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.

 

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.