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.