6 things I learned during my first semester as an adjunct professor

I just wrapped up teaching my first semester of college at my alma mater. For the past 5 months, every Tuesday and Thursday morning I would stand in front of thirty first-year college students in the same classroom where I took freshman level math. When I first got offered this position, I soon realized there’s a lot of pressure being a college teacher, especially for someone who will be paying back grad school student loans for decades to come, the thought and burden of having to actually fail a student terrified me. I’ve also read the numerous recent articles about adjunct professors being one of the most undervalued assets in the field of academics, which also kind of terrified me.

Being only semi-confident I could even pull this off, I spent a lot of hours on the phone with my mom for advice, who was a public school teacher most of my life. I was warned by my friends who teach high school that their biggest issue starting out was classroom management, but I think I got off the hook on that having an early morning class.

I found humor in keeping a list of funny things that students wrote in their blog posts and quickly learned that I wasn’t getting paid enough to give anything but multiple choice quizzes every week. But mostly, I had the opportunity to learn from my students, real live American humans from a generation that people don’t even know what to label yet. Humans that were born in years like 1996. Unfortunately, I feel like there’s a huge misconception that it’s every generations birth right to shame the generation that follows, and as a millennial who constantly feels like a test subject, I’ll try not to do that. But 1996?! Anyways, I taught a semester of college and here are my major take aways:

1. Lesson plans are a thing.

Growing up with a teacher for a mom I vividly remember coming home from school after basketball practice to see her under a pile of papers on the dining room table, grading homework and preparing lesson plans. Lesson plans, hmm, I remember thinking… don’t you just go to school and talk about the book? But after having to manage a lecture for an hour and half, I completely understand why this actually takes preparation.

I would come home from work and either start my lesson plans for that week or grade quizzes or answer poorly constructed emails about homework. I’m pretty sure that my friends thought I had moved out of the country again because weekday plans after work were not an option for me during the semester. I now completely understand the preparation that goes in to developing a lesson plan and take back being frustrated with my lack of understanding about this seemingly useless task. Especially when I was in some instances teaching myself the material as I went through 2000 years of art history.

2. Having two jobs is hard.

Speaking of my friends thinking I had crawled into a cave, which is basically the same as not responding to text messages these days, having two jobs is extremely difficult. I knew it was going to be a lot before I agreed to teaching but I figured if people could have kids and a full time job I could manage having a side job on top of my 9 to 5.

Working at a content marketing agency, I’m surrounded by people who are extremely intelligent and good at what they do, constantly seeking to grow in their field and wanting to learn from the best. For the majority of my day I’m behind two to three computer screens (throw in a few devices in there too for any given project), designing UI elements for apps and websites.

Putting myself in front of almost 30 teenagers for 4 hours a week brought an element to my professional life that allowed for variety and growth. Most of my students were in my class for a liberal arts requirement, not because they were actually interested in the subject matter I was teaching. And even if they were half way asleep for every class, I was getting to present my seemingly expert knowledge on art in the modern world and how it related to the material from the book.

My evenings were spent making lesson plans, responding to student emails and inputting grades into a UX nightmare of a grading software. Tuesday and Thursday mornings I would wake up at 5:00am to finish my lesson plans, teach for two hours and then work behind the screens for another nine hours. I experienced this unique feeling of being completely drained but also this sense of feeling extremely fulfilled at the same time.

3. Grading is frighteningly subjective.

This is something that I’ve never even really thought about. I was always someone who would turn in assignments early, I never pulled an all nighter in undergrad or in grad school, I know cue the angry glares and heavy sighs. I also realize this isn’t the way most students work and was prepared to have some approach me for make up work or extra credit. I made it explicitly clear at the beginning of the semester I did not do make up quizzes and that two quiz grades would drop, one homework grade would drop. This gave enough flexibility to miss a class if your sick (hungover), just don’t want to come one morning or any other life things outside of the classroom that undoubtably come up during the semester. I know, I’m such a cool teacher, but come on, let’s be realistic, we all have lives outside of that class, other priorities, other obligations. Everyone deserves the tools to be successful and also the ability to understand why they’re not doing well by simply looking at the guidelines of the course.

This prompted me to reflecting on the teachers that I thought were unfair for no reason, ones that even if you studied exactly what they told you to study, would still for some reason through a curve ball on the exam. Or the professors that had extremely unrealistic expectations of course workloads. What’s the point? Especially with a 101 class like I was teaching, the end goal is to get part of your general ed requirements filled and maybe learn something interesting along the way.

