When Schools Close – Tips for Successful Online Learning

In March, I – like a lot of teachers – said goodbye to my students, told them I’d see them in a week, wished them a safe Spring Break . . . and never saw them again.

March came as a shock to us all. In the space of basically a week, everything changed, especially education. Parents were suddenly forced to find ways to home school their kids; teachers were forced to come up with creative ways to deliver material; students were forced to figure out online and self-directed learning. No one expected it. Everyone did the best they could.

All summer, teachers were in limbo as schools tried to decide if they were going to remain online, try to return to full-time, face to face classes, or some hybrid of the two. And let’s be real:  schools that ARE returning pell-mell to face-to-face teaching aren’t going to last very long. I fully expect my college to ship everyone home no later than October 1.

Which begs the question:  what do we do?

Well, we move online.

I know everyone was scrambling last year. I was shocked by how unprepared some of my students really were – college students! I can’t imagine what it must be like for those of you with kids in elementary or middle/high school. My college students, I found out, didn’t have computers at home. Didn’t have internet or wifi. They were depending on the college for all of that. Heck, my international students who went home for break didn’t even have their textbooks! They’d left them in their dorms, and suddenly – poof! No coming back, no textbooks.

My college is returning to ‘normal’ – at least, they are for now. I am against this, but I have no say in it. I think we would have been better served to admit that for now, things are changing, and it’s time to change as well. I have to prepare my students for the reality that their face to face classes will go online at some point this fall. So here’s some tips I put together for my students last year, and will be giving them this year. Hopefully they might help someone.

1.) Get Internet access. I live in rural Kansas, where wifi is an issue. I have a wireless router. I’ve had to learn how to get the most of it that I can, and even then, there are days when I simply can’t get a decent signal, but it’s the best I can do. If you can get Internet though your cable provider, that’s an option. AND, most Android phones can be used as wireless routers! Talk to your cell phone provider about your data plan and how much data you can get on your plan. Or check with your school district or college and see if they plan to provide wifi access. For example, my college set up routers so that students could access wifi from their cars, in the parking lot. Not great, but it was the best we could do on the fly.

2.) Get a computer or tablet. You can’t do research on a phone, or write an essay or a three-page paper. And if you live in an area where lockdowns will be a possibility, you can’t rely on libraries or schools being open for computer access. Do not wait. If you don’t already own your own laptop or tablet, go buy one and start learning how to use it. Samsung tablets aren’t that expensive, and they generally come with the Office suite (Word, Excel, etc.). Make sure you get a keyboard for it; it’ll be handy.

3.) Learn time management. I can’t stress this one enough. I’ve taught online for eight or nine years now. I KNOW students procrastinate! I know you all wait until the last possible moment to do your homework. STOP IT. NOW! You don’t have that luxury anymore. I can see when my students log in; I can see when they start assignments. Any good learning management system (LMS) like Blackboard lets teachers see everything their students are doing. Learn time management. If you know you have a paper due in two weeks, figure out how to break down the work into small, manageable pieces instead of waiting until two hours before it’s due, then putting together some slap-dash piece of craptastic, plagiarized garbage your poor teacher will have to give you an F for. Purdue University has some great tips here:  https://www.purdueglobal.edu/blog/student-life/time-management-busy-college-students/

4.) Don’t wait until the last minute to do assignments! I’m separating this one from time management because again, I see it all the time. Procrastination can be good in some cases, but your school work isn’t one of them. First of all, you may underestimate how much time you’ll need for an assignment. If you do that, you may fail the test or assignment, and your teacher probably won’t give you an extension. (And before you think about excuses – don’t bother. We’ve heard them all.) Also, online LMS platforms like Blackboard are notorious for small glitches like not saving quiz scores, kicking students out of tests, closing things early, etc. If you run into these issues early in the week, WAY before the assignments are due, you can talk to your instructor and get the problems fixed. If you wait until the last minute and run into those issues, we are far less likely to believe you. Seriously.

5.) Set up a place to work. This is impossible for some of us – I have a tiny house where my desk is in my bedroom. Zero separation of work/sleep space. Zero separation from the kitties, too! But if you can, find a quiet location for your desk and books; a place where you can work. If your bedroom is quiet and you like the quiet, that’s great. If you prefer to be nearer the hub of activity, perhaps the kitchen table is more ideal. We all have our own way of working, and from day to day, or even from assignment to assignment, that might change. I write best in coffee shops, but for actual homework,  I need a quiet place to focus. If there is no place like that for you, try earbuds and your phone – fire up some music, and focus on your work for an hour or two. Outside space – the backyard, a park – can also be great. It gets you outside, it changes your mood and perspective. Being near water can be energizing.

6.) Set up a time to work. Believe it or not, we thrive on schedules. And we all have different rhythms to our lives. I HATE getting up early, but I used to be great at staying up late and working into the wee hours – it was my jam when I was in school. Some people love to get up early and get work out of the way. Figure out the best schedule for you. Obviously, if you’re in an online synchronous environment (where you’re online with your teacher and classmates simultaneously), this won’t work, but if you’re in an asynchronous learning environment, it will be great.

