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Don't Call Me That

February 6, 2013

Bring readings to class, either in hard copy or electronic format. Sign up for a blog account in order to contribute to online class discussions. Plagiarism will not be tolerated. Don’t call me “professor.”

These are some of the expectations laid out in Karen Gregory’s course syllabus for her Introduction to Labor Studies course at Queens College, City University of New York. Understandably, it’s that last detail in particular, embedded in an information section on adjunct instructors at CUNY, that can spark lively discussion.

And that’s exactly the point.

“Students have heard the word ‘adjunct’ but they can’t always define it,” Gregory, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology and CUNY system adjunct, said in an e-mail. “Students begin to realize the word ‘professor’ can refer to a number of different people in the university, but that the word can also cover up hiring practices, wages and labor relations. Since exposing those relations more broadly is the point of my class, the ‘professor’ conversation makes an ideal case study during the first week of the course.”

The syllabus section also includes details on how adjuncts are different from tenure-track faculty, such as the pay they receive for their non-classroom work.

“CUNY’s reliance on adjuncts impairs the conditions under which courses are taught and the quality of your education,” it reads. “Adjuncts are not regular members of the faculty; we are paid an hourly rate for time spent in the classroom. We are not paid to advise students, grade papers or prepare materials or lectures for class. We are paid one office hour per week for all of the classes we teach.”

And, of course, students shouldn’t call adjuncts professors, “[t]o ensure that we remain conscious of the adjunctification of CUNY…. We are hired as adjunct lecturers and it is important that you remember that. You deserve to be taught by properly compensated professors whose full attention is to teaching and scholarship.”

Although Gregory’s adapted it to fit her own needs, a template of the adjunct information section originally was drafted several years ago by the CUNY Adjunct Project, an organization of teaching assistants and other, non-tenure-track faculty members that advocates for better working conditions for the system's 10,500 adjuncts.

Alyson Spurgas, a CUNY Adjunct Project coordinator and Ph.D. candidate in sociology, said she and many other CUNY adjuncts have used some version of the section during teaching stints to educate undergraduate students about the different classes of instructors, in the hope that they’ll be part of an eventual solution to the adjunct question.

“It’s a very political group,” she said. “Some students are really interested in and become furious allies and comrades around these issues.”

CUNY adjuncts aren't alone in wanting better pay and working conditions, or considering the tactic of using the syllabus to educate. Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy organization, said she and other colleagues have included such language in their own syllabuses. But, beyond CUNY, Maisto said she’d never heard of a group doing so collectively. She applauded their efforts.

“I think the whole section in the syllabus is excellent and that it will do a lot to educate students about the faculty working conditions that directly affect student learning conditions,” she said. “My hat is off to our CUNY colleagues for doing this.”

However, Maisto said, there are potential drawbacks to the “don’t call me a professor” argument, even if it is “rhetorically arresting…. [I] think it could be misinterpreted by some as comment on the quality and qualifications of the adjuncts when the statement, and the strategy, are actually meant to call attention to working conditions. We need to challenge the stereotype of adjuncts being less qualified than tenure-track faculty.”

Spurgas said some CUNY adjuncts share Maisto's concerns and so have opted not to include the language on their syllabuses. Additionally, some department chairs observing adjunct instructors have questioned the professionalism of including such language in course documents, she said. But the purpose is not to demean adjunct faculty; rather it’s to highlight their working conditions and the lengths to which they frequently go -- often on their own time and using their own resources, such as holding additional office hours -- to prevent their status from affecting quality of instruction. Of course, there are times when this can’t be avoided, such as when students ask adjuncts for recommendations, which Spurgas said won’t hold weight like those of her tenure-track counterparts.

Gregory agreed. “I'm a good teacher,” she said. “I’m deeply passionate and committed to students, but frankly, there is more to the story here. Students need to find lasting connections and relationships with faculty, not relationships that are ‘contingent’ on how many sections of ‘Intro’ need to be taught.”

 

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