01 March 2012

The professor project, part three: the many other things

All right, last part of the midterm update...

When I was offered the job to teach this semester, I was told that I’d have a lecture at this time on these days, and a lab at this time on this day. Lecture and lab! I can do that! At least, I felt like I knew what that entailed – I’d TA’d before, after all. It would be just like that!

Except oh, it is not. There’s writing a syllabus and class schedule, determining where to park on campus, finding who to contact when I don’t have an official email address yet, figuring out how to use the online “blackboard” system, lying awake at night with the realization that I don’t know when midterm grades are due – and those are just the things I’m naming off the top of my head.

I knew – and still know – that “real professors” (as I insist on calling them) have WAY more responsibilities than a lowly adjunct, like me. They have faculty meetings and advisees and tenure application and whatnot. But that’s exactly why I assumed I wouldn’t have responsibilities. I am not a real professor! And yet. I kinda am.

Despire all my planning, here’s what I was most unprepared for: being in charge of some pretty important decisions.

First are the educational ones. Like, how I write the exams. If my students hate me, I am certain it’s because of the exams. I’m forcing upon them the exact same questions I had as a genetics student:

“Two of the above” = student’s worst nightmare. And yet I continue to use it! Because I’m that cliché new teacher who refuses to compromise my high standards while remaining an inexperienced and therefore mediocre, at best, lecturer. As a consequence... let’s just say I have become acquainted with many ways to curve grades. It’s a fine balance between wanting everyone to succeed, but weeding out those that I really, really would not want to be my surgeon. I still feel a little weird that I can do that, but I’d be doing a disservice to them if I didn’t, right?

My favorite educational call thus far? Telling a random unknown student who sent me an email last week that no, he could not enroll in my class halfway through the semester. While part of me felt like a meanie, a much bigger part of me could not believe he honestly asked that. FYI: the material in the first half of my course is just as important as the material in the second half.

I’m also finding myself invested in personal lives way more than I thought I would be. See, I only have twenty-two students, and because of that, they’re not nameless faces in a crowd. The best word I can think to describe it is a flock. Sure, I have good sheep and bad sheep but that doesn’t matter; I am supposed to be the best shepherd I can. Oh, how some of my sheep need herding. And I’ve got to be the one to tell them where to go.

In just the first half of the semester, I’ve had veritable and serious illnesses and emergencies:
  • An student out trying to renew her UK passport to travel and be with her family after a death (and oh also the student is pregnant)
  • A student requiring back surgery, scheduled for next week, which required an email exchange between the registrar and me for when I can assign a W or I or F or whatever other mark would be on his transcript forever and ever
  • A student in the hospital with MRSA
  • Multiple students out with other illnesses and family emergencies, some documented and excused, and some not

It doesn’t matter how much I plan ahead – these sorts of situations mean that I have to change my plan, my perfect grading rubric, my ability to see all my students as the same person. I guess I never realized in my TA experiences how students are real people with real problems, because I wasn’t the one calling the shots. I came into this not knowing how much time and energy it takes to treat students like individuals.

All that being said – it is so worth it. Because my students are fabulous. They laugh at my corny jokes. They allow me to explain a concept to them until they understand it. They try so so hard to work out the homework problems and write good lab reports. They ask me for recommendation letters (me! writing a recommendation!). And they shout “Have a good weekend, Dr. P!” as I’m walking to my car.

I started this project for me, but I’m finishing it the best I can for them.


Rachel said...

Sarah, I'm so glad you're a professor! The education world needs more sweet people like you.