7.) Ask for help. If you don’t understand an assignment, ask for clarification. If you can’t access an assignment, let your teacher know ASAP. If you have a question about a reading, or a math problem, ASK. The thing is, we’re sitting on the other side of that computer screen, unaware if you’re having an issue or if you’re just not completing assignments. Truthfully, at the college level, instructors accept that some students will just stop attending – they will stop logging in, stop doing assignments, stop participating. We don’t know why. We reach out, we get nothing. We file student concern reports; advisors get nothing back. We have zero clue what has happened. You have to let us know if there’s a problem with your internet, your textbook access, whatever it is. If you don’t, we can’t know.

8.) Expect that every teacher will do things differently. That’s just how it is. Every single one of your teachers will have different skill levels. Access to different levels of technology. They’ll be comfortable with differing levels of interaction and assignments. Especially at the college level, don’t expect all of your classes to go the same way. Some of your teachers will go with synchronous online learning; others will post video lectures. Some won’t be able to do either one, but instead will require more of you from the textbook or online sources. Be flexible. Go with it. Know what the expectations are in each of your classes.

9.) PAY ATTENTION IN YOUR SYNCHRONOUS ONLINE CLASSES, DARN IT. Those Zoom sessions are for YOU. Not your teacher. YOU. Just as every teacher has a different classroom style, so every teacher will teach differently on Zoom. This is especially true at the college level. If your teacher primarily lectures in class, don’t expect different on Zoom. If you are put in a virtual room to discuss things, discuss them. Participate. Pay attention. Accept that this is just the way it’s going to be for now. (And if they post video lectures, by all means, watch them. This is what I had to do last year. They take a lot of work, believe me. Make it count!)

On that note, seriously, ACCEPT THAT THIS IS THE WAY IT’S GOING TO BE FOR NOW. Don’t whine about how you want your college or high school experience. Make the most of what you’ve got right now. Please. No amount of whining, crying, complaining, or wishing is going to make this pandemic go away any faster. It just won’t. Do NOT take a gap year, hoping things will be ‘normal’ next year, because they probably won’t. I don’t think things will be normal for at least two years, maybe three. Do you really want to push your education off that long, just to have that ‘college experience?’ Or do you want to take online classes now, get your core classes out of the way, and be able to hit the ground running on your major when things get back to ‘normal?’ What if things are never normal again? How long do you want to wait?

All of that said – I KNOW that these tips can’t help everyone. This is going to be a difficult year for us all. Those of you with some online learning experience will handle it better than those of you without. And I know there are students who truly need to be in the classroom; I know there are students who cannot afford the tools they need to move online. I am furious with my own college for not addressing this very issue, in fact. I know that schools are finding it hard to come up with the funds to ensure wifi access for students, let alone tablets or laptops for those without them. And I know that there are students who are going to be left behind, and that infuriates me. It’s not their fault. They deserve a proper education.

This year is really going to show us how bad the ‘digital divide’ in America is. I suspect it’s going to be a lot worse than we ever thought it was. In the past, I could always send students to the computer lab or their local library to work on things. I can’t do that anymore; I can’t take it for granted that they’ll be open! We teachers are also having to shift how we think and operate, how we run our classes, what we can expect from our students. It won’t be seamless, and it won’t be easy. It will be like learning how to drive a stick shift – full of jumps and starts and leaps forward and grinding gears and probably a stall or two while we figure out how to put the car in first and get it started again.

But for now, we have to accept that this is the way it’s going to be. The question is, how are we going to handle it?

Some tips on being a successful online student from the University of Illinois:  https://www.uis.edu/ion/resources/tutorials/pedagogy/successful-online-student/

For more about the digital divide among students and the pandemic, see https://www.wired.com/story/schools-digital-divide-remote-learning/

From Edutopia, some resources for parents and educators on technology and the digital divide:  https://www.edutopia.org/digital-divide-technology-access-resources


The Adjunct Files: What’s in a Classroom Policy?

So last week we looked at basic building blocks for your syllabus – what to include and why. This week, I want to take a closer look at your own policies – because let’s face it, that’s probably what you have the most control over. You can’t change the college’s policies; you can’t change the textbook; but:  your classroom, your policies.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2Nota bene:  different colleges offer instructors, especially adjuncts, differing levels of leeway in setting your own policies. Some departments may require you to do things their way; one college I applied to required instructors to use ONLY the course material they provided, in the course shell they provided, with the exams and assignments they set! There was absolutely no leeway there whatsoever, and even when adjuncts pointed out inaccuracies in the textbooks and quizzes, they refused to listen. So before you start to write your policies, double-check with your department chair or lead instructor.

Your policies are not going to be perfect out the gate. I promise that you will not be able to cover everything the first time out. What you need to decide first is what are you willing to enforce, every single day, in class?

