I Can Only Do So Much

Me standing at a podium with a book and marker in front of a whiteboard
September 10, 2020 stephhwilliams 0 Comments

In a continuing effort to stop censoring myself, I’m about to go on a rant of sorts. So, before I do that, I feel the need to offer a disclaimer and toot my own horn a bit.


I love teaching. I really do. I wouldn’t keep accepting course assignments each semester if I didn’t love doing it. I stopped being a lawyer because I didn’t love it. I’m an adjunct instructor, which means I’m a contract employee. Just as the institutions I teach for aren’t obligated to offer me courses to teach, I’m not obligated to accept them. Yet, every semester for over 10 years now, I’m contracted to teach, almost always at multiple institutions.

Adjuncts don’t make much more than peanuts either. I left what is traditionally a pretty high-paying field to teach. Clearly, I didn’t do it for the money. I spend a lot of time (a lot of unpaid time since I’m an adjunct) preparing course materials in advance of the semester. I also spend a lot of money (again, my own money since I’m an adjunct) to stay up-to-date on the best practices for teaching at my level/in my field. A couple of years ago, I went back to graduate school (on my own dime) even though I have a terminal degree (JD) to complete a graduate certificate in Online Writing Instruction (OWI); I finished that in May 2019. And, recently, I joined (again, on my own dime) the first cohort of the Global Society of Online Literacy Educators’ (GSOLE) Basic Online Literacy Instruction (OLI) Certificate. I mean, I love to learn and am a self-proclaimed nerd, but I’m also a self-proclaimed cheapskate and wouldn’t spend the money if I didn’t want to/think it was worth it.

What I do it for is for the “aha” moments with students, the times when I know they “get it,” the glimpses of growth and improvement. While I don’t do it for the accolades either, they are pure bonus. I get follow-up notes from students and requests for recommendation letters all the time. I’ve even gotten a few teaching awards based on student nominations.

Photo of certificate in frame. Certificate reads: The National Society of Leadership and Success presents this certificate in recognition that Stephanie Williams has exemplified the purpose of the Society through excellence in academic student development. In light of this accomplishment, the Excelllence in Teaching Award is hereby conferred by The National Society of Leadership and Success, Sigma Alpha Pi, effective this date of December 06, 2018. With signature and typed name Gary Tuerack, Chief Visionary and Founder
“Excellence in Teaching Award,” December 06, 2018
Certificate that reads: Distinguished Faculty Member of Year Student Service Award 2019-2020. This certificate is presented to Stephanie Haley Williams by Excelsior College in recognition of the joy, enthusiasm, and dedication demonstrated in service to students and for modeling excellence, honesty, integrity, and respect for differences. Signed by the Provost and Chief Academic Officer.
“Student Service Award 2019-2020”
Image of reprinted student comments which read: "An excellent teacher is hard to find and difficult to part with and impossible to forget! I did not come up with this quote, however, it captures how I feel about Professor Williams. She was very encouraging, fair, helpful, and made herself available for questions. She helped guide me. She gave me great mentoring advice on which course to take next. Students need great teachers like her that provide an excellent online education because we cannot get to the classroom. She was very understanding as far as the empathy she had for us knowing we have full-time jobs and responsibilities at home."
Comments from student’s nomination for Student Service Award 2019-2020

So, I think I’m a pretty good teacher who’s doing it for the right reasons. Just try to keep that in mind and refrain from judging me while I rant.


We’ve reached the point in the semester when I feel like a failure. This happens every semester around this point (roughly the third to fourth week) when students begin turning in the first written projects.

After spending the majority of the day both Monday and Tuesday reviewing what was supposed to be the “formal” drafts of my first-year students’ first project papers, I sort of snapped on them. I know that sounds harsh, but I don’t know a better way to describe it.

