Let me explain: I am an adjuct at a large urban university. I got sick and was hospitalized for an entire week, then taught one class, then I had to take another week off to actually recover or else risk another stroke. Then my husband’s spine ruptured, requiring emergency surgery and another week’s hospitalization for him. I could not get a substitute for any of this, since my department is severely understaffed. THEN, my hard drive melted a day after having recorded and turned back graded papers, which meant that I’ve had to ask for all of those back. For half of these absences, I have posted alternative online sessions, but I understand that students still perceive those as absences.
As I see it, my students are still producing the end results I would want them to produce. I have been as flexible about attendance and due dates as they have been about my absences. I know my student evals will take a huge dip this semester for one particular class, but I’m not too worried about that at this stage. Next semester I am teaching online-only so that I have time to regain my mojo and not worry about this so much.
What I am thinking, though, is that I must be the only one on the face of this earth who has had a semester this disastrous. Even though other professors in my department have also been struck with a big wave of hospitalizations and serious problems, and I am far from the person with the most canceled classes, a part of me still thinks “maybe I should just quit if I can’t do the job.” I’m stuck in a mode where I’m not seeing the academic probation students who have become A-students in my class and others; I’m not seeing the students who decided to become history majors because of my class; I’m not seeing my near-perfect peer evaluations. All I’m seeing is this absentee record, regardless of the reasons, and beating myself up over it.
What advice do you have for people in my situation? Am I the only one, ever, who has had this problem? Am I as incompetent as I think I am?
Brenda in Birmingham
Good lord! I’ve never heard of such a run of bad luck! What a nightmare. I’m sure the end of the term can’t come fast enough for you.
I sense from your letter that you realize that your fears about your reputation as a teacher are irrational, as you note that you’re far from the only professor in your department to suffer illness and to need to cancel several classes. If your department doesn’t have the resources to hire people as temporary substitutes, that’s the choice of the Dean or other higher up administrators. You are not the only teacher in your department to be wrapped in human flesh, flesh that occasionally breaks down and needs medical care. Nor are you working for the only university in the nation that doesn’t make provisions for covering classes in case of a serious illness or family emergency. It’s a common theme in the academic workplace, which seems to be in complete denial about the fact that it employs people with human bodies rather than disembodied brains.
Because you are contingent faculty, I understand that your teaching evaluations count significantly more for your continued future employment than if you were tenured or even a non-tenured but tenure-track faculty. It seems to me that your department, which offered you no assistance while coping with your illness and that of your husband, can hardly view your teaching evaluations this semester without taking this into consideration. I hope you’re in a department that’s humane, if stretched to its limits.
I’ve never had a semester as disastrous as the one you describe for health-related absences. However, I’ve occasionally had a class that just doesn’t work: the students seem truculent or just resistant to whatever it is I’m trying to do, so I don’t have any fun, and it’s just a vicious cycle. In the two classes like that I’ve had in my career, I dreaded going to class. I remember praying for snow days. And that’s just not my style. But in both cases, I’ve had the experience of teaching the veterans of those classes again in other classes, much to my surprise, and when I’ve gotten to know them better, I’ve commented on what a bummer the earlier class was and how awful it must have been to be a student in that class. What I hear back from the student is, “What are you talking about? That was my favorite class that semester! It’s why I became a History major!”
So, the lesson I take from that is 1) that our perspectives on our classes is not necessarily the same as our students’ perspectives. That, and 2) give yourself a break, and try to rest up over Thanksgiving so you can finish with a bang in December, and 3) be thankful that we work on semesters or quarters. Even the crappiest class won’t last forever, and you’ll have a fresh start in January.
Readers, what are your experiences with semesters from hell? How have you recovered to find the joy of teaching once again? What other advice do you have for Brenda?