• Joey Lee

When does teaching pay off?

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When does teaching pay off? I've been thinking about this question a lot over the last couple years, especially in recent times. I am and have been an adjunct professor at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program and SVA's Design for Social Innovation Program; I've been fortunate to have the support of two wonderful institutions and the people the run them. I've made so many friends through these communities and feel lucky to be part of building educational experiences for people I think are truly talented. This is not a post about regret or disillusionment. Well it's a little bit about dissillusionment, but that trough is not so deep, so keep reading.

This post attempts to articulate some realizations I've been arriving at recently regarding what it means to be an adjunct professor. Many of these realizations are those that I've come to on my own but they are supported by friends and colleagues of mine who also seem to struggle with the same questions. I'm hoping this post can help me to remember some of these reflections later down the road and maybe help others who are grappling with the same thoughts—you're not alone!

A few notes on terminology:

  • I use "Adjunct", "Adjunct Professor", "Sessional instructor", or "Sessional" to indicate someone who teaches at a university, but is not on a tenure track or has tenure standing.
  • The "tenure track" refers to the process of attaining tenure. Tenure is the status you get as a Professor that makes is really really really hard for the university to fire you. Essentially when you get tenure it means you've got a permanent position. To do this, usually you need to publish some number of papers each year (for 3,4,5 years or more), you need to have good performance reviews in teaching and other aspects of your academic careers, pull in grants, etc. It's not trivial. The road to tenure can be excruciating and lead to a lot of toxic academic behavior like data and code hoarding and other nasty things. But it is a system that gives professors and academic stability in an otherwise unstable universe.

The precariousness of being an adjunct or sessional instructor

Teaching as an adjunct is precarious.

Teaching as an adjunct lacks stability. Contracts are from semester to semester. Basically every 3 months, you are figuring out whether or not your classes will run again. You are always wondering if you'll be paid—will the department schedule my class again next semester?—and what you will be paid for that teaching engagement—how much am I worth as a teacher? (this varies from department to department and institution).

Teaching as an adjunct provides no base work benefits. Unless you are teaching full-time — usually 3 classes a semester, you aren't provided any work benefits. No health care and no days off. Last I checked, I think I get 1 day of sick leave per semester? You can't survive teaching 1 class (especially in New York), that's most definitely true, so teaching anything less than full time means you need another hustle or set of side hustles. Teaching does afford you access to institutional backing—as long as you don't do anything the university doesn't like (e.g. doxing ICE Workers)—and access to shop equipment and expertise, but these things won't fix you if you get hit by car or if your kid is sick.

Teaching as an adjunct requires you to know where you get your value from. Your student reviews are equivalent to your performance reviews; how you are judged—your value as a contributing member of society (goddamn you John Stuart Mill and the Protestant work ethic!)— is pegged to how your students perceive you and your teaching. These evaluations can influence access to your subsequent teaching opportunities and also make you feel like garbage (or great if everyone loves you). I am not discounting student feedback at all and think student reviews are valuable, regardless of how tough their reviews may be. However, often times the lowest performers are the "loudest" in their criticisms and harshest in their feedback whereas the highest performers usually have few words besides "great class" or "thank you." As this is the case, adjunct life is tied very much to your student evaluations which can vary dramatically for the same content semester to semester. Is the "customer always right?" I'm not so sure.

Teaching as an adjunct requires more than just teaching labor. As a teacher — in any level — you take on a lot of student emotion — the excitement and curiosity and also the baggage, anxieties, and stresses. I had no idea how much I would be affected by my students — both good and bad — but the emotional labor is certainly real. Where do you draw the boundaries? How do you manage expectations? How do you be kind, but also critical? How do you wield your power? Is it ok to fail someone for being a poor performer when you know that they will lose their scholarships and maybe even their visa? No one tells you in adjunct professor school—ha! it doesn't exist!—how to navigate any of this so you end up just improvising. Should these improvisations determine someone's future? There's a lot of extra stuff that goes into teaching and I'm just not sure I'm paid enough to have to make these decisions.

