Clifford Humphrey taught English in China for a year before enrolling in Hillsdale’s graduate program. Tom Tacoma attended Hillsdale and received his master’s degree before returning as a graduate student. Now, both have experience teaching undergraduate politics courses at the college.
Teaching adjunctly is a common step toward becoming a full-time instructor, but Hillsdale College’s Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship only offers this experience to a select few, including Tacoma and Humphrey.
Humphrey just began his semester teaching U.S. Constitution, replacing Tacoma, who taught a section last fall.
Dean of the Van Andel School Ronald Pestritto says only certain graduate students qualify as potential candidates for adjunct teaching positions, and only once they’ve finished their graduate coursework.
“This is a teaching college, so we don’t expect our graduate students to do our teaching for us,” he said. “We don’t use our undergraduate classes as guinea pigs for our graduate students.”
Pestritto said the adjunct professorship is a privilege for students who have done well at Hillsdale, an approach that not only differentiates the Van Andel School from other programs, but turns some graduate students away.
Tacoma, a student all his life with a semester of an undergraduate teaching under his belt, said being a first-time teacher has its difficulties, but felt prepared thanks to his experiences as a student in the classroom.
“Having reflected on being in courses to take some of the observations I’d made under different teachers, different professors, and try to apply those in the classroom,” he said.
Tacoma points to developing a syllabus as the most fundamental task for cultivating a successful classroom atmosphere.
The Van Andel school prepares its students for potential teaching positions through a teacher-scholar apprenticeship program, which connects doctoral students in their third year to graduate faculty.
Students shadow the professors in class and learn everything from teaching a class and preparing a syllabus to writing exams and grading essays.
Tacoma graduated from Hillsdale with a bachelor’s degree in American studies in 2012. His undergraduate experience provided him the opportunity to observe his professors first-hand, even before apprenticing to a graduate professor.
“My expectations of what a Hillsdale College professor was, from my undergraduate years, were so high,” he said. “All the professors here are so good, and every class I took, I was impressed by the teaching ability and the level of knowledge that everyone brought to the classroom.”
Humphrey’s experience differed significantly. He taught Greek and Latin at a classical school in Florida for two years, taught online for one year, and taught English in the Chinese province of Hunan for a year. He says his experience overseas especially helped prepare him for teaching at Hillsdale.
“It was really eye-opening, especially for teaching,” he said. “It was extremely enlightening coming back from that, just realizing how distorted my perspective was when I went in. It was great.”
Humphrey also points to the detailed study in the graduate program as challenging yet beneficial to helping him prepare for teaching undergraduate courses.
“The challenging part for me is to go from the graduate level where we talk about a lot of the same things all the time at a deep, deep level,” he said. “I’m teaching freshman now where I’m always having to reign in, saying, ‘We don’t need to go down that hole,’ so I feel overly prepared to be able to teach the things that we’re discussing.”
Pestritto, who also teaches undergraduate politics courses, added that approaching an undergraduate class can be different because, for non-majors, he must spark their interest in the topic of study. For graduate students, interest in the program is already present.
Still, Pestritto says the chasm between upper-level undergraduate students and incoming graduate students is not as wide as it may seem.
“When you get some of the advanced undergraduates in our majors, often they may actually have more knowledge in terms of American politics or political philosophy than our entering graduate students,” he said. “Sometimes there’s a mistaken assumption by the undergraduates that they should be intimidated by these graduate students.”
Another uniting factor is Hillsdale’s ultimate mission. Pestritto described that what all of his students are learning is “desirable for its own sake”.
“We keep the career end of it in view,” Pestritto said. “But the threshold requirement is that you have to want this for its own sake, otherwise you don’t be happy here and you won’t learn very much.”
Tacoma is married, so his second experience at Hillsdale is different than his first. Humphrey is engaged and will be married this summer. Still, bBoth gush about the sense of community among the graduate student body.
Pestritto says his favorite part of the program is getting to work with students individually.
Both Tacoma and Humphrey have completed their coursework as graduate students and passed their comprehensive exams, meaning they’ve reached “All but dissertation” (“ABD”) status. The only thing standing in between them and a Ph.D. are their respective dissertations.
Tacoma will write his dissertation on Calvin Coolidge and constitutionalism in the early 20th century. Humphrey will cover John Taylor of Carolina and his understanding of federalism during the American founding.
Before Humphrey writes his dissertation, he has a semester of teaching U.S. Constitution ahead of him. After all, U.S. Constitution is part of the Hillsdale way.
“It’s an amazing way for us to give back to the school, because we’ve been given a lot through this program, and everybody has this experience where they’re extremely grateful for the opportunity to be at this school and to learn from these professors and to be in this community,” Humphrey said. “It’s a pretty rich experience.”