Shared Cubicles: The Search for Community in Higher Ed

Adjunct teaching has to be the loneliest occupation. You spend your days (and some nights) with students who are not your friends, who may think you are cool or funny or mean. They may joke with you; they may lie to you, it’s hard to tell. You prepare for classes in shared office space, so if your schedule lines up with other instructors, you might get to know them a little in between printing handouts or posting grades. You relate on brutal commutes, ungrateful students, and summer insecurity. You will not likely see these same folks next term because someone’s schedule changes or has a class canceled or they leave teaching. It’s all possible. You might pass the chair who hired you in the hall, and they will smile and maybe ask how things are going. More than likely they are holed up in their closed-door office along with the other tenured folks. You don’t see them often, partly because you aren’t invited to most meetings. For this reason, you don’t really know if what you are teaching is meshing with others. You aren’t asked to help shape curriculum, and if you are invited to join committees, it’s hard to accept because it might mean teaching less and thus, earning less.

Then there is the weeping season: hiring time. A school posts a tenure-track job, so you and 600 other highly qualified instructors begin to write cover letters and update CVs. You agonize over every verb and ask yourself if you might be using the word “activity” too much. You try to maximize your teaching practice and your service all while feeling an army of ants crawling across your skin because you are clearly lacking publications. You talk about your teaching philosophy like it matters. You talk about your diverse background like it matters. Then you pass in halls all the other adjuncts hoping and dreaming for the same job. Of course, at least one of them gets farther in the process than you, and you hate them a little and envy them a lot and console yourself that at least they didn’t get it. Wait, did you really just say that?

You just want a good job. You want to be able to talk about grading rubrics and student metacognition and other nerdy teaching topics without feeling rushed or competitive. You want to invite them to parties and be invited. You want everyone to slow down, including yourself. You want to teach at regular hours at one school and feel yourself growing roots into the institution and students’ lives. Instead, you rush from school to school, tears in your eyes, calculating how you’ll survive the summer. All while feeling like a failure.

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You begin to look around for other work and even consider another degree because you are eight years into this profession and feel stuck and sinking. About a year into your search, you surprisingly, shockingly get a job and leave teaching to be part of a Teaching and Learning Center. You think this might be a horrible decision. What if you hate it? What if the only thing you are good at is teaching? And now you are part of a team. How does one work in teams? You’ve been alone for so long you think people may not like you or that you have developed strange habits in the lonely days spent under 100 essays to grade. You are not sure you have any skills outside of lesson planning and assignment creation and you don’t feel great at those. You practically skulk into work.

It begins slowly…people are nice. They invite you to be a part of things, committees, and initiatives. They ask your advice and forgive you your mistakes. They help you to understand all the strengths you bring—how teaching makes you an effective and sympathetic faculty development person. How it helps instructors to feel a partnership with you instead of treating you like support staff. You love working with faculty to make their lives a little easier, to support their innovative ideas and hold them up when they feel torn down.

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So what does community mean to me now? For one, I am struck by how little of it existed among college instructors because of the reliance on adjunct labor. Most of the folks who run these departments would love to have better community within their departments, but they are working with shrinking budgets and are often juggling many administrative balls. They have no systematic way of engaging adjuncts, and adjuncts can’t make many events even if they are invited because they teach at multiple schools. They also teach at night and on the weekends, when regular faculty are with their families or out hiking. This is to say, there is a lot piled up against community in the academic departments of most colleges and universities.

At my current job, community is how we get things done. My team in the Teaching and Learning Center is highly collaborative. We are not expected to be experts in all things teaching, and we are encouraged to reach out to another team member if we think they have more knowledge in that area. If a team member has an innovative idea, they can bring it to the group and get both support and feedback. People want to join in and help. We are the same way when an instructor brings us a question or problem. We want to help them with all the strength of our team, and not just to make them happy, but to help improve their students’ learning.

So I have found a place and a people with whom I can get nerdy about education and even make a positive difference in education. My impact may be much more than when I taught. But there is a part of me that will always look back and wonder, what would it take to make it better? What would college teaching look like if one day adjuncts went to work and were told that they had a full time job and benefits and they no longer had to worry? How would it affect students if every one of their teachers spent 40 hours a week on that one campus, with just one student body, one department? Wouldn’t their education—and all the things associated with it (tutoring, social life, counseling, advising, and retention) be dramatically improved? And if so, why are we not systematically dismantling all the junk piled in the way?

This last weekend I helped paint a street mural with about 60 of my neighbors on an intersection plagued by speeding cars and drug overdoses. This beautiful mural of lupines and bees and bleeding hearts now reminds people to slow down and care for each other. And for everyone who participated, the image reminds us of that wonderful June day when we met many of our neighbors for the first time and the plans we made for back yard cocktails and getting our kids together at the playground. We painted, laughed, and ate snacks together that day, and in the end, what we created will benefit everyone. That is simply how community, at its best, works. And why community is essential to improving the lives of educators and our students.

 

Amy Forester is a Faculty Development Specialist in the Teaching and Learning Center at Oregon Health and Science University, where she works with faculty on teaching effectiveness and course design primarily in the Department of Bioinformatics and Clinical Epidemiology as well as the Joint School of Public Health. She previously taught college English and composition at Portland Community College, Clackamas Community College, and Clark College. She is a graduate of Lane Community College, University of Oregon, and University of Minnesota, where she earned an MFA in Creative Writing. She can be reached via email at forestea@ohsu.edu.

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