21 April 2017

The Best Student Work and the Problem of Limited Resources

Right now, in the between-real-employments phase of my academic career, I'm working part-time (i.e., adjuncting) in the department where I received my Ph.D. In the fall, I taught two first-year writing courses; this spring I taught one writing course and one 3000-level literature class. (Undergraduate classes here go from 1000 to 4999, so this makes it junior-level in theory.)

That class is winding down now (only one more week of classes to go), which is causing me to think about the assessment I'm using. I do weekly-ish reading quizzes (there's a 50% chance of a quiz on any given day, so it averages out to one per week), a 3-page paper due during the semester, a 6-page paper due at the end, a midterm, and a final.

I'm not convinced these are very good or very appropriate levels of assessment. When it comes to encouraging reading on a regular basis, I think short responses are more appropriate to the kind of work I want my students to be doing than quizzes. When it comes to synthesizing their knowledge of the class, I think longer writing is better than multiple exams.

But I have forty students, and so pedagogy must compromise with efficiency. It is simply easier to grade 40 four-question quizzes per week than it is to read and respond to 40 1.5-page writings. It is simply easier to assign nine pages of writing than to assign more (8-12 is the range for a 3000-level ENGL class, so you can tell at least I'm doing more than the bare minimum). And exams are the best way I know to figure out if all forty of my students got something out of the class when usually there's not time or space for each one of them to say something substantive every day. I just don't have the time, space, and money to obtain the best student work.

Last fall, there was a minor brouhaha on the department listserv because out of 22 winners of our university's funded undergraduate research prize, only three were from non-STEM fields. Two of those three were indeed from English, however. Undergraduates apply for these awards as first-semester juniors, which means you have to be basically ready to have a research proposal by the end of sophomore year.

Well, how likely is that if even once you get to junior-level, you're one of forty students in your English class? I had some large English classes as an undergraduate... but I don't think I was ever in a class of forty in a 300-level course. As an instructor, I have absolutely no incentive to encourage research projects, as it just increases my workload in what is already a large course; my six-page paper requires no research beyond sources read in class.

Furthermore, as an adjunct I have even less incentive to mentor a student so that they can carry out research. I'm not going up for tenure here, ever; I have no possible motivation other than, well, collegiality. But collegiality is not rewarded when you're a part-timer.

So when all this was going back and forth on our department listserv, my thought was, If this department wants engaged undergraduates who carry out research projects, they need to not be  stuffing forty of them into junior-level classes taught by adjuncts. And I get that there are real financial exigencies that make this necessary, just as there are practical concerns for me that override my pedagogical ideals. But if this is what we put into our department, we should not be surprised at the students who come out of it. Our department is very reliant on adjunct teaching, moreso than other departments of similar sizes, so I have heard. Our tenure-track faculty do not teach 1000-level courses by and large.

Finally, a faculty member (former department head) pointed out something similar: "It seems to me that the faculty might have more impact on this process if we were more regularly willing to teach the sorts of courses that our sophomore majors are likely to take--for instance, the 2000-level and 3000-level literary surveys. It is my impression [...] that our beginning majors are hungry for serious mentoring from our tenured and tenure-track faculty. It is also my impression that faculty do not often volunteer for such courses"

The conversation continued, but no one ever addressed that component of it. If you want the best student work, you have to put in the best quality of teaching. Our current model, for a variety of reasons, doesn't make that happen.

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