Is it OK to teach grown-ups?


Question (from “Daisy”): After a tough swim through sharks, I finally got tenure at “Jekyll Community College.” I’ve now been offered another opportunity — or at least I think it’s one. The college’s Golden Adult Enrichment Program has invited me to teach a course in my specialty, modern American history, for students over 50. The program’s letter was so full of praise that for awhile I thought my mother wrote it.I’m a very good teacher of traditional-age college students, but am I — at 35 — too young to teach a room full of adults over 50? And will teaching in the noncredit Golden Program mean I’ll be giving up my chances ever to find a job at a research-oriented university?

Answer: First, Ms. Mentor cheers and whoops. In our barbarous times, talented teachers are so rarely lauded and wooed. What a splendid moment.

And now it’s your chance to be selfish. What will the Golden Program do for you?

You’re obviously a classroom star at Jekyll, and the good word has gotten around town (“Psst! Take Daisy’s courses!”). Now that you have tenure, it’s the moment to ask existential questions — like “What is the meaning of life?” and “What do I hate?”

Most newly tenured faculty members are exhausted. They’re like successful job seekers, who want to rejoice but are often overwhelmed with post-victory depression and survivor’s guilt. Academe is supposed to be about the lofty life of the mind, but most academicians also have big, burbling emotions. (You’re supposed to pretend they don’t exist.) So in between taking long naps (you’ve earned them), let your psyche tote up all of the things you’ve learned that you didn’t know a few years ago, when you got on the tenure track.

For instance, you know much more about teaching now. You know how to create a syllabus to cover assignments, contingencies, late papers, and plagiarism. You know about having a hook — an opening gambit that starts the class. You know how to organize lecture notes and slides. You know how to grade tests and papers fast, and how to structure questions that are gradable. You’ve learned to establish authority in class and to speak loudly enough to reach the last row. You know how to encourage the eager puppies and how to cajole the unmotivated who want only to text or sleep.

Evidently you project warmth — the major quality students look for when evaluating women as teachers (see RateMyProfessors, which will probably depress you). And you know much, much more about modern American history than you ever knew in grad school, because you’ve had to teach it to people who often, well, couldn’t care less.

A lot of that will change in the Golden Program, should you decide to take that mission.

You won’t have students with youthful energy, twitching and trying to divert you from noticing that they’re not quite prepared for class. Adult students are, well, more adult. Now they want to learn bigger stuff.

Ms. Mentor finds that adult-enrichment programs are blooming all over the country, as the last baby boomers turn 50. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes for “seasoned adults” are flourishing on 119 campuses, with waiting lists. People who hated general-education courses now flock to learn about climate science, abnormal psychology, or civics (“How can we get those rascals out of office?”)

The pace in your Golden classroom will be less intense. Courses are typically shorter, often meeting two hours a week for eight weeks. There are no credits or grades involved. There can be readings or not. Usually the courses are a mix of lecture and discussion. No one takes exams. No one writes papers. No one ever asks, “Will this be on the test?” or “Why did I get a B? I worked so hard.”

Instead you’ll have students who’ve chosen your subject — and once they get to know you, you’ll have a following. You can teach “The Civil Rights Movement” or “1968” to students who’ll be able to contribute their memories. They may know things you don’t yet know about Vietnam — and Motown, Woodstock, and the March on Washington. They’ll remember who was on which side in the sexual revolution.

They may weep. They may roar. You may do both. Teaching is a unique art form in which you always learn from your audiences.

But what will it do for you professionally? You’ve been socialized, as all young academics are, to strive to be No. 1. Ms. Mentor still shudders a century after her own dark night of the soul in graduate school — a place where students sabotaged one another, jockeyed for prestige, and hungered for the Great Man’s faint praise.

Today academic fledglings still obsess over “Who am I going to impress?” They carry that into their first jobs. Everything they do is being judged, they think. The political currents are mysterious. Sometimes there are shark attacks from senior tormentors — and sometimes there are moments of charity, clarity, and mentoring.

All that conflict disappears when you teach a course or two in an adult-enrichment program. There’s not much money, little power, and no need to please anyone except the students. You can relax, be funny, and tell those crude jokes about Calvin Coolidge.

But adult teaching won’t help you publish, if that’s what you crave. If you are too busy in the classroom, you may have little time or incentive to revisit your dissertation and try to make it smoother and fill in the blanks. You can still revise what you have, but unless it has a wide popular audience (like the works of Doris Kearns Goodwin or Stephen Ambrose), you may not find a publisher.

Adult teaching also won’t help you get a research-university job. (Those barely exist, anyway.) But “Byron,” who taught adult-enrichment courses while he was finishing his Ph.D., found a job directing a new adult-ed program at Very Prestigious Research University. He’s in an academic environment, has scholarly colleagues, and gets to use a great library. “Brain heaven,” he calls it. “Without the tenure track.”

Adult-enrichment teaching will improve your spirits. “Leo,” who now teaches such courses in philosophy and ethics, used to complain that his young students didn’t believe in ethics. Everything was rigged, they were convinced. Everyone cheated, lied, plagiarized, and had no conscience. Once when Leo bellowed, “Juvenile nihilism is so tiresome!,” a student looked up from his cellphone and said, “What is Nile-ism?”

But Leo’s adult students know all about ethics. They’ve lived long enough to see skullduggery and chicanery, karma and compassion. They can describe ethical heaven and hell — the school board, the department of motor vehicles. Their stories can be heartbreaking or hilarious. They know how to apply Machiavelli.

Leo calls his low-paid gig teaching the over-50 crowd his “real job.” His regular college teaching is his “day job,” the salary that supports the work that he loves.

Ms. Mentor can’t guarantee that Daisy will love adult teaching. Ms. Mentor can’t hurry love. But she can encourage Daisy, at 35, to appreciate her elders and learn not to make patronizing comments (“so spry,” “not bad-looking for her age”). Daisy can get a sneak preview of her own mature adulthood. She’ll be known for her intellect, her cleverness, and her unquenchable curiosity.

It’s never too early to begin.

Question: I’m starting a visiting-faculty job in a new town this fall. I don’t want to make enemies and get thrown out on my ear. Should I be canny about my political leanings until I find out who’s safe to talk with? Or is it OK to be totally transparent?

Answer: Canny.

Sage readers: Ms. Mentor has heard of only one academic fistfight over the presidential elections. But there will be more. Facebook is already exploding with derision, division, and great wit.

Ms. Mentor invites readers’ suggestions about how to keep one’s cool during these turbulent times. How do you work amiably — or at all — with people who are just plain wrong? How do you deal with being surrounded by oafs?

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes queries, rants, and gossip. She regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily, and she recommends regular perusal of The Chronicle’s forums. She cannot give legal or psychiatric advice. All communications are confidential, details are masked, and anonymity is guaranteed. If you’re thinking about slinking out to teach some extra courses at a fun place down the road, Ms. Mentor won’t tell. (c)

Author Bio: Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge.