As an adjunct professor, I have a few guidelines for myself that aren’t in any university handbook. They include
- Never be the horror story professor students remember for the rest of their lives.
- Be the professor young me needed as an undergrad (even if I didn’t know it).
- Institutional/systematic change begins in the classroom.
The first one is probably slightly selfish on my part as I like being well-liked, but number one trickles down to the next two. While I know not every student is going to like my class or me, the goal is to teach them as best I can, support their learning, and have them leave my classroom knowing more or feeling better than when they went in. Will students sleep through my class or play on their phones the entire time? Absolutely. But in regards to my third guideline, I’m no longer calling those students out, and I’m doing my best to continually learn, grow, and create a less ableist classroom for my students.
I’m neurodivergent, but I’m [generally] the kind of neurodivergent teachers like. I hyperfocus, I’m type A with my classwork, I ask questions and participate if I’m comfortable, and I have been the kid who is “a pleasure to have in class.” My partner is also neurodivergent and spent his entire school career with unmedicated ADHD. No matter how hard he tried, he struggled to pay attention or take notes, he fell asleep in class (due to struggling to sleep), and his ability to memorize things despite trying to hours was abysmal. He couldn’t help it. I watched him struggle, and I watched professors get frustrated with him or treat him like a terrible student who didn’t want to be there, a student unworthy of college. This was hammered home by coming from poverty, being Latinx, and not fitting traditional masculine standards for someone AMAB. One of my favorite teachers (now a friend and mentor) helped him a lot in her class, and I never forgot how much he appreciated her help and compassion. She could see he was trying when others wrote him off.
When I graduated with my MFA and started adjunct teaching, I decided I wanted to be a professor like my friend/mentor. I wanted to be the professor students looked forward to like I did her classes. The problem is, it’s easy to fall into hard-ass mode. Students are human. They’re obnoxious, they push your buttons, they don’t pay attention, and it was easy to see them as just trying to make my life difficult by not doing what they’re supposed to do. I took it personally when they didn’t do their work, especially when I knew they were fully capable of doing the work and turning it in. It was an incredibly stupid way to look at it, and I didn’t see it until I was sitting at an adjunct meeting at the one university I worked at and heard the older adjuncts talk about their students. I hated how badly they talked about their students, how they automatically assumed they were all trying to pull a fast one on them, but especially how no one seemed to care about the ones who were trying.
There are two things that changed my attitude real quick: how they spoke about international/non-native English speaking students and how they spoke about neurodivergent students.
I had a class that was 75% international students, and to this day, they were one of my absolute favorite classes. I stopped knitpicking their grammar flubs. I corrected them, but I didn’t take points off or factor it into their grades. These eighteen year olds had been in the US for like two weeks and were expected to write essays in perfect English. It was an absurd standard, so I didn’t hold them to it. Toward the end of the semester, one of my students mentioned how they were glad they didn’t have to stress so much in my class because other professors were taking points off for every mistake. These bright, wonderful students I bantered with and were proud of were being penalized for not being native English speakers. Then and there, I decided I would never take off points for grammar or spelling. There’s a difference between careless typos and other language-isms if you’re willing to pay attention. Besides, big picture essay issues are far more useful to correct than knitpicky grammar checking.
When we began to suspect my partner had ADHD, I dove into research for how to better support him and myself. We’re a neurodivergent couple, so what works for us doesn’t work for neurotypical people. After doing more research on autism and ADHD, I started to notice that a lot of what other professors complained about like not paying attention, doodling, having earbuds in, etc. are often neurodivergent coping mechanisms. Often ND people are paying attention, but they aren’t performing listening or focus in a way that NT people recognize. When I was a college student, I spent a lot of my time with my head down, but because I was taking copious notes, my professors didn’t criticize me for it. My doodling partner got in trouble. While I couldn’t easily listen to background noise back when I was in school, nowadays, I probably would have headphones in. I stopped bothering students when I thought they weren’t paying attention or they appeared to be multitasking. At this point, I say to myself they are adults; if they are just f-ing around instead of doing something to help focus, that’s on them.
The pandemic and moving online made me reevaluate if the policies in my classes were ableist or cruel or absurd. As an undergrad, I dragged my half-dead corpse to class when I was ill because we were docked points if we were absent too much and professors wouldn’t provide notes if you missed class. In my junior or senior year, my grandma got brain cancer and died not long before finals. I was spending all my free time at the hospital and not missing class because I was afraid my professors would think I was making stuff up (the joke was that grandmothers died a lot during 8 AM classes). Thinking back on it, I hate that I had to worry my professors thought I was a liar and not that I was young adult going through shit I never asked for or could have foreseen. I didn’t want students to go through that in my classes. I’ve made it my policy that you can basically miss as much class as you need as long as you stay active in regards to doing your work (which feels like the basic consequence of your actions). If a student asks for an extension, I give it. If a student who was otherwise active in class disappears, I reach out to see if they’re okay. The demographic of students in college classes is changing. It isn’t mostly upper middle class white kids with no job apart from school. A lot of my students are taking care of their siblings, their children, their disabled relatives, or their working full-time jobs (or the equivalent of). On top of that, some of my students have chronic illnesses. I have my own inflammatory issues where I have flare ups, and I know how to feels to have anxiety that makes leaving the house feel impossible. My policy has become put your health and well-being first, and we’ll figure it out if you need to catch up.
The worst thing is that I feel like what I’m doing is the bare minimum. There are things I know I could do that would make my classes more accessible, but I haven’t had the time or spoons to do it yet (like recording all my classes again and posting them on Youtube or somewhere else). I can’t make universities more accessible on a whole to those who aren’t native English speaking, neurotypical, or those unaffected by illness. Academia is notoriously ableist, and while some universities are trying to be less racist, they are sorely behind in making academia accessible as the student body changes. My hope is that if enough of us start to enact policies that support our students, we will bring about structural change within academia that helps not only the students but professors who need those same accommodations but aren’t comfortable to ask.