Teaching as an adjunct requires inspiration. In order to teach, you also need to have something to teach—your own research, your own initiatives, your own ideas, software etc. Without your own thing or without having the time or capacity to develop that thing, it all feels a little bit like you're running on a treadmill—you're exerting yourself without going anywhere. But for this you need time! Time to develop these ideas and capacity to develop those ideas. The reality of my own experiences have revealed that beyond teaching, there's little time and capacity to make new work and to make the things that inspire that teaching. Maybe this balance is better achieved with time?

So despite the precariousness and the emotional labor then, why teach at all?

Why teach?

I started teaching graduate students in New York in January 2018 just after the big snow storm. For all of my New York friends, you have Aurelia Moser to thank. For all my German friends (from where I moved), you have her to blame. That's not all entirely true though, how could I turn down an offer to teach at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program?

Aside: I don't really think I understood what it meant to be an adjunct. Maybe this is why people were surprised when I said I'd moved from Germany to teach? Most adjuncts live near by or are long-time friends or alumni from the program. It is uncommon I guess for people to drop everything to teach as an adjunct and I think this post explains why.

It's 2020 now and I've taught nearly 100 students in topics ranging from personal data to mapping to web development. I can say that each semester has been rewarding — I've had the pleasure of teaching and learning from some excellent students — but incredibly challenging — teaching is hard!

From a personal point of view, I started teaching because I feel like I have something to say. I care a lot about geography and I care a lot about data and how it is collected, analyzed, and represented. Teaching is an opportunity to make sense of what you know, to make sense of something enough to package it up, and perform it live every week. It's a chance to share something you care deeply about and to pass it on to other people who care enough to listen to you and subsequently to spend hours of their time doing assignments and sharing their work with you and the class.

I teach because of hope. Honestly, if I didn't have hopes and dreams that my teaching could at least help my students to get a job, to be ethical in their work, to be considerate of others and the environment, then all of this would be a waste of time. And to be really honest, given the precariousness of teaching (mentioned above), these hopes and dreams sometimes are just not enough to justify the time and economic costs and emotional labor. But yet, there's always some hope in the form of an excellent student project, in the payoff of a former student landing a well-paying job, or in a nice thank you note.

My motivations for teaching were largely motivated by wanting to be part of NYU's ITP community; I've long been a fan of NYU's ITP program and the ethos of the department. Full-time faculty like Dan Shiffman were hugely influential in helping me learn to express myself with the right tools (e.g. code), to build things open source, and to be a kind person in an otherwise intimidating world of technology. I was excited by the opportunity to be able to teach in a place where other artists and technologists I look up to —e.g. Lauren McCarthy, Kyle MacDonald, and Taeyoon Choi— were also teaching and/or pursuing Residencies/Fellowships. Being part of the thing—the department and the ITP family at large— that has provided so much inspiration and support over the years is something that I feel has been the greatest thing about teaching and living in New York. (Also the ITP residents — shoutout to the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 cohorts for being so welcoming).

I teach because I could for a while. I came to New York after living in Europe having worked a stable, creative tech job with some (very) modest savings. I've used those savings, cobbled together freelance jobs, and stumbled into fellowships/residencies at ITP to fund my last two years of teaching. I frame it this way — "funding my years of teaching" — because honestly everything has been in service of teaching. You could say that I worked to teach or in other words, I worked so I could work. It has been a gift to myself to teach these past years, but I've become painfully aware of how unsustainable this arrangement is. And it is with this realization that I can better answer this question of "when does teaching pay off?"

Teaching as a long-term commitment

Teaching is a long-term commitment. To commit to something long-term, it means that some conditions must be met that provide for some kind of longevity. Here's a few reasons I've cobbled together on why teaching is a long-term endeavor.

It takes multiple iterations of a class before it starts to work.

By this I mean that it takes at least 2 to 3 versions of a class until you've rolled out the kinks, identified some patterns and trends in students, and worked out which lessons resonate the most, which assignments or concepts students enjoy or struggle with the most. When your students change all the time, it is necessary to run a class multiple times so you can see where you or your content needs work vs. the variability that your students can bring.

