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Guest Post: An Adjunct Who Had Enough

The following is an account of leaving academia by an adjunct in French language and literature.

At the end of last summer, I received a letter from the Dean of Faculty at the Prestigious Liberal Arts College where I had been teaching intermediate French language for three years. It was an odd time to receive a letter from the Dean. I knew that it was not a contract for the coming academic year—I had already signed one in June.

I picked up the letter in my home mailbox with my 3-year-old son on the way back from the park. I helped him climb the four flights of stairs to our apartment and, on the last step, fishing for my keys, I opened the letter and read it, which took but a second. My misgivings were confirmed. The Dean had learned from the Chairman of my Department that my student evaluations “fell substantially short of the College’s expectations.” Consequently, I would be “on watch” for the coming year. If the evaluations failed to improve, my contract would not be renewed. By the time I opened the door, I had made a decision. I would quit, giving up then and there the dream of a career in Academia. Within a second, without thinking twice, I turned the page on 12 years of my life.

Why?

Not because I was unhappy with my work. I spent seven years in graduate school, defending my dissertation in 2004, and six as an adjunct teaching courses at a salary of $2,500 to $5,000 per course (in super-expensive metropolitan areas), not to mention hitting the job market several years in a row in hopes of finding something  that would set me on the path to tenure. All the while I was committed to research on ethics, rhetoric and French Renaissance prose, and was also working on comparisons of American and French feminism.

Over the years, to be sure, the quality of my student evaluations fluctuated. There were always a number of unhappy students—sometimes that number was low, sometimes high. At the same time, there were always some happy students. I showed up for classes with detailed lesson plans, never stopped looking for new material, and continuously strived to engage students. I did not despise teaching language instead of literature, I should add, which was often the case with my older colleagues, for I recognized the fact that advanced study in French can’t proceed without basic fluency. I would have been happy to keep on teaching it.

Nor did I quit because I didn’t fit in my department, either. In the three years I spent there, I plunged into departmental service. I redesigned syllabi for many courses. Indeed, it seemed at this Prestigious Liberal Arts College that every instructor needed to start from scratch every semester. Sometimes it was impossible to find documentation on how it had been taught. I also coordinated multiple courses, including some that I had never taught before, and coached younger colleagues. I had even been encouraged to put together a syllabus for a new advanced grammar and translation class.

Nor did I quit for a lack of research projects. In the Spring I attended two major conferences in my field, organizing panels and giving papers. A collection of essays I had edited came out that Spring as well, and I had started organizing with a colleague a one-day conference on translation in our field for December, an event supported by the Chair and funded by the department.

Nor did I quit because I objected to efforts to improve classroom instruction. I am entirely open to criticism and improvement as a teacher, and I would have welcomed a thorough assessment of my teaching.

So what was the problem?

In a word, I quit because I couldn’t go along with the values and methods implied by the dean’s letter. Her warning let me know that only one criterion for good teaching counted: how the students rated my course and me. That was all. Obviously, the only thing that would take me “off watch” was a rise in a numerical average at the end of the term.

A responsible effort to evaluate my teaching would require so much more. First of all, a peer review. Someone might observe my classes and meet with me afterward to discuss strengths and weaknesses. But in the past, no colleague ever sat in my class and wrote a report about it and shared the judgment with me. Neither the Chairman nor any other faculty member ever offered any diagnosis or advice. The dean’s letter did not suggest that anyone would in the coming year.

A full assessment would also measure how much students learned in my classes. One method would be to compare the competency of students at the beginning of my class and at the end of my class. But no one other than me monitored the progress students had made during the semester.

Still another measure of my teaching would be to determine how my students performed at the next level. A strong intermediate class should produce students able to handle an advanced French class as well as upper-division literature classes. So far as I know, the department had no mechanism to track student performance from year to year.

These three methods of evaluation would have kept me in the program. They might have enabled us to distinguish substantive and valid low ratings by students from personal and invalid low ratings by students. The dean’s letter made it clear, however, that the cumulative number alone would count and nothing else.

Maybe I had too high expectations and made students work too hard. I had high standards, and I informed them that grade inflation would not affect my classroom (although, I confess, I did inflate final grades to some extent). Perhaps the problem came down to how much students liked or disliked me, how fun they thought I was or wasn’t. We couldn’t know if we relied only on the numbers. But it didn’t matter. The university had no interest in investing the time to examine its instruction properly. It only paid attention to—let’s go ahead and say it—customer satisfaction. I’d had enough of that.

I couldn’t stomach it. Forget learning outcomes, forget the rigorous curricula, just keep the kids satisfied. That’s what the dean’s letter said, and that left me with only one choice. I won’t talk in terms of integrity, honesty, or self-esteem. I’m no hero. My decision was immediate and visceral. I don’t regret it.

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