that adjuncts tend to overcompensate. I heard recently from an adjunct who complained of burnout. She had a rigorous, but manageable teaching load -- four courses a semester, courses she'd taught many times before, three of them at one college, with about 100 students total.
She complained about working 50 to 60 hours a week. So I asked her to break down her week for me so I could see what was taking up so much of her time. Turns out, she spends about three hours a day, or more, in office hours in her little cubbyhole on campus.
I asked her why the students needed that much time. She explained that she set her office up like a living room -- with a nice rug, yellow bulb lamps, throw pillows on the floor, and a tiny refrigerator -- and that students hung out with her every day and talked about their lives. In short, she was their mother, therapist, adviser, best friend, spiritual guru, financial analyst, snack bar, and history professor all rolled into one.
She was overcompensating. She had it in her head that since she was an adjunct, she had to go overboard to show herself, her students, and her colleagues that she "belonged," that she was doing a good job, that she was a "real" professor.
And the students were picking her clean. I told her to lose the throw pillows, pop those fluorescent bulbs back in, give the fridge to her husband to use in his woodshop, and limit herself to about an hour a day. Handle the rest by e-mail.
You can meet the students' needs without going overboard. Of course, you have to comply with whatever your college demands in terms of office hours. My institutions usually require two hours a week for every three-credit class I teach. Build the minimum demand into your schedule and push as many of students as possible to see you, call you, or e-mail you during those hours. Setting that basic boundary can go a long way toward easing your schedule.
Some adjuncts don't have computers or telephone lines in their campus offices, if indeed they have an office. If you can't use a computer or telephone in your department, you must determine whether, and how much, to use your own personal computer and phone to do the business of the university. It seems to me that a university that expects you to use your personal resources to do your job is crossing a boundary, and you should consider not working there.
I've heard from many adjuncts who -- fearful of being bombarded by phone calls -- resist the idea of giving out their home phone numbers, or personal cell phone numbers, to their students.
Once again, deal with this by setting boundaries. Tell students to contact you at your departmental telephone number and e-mail address. Give out your home phone number only to those students you trust will not abuse the information.
Or go ahead and give the students your home number, but tell them not to call only during certain hours. For more than 12 years, I've put my home phone number on my syllabus for the 100-plus students I have every term, with strict limits on when they can use it. Only two or three times in all these years have students violated the boundary. Usually, they call during the day, leave a message, and I get back to them via e-mail. They don't call me late at night because my syllabus says not to, and, frankly, my "in-class persona" ensures that they are afraid to call me at night.
As for using your personal Internet address for communicating with students, you can do so without the students' taking over your e-mail. Most Internet service providers will allow you to set up several addresses with one account. Dedicate one of them to your students so your personal username is reserved for your friends and family. Change the teaching user name each term, if you want, so that only the current term's students have access to you in that form.
One adjunct I know gives his students his cell phone number, but answers only text messages from them. They send him short questions about exam dates, essay lengths, whatever, and he responds via e-mail or text message. I sat at lunch with him once and read a message he got from a student: "Can Euripides be serious with this Medea?" the message read. "Excellent paper topic!" my friend wrote back on his phone. It cost him about 9 cents, but the student was left feeling like her professor was very available to her, and he fulfilled his obligation to be accessible while sitting at lunch with me. Not bad for 9 cents.
Like anything else, technology can be abused, unless you set some rules, enforce them, and then go about your business. If worse comes to worse, you can always change your cell phone number and your user name, and go back to the office area with a nice rug and some throw pillows under your arm.