Three Things Students Need to Know about Faculty but Often Don't
By Steve Newman, Editor
1. While we all have something important to teach you and deserve your respect, we don’t all enjoy the same working conditions, and that bears importantly on your learning conditions.
Tenure is crucial to protecting academic freedom and faculty governance, and getting a tenure-track job and earning tenure are not easy. But while many students know something about tenure, many don’t know that most of their instructors are not eligible for it. Those on the teaching or instructional track at Temple – the great majority of whom have doctorates or other terminal degrees and many of whom are productive scholars and artists – are not eligible for tenure, come in at lower starting salaries, receive smaller raises, enjoy less job security and have less-robust benefits, though there has been some progress in recent years through the faculty union’s negotiations with the administration. Graduate students, who teach while they take classes, prepare for comprehensive exams and write dissertations, are paid a modest stipend by the university and do have some minimal health benefits, thanks in part to their having unionized a few years back. Adjuncts get no benefits at all and have to teach at more than one school – Temple pays only $3500-$3800 per course, and that’s more than many other places – or work another job to make ends meet.
There has been a pronounced shift at Temple and at other schools away from tenure-track hiring, a move that saves money and dilutes the power of the faculty by leaving fewer of us who feel we can speak out forcefully about the state of the university without fearing for our jobs. Perhaps these cost savings are the reason why Temple’s instructional budget has remained flat, since it allows Temple to purchase more instruction, as it were, at the same cost. But given soaring tuition costs, shouldn’t there be more money for instruction since teachers are crucial to the most important reason you’re here? The answer isn’t as simple as “administrative bloat” or “fancy dorm rooms” or “increased health costs for employees including faculty,” although they all play a role. It’s a complex question, one that students, faculty and administrators need to talk more about, and perhaps we’ll get the chance with the new budgetary model that is being instituted. Our discussion needs to be informed with a real sense of how the makeup of Temple’s teachers has been altered by recent hiring practices.
2. While teaching undergraduates is and should be crucially important to us, we do more than teach undergraduates.
This is true no matter our track or rank. Tenure-track faculty also typically teach graduate students —leading seminars, preparing students for exams, and guiding them in their theses and dissertations. If we head up a lab, it means that we are supervising large groups of people, including post-docs and lab techs. Faculty in the natural sciences and many in the social sciences usually spend a great deal of time pursuing the grants that make their research possible. But whatever field we’re in, tenure-track faculty are expected to do research and/or produce creative work. It’s something most of us love to do; and, as I have said, many of those not on the tenure-track, full-time and part-time, are also productive scholars and artists. But this work takes time: researching and writing the essay, designing the experiment, molding the sculpture, seeing an article or book through a torturous publication process, attending conferences, etc. Tenure-track faculty are also expected to serve on departmental, collegial and university committees and to serve our profession by chairing panels at conferences, reading manuscripts for journals and book publishers and doing committee work for our professional organizations. Faculty not on the tenure track also often take on this work. Graduate students are also busy taking graduate classes, preparing for exams, writing theses or dissertations and beginning to attend conferences and to submit work for publication. Adjuncts are likely spending a fair bit of time traveling from one campus to another.
Whatever our track or rank, pretty much all of us have lives outside the classroom. We have families to take care of. Many of us are busy helping our kids with their homework; others are tending to our elderly parents; some are doing both. We are members of civic, religious and political organizations. We even have hobbies!
None of this is to suggest that you do not deserve our attention or that you shouldn’t demand it. While Temple is a research university, it also has a primary mission to educate undergraduates. And, while education should never be reduced to fee-for-service, it is not a trivial fact that our salaries are largely paid by undergraduate tuition. I mean only to suggest that when you email us at midnight on a Sunday, we may not be able to get back to you as quickly as we’d both like. Or that if you as a question that we’ve answered explicitly and repeatedly in class, we may get a bit irritated because we want to make the time we devote to undergraduate teaching count as much as possible. Finally, I mention all this to give you a fuller sense of who we are as professionals and people. I think it’s a good idea for us to get to know each other better while respecting our right to privacy and the boundaries of a healthy student-teacher relationship. It makes for a richer educational experience for all of us.
3. Most of us do remember what it’s like to be students, though our memories may be a bit out of date; but while many of us sympathize with your situations, there have to be limits to that sympathy.
It’s true that many of us have not been students for decades. But that doesn’t mean that we have forgotten entirely what it’s like: laboring to master difficult concepts, to balance academic work and the jobs that pay your tuition and – for those of traditional college age – to make sense of what it means to be a young adult. But though many of us try to let this knowledge inform our teaching, there are limits to what it can do. We are obliged to maintain the academic standards of our classes, so however sympathetic we may be to your extracurricular demands, we must not let this soften the necessity for you to do the work that a class requires. Those of us who are doing our jobs well demand a lot from you not because we’re sadists or because we can’t imagine what it was like to be a student but because learning requires effort if it is to be what it should be: serious fun. Most Temple students I have the pleasure to teach know this; but some don’t, and I hope a reminder doesn’t hurt. •