Modern College: Part 1

A Year of Essays: January 6, 2022

This morning, I clicked on Emma Pettit’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “When Professors Offend Students,” — another article about instructors pushing their students’ boundaries in antagonistic ways to make them think more critically. When I see these articles, these professors are typically adjunct lecturers, often teaching first-year writing, the course designed for students to develop their skills in critical thinking, reading, and writing. And, typically, the lecturers face some type of disciplinary action from the institution and fallout from our recent obsession with cancel culture.

Bear with me as my stream of consciousness deals with some outrage.

First — the adjunct plight. Adjuncts usually teach introductory courses, required classes tenured or tenure-track faculty don’t want to teach and students don’t want to take. Adjunct pay is abysmal. At my university, the Finance Office calculates a three-credit hour course to be equivalent to 9 working hours a week — three contact hours and six hours for prep and grading. In my college, adjuncts are paid $945 per credit hour, or when calculating an hourly rate, $22.50 per hour. (On a national average, this is slightly below the average.) Since we implemented a new general education program last year, the cap on the first-year writing course was lowered from 22 to 18. Any good instructor, particularly a writing instructor, will spend way more than nine hours in a week teaching, planning lessons, meeting with students, and evaluating their work. After a master’s degree, $22.50 per hour, officially, but we all know that figure is closer to minimum wage. And even then, adjuncts do not teach “full time” (which in our case would mean teaching four sections during a semester) because then, the university would have to offer benefits. And adjuncts don’t get paid over winter and summer breaks.

The vast majority of adjuncts I know are committed to their students’ success. For students to be successful, they must be challenged, to think from a variety of perspectives (often not their own) to see problems and solutions in different ways. The college class is where students should be uncomfortable in dealing with the complexity of humanity. Should we offend our students? There are nuanced ways to shift from being offensive to creating discomfort. When students record an instructor making the class uncomfortable, and edit something out of context, it can go viral and derail a career. In the recent Netflix series The Chair, Professor Bill Dobson is filmed using a Nazi salute in teaching absurdism and fascism. The context removed, and what goes viral is the professor masquerading as a Nazi. Eventually, he is fired.

All this to say that something is mightily fucked up in higher education. I’m starting my 30th year teaching at the college level, and I’ve been in administration and governance along the way. I look back and look forward and know something must change, soon. That “something” is both redefining the role of higher education and refining how we teach. More of this in the days to come.

Pettit, Emma. “When professors offend students.” Chronicle of Higher Education, December 16, 2021. https://www.chronicle.com/article/when-professors-offend-studentsv

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David Beach is playwright/writer, director, dramaturg, and educator. He holds a PhD in education and an MFA in playwriting, and is a professor at Radford U.

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David Russell Beach

David Russell Beach

David Beach is playwright/writer, director, dramaturg, and educator. He holds a PhD in education and an MFA in playwriting, and is a professor at Radford U.

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