“Hey, Miss:” How Not to Talk to your Instructors
Whether you’re at a massive research university or a small, private liberal arts college, there are good odds that you’ll come across a non-tenure track faculty member. That person may or may not be a Doctor or a Professor, which can create a little discomfort for you: How do you address your instructors? The easy answer is to ask, and always to be respectful. But before we get to the interactional level, I wanted to spend a few moments on the bigger, structural issues in education today.
Few undergrads really understand the behind the scenes gears that put an instructor in front of classes.
According to the American Association of University Professors’ Annual report, there has been a 40-year trend of declining full-time, tenure-track faculty and a sharp increase in part time, adjunct faculty. These contingent, or non-tenure track positions are almost 70 percent of all higher education faculty appointments in U.S. (Here’s a breakdown of faculty ranks in the U.S.) How did it get this way?
One reason, particularly in public schools, is that there is less funding to pay faculty, and it is cheaper to pay part-time, non-tenure track faculty. My state, Massachusetts, has seen one of the largest drops in state and local education funds per-student: a 30% decline over the last five years. (Only two states increased education funding.) That means that there’s less money to pay for instruction, and more money needed from rising tuition costs.
While the eastern side of my state has its world-class private institutions, this defunding of higher education greatly impacts my academic home: The University of Massachusetts – Amherst. We have 22,000 undergrads and only 1,170 full-time faculty. That means that we need graduate students and contingent faculty to teach our classes. As the AAUP data indicates, non-tenure track jobs and graduate student instructors are becoming the norm.
What does this matter for you? Well, these teachers often teach more, get paid far less, work on conducting research and publishing, and are constantly preoccupied with looking for another (hopefully more stable) job. A smaller fraction of their time can be spent on in-class instruction and out-of-class grading and preparation, but it also squeezes out all of the extra stuff that makes a good teacher: mentoring, advising, writing recommendation letters, etc. Would it surprise you to know that your instructor might even, as the Chronicle of Higher Education points out, be on welfare?(For a mind-blowingly tragic tale, please read “Death of an Adjunct.”)
I should know. I was one of these instructors, too. For six years I worked as a non-tenure track faculty member, which meant that I taught a ton, still conducted research and published articles, and sent out lots and lots of job applications. I always tried to explain to my students: “I have a Ph.D, but I want you to know that the education system at this college/university is such that we need to have temporary non-tenure track faculty... Here’s what this means… You should know what you (or your parents) are paying for…” It was always an awkward conversation.
At my alma mater, the City University of New York, an former classmate of mine named Karen Gregory caused a stir by importing some text from The Adjunct Project into her syllabus that reads, in part: “CUNY’s reliance on adjuncts impairs the conditions under which courses are taught and the quality of your education.” “Adjuncts,” it continued, “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.”
She notes that, “CUNY presently employs 6,541 full-time faculty, counselors, and librarians. Despite record breaking enrollment, that is 4,512 fewer of such positions that it provided in 1972.” (More here and here, from Karen’s blog. And also check out The New Faculty Majority.)
Karen’s comments should get you to think about how these changes affect your education. And it brings us to the micro-, or interactional-level: What should you call your instructors who are not yet a Doctor or aren’t a Professor? A careful student should be respectful of instructors’ authority and levels of expertise, regardless of their rank.
Now that I am on the other side, as a new tenure track professor, I am in the curious position of mentoring graduate student teachers with these conditions still fresh in my mind. This week I had an advising meeting with one of my grad student mentees. She is a Latina, and close to the age of the students. She talked about how she tries to dress ”older” to create some barriers between her and her students, and she mentioned that some male students address her in clearly inappropriate ways.
While adjunct and part-time faculty are slightly more likely to be men than women, gender and race add wrinkles to these dynamics. Students, for example, sometimes slip into what they might even think is a term of respect, referring to a young professor as “Miss.” This is, assuredly, not the correct way to address your instructor. For many of my teaching friends, this kind of salutation would make them feel they are teaching elementary school students.
So, as we move into an era where there are fewer tenure-track professors and more lecturers, visiting assistant professors, and graduate student teachers, the social structure shapes your learning environment in interesting ways, doesn’t it?