It’s common to think that caring for oneself as a contingent faculty member is in direct competition with caring for one’s students, that we must sacrifice our wellbeing to be good teachers. What if it is possible to do both—care for ourselves and our students? It is. And these two forms of care can be achieved from some of the same thoughtful and effective teaching strategies: (inter)active, collaborative learning.
At the Future Trends Forum, hosted by Bryan Alexander on June 24, 2021, Cathy N. Davidson and I were asked how we can prepare ourselves to teach students this fall who carry different and varying degrees of trauma from the past 16 months. My answer was instinctual: with tremendous care, understanding that we all need time to mourn, and reasonable expectations.
As we gather together in person—at long last—to toast accomplishments and to remember those we lost, we ought to be kind to ourselves, give ourselves time to adjust to the new normal, and to engage in pedagogies of care and self-care.
By self-care, I don’t mean bubble baths—who has the time? I mean course policies and institutional policies that account for overburdened instructors as human beings.
At this same forum (and in previous, similar sessions), colleagues have asked us to speak to the working conditions of contingent faculty that affect the learning conditions of students. I have taught as an adjunct for a decade, across three very different institutions: Tallahassee Community College in Florida, Hunter College in Manhattan, and New Jersey City University in New Jersey. Now, over a year into remote learning, none of those locations matter. The common denominators are the students, who have always needed good mentors, and the poor working conditions of overworked and underpaid adjuncts. I care deeply about being a good mentor but I’ve struggled, like every adjunct, to keep all the plates spinning in the air.
The big picture is grim: higher education has been systematically defunded—by billions—for decades, and that was before the pandemic. In the last 5 years alone, 50 colleges have closed or merged. There are several contributing factors, including sharp cuts made during the Great Recession (from which we still haven’t recovered), steady declines in enrollment, plus more than half a century of putting the onus of paying for college on students (driving tuition costs through the roof).
On the front lines, delivering a rigorous, quality, meaningful education are non-tenured faculty (more than half of college professors in the U.S.). Here’s a glance into the trenches: while earning my doctorate, I worked a full-time work week (40 hours) split between two jobs on the same campus, part time as a research assistant and part time in an administrative office; and I taught a 3:2 teaching load as an adjunct, splitting time between two additional campuses, each in a different state. During lighter semesters (when I taught a 2:1 or a 1:1), I did enough research and writing to successfully defend my dissertation, publish two articles in peer-reviewed journals, and graduate. I also went to the emergency room three times. My partner made me a birthday card one year that congratulated me on “153 days without a trip to a hospital.” Of all the plates spinning, my health was the first to fall, and I was one of the “lucky” ones with health insurance.
The worst part about this is the example we (adjuncts) set for the next generation: we are the Ghosts of Christmas Yet to Come in a modernized Dickensian nightmare, modeling for our students the lives of the overqualified and under-compensated professionals who live gig-to-gig. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and numerous studies, more than one third of the labor force in the U.S. is in the “Gig Economy.” In the pandemic, more than half of gig workers lost their jobs—globally. And in the U.S., gig workers make almost 60 percent less than full-time employees on average.
The Task at Hand
Until we begin to reinvest, as a nation, in higher education, and until working conditions are built to support all faculty and promote students’ deep and meaningful learning, my response to “adjunctification” is twofold: to prioritize self-care and to mobilize a community centered on care in every classroom, the place where we have the greatest freedom and control.
Importantly, I am not alone in this. The call for a pedagogy of care, of course, began at Hybrid Pedagogy. In 2015, Maha Bali rightly wrote, “Sometimes, the most valuable thing we can offer our students is genuine care for them, their well-being, their happiness.” Yet, as Cate Denial has pointed out, graduate education encourages us to think of students as antagonists—or consumers, complainers, and in some cases guinea pigs—and that only exacerbates an existing problem: this “combative” student-teacher relationship fosters suspicion, silence, distrust, and resentment instead of opening up lines of communication and investment in the whole student as well as the student’s success.
To be able to mentor students effectively, we first need self-care in the wake of this global health crisis. Self-care, under these circumstances, is nothing short of an act of defiance in the face of exploitation. Audre Lorde said it best, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Changing how we teach our own courses is a good starting place. I will offer several suggestions for methods of self-care that benefit and enhance students’ learning, rather than harming students, which is likely the concern we all share as educators, who are attentive to our students and frequently put their needs before our own.