A few notes:

  1. I’m teaching at 3 institutions this semester and will not name which students I’m talking about because (a) privacy issues and (b) what made me snap is universal to students, generally speaking.
  2. At these 3 institutions, I’m teaching a combination of fully-online and partially-online classes; this rant is applicable regardless of course delivery.
  3. I know we’re in the middle of a pandemic, everything’s chaotic, and people need more grace and kindness; but we’re still here to learn.

You’ve got to read, darn-it

In the last couple of weeks (and even moreso in the last few days), I’ve responded to a number of emails responding to questions that were previously answered in course materials and/or previous announcements. In all of those responses, I’ve answered the questions AGAIN and directed students back to the materials/previous announcements. Just in the last two days, I’ve had to send multiple announcements about reading.

In one announcement, my subject line read, in all caps like this, READ THIS ENTIRE MESSAGE. In the opening paragraph of the message, I apologized for the all caps (because some interpret that as yelling; go figure, I was probably yelling as I typed it). I went on to explain that while the message was long, it had important information about their drafts in it and reminded them of the importance of READING EVERYTHING in a partially online class.

The next day, a student joined in my open Zoom hours (kudos to him for the initiative) to ask me what to do next on his draft. I asked if he had looked my comments on his draft, but he said he didn’t know where to see them. So, I asked if he’d read the announcement I’d sent out the day before, the one that instructed him to “READ THIS ENTIRE MESSAGE.” His response: “Oh, I saw that. That’s what that was about?” I counted to ten under my breath.

Now, we educators can talk all day long about TL;DR (“too long; didn’t read”; I’m sure someone will say the same of this post), but the truth is that any course with an online component is going to have a heavier literacy load. So we use best practices of blocking text and highlighting/bolding the most important parts, but ultimately the student HAS TO READ IT.

And, yes, some of these students don’t really want to be in classes that are fully online or have online components because they don’t learn as well in those environments. I get that; every student is different. But the reality is that, in a pandemic, these are the options we have. We all have to adapt and take ownership of our experience and learning.

You’ve got to take ownership of your work and be accountable for your learning

Every semester, I have at least a handful of students who swear that they just can’t proofread and edit their own writing. These students often believe that’s the teacher’s job, to point out their grammar mistakes. So, in an attempt to head-off this misconception, I begin all my classes with some key concepts.

First, I’m not a copy-editor. (Well, I do some freelance copy-editing, but I don’t tell them that). I’m a college English and writing teacher. I don’t “teach” grammar. Don’t get me wrong: I am a grammar nerd. But I don’t teach it. College-level writing should focus on higher-order concerns of content, substance, and style. I make sure students understand that good writing is about more than good grammar. However, poor grammar and mechanics can hinder the message a writer is attempting to convey; if the audience can’t follow what the text says, the message is lost and the purpose fails. Fortunately, for the writer (student or otherwise) who struggles with grammar, there are some great resources available. Indeed, many institutions pay for their students to have access to the premium version of Grammarly. Between resources like Grammarly and access to university writing centers (and even the reference guides in most writing textbooks, gasp!), there’s really no reason why a student should turn in work over-run with errors.

Second, college writing focuses on process (often a 6-stage non-linear process of invention/brainstorming, research/gathering information, planning/drafting, revision, editing, and reflection). This means, necessarily, that you don’t write a paper all at once, in one sitting, the night before it’s due, without ever looking at your words on the paper. I remind them that there’s no such thing as perfect first drafts and, therefore, even their drafts should go through a process before being turned in (I even reiterate that the process for the draft should include organization, Grammarly or similar resource, proofreading, and editing). But, without fail, I receive numerous drafts that read like stream-of-consciousness or are too hard to comprehend for lack of any punctuation!

But, still …

So, inevitably, after those first drafts of the semester, I’m reduced to a useless puddle of confusion slumped over my computer keyboard wondering where I went wrong. And then the next papers come in. And the next. And the ones after that. And somewhere in the abyss of the many will be the few who have the “aha” moments that keep me coming back every semester.

I’m clearly a glutton for punishment.

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