Investing in Our Students

In Philly Blog on September 24, 2014 at 8:00 am

Antony Gormley, Field for the British Isles, 1993


by Sam Allingham

Imagine you’re a college freshman at Temple University. You arrive on campus in late August, say goodbye to your parents, learn to tolerate your roommate, endure the rush of orientation, and before you can consider the astronomical amount of money you’ve spent on books, classes start. You discover that many, if not most, of your classes are taught in large lecture halls. The TA’s in your discussion sections are there to answer questions, but you get the sense that everyone is a little too busy to take much interest in you. You often have to remind people – your professors, your TA’s, even your advisor – of your name.

But one class is different: a required composition class. You weren’t looking forward to this class when you signed up for it, but the syllabus is all about the city of Philadelphia, which you’re interested in – it’s one of the reasons you came to Temple – and the professor, a woman named Hannah, seems excited about teaching. Hannah learns your name by the first week and goes out of her way to make class engaging. One day you form groups to dream up your ideal street. Another day you debate the purpose of public art: who should create it, where should it go, who should pay for it?

Halfway through the semester, you meet with Hannah during class time to discuss your writing. You’re nervous – you were never a very good writer in high school – but she’s patient, encouraging you to support and expand your ideas, outlining ways you can improve. You feel a bit jarred (so much to do!), but also relieved: Hannah’s on your side. As you turn to go, you ask her if she’d mind meeting with you in a week, after you’ve done some revisions.

You’re not sucking up. You just want to make sure you’re following her instructions correctly, because you want a good grade – but also because you feel like Hannah has taken an interest in you. Isn’t this what Temple promised in its brochures: real faculty-student interaction?

You’re surprised when Hannah winces. She explains to you that she’s an adjunct, and doesn’t really have the time to meet with you outside class, because she teaches at three different schools; when she isn’t at Temple, she says, she’s catching the subway or driving to another campus. She offers a compromise. She’ll meet you twenty minutes before class, and you can go over your essay then.

You don’t understand what an adjunct is, but it doesn’t seem to matter. When you next meet, Hannah is just as approachable as ever. She’s surprised and pleased with the effort you’re putting into her class. Frankly, you’re as surprised as she is – surprised at how nice it is to have a one-on-one meeting with your professor. Your first semester is exciting, but isolating, too. It’s nice not to feel like a number.

You meet with Hannah several times over the rest of the semester. You learn the name of her cat. She learns the name of your siblings. She compliments you on the way your writing is improving and lets you talk through your plans for the next semester. When the semester ends, Hannah tells you she appreciated your presence in class, and you make a mental note to send her an email when you get back from winter break, to see how her cat is doing.

But one thing leads to another, and when you get back from winter break you never find the time. You have five classes to worry about, and on top of that, halfway through the semester you realize you need to apply for summer internships. Your advisor sets you up with a handful of applications, each of which asks for a faculty recommendation.

Immediately you think of Hannah: didn’t she say that you were a real addition to class and that you worked extra hard? You’re sure she would write you a good recommendation – and, if you’re being honest, she’s the only teacher who really got to know you.

So you send Hannah an email. It’ll be great to see her again, and you have lots of questions about your next year – she always gives good advice. But Hannah doesn’t get back to you for several weeks, which is odd; last semester she was always quick in replying. Maybe she’s not checking her email. Maybe it’s changed. You go to the English department, and ask the secretary for Hannah’s office. She directs you to a board that still reads Fall 2013; you find Hannah’s name, and walk the two floors to her office.

But the person who greets you at the door to the tiny office isn’t Hannah, but a tired-looking man you don’t know.

You ask if Hannah’s in, and the man frowns. Haven’t seen her all semester, he tells you. I figure they got rid of her. Can I help you with something?

You shake your head, stammer something about emailing her later, and walk away. Got rid of her? What’s that supposed to mean?

You apply for the internships and get a high school teacher to write your recommendations. You aren’t accepted. You’ll never be sure if it was the letters that disqualified you, or something else – but you can’t help but blame Hannah a little bit. You still send her an email, from time to time, but eventually your emails bounce, and every time you see the error message it makes you feel bitter, confused, and, most of all, disappointed. How did the one professor you felt a strong connection with suddenly disappear? And if your professors are going to disappear without warning, why make a connection with them at all?


As a student, you’ll never know what happened to Hannah. Maybe she found a full-time teaching job at another school. Maybe she became fed up with the poor pay and left for a job in a different field. Or maybe Temple simply declined to re-hire her. To you, it makes no difference. All that matters is that the professor you made a connection with is gone.

I’ve taught now for three years at Temple University; one year as a graduate instructor, and two as an adjunct. I teach First-Year Writing, which means many of my students are like the student in our example. I can’t claim to be as good a teacher as Hannah, but every year I find myself establishing relationships with my students outside of the classroom. They come to my office hours, they send me emails, and they ask me for recommendations, which I’m happy to give, even though it adds more labor to what is already an onerous and poorly-compensated workload. I enjoy these interactions; they’re some of the best parts of being a professor.

I’m one of the lucky ones. So far I’ve been able to keep at least one class a semester at the university, which means I retain my office, my email address, and, most importantly, the line of communication with my students, past and present. But what happens to our students when the professors they connect to disappear without a trace? I’ve had colleagues who discover only weeks before a semester starts that their classes are cancelled, their ID’s invalidated, their offices transferred to someone else.

This sort of problem happens thousands of times, every semester, in the majority of colleges across the country that rely on adjunct labor.

Universities know that small, introductory seminars are vital to helping students make the transition into college. They know that the connections made between students and professors in these small seminars are often the closest bond a first-year student will make. But that doesn’t stop them from staffing these first-year courses with adjuncts like Hannah – instructors who make an average of three thousand dollars per course, who must work at several different universities just to make ends meet, who are only assured of employment on a semester by semester basis, and who can be terminated at any time without cause.

At a school like Temple, and others like it, where adjuncts teach over half of the classes, the issue is particularly painful. Why doesn’t the university invest in the student-faculty relationships touted in their brochures? Why do they leave students out in the cold, denying them one of the essential parts of a college experience?

When adjunct faculty try to explain the benefits of forming a union, we tend to focus on issues of economic security, or even simple fairness: it’s not right, we say, to deny the basic rights to professors who provide vital services, when the same rights are given to their colleagues. But it’s just as important for us to focus on the injustice perpetrated on our students.

Our teaching conditions are our students’ learning conditions. This motto extends beyond the classroom. Our students need to know that the teachers they’ve learned to trust will be there for longer than a semester: to serve as unofficial advisors, to write recommendation letters, or simply to provide personal support and a sympathetic ear in what is increasingly an impersonal, results-oriented system of university education. Imagine a student who goes through four years of college, only to find that every one of the instructors they enjoyed has left the university, or, worse still, been forced out. What kind of message does that send to our students? What does that give them, in exchange for crushing debt and four years’ worth of mental labor?

Professors are adults, they move on – but most students only pass through college once. Are we going to let their youth go to waste?

By refusing to invest in the connections between students and the adjunct faculty who teach them, universities rob their students of the personal relationships they need to succeed. When adjuncts fight to form a union, they’re fighting for more than fair pay and fair treatment; they’re fighting for the relationships they make with their students, the time necessary to maintain those relationships, and the security of knowing we’ll be around to make them last.