A Real [Community] College Professor

There is a fascinating discussion going on over at Flavia’s place about a former-M.A. grad student who was just hired at the last moment by a community college to teach a few developmental writing classes and who now supposedly sees herself as “a real college professor”.  Flavia is a bit annoyed, not that the student has given herself a title that takes most of us many more years and much more than teaching a few courses for the very first time to claim, but because, alas, the state of the profession is such that yes, MOST college “professors” (and that is the bugaboo word here)  teach  a few classes at a college (or at several colleges)  for less money than can be earned at, say, Starbucks: the majority of college professors today are part time or contingent and very poorly compensated.

I know that at many community colleges, there is no rank, so the term “professor” itself means nothing–everyone is the same rank, and even if their title is officially “instructor” everyone is effectively a college “professor”.  At community colleges with rank, however, there is much more awareness that the title “professor” takes years to earn.

What intrigues me, however, is the direction of the comments to her posting.  While some explicitly include community college assistant professors as “real” some of the comments tippy toe around (and then literally squash) the idea that the only “real” college professors are those with a PhD who do research in addition to teaching and service.  Even the sweet ex-community college student who praises hir former English professor seems to be defending an exception.

But I’m being sensitive, I know, and I may have even misread the comments in my heightened sensitivity, which is why I’m writing here rather than there (tho I really am in sympathy with Flavia’s original point as you shall see).

Last week, when I was getting a massage from a fabulous masseuse (I literally feel the pain in my hip pushed out through my toes), I told him I was a teacher and that August tends to be a stressful month for me with all the prep work I still haven’t done, the research I still need to review or draft for fall/winter conference presentations, and the usual un-done house projects that are weighing on me (damned that unfinished painted hallway).  He, naturally, assumed I taught public school and went on about the horror of dealing with “kids’ parents”.

It’s not that I don’t claim the title “college professor”—I certainly use that title in other situations. But yes, often when I’m meeting or talking to people I don’t know well, or in situations when “professor” just feels pretentious to me, I’ll say I’m a “teacher” rather than “college professor”.

Now why is that? I certainly fit the standard criteria discussed at Flavia’s: PhD; 22 years teaching college classes (upper and lower division), 15 of those years as a tenure track/tenured full timer. I do a bucket load of service (college and community). And I do research and writing that I share with my peers, as well as my students and the community,  in the form of conference presentations and articles.  I am considered one of the handful of experts in my dissertation subject (called by a journalist last year who wanted to know more for an article); I attend conferences, at least two a year. I apply for and attend professional workshops (like the NEH Seminar I attended this summer).

What I don’t do is write books (I have no interest in such torture); nor do I teach graduate students (though I’ve taught upper division courses for state universities offering programs in our neck of the woods).  [I actually don’t teach developmental writing, but that subject requires another posting… .]

So if one’s vision of a “real” college professor is any of the professors I had in graduate school, or any professor who rarely/never teaches a first year course, or a general education course, or a professor who is an acclaimed researcher and writer who teaches once or twice a year, or almost EVERY film and novel depiction of a college professor**, then yes, I suppose I am slightly “unreal”.

But of course I AM real, and no matter where you are in the academic hierarchy, there is almost always someone who is less “real” than you are.

For example, last year, our first department meeting was held in the newly renovated building where my brand new office was relocated. After the meeting, I gave a little tour of the new offices and work space for anyone interested and one new part timer, assigned to teach a single course for her first term, stuck her head in my office and whined under her breath, though loud enough for me to hear, “Why do some professors get their own offices when I have to share!?”

My immediate reaction was to feel defensive, and I almost responded to her by explaining the very, very real distinctions between our two positions, but I held my tongue, and thought nastily to myself, “Get real, girlfriend.”

Instead, what I DID do was to lead the effort to finally create a faculty achievement award specifically for part time/adjunct/contingent instructors, and I agreed to start a long overdue mentoring program this fall for our department’s new part time faculty.

Of course neither action solves the ultimate problem:  that we are fighting each other over for those last few crumbs of respect. 

**As noted at Ink’s House a few week’s ago, there are very few depictions of community college Professors in film or novels–with the notable exception of that horrid sit com, Community.


21 responses to “A Real [Community] College Professor

  1. Great post, Annie! Very thought-provoking.

    You know, I usually say I’m a teacher, too — and then elaborate if pressed, but how interesting that we both do that instead of “professor” since we ARE professors!

    Had to laugh at the part-timer’s cluelessness and rudeness! But I actually very much respect that you didn’t unleash the fury on her. That must have been hard. I probably wouldn’t have been able to hold it in. So many gold stars to you, professor.

  2. I wonder how many of us do that (teacher instead of professor) and why? Is it a fear of being thought pretentious? Do I only do that with people who are not “professionals”? It’s odd. If I’m with my hubby, he corrects me and even introduces me as “Dr”….