4. Someone needs to teach these kids how to write an email.

And I’m not sure where this falls in the academic world, but the emails that I received from students were pretty shocking. And I’m not talking about a typo here or there or misusing there, their or they’re. I also promised I wouldn’t start bashing this unnamed generation, but this is something that, no matter where you earn your degree from, will affect your process in finding a job and overall professional development.

Here’s an example of an actual email I received: “Whats the rding for 2day.” That’s it. I’m not quite sure why it was too hard to type the ‘ea’ in the word reading or why this is a statement and not a question, but unfortunately this is the caliber of emails I would receive nine times out of ten. I know technology has changed the way we all communicate, but come on, this isn’t 2005 where we’re all typing a key 3 times on our Nokias because T9 hadn’t been added into the software. It’s 2015. We’ve got full touch screen keyboards on almost 5 inches of screen reality, not typing out full words is pretty unacceptable, especially when autocorrect types half of the word for you most of the time anyways.

I saw this video surface of a professor frustrated with this topic with the Youtube video description reading: “When you email your professor for the first time, things can go very wrong if you think this is a text message to your BFF!” While I did have a classroom of students straight from highschool and was teaching Art Appreciation not Professional Writing, and no where in the book did it mention any form of writing outside of calligraphy or hieroglyphics, my students still got a few brief lessons on how to not look like a complete joke when writing an email.

5. Collaboration gives everyone a voice.

I had a hard task by teaching an 8 a.m. class to a group of first-years. I knew that attendance was going to be an issue and that participation would probably be low. Heck, I remember dragging myself across campus for an 8 a.m. class, it was rough, especially if you’d been up all night listening your roommate on the phone breaking up and getting back together with her boyfriend from high school.

Before I started the semester I made the decision to not only teach the history and fundamentals of art but somehow relate it to the media and technology that we are exposed to today. I wanted my students to be able to make a connection between the types of aesthetics that we are exposed to everyday are direct derivatives of historical time periods and artists.

I thought this might be enough to engage some conversation, and for the first few weeks of class it was. Although, once everyone became a little more comfortable, the same few students would constantly participate and I lost about half of the class to their cell phones.

I then began sprinkling in some discussion questions where I split them into groups and prompted them to chat with each other then share their opinions and conclusions with the class. “How are hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter or #LoveWins an example of social activism in 2015?” or “Come back to class next week with an example of bad typography that you see around campus or at work and we’ll discuss” got them to start thinking about how what we were learning from the book affected their daily lives.

I began seeing students who were too shy or tired to participate starting to have a voice and be reassured by their peers that they shared similar opinions. I’ve always found meaning in the phrase “those with the loudest voices don’t always have the best ideas” and I think that offering some sort of group or collaboration exercises really benefits all students.

6. Going back to the basics is a good thing.

I’ve been in the design world now professionally for about 5 years. I test background and foreground screen contrast colors all the time. I understand how to keep a certain aesthetic or design style through out entire projects. I work with developers every week to double check they’ve translated my UI designs in to the product they’ve developed. All of these skills were fundamentally built through my academic career in my Typography class, my History of Graphic Design class, not so much that Flash class I dropped (one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, but you get the picture).

Teaching this course gave me the opportunity to take a step back and really get down and dirty with the basics of design. I got to teach color theory, starting with the differences between analogous colors and complementary colors. I actually got chills when I resized a browser while explaining responsive design and could hear everyone in unison saying “oooooooh.” I then spread out my lectures on typography, graphic design and web design over two weeks and got my students to find websites they liked and didn’t like and explain to me why.

It was then that I realized how gratifying teaching really was, how much I actually do know and how much I could learn from this unnamed generation. I passed a math professor that I had actually studied abroad with twice while I was a student in the hall just before I taught my first class. She was elated to see me teaching and her words of advice pretty much nailed it. “Just remember… you know more than they do.”

I think in my field specifically, there’s always this need to have a grasp on the industry standards and also to always be looking ahead to what’s to come. Teaching taught me to take a second and reflect on all that I do know and allowed me to take a second to slow down and see how far the design word has come in only a few centuries. Technology has shaped production immensely, even since I was in school (they now have a 3D printer in the design lab) and now there’s almost a movement to going back to the basics with simple UI elements and flat vector graphics. With one semester under my belt, I’m excited to see what I can learn next semester.