Reflective Practice

Who Am I Teaching For?

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By Erin Spampinato

In my time at the Grad Center, I’ve heard fellow students console each other during especially trying times by saying things like, “Don’t worry too much about teaching; we’re not getting paid enough to do a good job.” Like all the best jokes, this one is funny because it’s partly true.

The problem of adjunct exploitation is an important one, which reflects our national ambivalence about the value of education. The goal of this series is not to explore this issue, however, but rather to consider its particular impact on graduate student instructors, whose teaching responsibilities often compete with their own scholarship for time and attention. Under ideal conditions teaching and learning are mutually supportive to one another, but Graduate Center adjuncts at CUNY often find themselves spread so thin by heavy teaching loads that they struggle to make progress towards their degrees. In this series I deal with how graduate student teachers can teach enough, and well enough, to support their educations without sacrificing their scholarship.  

In my experience, this means setting reasonable, healthy boundaries for yourself. It’s true; you’re not being fairly paid for your teaching work. Accepting this truth is important. That said, if you can see your teaching as for yourself as well as for your students, you’ll see that you are being compensated for your work in some meaningful ways.  Unlike our counterparts at schools with fairer funding packages, we graduate with a wealth of teaching experience. The fact that we’re often under-supported in the departments where we teach also means that we get to experiment without much oversight.  We can use these courses (rather than those we’re assigned at our first tenure-track jobs) to be playful and to sometimes fail. We’re in the classroom to learn how to teach, not to teach like master teachers.

This doesn’t mean you should do the least possible work, but it does mean that you should not teach like you plan to if and when you become a full-time professor. It’s okay to tell your students that you’re an adjunct. It’s okay to tell them that you’re a student, too, and that your time is limited. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that by doing so, you’re more fully respecting your students than you would be if you tried to fulfill the responsibilities of tenure-track faculty.  When you set boundaries with them, you’re being honest with them. The system is unfair—to both adjunct labor and to students taught by adjuncts—and you can share this with them. They can handle it. (Indeed, in general our students at CUNY are far more inured to structural inequality than many of us are.) What’s more, they get it. Many of our students lead complex lives outside of school. They are juggling side-work and family responsibilities just like we are.

I’m not advocating that we grow complacent about the inequalities with which we live, or that we encourage our students to do so. That said, I do think that completing one’s PhD requires a certain ruthless focus; in order to finish our degrees and do work that makes us competitive on the academic job market, we need to be strategic now about how we allocate our time. I’ve found that this sometimes means choosing direct service to my students and a single-minded commitment to my goals over political action for causes I believe in.  (Our students, I might add, have to do the same thing, and it’s good modeling to be explicit with them about the ways we handle that challenge.) Throughout this series, I’ll explore the political, philosophical, and practical challenges of teaching while working on one’s PhD. In my next post, I’ll describe concrete ways to set boundaries that will not only keep you sane and making progress, but also help ensure your students’ success. It makes sense that graduate students at CUNY often experience teaching in conflict with their research, but conflicts are more disabling the less we think about them. The goal of this series is to explore this tension, and to examine the ways that teaching for ourselves, and our students, can help us through it.

Erin Spampinato is a PhD candidate in English, a Digital Fellow at Queens College, and a contributing writer to Visible Pedagogy. Her series, “Teaching  for Our Students, Teaching for Ourselves,” will be appearing throughout the spring.


  1. Esther Bernstein

    Thanks for tackling this important topic!

    I want to comment on the idea of telling our students that we are inexperienced or still learning. This is less about time constraints of being a teacher and student simultaneously, and more about the realities of a first-time teacher, often with little preparation and training in teaching skills.

    Last semester, I told my students this (I do every semester, but last semester it became significant). I was teaching a really difficult class for the first time. It’s a class I want to have in my repertoire, but it’s a class every full-time seasoned professor warned me is really really difficult (History of the English Language). The class didn’t go so great, but I did learn a lot from teaching it, my students did learn a lot from taking it, and I will do so much better next time.

    In addition to telling them that I am an adjunct currently working on my PhD, I also told them this was the first time I was teaching this course. I was open with them about the challenges of the course, and when I realized some of my plans weren’t working out, I changed some details of the syllabus (as we all do occasionally). I was open about why I was making those changes. I also, on the advice of my department chair, asked for my students’ feedback on what was working for them and what wasn’t, what they had expected from the course and whether we were meeting their expectations, etc. I know some teachers do a midterm evaluation as a matter of course as well, a practice I intend to adopt.

    But one of my end-of-semester student evaluations said this: “I think she is still finding her way as a professor which is fine but I didn’t enjoy being part of the test group.”

    It’s a valid complaint, I think. And I don’t berate myself for it, because teaching is always a learning process. In a sense, students are always part of a “test group,” although more often it’s a “test group” for a particular method or text that the teacher hasn’t used before. In this case, the “testing out” was more constant throughout the semester and also more clear to my students (again, something I did deliberately and don’t regret!)

    But I do wonder how we can keep this in mind even while acknowledging that “We can use these courses (rather than those we’re assigned at our first tenure-track jobs) to be playful and to sometimes fail.”

    • Erin Spampinato

      Thanks for the feedback! I think what you’re describing is the heart of the problem; students do feel shorted, because they are being shorted. I guess what I’m advocating is that we as grad student teachers don’t take all that responsibility on. Sometimes students are going to be unhappy and feel underserved, but I don’t think that’s our fault as novice teachers, and I don’t think we can do much about it (at least not while we’re getting our degrees).

      I know that’s not a particularly satisfying solution. I don’t think there is a satisfying solution to be had. I guess I just think grad students will serve themselves better if they remember that they aren’t causing this problem. Next time I write I’ll tackle some practical ways to have the conversation about your adjunct status with students, and I’ll sketch out the possible pit falls to doing so (like the one you’ve highlighted here). I’m not advocating that there’s some way of explaining our situation that magically turns it not into a conflict; I think the conflict is there and it’s beyond us and the students and we’re probably better off if we all acknowledge it. As you’ve shown, though, that can lead to some tough conversations and it takes a lot of bravery as a teacher to welcome those.

    • Elizabeth

      Erin, I’m so looking forward now to your next blog post with practical tips about addressing our adjunct status in the classroom. But I also want to suggest a different viewpoint to Esther’s comment– Esther, I really appreciate the opportunity to read about your experience with this course, and being so up-front with your students about the challenges. While all of our student’s experiences are valid, I think your student might be short-sighted in viewing your experimental, open approach to the classroom– what they identify as a “test group”– as a bad thing. I would suggest that as instructors taking on courses for the first, and being open to new ways of approaching the content, our students are getting the clear message that knowledge is malleable, transformable, and a living, breathing pursuit, not a tried-and-true never-failing syllabus. I think the fact that you engaged in so much reflective practice during the semester (which is so taxing and time-consuming) speaks volumes about the experience your students ultimately had in class. So again, I don’t want to invalidate your student’s feelings, but I do think there is a lot to be said about your collective undertaking of the course together.

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