Tips for New Instructors: The Attendance Poll Question

In all my years of teaching I tried out many, many different approaches to class discussion, writing assignments, reading lists–you name it. I firmly believe that instructors should embrace change and challenge themselves to revise their habits of teaching, particularly as the semesters become years. However, I also believe there can exist the rare tool that works every time. The reason I know this is that I found it. I even used it at the beginning of every class I ever taught: the attendance poll question.

I didn’t invent it, but like all instructors know, teaching is all about drinking from the endless well of collective wisdom and experience shared by every teacher who’s ever done something that’s worked in the classroom. In brief, the attendance poll question is a query that the instructor asks every student at the start of every class as she takes roll. These questions, as you can see from the list below, vary from the impersonal to (somewhat) personal. The value of these questions is twofold: 1) no matter what happens after the attendance poll Q&A, each student has shared something with their peers and instructors; 2) the students are reminded every class period that their instructor, while concerned and dedicated to the goals of educating them on the subject matter at hand, first and foremost recognizes them as people who hold particular tastes, interests, opinions, and ideas. Here’s a running list of questions that represent the efforts of myself and another veteran instructor (who just happens to live in my home).

Feel free to share this list widely and with reckless abandon.

1. Where does your name come from?
2. You’re on the train listening to your headphones. A few seats away from you, two people start arguing. Do you take off your headphones?
3. You get on an elevator with people you don’t know. What do you look at?
4. Walking down the sidewalk, you see someone twenty yards away. Do you say hello, give the little smile/nod, or do you avert your eyes?
5. Name something popular you don’t like.
6. You go to a restaurant, and your server brings you the wrong order. The food is fine, but it’s not really what you wanted. Do you complain?
7. You go to a movie and the picture is out of focus. Do you get up and find the manager, or do you wait for someone else to do it?
8. Your cell phone breaks. You can make calls or text, but not both. Which do you choose?
9. What word or phrase do you overuse?
10. Where do you come from?
11. What do you consider an overrated topic of conversation?
12. What was the last good movie you saw?
13. What was the last bad movie you saw?
14. Name a place you would like to visit.
15. What street did you grow up on?
16. To what would you change your name, if you had to change your name?
17. What was your favorite cartoon as a kid?
18. Where do you get your news?
19. What subject do you know the most about?
20. What was your childhood pet, and what was its name?
21. What is your favorite magazine?
22. Who is your favorite actor or actress?
23. What do you like (or not like) about where you live?
24. What attribute do you most admire in other people?
25. What attribute do you most dislike in other people?
26. Would you rather have a job that is fun or pays well?
27. Is the glass half empty or half full?
28. What are you looking forward to?
29. What is the last argument you got into?
30. What do you believe in?
31. What is your karaoke song?
32. What is your guilty pleasure?
33. What is something you like to eat that your friends think is gross?
34. If you had to go a year without soft drinks or a year without desserts, which would you choose?
35. What is your favorite sports team?
36. One to Ten: How much do you distrust the government?
37. Which is worse: hot or cold?
38. What’s your dream job?
39. Dogs? Cats? Both? Neither?
40. What is your favorite television show?
41. What celebrity do you most dislike?
42. Would you rather believe a lie and be happy, or know the truth and be sad?
43. What academic subject do you like the least?

Reflections on Charleston, White Supremacy, Misogyny

Photo from

Photo from

Last night, a white twenty-one-year old named Dylann Roof opened fire on worshipers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  The details of the incident are still in the process of being verified and released to the public, but we know this: nine people were murdered because they were Black. Sylvia Johnson, a cousin of victim Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was told by one of the survivors that Roof informed his victims: “I have to do it… You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

Dylann Roof, I have white skin but I am not your woman. It sickens me to my core than if I were in that church when you injured and murdered my African American brothers and sisters you might have decided to spare my life as a result of your viciously twisted view of who should live and who should die. You would not take me for a member of the human family to which the nine souls you killed also belong.

Dylann Roof, I hate that you said you killed for my sake. I hate that in your mind you are my protector. I hate the misogyny at the heart of your wretched white supremacist beliefs, for it is the same seed of hatred from which the poisonous roots of organized bigotry sprang forth.

Many people have and will and continue to refuse to acknowledge this shooting as a hate crime. They might say it’s the actions of a person who is mentally ill and attribute the evidence of Roof’s white supremacist views as nothing more than an expression of being “crazy.” Such a dismissal would be acceptable if such murders were the first of their kind—and nothing could be further from the truth.

I do not pray and I am not a Christian. But I offer my words as a way of witnessing that I do not stand and will never stand in solidarity with respect to my skin color insofar as the social privileges its affords are made possible by the suffering of others. The tragedy of Dylann Roof does not only belong to Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Rev. Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lee Lance, Cynthia Hurd, Daniel L. Simmons Sr., DePayne Middleton, Susie Jackson, and their loved ones. It is the tragedy of all of us who mourn, and especially of those who believe in the legitimacy of white supremacy, which is another way of saying the tragedy of believing that being white exists.