    That part timer is still with us, and teaches many classes, so our abuse of her is at its peak—and at this point, she either understands why she shares and office and I don’t, or she has grown increasingly bitter—I can’t quite tell, but I do, truly, feel her pain. At this point, she is on campus a lot and surely deserves even a tiny office to herself for student conferences, something no part timer will ever have in our office-space crunched college.

    But yes, it was damned hard at the time to hold it in;-)

  3. Thanks for continuing the conversation, AE. I, too, describe myself as a teacher (or more often, say “I teach”) when interacting with people on a casual or transactional basis. If they specifically ask what or where, I’ll certainly tell them — but usually I’ve gauged the situation right, and they don’t ask. There’s just no reason to go into it, and “college professor” to some people seems to read as a remote, elite, and baffling job. My ego isn’t so invested in that identity that I have to assert it just because I can. People know what teachers do, and that’s a large part of what I do.

    (But: I suspect some of that reticence, or reverse snobbery, or unwillingness to be thought pretentious, or whatever it is may have been behind what my one commenter felt to be my begrudging attitude toward my former student. I didn’t intend that, and it wasn’t meant to be the point of my post, but he probably wasn’t wrong to feel some anxiety/discomfort about what that title mean underlying my post.)

  4. I’ve thought through this issue before, especially when I was frustrated with the other titles available to me as full-time CC instructor. When I was a young and single, I didn’t like using my first name (made the guys flirt and the returning women students want to befriend me). But Miss seemed weird, especially since some students were older than me. Sort of the same with “Ms.” I was very frustrated that I didn’t have a title that was job-related as opposed to age or marriage-status related.

    But our CC does not have ranks; we are all “instructors.” Apparently, before I arrived, there was a big brou-ha-ha about whether people could use “professor” or not. In the end, I got married, and “Mrs.” (which I never imagined using over “Ms.”) was actually helpful because it wasn’t related to age. I’m currently in a PhD program, and when I finish (Goddess willing), I will probably switch to Dr. at work since I would rather my work title be related to professional status than marital status).

    But I still call myself a teacher or instructor, and I probably always will since that’s the culture of my institution. And I feel weird calling myself a “professor.”

    Interestingly, when I was at Indiana Univ, all the professors were called “professor” as in “Professor Smith, did you get my paper?” But in both of my grad programs, even though we referred to the faculty as professors, they went by “Dr.” as in “Dr. Smith, did you get my paper?” Different academic cultures, I suppose?

    In my first grad program I was really bothered by the fact that students often presumed to call women faculty by first names when they would never do that with male faculty. Grrr.

    Clearly, I found your post interesting!

  5. Flavia, Thank YOU for starting the discussion, a discussion on so many related topics.

    And yes, as you note in the comments of your own blog, the real concern is the hiring of untrained teachers right before classes begin. Of course, we, too, hire new instructors just a few weeks before classes start, but rarely those with absolutely no teaching experience (I’ll say rarely because my hubby was one of the rare ones). When I was in graduate school, the local cc also hired me with no experience, now over 20 years ago, and while I was terrified, I was also given as much support as I wanted/needed. With luck, your grad student has that: in some ways, her passion/enthusiasm may work to fill in the gaps in her experience, at least partly and until she starts to feel abused.

    GEW: You bring up such an important point—many cc’s do not have rank and everyone is an instructor–but I’m curious why the bruhaha over using “professor” then since no one’s toes are being stepped on? Is it a way of erasing the distinctions between those with MA’s, MFA’s and PhDs?

    At my cc, where we do have rank, and some departments like my own tend to hire PhD’s over MA/MFAs, everyone above Instructor (for the most part) asks and/or requires students to type Professor So and So on essays, not Assistant Professor So and So, and certainly our local newspaper, when one of us is interviewed–something that happens frequently– refers to us all equally as Professor, regardless of rank, even when the faculty member makes a point of saying they are “Instructor” or “Assistant Professor”. The few faculty who seem to use Mr. or Mrs. tend to be part timers, but most adjuncts ask students to type “Instructor Smith” on essays.

    Of course it is all tied to college culture, history, and politics in general. As fewer new hires at my college have PhDs (except in the transfer programs), rank is starting to be subtly attacked. Now that’s another posting….

  6. Re: titles, I was told during my master’s program to refer to instructors that you KNOW have PhDs as “Dr.” and then to call the other instructors “Professor.” I don’t know if that’s an etiquette thing or what, but it does bestow respect upon whoever is teaching the class, so I like it.

    I’m not comfortable with the first name thing, either. Or being called “Mrs.” (which always makes me look over my shoulder for my mother in law)!

    Btw, I don’t know anyone who goes by “Assistant Professor” or “Associate Professor” before their last name — as in “Hello, I am Assistant Professor Smith” — do people actually do that at some schools?