My personal polices cover the following areas:

  • Late work
  • Making up tests (for my athletes who might be gone on an exam day)
  • Attending when ill (DON’T!)
  • Cell phones
  • Plagiarism, Cheating, Academic Integrity
  • ‘Helping’ others (teammates, significant others, etc.) with class work (it’s cheating, according to my school)
  • Best practices for contacting me (just to reiterate it)

For this blog post, though, I want to focus on cell phones and late work.

Cell phones. For some, students using cell phones in class is the biggest pet peeve there is:  it’s rude, disrespectful, and a barrier to learning. Just last week, I had a student who was playing on his cell phone, not listening as I spent 15 minutes talking about what would be on their first exam. Imagine what grade he got. (He did have the grace to scribble on the last page, “I didn’t know there was an essay.”) For some, however, if students choose to play on their phones rather than participate and take notes, that’s up to them; they’re presumably adults and if that’s how they choose to do things, they’ll have to live with the consequences. Still others have found ways to incorporate phones into their classrooms. Decide how you want to structure your course and what your policy will be when you see the texting begin.

Late work. I’ve seen the gamut. I knew an instructor who, in her online courses, opened all the assignments the first day of class and left them all open until the last day of class. No late work, no problem. Your college may frown on this. Mine certainly does. There’s a lot of options here, and you need to decide what works for you and your students. Can you offer a three-day grace period once for credit? A coupon for a missing assignment? I’ve seen both of these.

A lot of instructors offer a grace period with a set percentage taken off the total score for the late work. For instance, up to three days late, a 10% reduction; 5 days, a 25% reduction; after 7 days, not accepted at all. If you’re willing to take the late work and figure out the reduced points (and most importantly, stick to it!) this can be effective.

My personal policy is quite simple:  you get a week to do an assignment. If it’s late, it’s a zero. I will only reopen assignments in cases of extreme emergency, and those, I evaluate on a case by case basis. Your computer crashed at 7pm Saturday night, four hours before the deadline? Not good enough. I take into account when the student lets me know, the severity of the crisis, and what their previous work has been like. I really think you have to have a loophole of some sort. A small one, but a loophole. Bad things happen. I’ve had students hospitalized, students lose their parents (and children), students left without power by hurricanes and students flooded out of their homes. All that? That’s an emergency. That’s why, whatever policy you choose for late work, it should be fair to both you and the student – but it should also hold them accountable for their actions. I firmly believe it’s our job to not only teach them a subject, but also responsibility – and to be honest, this may be the first time in that student’s life that they’ve ever been responsible for their own actions!

Okay, I lied. I want to do one more thing:  The Unprepared Student. What about students who come to class unprepared? Let’s say you’re teaching Literature, and on Thursday you’ll be discussing “The Rocking Horse Winner” in class. You expect the students to have read the story by then and be familiar with it. You’ve told them this in class. You’ve sent them an email about it. And then – half the class shows up without having read the story. What do you do?

There really should be repercussions. You can choose to punish those who aren’t prepared in some way, or to reward the ones who are – and really, you’ll probably do a mix of both. Did you require them to answer questions about the reading? Can you give them a pop quiz? My guess is that you can’t waste a class period for them to read the story – you’ve got things planned. Do you excuse them, with the caveat that they can’t have the points for that day’s in-class assignments? It’s up to you.

On that topic, a small sidebar – I love pop quizzes. If students aren’t paying attention, or if I think the material isn’t quite getting through to them, I’ll surprise them with one. I’ve even made them up on the fly – a quick five questions, typed into Power Point and answered in just a few minutes. They can be for points or for extra credit, whatever you want to do. I’ve done both. They do tend to keep students on their toes, and it’s a great way to check for understanding on complicated (or boring!) topics.

My policies have changed dramatically over the past 12 years. Yours will, too. In fact, I guarantee they’ll change from semester to semester as you find new things to include, things to tweak, and items that the college may start policing on its own. But hopefully, this will give you some things to think about as you get started.


The Adjunct Files: The Syllabus: Your Contract With Your Students

dIt occurred to me, finally, that although the blog is called “Kansas Writer & Teacher,” I don’t focus very much (at all, really) on the teaching side of things.

But today’s world of education is changing fast. More and more, universities and colleges can’t afford to replace full-time faculty; they’re hiring adjunct instructors instead, or relying more and more on graduate teaching assistants to teach the 100 and 200 level courses so the professors can focus on the higher levels. They want adjuncts that have ‘real world experience’ in areas like business or technology as well – but there’s more to teaching than just knowing your particular subject. Online teaching seems great – no set hours, check in with the class in your pajamas or from the local coffee house (BTDT!) – but there’s also a very steep learning curve.

So I thought maybe I’d offer a few blog posts about some teaching basics. Just in case you’re a GTA without a lot of oversight, or a new adjunct trying to figure it all out – hopefully, you’ll find something useful. This week, I want to look at the most basic building block of all – the syllabus.*

I cannot emphasize this enough:  the syllabus is your contract with the students. Once they have it in their hands, they have no excuses. But, it’s more than that. The syllabus is your way to protect yourself in case of confusion, or worst case scenario, a grade appeal. That’s why it’s so important to make sure that it contains everything you need your students to know, including:

  • Your contact information (and, if you’re crazy enough give them your home or cell number, when NOT to call!)
  • The name and course number of the class
  • Textbook information (title, publisher, edition, volume, and if any other readings are required, list those as well)
  • If it’s an online course, you need to set parameters for online attendance – how many times to log in per week, when discussions, etc. need to be posted, when assignments open and close. Your college may have these set already.
  • Computer requirements, including what browser works best with your learning management system (you probably have Blackboard or Moodle). If the course requires students to have any online engagement (submitting assignments via drop boxes, or doing online quizzes), include that information as well.
  • The college’s policies. Usually, these will be given to you via email and often include the college’s policies on academic integrity/honesty, attendance, credit hour definitions, tutoring and academic support, counseling and support systems, etc.)
  • Your policies. This is where you get to set the ground rules in terms of late work, attendance, homework, extra credit, and cell phone use in class. (Note: if your college has rules in place regarding any of these issues, you’ll have to defer to those.)
  • Grading schemas. What assignments are required, and how many points will each be worth? No, you do not get to make it up as you go; this needs to be established before your first day of class! Not to say that you can’t add in assignments as needed – I’ve certainly done my share of video papers and pop quizzes – but the big ticket items like required papers, exams, chapter quizzes, etc. need to be here.
  • Likewise, it’s helpful to offer descriptions of each kind of assignment. You can go into detail on papers and such later, of course, but a brief overview will suffice here.
  • The semester schedule. Week by week, what are you doing? Which chapters, what readings? When are things due? If you’re teaching Literature, for example, this schedule will need to include when students need to have read X short story for class.
  • And perhaps the most important thing of all: “Syllabus is subject to change at the discretion of the instructor.” This way, if you do need to change the schedule (or anything else), you’re covered. (Just make sure the students get the updates!)

Remember:  this is your contract with the students. If your expectations of their behavior are there, they can’t file a grade appeal later and claim they didn’t know X or Y (“I didn’t know we couldn’t use a cell phone to look up stuff during exams!” “But it’s right here in the syllabus – no cell phones in class, AND ‘no notes, books, study aides, or cell phones during exams!’”)

So how do you structure a syllabus? Your college probably already has a template. But if not, here’s a basic outline of my own:

  • Course Name/Number
  • Office Hours/Contact Information
  • Textbook information
  • Computer information
  • Grades – schema, and a description of/expectations for assignments
  • My policies
  • The college’s policies
  • The semester schedule

I can’t tell you how many times my syllabi have ‘saved the day’ in grade appeals. Just last semester, a student claimed she didn’t know how a particular paper was supposed to be structured and written. However, not only was it discussed online, but that particular assignment was given 1 ½ pages in the syllabus. She lost. It doesn’t matter if students read it or not; they have the information. Students who are serious about the course will read it and ask questions if they don’t understand something.

If you do end up needing to use the ‘safe word’ – “Syllabus is subject to change at the discretion of the instructor.” – do it judiciously. Do it because it’s the only way. Do it because there’s no other choice. Especially if you’re teaching a class for the first time, you might not quite understand how long a particular chapter or unit will take; you may schedule a week for something and end up needing two weeks instead. Every class is different. Some will move faster because the students understand the material already; others will drag because you’ll have to go back to basics. You may have to cut a chapter or two from the schedule (I did the first time I taught Philosophy. And the second. And the third, come to think on it.) because you overestimated what you could do.

AND, most importantly, if you do need to change the syllabus, tell the students and post the revised version ASAP. It’s the only fair thing for them, and the safest thing for you.

Next week, I’ll offer some examples of sections of the syllabus I talked about this week. But hopefully, if you were a bit lost on the syllabus, this will give you a better idea of how to structure one – and why it’s so important to get it right.

* If your college has a specific format for syllabi (and many do), including specific information to include and structure, please follow that above all else!

Dear First-Time Teachers . . .

I’m nearing the end of my first semester as a full-time instructor. It shouldn’t be earth-shattering; after all, I was an adjunct for ten years before this. Teaching at three different schools, teaching between 10 and 14 classes a semester (that translates into 30 – 42 hours, in education-speak). This should have been nothing to me, really. It should have been easy. 

But it hasn’t been easy. It’s been a HUGE transition. A transition that’s not done yet. It’s not even really a rite of passage, because at least that ends at some point. This doesn’t. Every week, there’s something new to learn, something else I didn’t know I was supposed to be doing. So let me share some thoughts:

1.) If you don’t say something, no one will ever know. I know it sounds so simple, but communication is so difficult. You feel like you SHOULD know, and you’re afraid that if you ask a question, you’ll be seen as incompetent or stupid, or that someone will say, “Yeah, that was in an email last week. Duh.” We tell our students all the time that there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but we don’t believe it ourselves, do we? The other day, another new teacher and I both admitted that it feels like there’s things we aren’t doing because we don’t know we’re supposed to be doing them. Sometimes it’s hard to put the questions into words. Sometimes (again), you’ll feel like you’re stupid if you ask. You need to ask anyway.

2.) Your office will NOT feel like home for a LONG, LONG TIME. No matter how many knick-knacks and photos you put up, no matter how many books you put on the ugly metal shelves,  no matter how many scatter rugs you put down – it just won’t feel right. And more to the point . . .

3.) You probably won’t feel you belong there. You might stare at yourself in the mirror every morning and think, this is the day they find out they made a mistake and they’ve hired the wrong person, and I’m a fraud. There’s actually a term for this:  it’s called Impostor Syndrome. I have it. No matter how much evidence there may be to the contrary – see, I said may be, not is – I feel like I have no business being there, and that if I make one wrong move, they’ll discover the horrible truth – I’m a fraud, a charlatan, a con artist (except, you know, I can’t pull off really elaborate, high-dollar heists).

4.) To quote Elle in Legally Blond:  First impressions are not always correct. I had a student who, when I first met him, seemed to have zero respect for me. He was rude, always questioning, insulting to me and the other students, and I woke up every day praying for an email from the school saying he’d dropped the course. But as I got to know him, I realized that he’s incredibly bright and hard-working; his mind works in a very specific fashion (he’s an engineering student); and what seemed like disrespect is simply how he deals with others. In truth, he ended up being one of my favorite students.

5.) Nothing will be perfect the first time out. I’m a perfectionist, and this one is SO HARD FOR ME. I want it all perfect, at once. But here’s the thing:  you’re probably going to be teaching at least one course (maybe three, like me) that you’ve never taught before. Never even had coursework in before. What do you do? You prep the best you can. Every semester is another chance to tweak things, to change what you didn’t like, to add something new, to change it up. Because . . .

6.) That first semester is all about survival. I had a meeting with my VP of Academic Affairs this week, and he asked if I had ever thought about doing xyz in the classroom. I think I took a smidgen too long to answer, because he said, “A perfectly acceptable answer is, ‘No, right now I’m just trying to survive!'” 🙂 It is, in fact, the only answer you can give sometimes, and everyone will understand, because everyone has been there. That’s why no one will really mind if you ask questions. That’s why no one will mind if your courses aren’t perfect that first time out. They know you’re doing your best.

7.) Your colleagues are your lifeline. Maybe you’ve been teaching for a long time already. Or like me, you were hired at the school where you already work. Either way – the learning curve is steep, my friend. I know there will be days when you want to shut your door and have a good cry at your desk. It’s okay. Do it. But don’t do it to the exclusion of have good conversations with your colleagues. I, for one, would not have dared pitch an entirely new degree program to my VP of Academic Affairs last week had my colleagues not pushed me forward. They’ve been there. Done that. And they (probably) want you to succeed.

8.) Keep your nose clean, kid. There are things that just have to be done, and you have to do them. Get grades and attendance in on time. Attend in-service. Don’t skip out on office hours. Answer your students’ emails. GRADE THINGS. Within a reasonable time frame. Attend required training sessions. You don’t have tenure. You don’t get a break. Not yet, anyway. And one more thing:  don’t make more work for yourself than you can handle. You may think that volunteering for this and that will endear you to your school, but – no. You will kill yourself. Just don’t do it. Remember:  survival.

9.) Be kind. Yes, there are deadlines, and yes, the college will back your play if you adhere to them and don’t allow late work. Yes, the student who comes to you during finals week (and you think, wait, are you in my class?) and says “Yeah, I haven’t been here and I haven’t done any of the work but I need to get caught up” is going to be up a creek without a paddle. But the one who has an emergency and can’t get to a final, or turn in a paper on time, needs kindness.

10.) Accept it:  not everything will get done. And I don’t mean at work. I mean at home. I had to choose priorities. Bottle-feeding my surprise kittens was a priority. Continuing to run my vintage shop was a priority. After that . . . let’s just say the house is a pigsty and I haven’t written on my novels in a month. And reading? I wish. My daily walks are just a dream. What will you have to give up? Sleep? Time with your family? Just do me a favor: don’t give up too much. Don’t give up the things that make you, you.

No, the transition is not done yet. Maybe it won’t ever be done, I don’t know. Too early to say. I’m just now beginning to take ownership of my position, to think of myself (sometimes) as ‘not an adjunct.’ And I’m hoping next semester goes easier for me. Hopefully, some of these things will make your first time out easier for you.


Existing in a Vacuum: A Rant About Literature Classes

I’m teaching a philosophy class this semester. First time. Nothing big, just a basic introduction course, but it’s been interesting and I LOVE the students. They are so curious, so questioning. They don’t hesitate to call ‘crap!’ on these philosophers!

But today we had a discussion that really broke my heart.

I’m a historian and a writer, above all else. (And, currently, a feeder of newborn kittens every two hours, but I digress.) So in philosophy, I love to go into the history of the times, so my students understand why these philosophers were thinking about certain things, what their inspirations were, even what they were railing against. So today, we finally got to the Existentialists – Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, etc. – and I was able to talk about the tragedies of the Industrial Revolution and the horrors of World War I.

And I mentioned the literature of the time, too. How it was moving from the romanticism of Jane Austen, to the more rugged adventures of Mark Twain. That it was a reflection of the times (I forgot to mention Upton Sinclair, though!), I especially mentioned Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour.”

Now, let me be clear:  I don’t love all literature, and I don’t think all the literature we force down the throats of high school and college students today is worth the paper its printed on. If I ever get my hands on a TARDIS, the first thing I’m going to do is go back in time and shoot Flaubert before he has a chance to write Madame Bovary. I’ve never, ever wanted a character to die on page 1 as much as I wanted that self-centered, self-absorbed bitch to die!

Again, I digress. Suffice to say, there is literature we all could do without.

But what broke my heart was when I discussed “The Story of an Hour” and heard that my students a.) weren’t reading it in class, and b.) hated their literature classes. Hated their Comp 2 classes, in fact, because they are basically literature classes. And what they hated most was the stories the teacher had chosen.

No, I don’t like all literature. (See remarks on Madame Bovary, above.) I think there’s a lot more out there that could be explored, but isn’t, either because the teachers are too lazy to do the prep work, or because they just don’t like the stories. I hate that students aren’t allowed to ‘choose their own adventure’ when it comes to literature. I took a British Lit class once because I adore British Lit – but the stories the teacher chose were really, truly awful.

More importantly, though, what I always hated about my lit classes was the lack of history that went along with them.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2Here’s the thing:  nothing exists in a vacuum. Teaching is, and should be, a holistic experience. In Anthropology, we explore everything – history, colonization, artwork, marriage and family relations, religion, biology, forensic science, current events . . . and I do the same in my history classes. Because nothing exists in a vacuum.


Ever read Kafka’s The Metamorphosis? I have, and when it was presented to me, I had no clue how to interpret it (though I did despise Gregor’s family and sympathized with him greatly, which earned me the ire and mockery of my classmates). Now, I know far more about Kafka’s life, and the society in which he lived, and his influences, and I have a much better grasp on that story. But when I was younger? Nope. It’s really quite philosophical, in fact; really, it’s a discussion of Kafka’s own bleak outlook on life, that all humans are doomed to be alone, to always live as outcasts, never to be truly known by others. (And, apparently, also doomed to die with a rotting fruit stuck in our carapaces.) So if you thought it was just about a guy who turns into a bug, think again.

Let me go back to “The Story of an Hour.” If you’ve never read it, here’s a link:  http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/webtexts/hour/

This is a story about a woman who has been under the thumb of her husband for her entire married life. Maybe he was abusive; maybe he wasn’t; Chopin lets us draw our own conclusions there. But once she this woman realizes he is dead, she also realizes one critical fact:  she’s free.

I talk about this story in my US History classes, when we look at the Victorian Era. This story was published in 1894 – twenty five years before women had the right to vote! Chopin was a voice crying out for women’s liberation before the term had ever been coined. She urged women to fight for their rights and their independence, every bit as much as Jefferson, et.al., urged the American colonies to rebel against the shackles of Britain (their words; I’m a Loyalist, myself!). But unless you know about the Victorian Era, the ‘cult of domesticity’ that kept upper-class women busy with silly affairs of the home, and the wrath and ridicule that women who dared step out of their sphere of influence endured – then how can you fully grasp what this story’s about?

Fact:  You can’t.

Every single time I put this story in its proper historical context in my courses, I see the light dawning on students’ faces. Hear the words. “Oh! THAT’S what it means! We read it in Lit, but I had no idea what it meant.”

Good grief, Charlie Brown. How can you pretend to teach Siegfried Sassoon, Kate Chopin, Anna Sewell, Rudyard Kipling  – any of the 19th century writers – without putting their works into context? How??????? How can you sit there and preach to the students what they should and shouldn’t “get” out of these stories and novels, and not give them the tools to understand them?

Fact:  You can’t.

No one would dare try to teach the Declaration of Independence, or Common Sense, or “Vindication of the Rights of Women” without historical context. So why do it for literature? These are historical documents, too! No, when they were written, the authors didn’t consider them to be historical. But they are. They are microcosms of 19th century life – the mannerisms, clothing, hair styles, society and social hierarchy, politics, humor, even the jobs and modes of transportation, are all there.

Nothing exists in a vacuum. Not you. Not me. Not literature.

So please, lit instructors:  give it context, and make it interesting.

And if you can’t – maybe you need to hand the reins over to someone who can.

Dear Students . . .

As we are approaching another school year, I know some people are going back as new adult learners; others are going to college directly out of high school. Some are taking courses just for continuing education.

I’ve been an adjunct college instructor for eight years. I’ve seen almost everything. The following is a list of things I think all students should know before they start school

1.) YOU ARE NOT A CUSTOMER. The fact that you pay tuition does not make you a customer.  It gives you the privilege of attending a college, abiding by its rules, doing your work, and earning a grade.

2. THE SYLLABUS IS A CONTRACT. When you enroll in college, you basically enter into a contract with the institution — you will pay tuition, and in return, you are — again — given the privilege of attending classes and doing the work. When you enroll in a particular course, the syllabus you receive is a contract between you and the instructor. The deadlines, protocols, rules, expectations, assignments, and schedule are laid out ahead of time. Choosing to enroll and stay in that course means you have given your assent and consent to that syllabus — and thus, to everything in it. If you can’t abide by the deadlines, rules, etc., then do not stay in that class.