So, you need to have enough time to dedicate preparing materials (which is totally unpaid labor - AFAIK and have experienced, you only get paid for class time which doesn't even include office hours, marking assignments, email and communication, and all the other things you to do make sure your students are learning) and you need to be around long enough for all your effort preparing a class to pay off by running multiple iterations of that class - how can this be sustainable?

I kind of realized that it totally isn't, but there are ways in which I think teaching as an adjunct could be.

When is teaching sustainable?

Teaching can be sustainable if you have another job. I think the precariousness of teaching, the low pay to high time investment, and the long-term nature of teaching as a sessional instructor as mentioned above requires you to have another job outside of teaching. I was told once by a wise family member, "In America, we take a job for the benefits it provides first, then the income." In this case, this bit of wisdom resonates a lot. The job in this case would provide stability, health care, time off and vacation, sick leave, etc and maybe enough extra time to commit to passion projects outside of work — teaching in this case. Another friend and colleague of mine has said something like, "the university is my home base, my commercial work pays my bills, and my non-profit feeds my soul." Basically if I had to tell past Joey what to do I'd tell him, "Teach to feed your soul, but make sure you have a job to take care of the rest... and ideally your job can feed your soul too." People who I think are making this model work are people like Yining Shi who balances her time between working at RunwayML teaching and Cassie Tarakajian who balances her time between Cycling 74 and teaching. The major caveat here is that this really depends on having technical skills or other desired industry skills tht make it easier to have an industry job as a foundation.

Teaching can be sustainable if you're eligible for a tenure track, full-professorship, or full-time position at the university and you're working towards that eventual goal. This is something I think a lot about because I'm not eligible for any/most tenure track positions. I have a master's degree, but not a terminal degree (For Geography/atmospheric science, the PhD is the end). I'm not able to be a capital "P" Professor in the traditional sense because I haven't reached the "terminal" of my discipline. Sure, certain institutions and departments have exceptions, but they are, in the end, exceptions! Given my status, I can't apply to be a post-doc since I don't have a doctorate which means it is also harder to have a full-time, stable-ish academic position to do research and teach on top of that. All this to say, that my current qualifications situate me in a kind of academic purgatory in which I'm kind of stuck running in place. If I had to tell past Joey what to do regarding this point I'd tell him, "If you're not working a full-time job somewhere and you intend to make teaching or research a center part of your life and you don't have a terminal degree and/or a full-time academic position like a post-doc, start working on your terminal degree now." This last point is a tough one to admit because I have gained so much from being part of the ITP community by nature of being around and available, but after these years (and given the state of the world under pandemic, etc) I feel like I have to construct some mechanisms for stability whether they come from industry or academia. People who I think are making this model work are basically anyone who is trying to get a tenure track position and it isn't immediately clear if this model really pays off in the end. (I'm leaving out industry research jobs because industry motivated research rarely has the "blue sky"/knowledge for knowledge sake incentive. They do exist though!). A major caveat here is that the tenure process also isn't straightforward, transparent, or fair to any stretch of the imagination. The path is a tough one and especially hard for minorities, misrepresented and underrepresented people, and people coming from outside of the "elite" orgs and institutions.

It's still ok

Others are certainly better about putting together assemblages of freelance/teaching/other things to construct their lives, so by no means is what I'm I'm saying the end-all-be-all, but for me, I can say that this is what I've come to know and understand after these couple years.

My friend Sarah recently told me that in Norwegian the word to "teach" and to "learn" is the same word. I've certainly learned a lot about teaching and I hope this post communicates at least some of those things. I will end by saying that I think teaching one of the most meaningful things I've "spilled" myself into. Maybe one day I will become one of those capital "P" Professors and be better able to pour myself into it all.

This was written in April 2020.

Update notes

Updated: April 21, 2020.

  • updates "life support benefits" to "work benefits"
  • adds caveats to industry/teaching model and to tenure track.