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Since the original article on Billfold (http://thebillfold.com/2013/02/we-ask-that-you-do-not-call-us-professor/) seems to have struck a nerve with many of you and now that the comments on the Inside Higher Ed piece are rolling in, I thought I would post my entire interview with Colleen Flaherty here. Contrary to some of the opinions being expressed in the comments, I am not unqualified nor do I “feel lousy” about teaching. In fact, I feel quite the opposite. The “adjunct text” in my syllabus was included as a conscious pedagogical tactic to crack open a conversation that is all around us as academics and that is particularly pertinent to an Introduction to Labor studies course. Given the overwhelming response to the original story, I would say it has also worked to bring more people into this conversation. It’s been nice to meet many of you online over the last two days. Also, I just want to say that regardless of how you feel about the text being in my syllabus, the point here is that this isn’t only about you—it’s about a system of higher education that is faltering because it is being built on unsustainable labor practices. The text is an attempt to make those practices transparent.
Thanks everyone for reading and for sharing. I hope everyone has a good semester.
How many years into your program are you?
This is my ninth year in the Sociology Department at the CUNY Graduate Center. I am currently finishing my dissertation and plan to graduate this semester. One reason why I am in my ninth year is that I spent the early years of my PhD studies working full-time at a Domestic Violence Hotline and then teaching as a graduate fellow.
How many courses do you teach?
I currently teach one class at Queens College, the Introduction to Labor Studies course. I am very lucky to have an Instructional Technology Fellowships through the Macaulay Honors College. This fellowship pays my bills and provides health insurance. I took this labor class not because I needed money (I mean, it helps) but because I wanted to teach it and because it lines up with my research and my interests.
What kind of feedback, if any, have you gotten from students about the adjunct language in the syllabus… Is it something you go over with them? If not, do they comment on it anyway?
Students have been very responsive to the conversation that the text prompts. Students have heard the word “adjunct” but they can’t always define it. So, first off, the text helps us cover the basics of what an adjunct is and why we are teaching so many of their classes. I also show students the CUNY Equity Week visualization and the poster, along with the text, opens a conversation about the history of CUNY, the move from a free public university to charging tuition, and along with that the growth of “contingent” labor, i.e., “me,” the adjunct standing in front of you today. 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 goal of my class, the “professor” conversation makes an ideal case study during the first week of the course (we also read a chapter from Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works and the introduction to Stanley Aronowitz’s Last Good Job in America.) The conversation that we have about the restructuring of the university leads students into asking important and timely questions, such as: How did we all end up in college? Why am I in debt for this? What is my degree worth when I graduate? These are questions they ask eagerly and I see myself as helping them find the answers.
But, I will say that students tend to divide themselves into two camps— those who call me Karen and those who still call me “professor.” I never correct them. If they call me Professor, they do so because it’s important to them and I respect that. But, as I explain below having this conversation at all is deeply important to me.
How do you personally feel about having that stuff in the syllabus? Why is it important to have it in there?
Personally, I see this as my job. This is a labor class, and the text gives us entrée into issues of labor conditions, wage inequality, the role of the union (CUNY has the PSC) in contract negotiations, as well as the long history of the university being pressured by larger economic and political conditions. But, beyond this, I think the text is important because it allows us to talk about what we’re really doing in the classroom. Last semester, a student asked to speak with me about declaring a major, and he told me that he was in his fourth year and still had no plans to graduate and was unsure about requirements. So, we began to talk about the work he was doing in my class (a very interesting project about unionizing home health care workers) and how this work could lead him not only to a major, but to a thesis. Since I am on the job market this year (and do not know where I will be teaching next semester), it is essential that this smart student get connected to the larger resources of the college. I am always happy to write a recommendation letter, but the “connectedness” I mean goes beyond a letter. It means that students begin to see themselves in conversation with faculty and with a community of researchers and scholars. I feel like I need to be clear about my limited capacity as an adjunct to link to students not only to the “cultural capital” of the university, but more specifically to research projects, internships, and the kind of mentorship that be fostered when you take multiple classes with a faculty member. Beyond not having my own institutional support, I may not even be teaching at this college next semester.
To this end, I have created an non-graded informal assignment that asks students to read about faculty members, to research their potential majors and requirements, and to pick a faculty to introduce themselves to at some point in the semester (I ask them to read about faculty and truly find someone whose work you think is cool and who you might want to work.) I see the work they do in my class as helping them figure out what their own academic community looks like or could look like. I mean, I am a good teacher. 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. The student that I mentioned ended up declaring labor studies as his major and he’s moving forward now, project in hand, toward graduation.
Engaging students across these levels—of the history that shapes our present lives, of their academic interests, and of what we think is possible for the future— is my job. Contrary to the accusations that this text and the conversation it encourages “waters down” a student’s education, this little blurb actually creates the opportunity for students to take seriously their relationships with faculty. It gives them a chance to reflect not only on the economic and political conditions that shape their educational experience, but it gives them a sense of agency: Find the good faculty—- the full-timers and the part-timers, and know what those distinctions can mean. Talk in class, find your voice, ask faculty to see you. Then, make these relationships work for you because, apparently, the people at the top are happy to have you return each semester over and over again, without much direction or support. I find that egregious.