3.) THE INSTRUCTOR HAS A LIFE. I admit that every instructor is different, but the fact is — we all have lives. Believe it or not, your teacher is not a robot that gets shoved into a closet at the end of the day and powered back on in the morning. They go home to families, pets, often other jobs, grading, problems. If they do not respond to your email within ten seconds, that means they are busy doing something else. Often, they will have a policy in their syllabus about timelines for responses. If it says “I return emails within 48 hours,” do not expect that they will necessarily respond to yours within two hours.

4.) YOU ARE NOT OWED A GRADE. Please refer to #1. That tuition you pay does not guarantee you anything other than that you will be able to a.) attend class, b.) do the work, and c.) get the grade you earn. If you don’t turn in work on time — or you turn in substandard work — or you don’t attend class or do the assigned readings or whatever — then you shouldn’t expect a good grade.

5.) DEADLINES ARE DEADLINES. Do not ask the instructor for an extension. You know when things are due. It’s in the syllabus. Or if it’s not, you should ask when things are due. That’s your responsibility. Get a planner. Put things in your cell phone’s calendar. Heck, get a wall calendar and a red marker if you need to, but pay attention to the deadlines. Think about it this way:  if you missed a deadline at work, what would your boss say? My guess is something along the lines of, “You’re fired.” Now. Why should your teacher say anything different?

6.) I AM NOT A BARISTA. THIS IS NOT STARBUCKS. Enrolling in a class does not give you the right to treat your instructor as your employee. They am not. You are paying for their expertise,  knowledge, and time. In return, they expect respect. In fact . . .

7.) BEING A STUDENT IS A LOT LIKE BEING AN EMPLOYEE. Your employer expects certain things from you:  be on time, be respectful, dress appropriately, behave appropriately, treat everyone else with respect, pay attention, etc. Your instructor expects the same things. Just imagine that when you come to class, you’re coming to work.

8.) PUT THE FREAKING CELL PHONE AWAY. You will live without your cell phone for an hour. And if you can’t, then maybe you need to be in an online class. And going along with that . . .

9.) CONTACT YOUR INSTRUCTOR ONLY AS THEY TELL YOU TO. If they give you their cell phone number and tell you not to text them, don’t text them. If they tell you not to call between certain hours, don’t. If they tell you to email them only through your LMS, don’t email them in any other manner. Remember, there’s a reason why they’ve laid down those rules. Some instructors allow — even encourage — phone calls; others don’t. Some prefer to have the permanency of email. Whatever policies they have in place, follow them.

10.) RESPECT YOUR INSTRUCTOR. Most instructors are there because they care, they want to teach, and they love their subject. Most instructors respect their students unless you give them a reason not to. Being disrespectful to them is the surest way to make sure you lose their respect in return. Do not go above their heads. Do not argue about every little thing you don’t like. Don’t be OCD. Think for yourself. Follow instructions. Really, this is common sense.

11.) DON’T BE ENTITLED. You are not entitled to anything in a class. The only thing you are entitled to is this:  to show up, do your best work, and be given a grade accordingly. That’s it.


College is a Job

Just like the title says — college is a job.

I was reminded of this fact this past week. We just had the first real snowfall of the year here in Kansas. My classes were not cancelled, but some students decided not to come anyway.

That’s bad, because we had quite a bit of ground to cover AND we needed to discuss the exam for next week. Go over the study guide. Explain how the exam will go. Answer questions. About half of my students were there.

After class . . . the emails arrived. “I couldn’t get out.” “I thought class was cancelled for today.” “I didn’t want to drive on the roads.” Blah, blah, blah.

Here’s the simple truth:  if the college is open, you need to be there. That’s not an excused absence. No one told you to buy a rear-wheel-drive car as your only vehicle. No one told you not to pay attention to the news or the college website or the text message alert system that tells you if class is in session or not. Yes, I know, there’s a safety factor involved, but please see the above lines. I had to be there. That’s my job.

But it’s also YOUR job.

As adults, it’s always your choice whether you go to class or not. There is no way to compel you to be there. But if you’re serious about your studies — and if you’re reading this, I suspect you are — then you need to take your classes just as seriously as you do your job. Because in all honesty, that’s what it is. A job you’ve chosen to take on. A job that’s a stepping stone, leading to a new career.

So take it that seriously. Show up to class when you need to be there. Read the syllabus. Know it. Whatever the instructor’s policies on absences are — follow them. If the instructor says she won’t give out the notes or Power Points if you’re gone, then don’t ask! That is the policy of that instructor. Finding a way to get you the notes creates more work for you instructor. Worse, it’s not fair to the other students who did come to class that day. Take responsibility. If you choose not to be there, then arrange to get the notes from someone who was there — with the understanding that you will reciprocate at some point, or at least pay the favor forward. If someone covers for you at work, you’ll need to cover for them at some time, too — same thing here, in class.

