September 23, 2013

“Hey, Miss:” How Not to Talk to your Instructors

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

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?


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How the instructor addresses the students sets the tone for the duration of class. Often time instructors who haven't achieved the level of academia as a professor don't gain the same respect as a professor. As teachers you're constantly teaching, whether its how to properly address you or your subject of study. During the student's transition in their levels of education is where you'll find their respect. Someone who is transitioning from high school to college you may find a student occasionally say "hey teacher" as oppose to professor. I believe it's because from kindergarten they were used to referring to their instructor as teacher. It's an adjustment for them to get used to.

I've fount that respect can be conveyed without the use of any titles. I encourage my students to call me by my first name. As one of my instructors once told me during my grad school years, "We've spent decades trying to achieve equality and to erode status differentials that are based on titles. Why, especially in sociology, would we want to insist upon being called 'professor' or doctor?" It has been my experience that many who are "hung up" on titles or insistent on being addressed as "Dr." are using their credential for arguably shallow reasons of status; if you know your stuff, can teach, and treat your students with respect, you will be respected in turn.

I completely agree with this article. Regardless of what teaches want to b acknowledged by they all deserve a higher pay. The fact they are teaching the future of this nation should be more reason for them to be paid more. Me personally, I wait until my professor tells the class what he/she wants to be addressed by before I speak to them. In my opinion it keeps the drama and any feelings being hurt because I pronounced a name wrong or called them something they aren't comfortable with.

I have to agree with the statement of the author, because even here in Quebec we see a rise of the cost of the tuition for university and less and less funding by the government to help the schools. Private institutes have obviously more money, because they have more fortunate donaters, more students coming from fortunate families etc. From there, we can notice how much more students go now into public institutions, then private ones because they can't afford the Ivy League schools even if they have the brain and the grades for it. Nowadays, students are mmore in debt then their parents were after university. Since that was said, it also impact the teachers. Since their is now less money inside the public system, their is big issues with permanent teachers. Most teachers that are now teaching do have all the expertise of their domain, but aren't treated the way they should be treated for the amount of work they but into guiding and teaching their students. Most teachers inside the public system are non-tenure track faculty member as the other of this post says. Which impacts a lot their work. They aren't pay well, they work way to much for the salary they get. I guess that those teachers are mostly there, because they can't find anywhere a permanent university level teaching job, bcause of the cuts into the educational system of their states or because they love teaching. Basically the people teaching right now in a lot of public universities in the states are not yet a doctor, which means that they are not yet profesors.
Those ''profesors'' have big issues with the authority they have in class, because they are technically too close in age to their students, which brings down weather they want it or not their credibility.

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