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Teaching While Me, Part I: On Being a Freelance Academic

“Teaching While Me” is modeled after Tricia’s excellentTeaching While Black” seriesI’ll be sharing my reflections on universities, teaching, and being a “freelance academic“.  This first post is inspired by my most recent teaching position: a required course on equity and education.

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I’ve arranged my academic life such that I get to do all the parts that I like (research, writing, teaching, but not any of the parts that I don’t like (writing and teaching under pressure; dealing with departmental b.s, and the pervasive Whiteness of higher education; having to live in a town where I’m not happy or comfortable just because that’s where I got hired; etc.).  It definitely makes time management a challenge, because I have to do all the parts I like while holding down a full-time, 9-5 job.  It also compromises my academic CV, because there are noticeable gaps in my teaching and publishing record.  Those “gaps”, however, are filled with lots of really awesome things that don’t “count” when you’re on the tenure track.  So, overall, this way of being an academic suits me.

This is especially true for my teaching.  When I do want to teach, I get to choose the “best” courses for me, in that they are always in alignment with my other interests, experiences, and passions (e.g. equity and social justice in education).  I also get to focus all my pedagogical energies on one course at a time, which is super-important for someone as introverted as I am.  This means I can be very responsive and available to students, even as I set clear boundaries around my availability. Not incidentally, these “best” courses for me are usually ones that students have also identified as being “best” for them.  This allows us to build a learning community based on some pretty fundamental commonalities and shared understandings.

In addition, since I’ve only ever taught “best” courses, this means that I don’t know how to teach in any other type of course, and that I’ve never had to endure the “trial by fire” of teaching reluctant, resistant, or downright belligerent students.  So, when faced with the prospect of teaching a required course, I was worried about my ability to handle the students who very clearly didn’t want to be there.  (Especially given the ways in which those of us who teach about equity – particularly if we’re also women, people of colour, queer, etc. – can be thrown under the bus not only by their students, but by the university itself).

Having no other guidelines but my own freelance experience, though, I just navigated through the course the only way I knew how. I unexpectedly had to build the syllabus from scratch, so I filled it with material that was close to hand:  educational research literature, and blog posts and essays I’d culled from my Twitter timeline.  The classroom discussions and activities were based on the qualitative research methods I’ve used in the field.  I literally stumbled across the primary text in a Google search because, about six weeks before the semester started, it occurred to me that I should probably have a textbook for this introductory, undergraduate class. (Who’d’a thunk it?)  So, all in all, I wasn’t expecting the class to go well. This is not to say that I was expecting it to go poorly, but I certainly didn’t think I would do as well as a “proper” (read:  full-time, tenure-track/tenured, highly experienced) professor might have.

It’s nice to be wrong.* 🙂

To be sure, I did make mistakes, and there were definitely some moments of tension during the course.  Ultimately, however, the class just “worked”.  I may never figure out all the reasons for that. One thing I’m realizing, though, is that freelance academics’ skill set and, more importantly, our mindset, has a lot to offer universities.  I’ll have (much) more to say about this in Part II.

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* But only sometimes!

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2 comments on “Teaching While Me, Part I: On Being a Freelance Academic

  1. Great post, Dominique. Love hearing about your experiences.

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