In times of such perennial violence, I often turn to the words of James Baldwin to hold me up. The following excerpt is taken from his 1984 essay, “On ‘Being White’ and Other Lies…”:

“America became white—the people who, as they claim, “settled” the country became white—because of the necessity of denying the Black presence, and justifying the Black subjugation. No community can be based on such a principle—or, in other words, no community can be established on so genocidal a lie. White men—from Norway, for example, where they were Norwegians—became white: by slaughtering the cattle, poisoning the wells, torching the houses, massacring Native Americans, raping Black women.

This moral erosion has made it quite impossible for those who think of themselves as white in this country to have any moral authority at all—privately, or publicly. The multitudinous bulk of them sit, stunned, before their TV sets, swallowing garbage that they know to be garbage, and—in a profound and unconscious effort to justify this torpor that disguises a profound and bitter panic pay a vast amount of attention to athletics: even though they know that the football player (the Son of the Republic, their sons!) is merely another aspect of the money-making scheme. They are either relieved or embittered by the presence of the Black boy on the team. I do not know if they remember how long and hard they fought to keep him off it. I know that they do not dare have any notion of the price Black people (mothers and fathers) paid and pay. They do not want to know the meaning, or face the shame, of what they compelled—out of what they took as the necessity of being white—Joe Louis or Jackie Robinson or Cassius Clay (aka Muhammad Ali) to pay I know that they, themselves, would not have liked to pay it.”

In sadness, hope, anger, but never despair.



Spotlight on Jobs for English Majors: If it’s not teaching, then what’s next?

My Back Pages (Grey), painting by Stanford Kay 2009

My Back Pages (Grey), painting by Stanford Kay 2009

The last two posts have focused on how to pursue teaching after you’ve obtained the M.A. For this post, I want to offer some insights on thinking about other possibilities for meaningful work that pays the bills. The most important thing to know is that the process of finding that work won’t begin and conclude in one sitting. It’s not unlike writing your thesis. You probably had days when the words were flowing, when you had clarity in your analysis, and when your advisor said “Great work! Keep going.” And then you probably had days when writing a single paragraph was agony, when your thoughts were muddy, when your advisor diplomatically said, “I’m not sure what you were trying to say here….”

The good news is that you can apply exactly the same toolbox to writing your thesis to finding work. Here’s how:

  • Research jobs based on your existing interests: When you picked the text or texts to write about for your thesis, you embraced your curiosity and desire to contribute something valuable; the same impulses will help narrow your search for work that engages you. What’s important to you? What makes you feel motivated to act? Here’s a tip: it doesn’t have to be explicitly related to English, literature, teaching, or anything that seems an obvious “fit” to an English major. Just observe your interests and see where they take you.
  • Stop researching and reflect on your findings: The internet is your friend until it’s your enemy. There comes a point when you must cease looking for information and turn your attention to the information you gathered in order to make sense of it. What kind of patterns have emerged in your research? What connections emerge?
  • Organize your findings: In the same way you created a record of your research for your thesis in the form of an annotated bibliography, organize your research based on the themes, topics, patterns, and connections you’ve observed. Don’t judge what you’ve found. Instead, let it unfold. Your tendencies toward criticism are useful, but sometimes you need to set them aside to see the bigger picture.
  • Share your findings with someone who’s smarter than you and get feedback: When I say “smarter than you” I’m not talking about IQ or degrees. I’m talking about someone who has a job that you admire and who’s achieved what you seek: finding meaningful work. This person (or people!) has perspective that will help you to see what’s working in your approach and what you can further do to get where you want to go.

I hope this helps! Remember to be patient with the process AND to celebrate your successes at every step.




Spotlight on Jobs for English Majors: Getting the Interview


Literal Landscape, 2011 Stanford Kay

Literal Landscape, 2011
Stanford Kay

Picture this: you’ve applied for a teaching job, you’ve sent emails to follow up, and still haven’t been invited for an interview. What’s a person to do? Here are some thoughts on best practices for getting your timing right for receiving that coveted call to show up in the flesh:

Keep in mind the cycle of academic year when you contact employers. As a student, you remember what’s it’s like to be busy at certain peak times in the semesters. When departments staff courses they  abide the same cycle you did as a student.  Here’s example of what the staffing timeline looks like for the Fall and Spring semesters:

Fall: first round of staffing decisions are made March-April before classes start in late August/September; second round is made in June-July.

Spring: first round of staffing decisions are made October-November before classes start in mid-January; second round is made in December. Staffing in the Spring is usually slim pickings, though, so you’re more likely to get a teaching job starting in the Fall.

