• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

Title

You Can Call Me a Teacher

It's the word for what I've been.

February 9, 2017
 
 

 

 

 

Alexander H. Bolyanatz, a professor of anthropology at the College of DuPage, doesn’t want his students to call him “teacher.”

His argument is not rooted in ego, a desire for his hard-earned status to be affirmed by the acolytes beneath him, but because he believes the term is inaccurate and may send mixed signals to students about the roles he and they inhabit in and out of the classroom.

I find some of his analogies a stretch, and his characterization of K-12 teachers as primarily or predominantly “disciplinarians” to be incorrect, but I agree with Prof. Bolyanatz that it’s important for students to understand the distinction between “teacher” and “professor” for their own well-being.

I argued as much nearly four years ago in these virtual pages when I recommended telling students about the kind of work faculty to do in addition to teaching so students can practice appropriate agency in relating to their “professors.” 

Very few students understand that there are distinctions to be made between assistants and associates and fulls and visitors and adjuncts.

Ask them what they think “tenure” means sometime.

Having taught at the college-level now for seventeen consecutive years – 20 years total if you count graduate school – I’ve often wrestled with what students should call me. Most default to professor, and while I don’t usually continuously correct them, at some point in the semester I try to remind them that this is not the case

To them, we are simply the people in the front, the ones in charge of their fates. On the first day of class I always inform students of my particular status and what that might mean to them because I think students are better served when they understand the full context of the systems in which they’re working.

I try not to make a fuss about it, but I tell the truth, that I am “adjunct,” that I have 20 years of experience teaching at the college level, that I am paid $2650 for the entire semester, that this works out to about $11/hour, that I make my living as a writer, which allows me to teach for this low wage.

I do not put forward any conclusions they should draw from these facts, but I can see some of them starting to connect some of the dots, which is as it should be.

This semester I’ve added additional context, that this will be my last semester teaching college.

I have said this to others privately, but here it is, publicly, shared at least in part to give myself a little extra incentive to hold true to my pledge. This year I have been teaching one course per semester of fiction writing, but next year the only thing available is first-year writing. Teaching fiction writing, I’ve been able to hold on to the idea that I was practicing the work in the original context of “adjunct,” someone of the community who isn’t in it for the money, who is available for filling a niche that would otherwise stay empty.

But first-year writing is no niche. Despite it being taught largely by contingent faculty at most institutions, it is the core of the department in terms of number of students served. I have said it is the most important course I’ve ever taught, and I cannot reconcile that with being paid $11/hour. My stance does nothing to change the status quo, but at least I will no longer be complicit.

So that’s it for me.

This being the end has me wondering what I have been, and also what I should have or could have been in order to find myself in a position where this is not the end, where there could’ve been a career for someone like me. I’m 46-years old. I probably have at least another 15, even 20 years of full-time teaching in me. In other ways, I also feel like I’m just getting started, that I’ve only recently discovered the approaches that work best for me in helping students learn.

But it’s over. I repeat it so I remember that it’s true.

This brings me back to what I am called, and what I should be called, what I should have been called. Last semester, for awhile I got a kick out of signing off my emails to students with “Adjunct Instructor Warner,” because it struck me as a little absurd. Forget teacher v. professor, what does “Adjunct Instructor” even mean?

Fairly quickly, though, I could see that I was causing my students some unnecessary cognitive dissonance. They wanted to follow my lead using the title in their greetings on emails, but the first time one of them tried using it in class… “Uh, Adjunct Instructor Warner?” We all cracked up a little.

So this semester it’s back to whatever, mostly professor, or “Mr.” which is fine. It doesn’t matter what students call me. I know what I am.

I’m a teacher.

For years, when people ask me what I do I’ve said “I teach college,” which they assume means “professor.”

But inside the academy, we all know this isn’t the case. Professor, as Prof. Bolyanatz writes, is someone different.

Many of the comments on his essay took exception, as professors from all different disciplines said they self-identify as “teacher,” which is heartening. I think many professors will tell you that the best part of being a professor is the teaching, that it’s what keeps them coming back year after year.

But they will also tell you about how their dedication to teaching has cost them, perhaps in advancement, in time stolen from the things that “count.” I wonder how we can reconcile the belief that teaching is so important with the way teaching is valued inside the institution, who does it, and under what circumstances, how it is rewarded. (Or not.)

My writing and my teaching have been in conflict for my entire career, something that would not have been true if I’d achieved the title of “professor,” rather than teacher.

I’ve been fortunate to be able to practice this calling for a good long run. And the good thing about being a teacher is that there’s lots of other places and contexts in which to do that work.

I hope to figure that out next.

 

 

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