This continues my series on advice for a new adjunct journalism professor. This guest post is by Dr. Kathleen Woodruff Wickham, associate professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi (more about her at the end):
The previous posts had many wonderful suggestions. I will try not to repeat them. Experience tells me that many new adjuncts and instructors moving from the profession to academia do not understand the academic culture, nor grasp the necessities for what appear to be arcane practices. They also frequently come in deciding to run their classroom like a newsroom. You have to remember that if you are teaching lower-division classes you are teaching 18- and 19- year olds, not adults who are professionals. These are professionals-in-training.
For example, in a lower-division course don’t say, “You are expected to follow AP guidelines. Here is the book.”
Rather, hold them accountable for certain sections (titles, ages, addresses). In our entry-level writing course, I would prepare a hand-out of the basics and start the penalty off at 1 point, increasing each week by a point to a maximum of 10.
Universities are governed through faculty governance. The faculty establishes the curriculum, sets the policies and functions through a committee-driven system. All those meetings are an integral part of academia. Tenure and promotion rules guide how tenured/tenure-track faculty allot their time. While it might appear that faculty do not work very hard, in reality when not in their offices or classrooms faculty are off working on research/creative projects or performing service. Service includes department,school or university committees, professional judging and advising student organizations, among other duties. Depending on the school, a faculty member might be expected to spend 40 percent of their time teaching, 40 percent on research and 20 percent on service. The numbers vary.
My message here is that if you are new to the academy take the time to take a faculty member out for coffee and ask how the organization works. This person can become a mentor. We have had numerous hires in the last few years. As a senior faculty member, I have taken each one out to lunch at least once (depending on their schedules and mine) and continue to do so. It is also a two-way street.
During a recent chat over coffee with one new hire we talked about teaching the entry-level writing course. I shared my thoughts and some techniques. I have been teaching for more than 20 years. I have figured a few things out. 🙂
My philosophy is to break things down into components and teach via building blocks, rather than to just send a student out on an assignment with no idea what the lead is and expect them to figure it out.
Here are some things you might ask a senior faculty member and/or the curriculum coordinator:
Has the faculty adopted a common book for the course? Book orders are placed months before the semester starts by federal law. A last-minute book order violates that law and students can rightfully file a grade appeal because they did not have all the required information before signing up for a course.
Find out if the department or school has adopted common course objectives. Ole Miss developed common course outcomes as part of the accreditation process. You say you have outcomes. More likely you have objectives. Course objectives are less precise than outcomes. Outcomes are measurable and can be seen, heard, touched on the micro-level.
Objective: Students in advanced reporting will demonstrate professional levels of writing and reporting.
Outcome: Students in advance reporting will write stories of 600-words in length with three sources and include records-based information.
The latter is measurable. It also drives the assignments. It makes it clear to the student what exactly is expected.
A rubric is a grading device. In Advanced Reporting this fall I experimented with one. Instead of using a points-off system I developed a list of 10-15 items and scored them on a 1-5 scale (quotes, leads, data value-added elements, sources etc.). I am still tweaking the categories and points. But I felt comfortable with it to do it again.
Use either a university educational program like Blackboard or your own web page to post the syllabus (they get lost), grading rubrics, points-off system, handouts, readings and other material. In my classes, I post all my lectures in advance so that students can print them out, bring them to class and spend more time listening than writing. They also become good study guides, especially in my ethics class.
Find out when the dates are for late adds to your class. At Ole Miss students can add on a space-available basis up to five days after the semester starts and with instructor’s approval 10 days. Late adds cannot be penalized. It is a challenge to start the semester the first week knowing the population of the class can change but I deal with it by doing intro lectures and waiting until the second week before starting required assignments.
The syllabus is a contract between you and the student. You cannot add assignments, nor move up due dates. You can only lower requirements. Some faculty are very specific about dates, others cloak it under the phrase “dates to be determined.”
Absences: State your policy in the syllabus. I require documentation for all absences, including all grandparents who die. What? Funeral homes provide forms for workers needing them. An obit with the same last name also works.
Bad weather: In the Spring term I add a weather policy. I do not leave it up to the university to decide to cancel class. Yes, this is journalism. We all show up to report the story. But these are young people and in the South I would rather they not take to the roads when it is icy. Their cars do not have the right equipment and they do not have the experience.
Be aware that students will and can file grade appeals. Begin documentation (copies of assignments etc.) as soon as you perceive you have a problematic student. University guidelines establish the grounds and procedures for appeals.
Additional notes: Show up/start on time, make sure the class meets the required minutes all the time (the state board sets the required minutes), provide feedback for all assignments (slapping a grade on a paper without explaining why is a no-no), keep established office hours and state them in the syllabus, maintain classroom decorum (in my case, no cell phones or computers allowed on the desktop unless we are using them for a specific purpose) and have the students address you by a courtesy title. You are not in a newsroom. It is a sign of respect for you as a teacher.
Kathleen Woodruff Wickham is an associate professor of journalism at The University of Mississippi (1999-present) and taught at The University of Memphis for over a decade. She worked as a reporter for over 10 years, mostly at The (Newark, NJ) Star-Ledger and the Atlantic City Press. Her current research focuses on press coverage during the civil rights era in the South. She likes to read, travel and on cold winter Sundays bake bread.
I welcome guest posts from other journalism faculty — adjunct or full-time — for this series. Or if you’re a current or recent journalism graduate, I’d be interested in your observations about what your professors did that was most effective and what didn’t work as well. Please name any professors you’re praising, but I’m not interested in giving you a chance to publicly bash professors you didn’t like.