  7. I’ve never met anyone who refers to themselves as Assistant Professor orally or on their syllabus, only in e-mail signatures or, sometimes, when referred to by the local media (though their default is to refer to us all as professors, regardless of rank, status, or even if you teach community ed;-)

    I remember a Spanish instructor at my high school who had a PhD and she was referred to as Dr.—that really stood out amongst all the Mr and Mrs/Ms teachers at a high school. But by college, and even grad school, most of my professors introduced themselves as Professor, not Dr., and perhaps that’s why I do, too.

    Ha: your mother in law! Since I kept my last name, I think of my mother—either way, Mrs. just doesn’t work for me!

  8. Interesting post, annieem, especially this: “But of course I AM real, and no matter where you are in the academic hierarchy, there is almost always someone who is less “real” than you are.” (And I applaud you both for instituting the award and for holding your tongue in talking with the new instructor.)

  9. I just wondered if there were places where people distinguished between Assistant/Associate/Full orally. Because I don’t want to work there! Though it does seem like in administration, many do call themselves Assistant Dean Blah Blah Blah, right? I never know what to call a dean in person…Dr.? Dean?…I usually just refrain from saying their name! 🙂

    Students are so used to saying Mr. and Mrs. from high school, and I know it’s hard for them to switch, but my hackles do raise at Mrs., (imperceptibly/internally). Not sure what my deal is w/that…clearly, I’ve got an issue…whatevs.

  10. Thanks, Undine, and, yes, Inky, that rank distinction is truly something that matter on paper more than any place else.

    Up until a few years ago, our new instructors were called instructor for the first 2 or so years (depending on number of years’ teaching experience they had–NOT on their degree) before they were “promoted” to assistant professor [fyi I escaped this by having just enough teaching experience]. This caused such ogida, especially with newly minted PhD’s who were quite angry to be titled Instructor rather than Assistant Professor, for obvious reasons ranging from DAMN, I’m a PhD already, to, I won’t be taken seriously at academic conferences unless I can use Assistant Professor in my signature rather than Instructor….

    So now we have two levels of Assistant Professor (I and II), and more than a few new profs leave off that roman numeral on their email signatures;-)

  11. I would love to ditch the “Mrs.”, but right now I have no other options. I don’t know any instructors here who go by “professor.” As for the brouhaha I mentioned, I really don’t know what started it, and no one wanted to talk to me in detail about it. I’ve been told that the English Department had to see group therapy, partly because of the conflict over titles. So I kept questions a minimum. I know that some wanted the title, some didn’t want people to use it. In general, my department tends to be full of conflict. Sigh.

    My husband is a full-time “lecturer” at a four-year university. He has an M.S., so he is called “Mr.” Perhaps the protocol at four-years is more clear?

  12. GEW—I suspect most English departments need family therapy! But what an interesting dilemma. I asked a colleague of mine what she did at her previous college where there was no rank and she said students called most of the faculty by first name–totally avoiding the issue.

  13. Great post! I don’t think I will consider myself a “real professor” until I have my Ph.D. in one hand and a full-time job at a college or university in my other hand — so it might be many, many years. But even now, I have a lot of trouble trying to explain to people what it is that I do. I usually say “I’m teaching at a community college,” so it is not assumed that I am a public school teacher. Then there is the second part of “I am a Ph.D. student.” I always feel pretentious saying “Ph.D. student” instead of just “student,” but I feel that distinction is needed.

    Either way, the last thing I was thinking when I started adjuncting was “Where the hell is my own office?!” That’s some nerve there!

  14. When I was in grad school, I also was an adjunct the entire time, and I see that sort of part time teaching as a sort of extended, poorly paid internship since I had no intention of making part time work at 2-3 colleges the end result of a PhD (I also was willing to move practically anywhere for a full time position, thus making my goal much much easier to achieve).

    However, the vast majority of adjuncts are those with M.A. degrees who are NOT current PhD students. What do we call them if not “college professors”? College instructors is the path most of our adjuncts have taken (I did a quick check of web sites) but there is a thin, not very clearly distinguished line between instructor and professor especially when to most of the non academic world, it sure looks like we all do the same thing (even though my daily job looks incredibly different than the daily job of a superstar at, say, Princeton, we are both “college professors”).

    It’s interesting to see the blogosphere light up this week with related posts on adjuncts. Highly recommend Dr. Crazy’s post: http://reassignedtime.wordpress.com/2010/08/17/lies-about-the-casualization-of-academic-labor/

  15. I mama glad I found this blog. I am a part time community college instructor and I remember being so excited that I even had an office to share. Just seeing my name up there made me so excited. I taught elementary school for many years so the label teacher is natural for me, however once I am at your level I will be very excited to call myself Professor D instead of “instructor”

  16. Pingback: Fake Professor | brucelarochelle

  17. I clicked on the link to Ink’s House because I am curious about novels depicting community college teaching, but the link is broken. I know of one recent novel, which is on Amazon Kindle, “Tired” by Lucy Snowe. I wondered if anyone else had read it because I really would like to see other instructors’ reactions to how the narrator says faculty and staff were treated by administration. Has anyone read it?

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