A few weeks ago, I lamented that academia has turned out not to be what I expected. Since I posted that blog, many of my colleagues have approached me about their own experiences in academia, I’ve been inundated with emails from folks sending stories similar to the one I wrote about, and even sat down with my college dean recently to discuss the state of lecturers in our university. A few days ago, I came across an op-ed piece by Carmen Maria Machado that helped me clarify the difference between what I expected, and what is, in academia today. At least, my academia today.
Machado was the student of an adjunct lecturer during her undergraduate education, and the lecturer, Harvey Grossinger, expected greatness from his students, and in turn, he invested his life in his work. He filled student papers with constructive feedback, followed the progress of students after they left his class, and offered guidance for students long after the semester grades had been posted. As I read the commitment that Mr. Grossinger had, I was reminded of my early days in academia, almost 15 years ago.
There was a time in my career when I graded student work as Mr. Grossinger did; I carried stacks of written work home with me every night, kept my red pen handy, and read every word that every student wrote. I corrected grammar, spelling, typos, mistaken homophones, run on sentences, crossed out sections of unnecessary rambling, and offered suggestions for alternate words when sentences were awkward. It was laborious, and sometimes tearful, but when I first began teaching, I saw it as my duty, my calling, my job.
As I read Machado’s essay, I began to remember what I’ve lost over the past few years in academia. I believe that teaching, learning, and growing is a give and take process that goes something like this: I give you information, we chat about it in class, you read more about the topic, then write about it, and give it back to me. From there, I guide and correct not only your sociological understanding of concepts, but also, all of the mechanical errors mentioned above. We complete that exchange several times throughout a semester, and hopefully by the end, you’ve learned the difference between there/their/they’re. If the role of academia in America is largely to prepare individuals for the working world, then I’m not doing my job by ignoring errors that could make you unemployable to the average employer.
But somewhere along the way, I started skipping words in student essays, reading for content only, and mostly ignoring mechanical errors. I no longer use a pen to circle errors, and instead of paper, my students submit all work in files through their computers. I rarely correct run on sentences, and never insert commas for them, where commas should be.
As I read Machado’s essay, I mentally kicked myself and asked myself if I wasn’t doing enough in my classes anymore, if I wasn’t doing everything I could to read student work and give them feedback that helps them grow their writing skills. t wondered when the change happened. I wondered when I stopped being the teacher I expected myself to be.
So I began assessing my work over the past ten years or so. I knew I was grading the way Mr. Grossinger did when I came to Chico; I still have one or two students from those early years who remind me of just how rigorous my classes used to be. They send emails to me saying, “thank you for teaching me how to write an essay!” and I know they truly mean it.
So when did I change?
I started looking back at my classes, and realized, it was a gradual change. At the beginning, I taught only 2 or 3 classes a semester, and most of those classes only had 25 or 30 students in them. At most, I had 80 or 90 students each semester. As the years wore on, I regularly taught 4 classes a semester, which was considered full time at Chico for a lecturer in my department, and with more classes, I assigned a bit less writing. I averaged about 40 students in each class.
In 2007, I entered a full time contract as a lecturer, and was assigned 4 classes each semester, with a total of about 160 students each semester. As the Great Recession approached, class sizes across the university swelled as we cut back on the number of faculty in order to save money while trying to serve the same number of students. What started out as class capacities of 35 or 40 in 2005, rose to class caps of 46 in 2010, then 49 a year later, and 60 by Fall of 2011. At the same time of these incremental class size increases, the number of classes considered “full time” changed for both adjunct and tenure-track faculty. Today, adjunct faculty must teach 5 classes to be considered full time, and tenure-track must teach 4 classes each semester.
With each increase in the number of students in my classes, my writing expectations decreased more, and the feedback I could provide declined radically.
As sociologists, our central question is always this: how do the structures of the institutions around the individual affect the individual’s behavior? In this instance, we see that as the institution’s expectations changed, and demanded more classes and more students each semester, the constructive feedback declined.
Where does this leave my academia today? My teaching? I teach 4-5 classes each semester, depending on class availability, with each class averaging about 50 people. Full time, I teach, on average, 240-250 students each semester, every semester; that’s 500 students a year. I used to assign a total of 10-15 pages of typed original writing to each student. Do the math: that’s at least 5,000 pages a year at about 250 words on each page, or just about 1.25 million words. I miss a lot of those words these days. And students miss a lot of chances to learn to write well, and spell words correctly, and discuss concepts beyond what class time offers.
Maybe one day, when we’ve fully recovered from the economic disaster that was America in 2007-2010, we’ll be able to bring back those lecturers and teachers we lost during that time. Maybe we’ll see that education does really matter, when teachers are given the support they need to succeed. And maybe I’ll bring the red pen back, and the ink will flow across the pages, and I’ll teach like I expected to again.