This is the text of a talk that I gave at the Working-Class Studies Association conference earlier this month. This concerns the working conditions of Adjunct Instructors and the shape of virtual pedagogy today.
“After the Quarantine: Virtual Pedagogy and Virtual Workspaces in a Post-Pandemic World”
When I sat down to write out the introduction to the presentation that I am going to give today, I realized that it has been about a year and a half since I initially submitted my abstract. Back in January of 2020 we all had hoped to meet together in person in Youngstown but the events of the last year prevented that from happening. Those events have also changed the context of what this paper would have been. I set out to write about the realities of teaching online-only classes for adjunct faculty members and the difficulties that this presents. But then pretty much all of us turned into online-only teachers and a lot of what I was going to say became very obvious to everyone. Of the two main points that I wanted to touch on from that abstract, one of these has been completely obviated by the pandemic that quarantined all of us. The other point, though, is more valid now than when I originally sat down to plan my abstract and it is about the interplay of virtual pedagogy and adjunct labor. This paper, originally about the virtual space that adjuncts must occupy on the edge of the academic world will now, itself, occupy a liminal space. As I worked on this presentation today, I found myself bouncing between the paper that this would have been had I presented it in Youngstown a year ago and what it is today.
Here are the two points I originally wanted to make: first, adjunct teaching is often an under-resourced and thankless job and it is easy to fall under the radar. This is made worse by teaching online only because we are also absent from campus and miss out on a lot of the opportunities to network and maintain important peer relationships that on-site teachers have. We must also use our own resources to perform the work without any compensation for this. Here I mean things like electricity, internet access, and the like. I think that most teachers have felt this way after a year-plus of online teaching so I will not really address this point today.
The second point is less obvious but isn't much of a stretch to get to: adjunct teaching, and teaching online only presents a bind that looks like an opportunity for many academics who hold down multiple jobs. Many academics such as myself teach online in order to keep current teaching experience and avoid gaps in our CVs. Many are trying to earn a living by patching together multiple part-time positions while trying to wrangle the job market and find a full time appointment. The flexibility of asynchronous teaching allows us to take on other work to supplement our incomes. This flexibility also looks like an opportunity to do the necessary work to build our CVs such as attending conferences and publishing, but the work we do whether it is in the classroom or in our other jobs generally is enough to keep many of us from being able to do this as much as we would like. The allure of the freedom to continue teaching while pursuing other work and earn extra money ultimately ends in a narrowing of opportunities that works to keep these instructors in adjunct positions, or to make the decision to leave academics completely.
My original paper would have outlined many of the details of this bind and would have offered some suggestions for overcoming this difficulty. But instead I want to veer a little off course from my original plan. Instead of talking about the nature of online adjunct teaching and the difficulties that this presents, I want to expand my scope to discuss the nature of virtual pedagogy and to take a look at the future of education. I think that this is important because this is a crucial moment in which we can take the time to rethink how we interact with our colleagues and to re-examine some of the values that we have taken for granted in higher education. This is a moment to push past limiting views of what virtual pedagogy should be to think about what virtual pedagogy could be.
Prior to the pandemic, I had worked myself into a niche with my online teaching experience. I taught my first online courses in 2010 and have been teaching online only since 2015 and I have learned a lot from having to revise my curriculum to meet the needs of my virtual classroom. At this point, I have taught scores, if not hundreds, of students whom I have never met face-to-face, and would never know if they were to pass me in the street. Yet we have shared a space together and worked together. They have told me about important things in their lives and I have told them about myself. I have endeavored to gain their trust and to build rapport through the course structure and the public and private communications that we shared. I have developed some specific strategies for doing this that have helped immensely.
I think that my transition to teaching online has largely been successful and I have become a better teacher for having to re-evaluate some of my assumptions about learning and communicating expectations. But for all of this, online teaching always had a cloud over it. Some of my students did poorly because they were unable to manage their time the same way that they would in a traditional classroom. They didn’t feel the same sense of accountability because they didn’t have to walk into a physical classroom and tell a real person that they hadn’t done their work. Others took my classes because they thought it would be easy since it was online and “not a real class.” I know this because some of them have admitted this in their end of semester evaluations. In those same evaluations, students have commented on the difficulty of my class or expressed surprise at actually learning something.
My students often commented on the workload in my courses and on the number of readings I assigned. One exercise that I use is to provide my students with a forum for offering suggestions to improve the course or to critique parts of the course they find unhelpful. In this forum, students would complain about the number of readings or about the work that I assigned. What they don't know is that I have cut a lot of readings that I would assign in favor of having them produce and express their own ideas. They also didn't know that I have streamlined the writing process so that every assignment that they complete contributes directly to larger projects and guides us toward our learning outcomes. I trimmed out what I have come to think of as extraneous work. In other words, some of my students were unhappy with the amount of work that I asked them to do even though it was less than what I asked my students to do in a more traditional setting.
But here's the thing. The problem wasn't with the work that I was asking them to do. The problem was the work they were being asked to do for an online class. I know this because I have gotten end of semester evaluation with phrases like “for an online class” in them. Students are surprised to learn in an online class, surprised that it can be helpful, surprised that they had to work in one. There was a disconnect for them such that taking a class online was not the same as taking a class in a physical space. And again, I know this because I have had students tell me this. What this indicates to me is that, up until now, we have done a poor job preparing students for the demands of an online class. We haven't shown them that a virtual classroom is a real one even though it is not a physical space.
