on education: a day in the life of a humanities major


On a typical Wednesday afternoon, I’m in the adjunct office after class. I brought my lunch–a romaine salad with carrots, cucumbers, celery, and a lentil patty that my roommate made–and am contentedly eating it. I have my work laptop open and am answering questions via instant messenger from the marketing associate and new editor. This is a slow week at the scientific journal, as my current project has just been delayed a few weeks due to lack of content from my author. The previous project that I managed the past few months brought in unprecedented amounts for the company. I’m proud but exhausted. I pulled 80-hour work weeks to juggle my workload.

To my right, I have papers from my Tuesday/Thursday class, which I need to grade. I have a copy of my syllabus and am thinking about how to approach my next few class sessions on media studies and then shifting to our humanities unit. I’ve had to restructure a lot this semester, as expected when building a course from scratch. I have the pressure of a class observation soon.

When I arrived this morning, another adjunct was holding a conference with a student at my station. I unloaded the things I carried from home: a yoga mat, a laptop bag, a tote bag filled with essentials–food, travel mug, yoga clothes, books, heels, and overnight pouch with toiletries. I can survive a couple of days if I happen to get stranded somewhere.

I change from my red flats to my black heels and head to the kitchenette to boil water for my green tea. I make my way to class–one of three classrooms. Earlier this semester, I had trouble getting into the routine and actually walked into the wrong one.

The anthropology professor, with whom I’ve had discussions as we switched classrooms, warned me that the projector appears to be broken because he was unable to turn it off. He had forgotten that it was a touch screen command, and we both laugh about technology. He’s an older gentleman, and some of these gadgets are not user-friendly. He proceeds to ask another question about what kinds of writing the English department is requiring out of its students, as an anthropological “critique” he recently assigned is not going so well in his classes.

I respond, a bit hesitantly: “Why yes, I suppose so; the objectives of my course now is to prepare them to be able to analyze texts across multiple disciplines, but how this is implemented in each course obviously varies.”

Our current assignment–a rhetorical analysis–focuses on analyzing strategies in multiple kinds of texts (i.e., journal article, news article, video presentation, documentary, song) but not necessarily evaluating the efficacy of the content of anthropological research. We touch on perhaps how the data was presented, what the purpose of this text was, how to identify what the author was trying to argue, but we cannot know the nuances of whether this is significant or flawed within the field of anthropology or what specific elements students need to cover in order to satisfy the assignment. We are not anthropologists.

Even in an interdisciplinary Writing Across the Curriculum course, the disconnect exists between composition/rhetoric pedagogy and the specific needs of multiple disciplines. We have to cover all bases–teach to improve writing and critical thinking skills–which is generalized and cannot possibly cover nuance. Not all students are going to be prepared to accomplish discipline-specific tasks, but we’re trying to improve their abilities to grapple with these texts and synthesize information.

This exchange was thought-provoking and affirming that really, composition teachers have challenging jobs. Writing is so closely connected to the idea of learning that when students show an inability to process information in other disciplines, the blame falls on the English department. Learning is a cumulative effort; it involves, collectively, our abilities as educators to build on students’ knowledge, along with the students’ motivations to apply skills and knowledge. Additionally, writing isn’t just about grasping mechanics but also improving skills that are not easily assessed by standardized measures. How well students write, in short, is not the the sole product or fault of the English department.

During class, we hold a peer review workshop on their rhetorical analysis. I’m relieved that the majority of them were prepared with a 5-page draft. Some had trouble in shifting from a typical expository essay, in which they configure some thesis and support it with relevant sources, to an analysis of purpose and strategy. I gave them the extra challenge of determining their own “text” to analyze (i.e., anything from a photo, advertisement, video, song, essay, short story, poem, film, tv show episode, novel, etc.). In this instance, freedom of choice gave my students anxiety. Most come from educational backgrounds in which they are told exactly what to do. They are not usually encouraged to think and expand their approaches with independent critical thinking. A couple of weeks into this assignment, I’m glad that most have caught on.

After class, I eat my lunch back at my station while simultaneously answering emails from both jobs, posting Facebook commentaries about the education bubble, the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012, and a recent panel/presentation on Asian-American experiences post-9/11 in NYC. I’m processing experiences and getting ideas for class lessons. I’m thinking about the push for utilitarian approaches to education; I’m thinking about my humanist ideals within this space.

A few minutes into my lunch, the department administrator and a full-time faculty member hover at the door. I turn around–mid-chew with some lettuce hanging from the side of my mouth. They do not say anything, after I smile and greet them. They confer for half a minute.

“Hey, would you mind if I brought a student in here to take a test?” Of course not. It’s a shared space, which I happen to like, despite the lower rung on the “hierarchy of importance” that it indicates in the department. I am assigned a computer and a desk (“C”) out of four stations. I’m grateful that I have a station at all.

In the past, I’ve been so lucky to do the majority of my work at student computer labs because it was more convenient than a dusty, cold office where they were drilling into the wall for a period of two months. In contrast, I’ve also had my own office at an honors college, complete with a shared bathroom and view of a chapel and a secret garden. At this college in NYC, I have the choice of three shared spaces, one of which has a spectacular view of the city (pictured above). (I don’t go in there often because I sit and stare instead of do work.)

I return to the kitchenette to get more hot water for tea and to wash my salad container (a takeout container that most people dispose). I’m thinking about waste and sustainability and simplicity. I’m thinking about how much freedom I have that I’m not motivated by money or prestige or security. As I leave the kitchenette, I see the decorated doors and offices of full-timers. I’m thinking about the future, about my next step.

I recently had discussions with friends and other adjuncts about being a full-time lecturer. I commented that I don’t believe it’s the best use of my energies, that I’d be able to deal with the politics. I like being on the periphery. I question my ability to conform. I love teaching and believe in the transformative power of education, but all institutions have agendas I can’t wholeheartedly promote. Sure, it’d be comfortable, but if I were ever concerned with that, I’d be a different person now, embodying a much different space.