Dear Future Adjunct,
I have never been on the tenure-track, so I will leave it to others to give advice about that experience of being a professor. I can talk about the early stages of a career as a historian—as teaching assistant, adjunct, and postdoctoral fellow. You will probably spend some time at this stage, before getting onto the tenure track or choosing a different profession. Here are some things I think you might want to keep in mind.
Be constructively nervous about teaching, not afraid. You do have something to be nervous about, after all—you now have the chance to make a fool of yourself in public and to bore students so badly that they’ll never take a course in your subject again. Odds are, you will indeed succeed more than once in being a fool and a bore. But how else will you learn to get better? So over-prepare: take notes for two hours of material to teach a ninety-minute class. Outline a complete lecture in your mind for those days when the one live student in the class is out with the flu, and the rest of the class stares at you like more than usually apathetic zombies. Prepare a PowerPoint presentation that is a thing of beauty. Then, when you finish taking attendance, you can tell the butterflies in your stomach, I know it cold. And you will. And as you realize that, maybe you’ll relax enough to crack a joke that the students think is funny.
Have confidence in yourself. You are a journeyman in your trade; you know a great deal. Not everything—and don’t be afraid to admit when you are ignorant. But your university and your professors wouldn’t let you loose on your students if you didn’t know a respectable amount—or tell you that you were ready to research and write if you were incapable. You can succeed in this career.
Don’t apologize for your subject. The history of Catalonian cartularies is fascinating. So is the prose of William Hazlitt, multivariate calculus, Leibnizian philosophy, and the genetic structure of drosophila melanogaster. Let your students know why you love what you do—your discipline as a whole, and your own particular research. Indeed, let your colleagues, friends, and family know as well, and never forget it yourself.
Take your class as an opportunity to learn. Jackson Spielvogel’s Western Civilization, good sales be upon it unto the ninetieth edition, has a list of suggested books at the end of each chapter. I read a fair number of them when I was first teaching Western Civ, and they made me a better teacher and a better historian. When I was teaching Twentieth-Century U.S. History, not being an Americanist, I made myself a reading list to teach the class properly. In my classes, I wrote down students’ questions I couldn’t answer, looked them up at home, and came into the next class with what I’d learned. When I prepared syllabi, I tried to assign at least a few readings I hadn’t yet read myself. Learning, I enjoyed myself, I stretched myself, and I could think of myself as a student too.
Be patient with your students. Your first syllabus will be too difficult. You don’t realize how little the students know—not when or what the Renaissance was, not spelling, punctuation, or how to write an essay, not even the meaning of words such as “moderate.” They also tend to be nice (with some slackers and plagiarists thrown in, alas), willing on the whole to do the minimum for the assignments, and often interested in and curious about what you’re teaching. It is very easy to get frustrated with your students, harder to figure out how to teach them properly. Work on what is hard.
Write the class requirements in mind-numbing detail. Essay #1, due three weeks after class begins, is 10% of the grade. Three tardies will lower a student’s grade one level. Plagiarism will get you hung by your thumbnails; go to Website X for a definition of plagiarism. Please speak to me if you have a disability which requires special attention. You cannot get an A if you do not speak up in class – and so on, and so on. Go over the requirements in detail in the first class; leave no wiggle room.
Grade efficiently. Grading is a time-sink; you almost certainly cannot do your students full justice, especially if you are grading essays. This is not fair—but this ultimately is the responsibility of a university that decreed that you should teach (say) two eighty-person introductory lectures, complete your dissertation, and earn a pittance. Don’t destroy yourself trying to do more than is humanly possible.
Research efficiently. Your research time is not a license to be a luftmensch; it is the time you use to write focused articles and books, whose purpose is as much to get you a job as to seek out truth, beauty, etc. Yes, choose a subject you enjoy, a subject you want to write about—take that as given. Then write knowing that the publish-or-perish timeline is already ticking. Do not be afraid; but do be professional.
If you leave the profession, do so with as few tears as possible. Not every one of you will become a tenure-track professor—abandon all assurance, ye who enter here, if not perhaps all hope. Those of you who leave the profession involuntarily must grieve somewhat. But be happy about your time learning, teaching, and writing, whatever you do later in life—live for the moment, as they say, and don’t forget the joy of that moment.