I want to go back and take a moment to explain the original title because there was a metaphor in it that I was going to use. My paper was originally titled “Navigating the Virtual Zone.” As I worked on the abstract for that original paper, I had the idea of drawing a metaphor from my work. At the time, I was working in a regional distribution warehouse for a national hardware store coop doing inventory and quality control. The specifics of the job are unimportant. But what is important to my way of thinking about it is the way that virtual mapping is used in the warehouse. The WMS (warehouse management system) that we used is actually a layering of systems of varying age. The warehouse was built in 1977 so all of the inventory was kept on paper and then eventually it moved into computers and as the computers and the programs that the company bought became more sophisticated, they found that it was easier and less expensive to overlay the new programming on top of the old rather than build a new system from scratch. This lead to gaps between the layers that were only discovered later on. Eventually, the programs that were built in the 1990s and earlier were unable to keep up with the new order-filling assignment programs that were installed in the 2000s and to bridge this gap, the system constructed “V-zones” or virtual zones that are virtual computer mapping of physical space. It is the stopgap that allows the mainframe to give instructions to workers in a physical space. But the stopgap became a permanent solution.
In my job, I had access to number of these different systems and I had to find ways of using the different systems to find information where there were gaps in one or the other. I became highly aware of the limitations of the overall system because there was no way to navigate it holistically but it had to be approached piecemeal. I adopted the metaphor of the virtual zone for this paper for two reasons. First, the “virtual” nature of the warehouse mapping seemed to match up pretty well with the “virtual” classroom. Both virtual spaces correspond to actual work being done and describe a certain relationship between the physical space and that work being done. Second, and more importantly, I saw the overlay of multiple systems in the WMS as parallel to the expediency-driven stopgap that is virtual teaching. This is not a system that has been built from the ground up to take its unique challenges into account. Instead, it was a thing that was thrust upon many teachers with little to no training. I don't know if we have the ability to undergo a wholesale revamp of higher education in America but we at least need to recognize the overlay of systems and really examine where they do not mesh.
If I have anything like a thesis to argue today, it is this: we are at a critical juncture in our educational careers and in our lives in general. As we move back toward unrestricted life we can choose to return to “pre-pandemic” life, a return to the normalcy where faculty members such as myself find themselves without a place at the table, or we can take this opportunity to recognize that the difficulties that all of us faced during quarantine were not new for many of us. The isolation and disconnect that has lasted for a year for some of us has been an ongoing problem for many of us for much longer than that. We can also extrapolate this to our relationships with our students and use this same isolation as an object lesson in what some of them have felt like for their whole lives. Then, I hope, we can use this to also think about our lives out in the rest of the world. We have to seriously question whether or not “pre-pandemic” is good enough. I don't think that it is. I think that there is an opportunity here to do better and to be better.
Until now, virtual teaching was largely seen as an adjunct to traditional teaching. I use the word “adjunct” very deliberately here because of what its true meaning is and the impact that it has on our colleagues. To be adjunct is to be supplementary. It is, by definition, non-essential. Virtual learning had been non-essential until it wasn't. As so many of us know, adjunct teachers are anything but non-essential. We are the essential workers of the academic world. In the post-pandemic world, we have to question whether or not we can afford to return to this “pre-pandemic” way of thinking. My argument, then, is that we cannot. My argument is simple but it needs to be stated to be clear. I do not think that a return to normalcy is good just as I don't think that all aspects of quarantine-driven changes to education have been bad. In some ways it has caused a reckoning of how others live and work. As I stated above, I think that we can do better. My argument is that we need to continue the work that we have done over the last year in re-thinking our strategies in teaching and our relationships with our peers and students. We need to use this as a starting point and not as a point of return.
In the interest of doing better, I have thought of some suggestions to carry forward with us when we return to our respective campuses and other places of work. These suggestions are based upon a lot of the things that I have been thinking about while working on this paper and sum up some of the difficulties that I think may face us going forward. This list only has four items but I think that this is a start toward being more deliberate in our engagements.
1- Zoom meetings and asynchronous pedagogy have leveled the playing field in some respects. It can mean that students who have difficulty with some subjects or don't know how to ask questions about things they don't understand will have the opportunity to learn in a different modality. Asynchronous teaching specifically can help students to ask the questions that they may find intimidating to ask in class because they are worried about their peers' judgment. We should be ready to embrace these styles of teaching going forward and ask what our connection to the classroom is and what it should be. I still think that the classroom is an important site of learning, but it does not have to be the only site.
2- Think about what participation looks like in different modalities. This doesn't just mean classroom participation, but it can include this. What opportunities are there for students to be active in student life that do not require a physical presence on campus? What opportunities are there for adjunct teachers who are either on-site or online to engage with other faculty members and to network? This is a time when we can think about all of the virtual events that we have participated in over the last year and ask if this makes our institutions more diverse and accommodating.
3- We need to be sure that we recognize virtual work as real work. Teaching online requires a lot of the same preparation that traditional teaching does and it also requires a great deal of special preparation. The needs of students in a virtual classroom will be different from those in a traditional setting and we have to take the time to re-adjust our thinking to accommodate this. This means that we also have to work to teach our students how to make this change as well. We cannot assume that they know how to navigate our virtual spaces or that they will know where to find instructions. Also, being clear about what students can expect from us is vital. When not working around class schedules students may try to reach out at odd times and expect immediate response. Being clear about our working hours is a useful way to avoid the creep of work taking over our personal lives and reinforces the concept that staying in communication is work for us. The converse of this is that we need to be vigilant in teaching our students that the work that they do in a virtual space is also real work.
4- I think that this is a key moment for all of us to examine the difficulties that we have had over the last year and to really reflect on what it means to go back into a physical classroom. As teachers, we have had to overcome a lot of difficulties, and our students have done a lot to meet us there. We need to recognize that the massive educational shifts that we have undergone have also served to decontextualize our work. This means that we are in better positions to examine the assumptions that we brought with us to the classroom. This is a point where we can question the status quo of higher education and be deliberate in how we move forward.