I write this as a 2nd year student who began teaching as an adjunct professor during my first semester of study. I have taught Introduction to Sociology, Human Sexuality, and LGBTQ Concepts at BMCC, Queens College and Brooklyn College. I feel it’s important to get an adjunct position as soon as possible, even if you do not need one for financial reasons. It helps you figure out whether that’s one of the areas where you need work. If you are looking forward to a life in academia, it’s likely you will teach undergraduate and graduate courses. Getting into teaching early will show you if that’s something you want to be doing later on. Second, you will have your PhD years to practice teaching a variety of courses. Branching out will help solidify your substantive areas of study and that will help you with your Orals and future career moves.
How does one get an adjunct position? If you have multi-year funding, you are expected to begin teaching in the 2nd year and your teaching site will be provided to you by the department. If you are teaching because you need tuition remission, additional income or because it’s smart to do so, you will need to look out for e-mail announcements. First, get on the sociology listserv (and other listserves) because students send call-outs for courses they know are available or for courses they can no longer teach. Second, Rati will forward call-outs placed by CUNY schools. Once you have one semester of teaching under your belt in a particular site, you have a good chance at working there again. Remember, positions are filled up fast so whenever you see an email for a course, contact the necessary person promptly and do not forget to attach your resume or CV.
When you’ve never taught before, be brave in that first email. Mention that you are in your first years of graduate study, state your interests (Example: “My interests lie in race, gender and sexuality.”) and express how much you are looking forward to teaching. Many schools are tasked with more courses that they have staff to teach and they are desperate to hire graduate students. When I first applied to teach Intro to Sociology, I was surprised the department gave me so little instruction. I was told to pick out a textbook and where to go for my first class. It’s rare that you will work in a department where the adjunct coordinator will check up on you. You are expected to know what you are doing and to do it, especially at satellite sites. You will get reviewed by a senior person once a semester and, of course, your students will fill out evaluation forms at the end but, other than that, there is low overhead. Some people feel lost for that reason, but I don’t mind. It all depends on how much structure you need.
When you begin an adjunct position, treat it like a ‘real’ professor position because you owe that to yourself and to your students. You are getting paid very little money (typically, $2800/semester for a 3-credit course) without benefits but do not treat this work as secondary. You should focus on your coursework, networking and getting through your exams but I find that teaching provides a great balance in semesters that are usually busy and stressful. Once you get comfortable in the classroom, spending time with your students makes for a safe place, a low-stakes environment where you feel in control and knowledgeable.
You might be nervous about starting to teach. You are not the first person to go through this and you can ask others for their syllabi, quizzes, assignments and advice. There is no official teaching training unless you take a no-credit seminar but that is an additional strain on your time. I suggest out you take some time to carefully think about your teaching philosophy, how you want to run your class and what is most important to you as a professor. Do not worry about being perfect because it will take you a couple of months to figure out what works and what doesn’t work in the classroom. I always dreamed of teaching in a college setting so I knew some of the things I wanted to try with students. Still, that weekend before my first class was full of anxiety. I wanted to make my own syllabus (after looking at examples) and make up my own structure and assignments. It took some days but it was well worth it.
Making your own syllabi and your own course readers from scratch, especially for specialized classes, provides tremendous benefits. It makes you learn a lot about your subfields of interest because you get deeply into the literature and you don’t feel as pressured as you would during your own classes. It is also great practice for when you are a ‘real’ professor because the more you make your own syllabi, the faster you can do so for any course that comes up – that makes you marketable and competitive. You also know what you are teaching better than if you were just using a textbook. And, let’s be serious, it’s hard to get students to even purchase text books since they’re pretty boring. Remember everything about your experiences in college because that is where you students are right now and all your little tricks and heuristics are now theirs. Teach in a way that places you on an equal standing with students and they will be far more likely to do the readings you’ve chosen.
Of course, there are negatives to being an adjunct. For one thing, your condition is always precarious. You never know if the courses you signed up to teach will continue as scheduled. Your classes can be dropped or not filled up and there is nothing you can do about it. It can happen suddenly and just a few days before the semester. For those of us that rely on adjuncting for money, this directly affects our livelihoods. Besides, it can screw up your scheduling since you generally register around courses you teach or vice versa. There are no benefits attached to this job so you can’t rely on it for health insurance but you hardly have time for part-time or full-time work during your PhD. The best you can hope for is that you have funding (which comes with health insurance through NYSHIP) and adjunct positions. Departments where you work can also make you feel like you’re dispensable and treat you as if you’re part of a revolving door. Exploitation of adjunct labor is a real issue and you can work with the Adjunct Union or the Professional Staff Congress if you feel strongly about being mistreated. There are many worthy ongoing struggles to improve our positions. For now, treat the negatives as a necessary evil and focus on the positives teachings can bring you – I will write more on that in ‘Teaching Issues’ under additional tabs. You may contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.