Sorry, that was a bit of a soapbox, but I meant every word and I think I speak for a lot of adjuncts when I say those words.

What do I want to be when I grow up?

You may have this idea that you want to go back to school — you may want to finish a degree you started years ago, or maybe life got in the way and you’ve never attended college. Maybe you know it’s necessary if you want to get a promotion at work, or a higher-paying job, or maybe you just want to set a good example for your children. I’ve seen all of these reasons amongst my students — in fact, I’ve seen parents and children taking classes at the same time so they can encourage each other!

For some of you, the way ahead is clear:  I need a business degree, or I need a degree in engineering, or I want to become an RN or an EMT. Fantastic! Your course is already set. Now it’s a matter of choosing the right program and going for it.

But you might be reading this thinking:  “I know I want to go back to school — but I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up! What degree do I choose? What if I change my mind? What if I pick a degree and then I hate it?”

Yup. All very valid concerns. (A note here: any concerns you have are valid! If it worries you, it’s valid.) But if you have no idea what you want to do, don’t worry — for at least the first year, it won’t matter. You don’t have to declare a major right away. You can be “undecided.” That doesn’t mean you don’t have a clue; it simply means you are exploring your options. Don’t let that stop you from getting started. As the Sunscreen Song says:

Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your
life…the most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they
wanted to do with their lives, some of the most interesting 40 year
olds I know still don’t.


If you’ve never taken any college courses, this is really important to remember:  your first year will be taken up by what we call “core curriculum” or “general education” courses. These include your math classes (College Algebra, Composition I and II, Literature, Biology, Sociology, US History, etc.). If you don’t know what you want to be yet, don’t worry. Take this time to explore your options. Pay attention in class to what piques your interest. Read. Talk to other students. When it comes to your electives (classes that are required but that you get to choose), then take things that look the most interesting to you. I’ve had several students enroll in my history and anthropology courses who come to me later and say “I was doing a major in X until I took your course, and now I’ve changed majors so I can major in Y!” (Talk about an ego boost for your instructors there!)

My point is, at this stage in the game, it’s not necessary to know exactly where you’re going. It’s just necessary that you start that journey. So don’t be afraid to pick “undecided” as your major! Then, don’t be afraid to explore. This is your life. Make it what you want it to be.

I’m scared — but I’m jumping in anyway!

Maybe you’ve been thinking about going back to school, but you’re scared. Guess what? Everyone who goes back to school is scared. Heck, even the instructors are nervous those first few days. 🙂

It is hard to think about disrupting your entire life to do something crazy, something you have no guarantees will ever pay off. Trust me, I know. Been there. Done that. And I’m not saying it isn’t scary, or that it shouldn’t be scary. Everything worth doing is scary, and hard. As Tom Hanks said in “A League of Their Own,” “The hard is what makes it great.” Not everyone is cut out for college, but if you think you are, don’t you owe it to yourself to find out for sure?

If you need another reason to do it, though, something a little more tangible, check out this article from The Business Journals:  http://www.bizjournals.com/bizjournals/on-numbers/scott-thomas/2012/12/grads-earn-85-more-than-those-without.html?page=all  College graduates, on average, earn far more than workers with just a high school diploma.

There’s a quote from C. JoyBell — “Don’t be afraid of your fears. They’re not there to scare you. They’re there to let you know that something is worth it.” So being afraid of something new is normal!

Before you think “what does she know?” let me tell you my story:  I’m the first person in my entire extended family (which numbers now about 120 people, with cousins and their kids and whatnot) to go to college. It was not expected that I would go. In fact, it was expected that I’d graduate high school and probably go get a job at Wal-Mart or something. But I had a journalism scholarship (which is going to be its own post one day) and I went to the local community college.

That wasn’t easy. That was scary. I was pretty antisocial — nix that, I was antisocial — and I had no clue what was going on. You guys have it so much easier today! Everything is given to you upfront. When I was 18, we had to learn it all on the fly. It was awful. I failed classes. I didn’t know why I was there. I didn’t want to do journalism (like I said, own post soon!), and I didn’t know what else I wanted to do. There was no expectation that I would graduate — except from myself.

And so I graduated, four years and many, many classes later.

From there, I went to Wichita State University. I was older, wiser, and less antisocial. I knew what I was doing. I’d learned my hard lessons already. The only scary thing there was keeping up with the work load, which, since I’d chosen to do a double major, was a problem of my own making. 🙂

So that’s part of the reason for this blog also — to see if I can help anyone else not make the mistakes I made, and see if anyone out there can benefit from my experience.

The point is, it’s January. If you’ve been thinking about going to college, NOW is the time to go talk to someone and get enrolled! And that will be the subject of my next post. For now — go see which colleges are in your area. Look at tuition. Look at programs. Maybe you already know what you want to major in, and maybe you don’t. It doesn’t matter. Those first two years aren’t about your major, they’re about getting your core curriculum classes out of the way (unless you want to go into something like an EMT program, in which case, you already know your major!). But — take that first scary step.