How to Be A Great Adjunct Professor

How to Be A Great Adjunct Professor
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Greig Roselli September 17, 2014

Teaching your first college class while you’re still working on your degree might be intimidating, but not when you have these tips by your side.

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I taught several sections of Introduction to Philosophy to undergraduates when I was in graduate school. Feeling like I had two identities, I would pop out of my 2 p.m. graduate seminar on Ancient Philosophy to roll into a room of college students at six to teach a lecture on Plato’s Cave.

Juggling the dual role of teacher and student was a bit disconcerting at first — probably because I realized that I actually had to teach what I had been learning for the past twelve years — but with a bit of finesse and practice, I came to grow in my role as an adjunct professor. Here are some tips I learned along the way.

1. Set the tone for how you want your class to run.

You’ve probably been poring over your syllabus all summer. Stop tweaking it. Commit yourself to whatever game plan you or your department have decided. Class starts in ten minutes.

Spend the first day discussing the course basics, but it’s also your time to really set the tone for how you want the class to operate. If you want the course to be more discussion-based, rather than lecture-style, then spell out your expectations to your students. Be authoritative but open, and show that you’re passionate about what you’re teaching.


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2. The devil is in the details — and you really should read the handbook twice.

The first questions your students will have will be about adding or dropping the class, and the university’s grading scale. You might feel more like an administrator than a teacher, but be prepared to answer housekeeping questions, or direct students to where they have to go to solve their problem.

Make sure your class schedule of readings, exam, and paper due dates are dutifully planned out for the thirteen or fourteen weeks you’re scheduled to teach. Watch out for holidays that might land on one of your teaching days or due dates; and educate yourself on school policies. It sounds obvious, but it’s easy to miss out on basic facts like when the last day to turn in assignments before finals is, or how to give a student an incomplete grade.

3. You know your material, but learn to scaffold your teaching.

One of the challenges of teaching is to present the material in a meaningful way to your students. You’ve been swimming in your content area for years, and now you’re tasked with transmitting it. Since you’re also in school, it will help you to go deeper into your subject area. You’ll be surprised how teaching grants insights you didn’t have when you were on the other side of the desk.

Find many different ways to explain the same concept. Don’t only have your students read about what you want them to know, but talk about it in class, use the board to illustrate the concept, find interactive online content, ask students leading questions you’ve thought about beforehand, and help them understand the concepts rung by rung.

4. Manage your classroom thoughtfully.

One of the rewarding moments in teaching a college classroom is nailing your lesson and promoting active participation from your students.

You’ll have to watch out for that one student who hogs the discussion, or the chronically late student who disrupts you mid-lecture. Choose your battles carefully with students, but if you need to address an issue, don’t make the mistake of calling that student out in the middle of class; take her aside privately and articulate your concerns.

5. Take notes on your lectures.

If this is your first time teaching the material, it will not go perfectly or as planned. Keep mental notes of what worked and what didn’t.

What readings really grabbed students attention, or had them asking more questions? What material had them scratching their heads? You can make these adjustments in your future classes, and your experience and confidence in teaching the material will grow.

6. Reach out to other adjuncts and faculty.

Share your teaching experience with other graduate students, with your thesis advisor, or other faculty members. More than half of college professors are adjuncts, so you won’t be alone in voicing your concerns. Talk about what worked in your classroom, and what you felt needed improvement.

Listen to other colleagues’ stories to gain insight. You’ll be surprised to find out that other adjuncts have similar stories as you, and you can gain valuable information from sharing what you know and learning from others.

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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