Stafford: Wittenberg teaching job leads to new perspective


I don’t know how well I do it, which is one reason I’m not sure whether I’ll be doing it again.

But I’m glad I’ve been teaching this fall: It has made me look not only at students but at everyone in a slightly different way.

From mid-August until tomorrow, when I turn in grades, I’ll have been an adjunct professor of journalism at Wittenberg University, the institution I attended in a previous century.

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As I’ve been telling my friends all fall, “Before I was just junk. Now I’m adjunked.”

The half-foot-thick unabridged dictionary at the coffee shop where I often write defines adjunct as “something added to another thing, but not essentially part of it, as water absorbed by a sponge is its adjunct.”

Yeah, I don’t get it, either, though I’ve been called a sponge before.

In truth, everybody around me has made me feel very much part of the English Department and the university. And that, in turn, has led me to move from boldface to normal type the second definition for adjunct listed in Stafford’s Real World Dictionary: adjunct — poorly paid.

My own take on that is slightly skewed by the amount of time it took me to prepare material for a class for the first time. There are the lectures, the quizzes, the assignments, which presumably are easier to prepare when a course is repeated, though I’d probably switch some of those things up.

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Grading for a first time also presented its challenges. I’ve found the need to read student papers two or three times, and for a couple of reasons: one, to make sure I wasn’t just in a bad mood during the first read, which I sometimes was; and two, to balance the quality of paper with the progress made from the last paper the student wrote in determining a grade.

Even when they’ve not yet arrived at their destination, I like to let them know they’re headed in the right direction.

That’s the simpler junk involved in being an adjunct.

The more difficult junk (junk being a technical term of pedagogy) is getting to know the students well enough to help them. And that brings us to Adjunked Professor Stafford’s First Conjecture on Education: You gotta learn students if you’re gonna teach ‘em.

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Sometimes learning about them is as easy as noticing the jerseys they wear to class.

When it was time for them to write a personality feature, I suggested the guy wearing the Steelers jersey do a profile of Harvey Haddix, the Clark County boy who played for the Pirates.

For the same reason, I directed a fan of the British Premiere League’s Tottenham football club to Dave Barry, an Irish born Wittenberg German professor who is a long time follower of the Hotspurs.

The same student, having drifted early in the term, had something of a philosophical bent and excelled when he was working on stories that allowed him to play with an idea like a footie player bouncing a ball off his feet, knees and head in a pregame drill.

Digging into ideas motivated him.

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One of the pleasures of the term was seeing the “I can’t wait” look in a young woman’s eyes when she decided to use an assignment as an opportunity to give voice to a brand of feminism.

The story involved a guest speaker’s talk about a long-ago German noblewoman who rose above the limits imposed by her times to do what none of the chicken men of the time dared do: Stand up for a student who was being punished for airing his views in support of Martin Luther.

All I needed to do with that student was listen to her excitement, tell her she had a great idea and get out of her way as fast as I could.

In other instances, getting out of students’ ways meant shelving my own opinions so they could use the energy of their own thoughts to carry them forward. My job, I decided, was not to advise them on what to express but on how best to express it.

Knowing what motivates students is important for a simple reason. When they write about subjects they care about, their writing improves by 20 percent, largely because they have a destination in mind and aren’t distracted by counting the number of words they’ve used to determine when a story is done.

As important as it is, though, encouragement remains a tactic to be used in achieving a more important strategic goal.

The goal is expressed in Adjunked Professor Stafford’s First Theorem of the Goal of Teaching: A teacher’s goal is to motivate students to work hard enough so that they can achieve the genuine feeling of accomplishment.

The challenge is that it takes real work to achieve that first accomplishment – work only the student can put in. The hope is that once that sense of satisfaction comes, it can jump start the perpetual motion machine of accomplishment that leads to more achievement and more learning and more satisfaction for decades to come.

There, are, of course, other things about students.

They arrive with stronger or weaker grammar. Some throw in sentence fragments, little bits of word shrapnel that land on the ground and fall over because they can’t stand on their own.

Others have a long running relationship with sentences that never end. They just go on and on, my friends; they started writing it a long, long time ago; and they’ll continue writing it forever just because …

There’s also this: In the course of a term, life goes on for them.

Grandfathers are hospitalized, high school friends die in car accidents, mothers are diagnosed with breast cancer, the stress of the term makes anxieties jet out like solar flares. Student work schedules change and, though it’s seldom mentioned to me, romances go boom and bust, with the expected consequences.

Although all those things are, in a way, distractions to learning, I’ve found they create more interactions that help students and teachers bond in a way that can create lasting connections that come with a bonus. They can further learning. The bumps in the road give a teacher a chance to let a student know that he cares.

My most important discovery is that my students are just like me, or a version of me that once was. Sometimes they are focused, sometimes not. Sometimes they are brilliant, sometimes not. They are sometimes present, sometimes absent.

That makes them like others in my family, and, like everyone I’ve ever known.

I hope, going forward, to think about people outside the classroom as I do those in it: as learners I care about, not people whose opinions I differ with or whose interests aren’t as interesting as mine. I hope to notice more about what motivates and interests my friends so I can help to feed their interests.

I hope to observe and evaluate more while judging less.

It’s on this basis of all this that I, Adjunked Professor Tom Stafford, will henceforth think of teaching in a new way. Whether I actually teach again or not, I’m going to call the field of work teaching people – adding that second word, just so I don’t forget.



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