Make sure to email the person who does the hiring. If you apply through a job posting then it’s likely your materials will go to the Human Resources department, who then forwards them to the person doing the hiring. This can take a while and it’s possible your materials will get lost in the shuffle. What’s more, the HR person isn’t often likely to feel the same kind of urgency to follow up with applicants because he or she is not a member of the academic department where you will be working.  It’s always better to directly write the department chair and/or director of writing. These email addresses can be hard to track down because college and university websites are designed for the audiences of prospective students, not job seekers. You will want to search for the academic departments and look at faculty and staff titles to determine who’s the department chair and who’s directing the writing program.

Don’t take it personally if you get ignored. The truth is that employers, who are often overextended department chairs and writing program directors, often have a long list of responsibilities and hiring new instructors is one of their many jobs.  Many departments do not have protocol in place to contact applicants just to acknowledge that an application was received. It can take weeks or months for them to write people back.  What’s more, job postings are sometimes out-of-date or even perfunctory. In other words, the department has a candidate on the inside (i.e., someone moving up through the ranks or someone in the network of existing employees) who is slated take on the position. Why even post the job opening, you ask? Legally they have to do so. This happens a lot, especially in academia.

“Ok,” you say.  “What about when you do all of the above and still get nothing?”  Then it’s time to try something new. We’ll talk about that in the next post.



Spotlight on Jobs for English Majors: Moving from Adjunct to Full-Time

Painting by

Red Bound, painting by Stanford Kay, 2006  

This post is the first in a series I’m writing for former students and recent grads from where I used to teach who want some concrete answers to real questions about the many, many career paths for people who’ve studied English and other humanities fields. My answers for them are borne of both my knowledge and experience from ten years in higher education and my deep reflection on what I’ve observed and learned as someone who coaches people in stages of career transition. I left full-time academic work two years ago to become a full-time dilettante and remain connected to higher education through my clients and my work in course development, design, and online writing instruction.

Question: How does one get a full-time position as a composition instructor at a community college?

Answer: There are a number of paths to full-time work, and the one I’ll focus on today is how to move from adjunct to full-time. I would be remiss if I didn’t address the barriers to this work, so be sure to keep reading.

What helps get there: All community colleges will hire adjunct instructors with an M.A. in English; when it comes to full-time positions this is not always the case because a terminal degree like an MFA or Ph.D is required (this varies from school to school). Many people will start out as an adjunct and eventually qualify for full-time instructorships when these positions become available.  It is a good idea to ask the department chair and director of composition (aka, academic writing or first-year writing) about possible paths to full-time positions. You can learn a lot from what they tell you and what they don’t tell you. For instance, if they say “hmm, I don’t think that’s happened in twenty years,” that should give you some indication of the likelihood that a position might not be available any time soon. If they say, “I’m not sure, but I think so-and-so started as adjunct and became full-time…” then you should go ask so-and-so how s/he got the job.

What you can do to get there: The people who win these jobs almost always have one thing in common: they make themselves valuable to the department beyond teaching their courses. This might include tutoring in the campus writing center and will certainly entail building relationships with other colleagues, especially the director of composition and the department chair.  You will want to prove yourself as a top-notch instructor by way of observations and student evaluations, but you also want to demonstrate a commitment to the philosophy of teaching composition within the department; different programs teach academic writing in vastly different ways and according to different theoretical assumptions, so it’s necessary to learn the practices that are specific to your particular program. Being a potential candidate for full-time work will also entail a continued commitment to one’s own professional development, particularly professional development that complements the department’s needs and vision. For instance: if you are an adjunct who is interested in receiving ESL certification, you can approach the director of comp. on the possibility of offering fellow colleagues a workshop on this topic. Doing this kind of work demonstrates a commitment to the department, and boosts the credibility of a candidate who wants to advance to full-time work. Another way to demonstrate your commitment to professional development is to enroll in a PhD program while you work as an adjunct. Once again, you would position yourself to be an attractive candidate if your research agenda complements the needs and vision of the department (and even the college’s strategic plan, which you can always find on every college’s website).

Barriers to full-time work:

Internal: It’s always vital to remember that academic departments are run by human beings with particular tendencies that are both productive and harmful.  This means that it is always a possibility that no matter how hard you work nor how much evidence you have to support that you would be an asset as a full-time instructor (particularly in comparison to others that might appear quite mediocre in contrast) a department chair or composition director will not create a path for the job you seek. This does not mean there is something wrong with you or that’s there’s something wrong with the powers that be; rather, it just means you and the department are not a good fit. It is tremendously useful to realize when it is time to move on from a place where you are not appropriately recognized for the work you do.

External: Community colleges depend on state budgets, which are often managed by people who do not see the particular and valuable contributions of adjuncts. The unfortunate truth is that the university is a rigid hierarchy wherein there often exists an antagonistic relationship between the administration and faculty, and adjuncts occupy a vulnerable position in that they do not have a platform from which to advocate for themselves (this is especially true of schools that do not have a faculty union).  Thus, if a dept. chair or comp. director is told they can only hire x number of part-time or full-time instructors, their hands are tied.

I hope that helps! Feel free to leave a comment or question below. The next post will focus on getting your foot the door to interview. Thanks for reading!