Importantly, care was missing from the “test, trace, separate” model that some institutions used last year. Institutions tried restricting group sizes, or having instructors teach multiple smaller sections of the same course onsite, skipping fall breaks, and lengthening semesters. We need to set expectations now that the coming academic year is a time to mourn, to recover, and to rebuild the university to rigorous standards of flexibility and accessibility.
We must prioritize our mental health and physical wellbeing to resist systems in which our courses are over-tallied, reducing our capacity for good mentorship. As Lorde suggests, self-care is our rebellion in the face of increased labor and decreased security and compensation.
Our students need good mentors, not plexiglass screens and scheduled showers. Onsite or online, students need teachers with time, bandwidth, and capacity, teachers who have their backs, who check in when students ghost a class or assignment.
Let’s take this as an opportunity, as Cathy N. Davidson and Dianne Harris have argued, for astonishing changes in education. My experiences as an adjunct have prepared me well for devising solutions with limited resources and limited time. I don’t have an ideal solution but I can offer some strategies that have helped me without compromising my students’ learning. That, to me, is the hardest task of all: how to care for myself and my students.
Implementation: Self-Care is Student-Care in Course Design
I see no reason why student-centered learning cannot also be supportive of teachers’ health and wellbeing—in fact, it has to be if we have any hope of achieving good teaching in the wake of a global crisis.
There are some easy, practical ways we can build self-care into our regular work days, some things we can do to be more efficient and focused mentors this fall, whether we are teaching onsite and/or online. Learning names and echoing the voices of others (encouraging students to learn the names of their peers, to cite one another in conversation—“As Racquel said, …”—and so on) are good first steps to building a community of trust and care. Another, very simple adjustment to our syllabi is to guard against over-assigning, to focus on depth instead of breadth (e.g., assigning a short story or novella instead of a long novel).
We know from ample research that peer learning boosts student performance and confidence, and it improves higher order understanding. Anecdotally, I’ve used static student teams in my own classes and I’ve interviewed dozens of instructors across the U.S. who have used team-based teaching methods, and it works. Teaching students to learn from one another and to look to one another for support eases the burden on us in the long run, too.
We can organize our students into teams—static groups that remain the same throughout the semester, rather than randomized groups—to promote peer learning and peer mentoring, support, and care. We can guide students toward collaborative troubleshooting before they come to us. Set up a class Slack channel or an email list. An added bonus: teams prepare students for the workforce, where we collaborate across differences for extended periods of time.
Mentoring students in teams by hosting group office hours not only helps to reduce the amount of time we spend repeating some of the same words of advice but also offers us opportunities to bolster the quality of the teamwork by advising students on how to work together effectively and collegially. We can show students the two-heads-are-better-than-one way by mentoring them within their teams and by guiding them to talk about how the teamwork is going and how to give team members constructive feedback along the way.
Foster community through collaborative note-taking, as Chris Friend has done successfully with his students, using a collaborative tool like Google Docs or Hypothesis. These aren’t meant to be regurgitations of a lecture. Instead, students type up what they are thinking. Notes might include summarizing the most intriguing ideas, questions, personal discoveries, and reactions. Rather than simply typing a lecture or discussion verbatim (notes that would most likely be thrown out or forgotten), this method gives students more room to pay attention to what’s going on.
Finally, use inventory methods that encourage students to converse among themselves (e.g., Think-Pair-Share, Entry and Exit Tickets, Collaborative Note-Taking, and Fishbowl). My students’ favorite is what I call “The Deconstructed Classroom:” I ask students to write down one discussion question. I collect and skim them, then pick one to start with. This gives students practice in creative as well as critical thinking, in communication, and community-based leadership. It also gives you a reprieve in lesson planning for the day.
Self-care and student-care are complementary outcomes of the same teaching effort. What all these strategies for survival have in common is student-centered learning. We can both support our students and ourselves by guiding students to create and lead their own communities. In a crisis, we all need that confidence, resilience, and support.
Added flexibility and accessibility in a syllabus ought to go all the way around. Our classrooms are sites of possibility and invention, growth and evolution. In this moment of worldwide experimentation in teaching, we can build the classroom communities of our wildest dreams, communities that also care for us—all of us.