Monday, January 28, 2013
State of Mind: On the Importance of NTTF
A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the absolute importance of introductory classes. I have taught introductory classes in composition, creative writing, and literature over the course of my entire career--on purpose--and I have worked with special learning communities comprised of first-generation college students. I do not view the teaching of undergraduates as a stepping stone to teaching in a graduate program, nor do I view this work as "paying my dues." Sometimes my work has been as a graduate student; sometimes my work has been as a non-tenure track faculty (NTTF) member. Given this experience, I feel as strongly about the work that graduate students do as I do about NTTF, both full-time (as I was) and adjuncts.
I was a full-time instructor of composition at Bowling Green State University for seven years (2003-2010), teaching a 4/4 load of required composition classes to first-year students. Our department saw 4,000 students every semester across our three classes (1100, 1110, and 1120); we are often the first teachers that students meet--and often we are the only teachers who know them and know their names, despite each of us having 90+ students every single semester. The importance of introductory classes--and small introductory classes--and the faculty who teach them is incalculable. It goes beyond teaching students about college writing, or how to do MLA citations, or how to research. The faculty who teach those classes (especially writing classes, where personal experience and expression are foundational) become the ones to teach first-year students how to be college students, how to cope with being away from home for the first time, we help them deal with roommate issues, financial issues, deaths of loved ones. It isn't by design that this happens (none of us have any formal training in those sorts of counseling needs), but simply by being the teacher who knows them, knows their names, and cares about them and their writing, this is the role we are asked to play--in addition to our jobs as teachers.
I still remember the moment when I realized that being a teacher of first-year students was absolutely integral to my work as a teacher, to my work as a writer, to my work as a human being: M. was a student in my 1120 class (the research paper class, the second of the required courses in the sequence), a football player from inner city Cleveland, smart, articulate, kind. There were five or six football players in my class that semester. M. was good, but his writing wasn't yet living up to its potential. And then he started missing classes--he came back to class before he had accrued enough absences to fail, but he looked terrible. Something was not just wrong, but incredibly wrong. One of his friends told me that he'd lost his NCAA eligibility (didn't say how) and that he'd lost his football scholarship. I asked M. to come to my office and when he did, I told him how truly excellent his writing was, his ideas, how much potential I saw in him. I will never forget the look on his face when he finally pulled his gaze up from the floor: he didn't believe me. I knew he didn't believe me. I told him that there was more to him than football, that he was an incredibly talented writer, that maybe he should consider an English major. Still he said nothing. When he did speak, he said, "Nobody ever told me that before." His entire life, he said, nobody had ever told him Go read a book, Get A's. It was always Go throw a ball around. His entire life, he'd been taught that his only value as a human being was as a football player. And who was he now, now that he wasn't a football player anymore? And all I could think was Good God, I'm the first teacher--the first person-- to tell him that there was more to him than that? M. stayed in my class, passed with flying colors. I left BG soon after that, so I don't know what happened to him, but his story is just one of many I could tell. Everybody I know who teaches first-year students is full of stories like this.
The way that composition is set up at BG is unique: General Studies Writing is its own department, separate from the English department, and comprised entirely of NTTF on full-time contracts. Most of us were on 3-year contracts; some were on 1-year. The director of the program had worked tirelessly in the years before I got there to shift the part-time adjunct faculty to full-time status, to move the 5-year non-renewable contracts to 3-year renewable contracts, among other moves that added to the strength of the department as a whole. The department of GSW became a place where a majority of the instructors chose to make a life, marrying, buying a house, having children, setting down permanent roots--rather than seeing this job as a stepping stone to something greater. (And doing so without any sort of permanent job security.) Perhaps it is cliché to say that we--a department of forty full-time instructors and dozens more graduate students--became like family, but we did. We recall the Baby Boom of 2007, where the 4th floor saw the birth of five babies within a couple of months; this fall, from Bowling Green to wherever we are now, we all grieved the loss of Scott Gallaway (whose 40th birthday was yesterday) from cancer; and now, across the distances, we are facing the proposed cuts of 10% of the University's NTTF by the end of spring semester, which amounts to 100 faculty members (while President Mary Ellen Mazy has publicly stated her desire to increase student enrollment from 19,000 to 25,000). And, you may recall, GSW is made up entirely of NTTF. These proposed cuts will be devastating, not just to the university, but to this specific department that is so important to student success--and student retention.
As I was preparing to leave BG to pursue my PhD at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, BG was suffering through a series of short-lived presidents who had no interest in the health of the university as a whole, viewing it only as a business. This current president, Mary Ellen Mazey, is someone I have no personal experience with, as she came in after I left. As I was leaving, the faculty voted to form a union; the administration was not pleased with that, to the tune of collaborating with Ohio state lawmakers to pass SB5, Ohio's union busting bill that passed the legislatures, but was eventually recalled by voters. As it stands now, the faculty is still working without a contract, more than a year after it was promised. This cutting of 100 NTTF will bring the faculty-to-administrator ratio to 1:1, quite a distance from the Chronicle of Higher Education's recommendation of 3:1. In addition, the faculty has not seen a raise in three years, not even a cost of living increase; the president continues to be awarded raises. BGSU's faculty remain among the lowest-paid in the state.
I am not naive about the realities of life in academia, the cuts that have to be made because of funding shortfalls from various sources. But I don't think that turning Bowling Green State University into the University of Phoenix (as Mazey has publicly stated her admiration for, as an educational model), especially at the expense of NTTF who are often, as I have said, the first line of defense for students, both in terms of student success and student retention. There is no way, absolutely no way, that cutting faculty and increasing students (and class sizes) will not have an effect on the quality of education at BG. It's a good goal, for that not to happen, but it's not realistic. Especially not in a writing classroom.
A university is only as strong as those who teach its most vulnerable students, the ones at risk of dropping out, the ones at risk in other ways. Job security of the faculty, even the NTTF faculty, is essential to their success--and where the students succeed, the university succeeds. If NTTF are worried about not having a job for the next year, the time spent on the job market takes away from what they would rather be doing in their own classrooms. Moving full-time NTTF to part-time adjuncts takes away from the success of the university and its students, as some schools are doing to avoid paying for benefits via Obamacare. Education matters, on both the student and teacher sides, when we remember that real people are involved, real human beings who are affected when the conversation becomes only about money. Only good things can come from valuing the work that graduate student teachers do (at Bowling Green and elsewhere, where graduate students often do the work of NTTF in introductory classes) and the work that NTTF do. But the largest moment is this: if we value our teachers, if teachers are shown that they are valued, that their health matters (with health insurance), that their work in the classroom radiates out from those students in ways they may never know, that can only add to the success of the university as a whole and the larger society, as we send those educated students out to make a difference in their own way.
Please sign the petition, even if you have no personal or educational connection with this university, whether you are a teacher or a student. It is important for all of us in academia--no matter our position or rank--to support others when they are facing arbitrary cuts that will undoubtedly destroy the integrity of the institution. We are all in academia. We are all vulnerable. This is important--to all of us. Please sign, please make your voice heard.