The wonderful and the woes of the Professor Adjunct

First, let me say that I love teaching. I love talking to my students about my specialist topics and getting into discussions about the future of technology and getting them set for a career in academia. It is one of the best feelings in the world.

In some small way, I help to contribute to the future production of all my students and that gives my life a real impact on the world. I have helped people learn to program that have then gone on to work on new robots for CERN (to upgrade the Large Hadron Collider), I have helped researchers from a variety of fields such as library science, music, history, civil planning, and more. I even had a member of the Royal Society in one of my classes that had an entire Journal issue dedicated to him.

Unfortunately, I can’t survive on a part-time teacher’s salary. Since I withdrew from my research degree I am no longer eligible for a tenure track position (a fact that has been lamented by the Chair of my new dept). Fortunately for me, I have strong technical skills that are highly adaptable to many problem domains so I have a well paid day job that allows me the freedom to spend my spare time as a Professor Adjunct.

I am one of the few, though to be fair this is fairly common in my department.

So that is the great part, I get to teach as a hobby. Now for the problems.

I don’t know semester to semester what my schedule will be like, I am at the whims of the class scheduling staff and I am in competition with the other Professors and as the junior member, I am last in line. Normally since I have a day job this wouldn’t be too bad, but the benefits that I get as a 2 class teacher are better and much cheaper than the benefits options I have at my job. But I don’t know if I can rely on them.

When I was teaching at the IT dept at Oxford it was fairly well established that to set up a new class it would take 9 hours of prep time to 1 hour of lecture time. In my current job, I am paid for 8 hours work a week per class and 3-4 hours of that is just dedicated to giving the lectures. That leaves 4 hours a week for lecture generation, review, admin work, correspondence with my students, office hours, and marking papers/exams. There is no physical way that I can pack all of that into 4 hours of work. I donate a lot of time and energy to helping my students succeed, but if I was trying to do this as a living I would be in a very bad position trying to get this all sorted out while maintaining anything resembling a life or having time with my kids.

My pay is also less than half of what I earn at my day job.

This is the reality of the Professor Adjunct, I love my job but I am not given enough hours to do it properly.

I just won a teaching award!

I am pleased as can be this afternoon. I recieved an email that told me that I won an OxTALENT award http://blogs.it.ox.ac.uk/oxtalent/oxtalent-competition-2014/

I think this is for my Introduction to Python mini-MOOC. Last academic year I was approached by my teaching manager at the IT Learning Programme, http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/itlp/, who I was providing Perl teaching for, about starting a second programming course. We discussed which programming language to do and what format it would take and eventually we chose Python and an online, supported learning format using an online interactive course text.

I think my manager at ITLP put me forward for this award, but I have won it and I will be receiving it later this month.

I am so happy about it.

Teaching programming

I have spent the last week or so teaching the new set of PhD students how to program in C and Perl and it has been a lot of fun doing it.  Though I am lucky that I am dealing with post-grads that want to learn. I did get a bit of an ego boost this morning when the lecturer asked to use my report from last year as an example of what a good report is.

A reflection on teaching

Part of my course requirements are that I send time teaching, but thankfully there is help to get me up and running with some skills.

I have been asked to put together a 500 word reflective essay to get me started thinking about past experiences with teaching and I assume they mean as a student. But I do have some experience on the other side of the fence. During my undergraduate I spent some time as an algorithms tutor and I really enjoyed the experience. Also at many points in the past I have performed informal tutoring.

So what makes for a good teacher and a good learning environment?

Enthusiasm – I think that the absolute best thing to have in a teacher is enthusiasm. Even if they aren’t the most knowledgeable person in the field, if they can infect you with the an enthusiasm for the subject then that will propel you toward success. I can think of four teachers that have had this effect on me: my high school teacher teacher Ron Williamson, my high school choir teacher Katherine Fujikawa, my junior college Unix instructor Behrouz Forouzan, and my undergraduate algorithms instructor Muniyappa “Manju” Manjunathaiah. All four of these people have had a lasting effect on my life.

Connection – In addition to enthusiasm an instructor needs to be connected to the audience.  I have sat through many lectures of very knowledgeable people only to be bored to death trying to pay attention with an ever flagging attention span. But then there are instructors that connect to the audience and keep you engaged and enthused during the talk. This links to the previous attribute enthusiasm, if you don’t care about the subject then you aren’t going to care about the delivery.  One of the best techniques that I have heard of is to talk directly to different audience members during your lecture to actually connect to that section of the audience.

Knowledge – Knowledge is an important attribute in a teacher, but a teacher doesn’t need to be top of the field which is why I put this third. A teacher that can impart the basics of the subject and an enthusiasm to learn more and provide a better learning experience than a more knowledgeable expert that doesn’t connect tot he audience and impart a sense of wonder and curiosity.

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