Meet Mr. Staff, your friendly new professor

By Nick Nussen
April 15, 2013
Filed under Opinion

Nick Nussen

Course enrollment is upon us, and I recently recommended a certain course and its instructor to a friend. My friend, upon browsing the catalog, could not find this instructor in conjunction with the recommended course. I looked up the course and found that, for all its sections, the instructor was listed as “Staff.”

I emailed the professor and asked if she was no longer teaching this subject. She told me, with disappointment, that the university’s new policy, announced in a department meeting she had recently attended, is to list all courses taught by part-time or adjunct instructors as being taught by “Staff.” Full-time professors will continue to see their names attached to their classes.

It’s a shame, for this teacher has built her reputation on a couple of courses that have almost become synonymous with her name. And, for many adjuncts, reputation and name recognition are often more rewarding than the meager sums on their paychecks. Her classes are full of students who flock there on the recommendations of others. And so it is with many of our part-timers.

But this new policy detaches their names from the work on which their reputation stands. For the collegiate course, more than a product manufactured by the machine that is the university, is the personal work of its professor; the labor of a lifelong passion (for what else but passion sustains them?). But this new policy effectively erases the author’s name from the title page.

Let’s not forget that what makes any university distinctive is not its offering of courses but the ones who teach those courses. It’s the person behind the lectern—or computer screen, as it were—that matters.

After all, according to an article in the Akron Beacon Journal published last November, almost 60 percent of instructors at The University of Akron work part time; and these instructors teach more sections of undergraduate courses than full-timers. But don’t look for their names when registering for classes—you won’t find them. They are the majority; the ones who do most of the teaching, a corps of idiosyncratic and memorable individuals—some good and some bad—but they are, it turns out, nothing more than “Staff.”

They are Mr. Staff, the chemistry teacher with that wicked pyrotechnic trick; Ms. Staff, the philosophy teacher who brings in doughnuts to demonstrate the ontological problems of holes; and don’t forget Professor Staff, who loves to rap the prologue of the Canterbury Tales. Make sure you take that class from Staff soon, and don’t forget that Staff is doing that awesome course on Rome next semester.

Of course, part-timers are often transient folk, shuttling from one college to another to make livable wages—scooping up courses here and there like loose change, hoping their cars don’t break down on the way.

I may be wrong, but I suspect course allotment can be a messy business, full of clamoring and bargaining, shuffling and last-minute substitutions and deletions. It’s more convenient, I suppose, for administrators to blanket the mess with the handy “Staff” label.

But this isn’t fair to those notable part-timers who have become favorites and fixtures on the campus. These are not among the common herd—they contend with their full-time counterparts in quality and esteem. They have a street value, so to speak, of which their employers are perhaps unaware.

Their reputation spreads through stories and recommendations. They are the ones who often rank highest on ratemyprofessors.com—which weighs heavily for students in course selection.

We don’t want to take courses taught by the collective nonentity, or the phantom professor that is “Staff.” Despite the increasing depersonalization of education, we want people and personalities, names and faces on the bill—course descriptions like baseball cards. We want to know whose work we’re paying for and whether the product is up to snuff.

Let’s not forget, last of all, that this business of education was originally for the sake of the students; and the ones who do the educating are, in my opinion, more valuable than the ones who do the moneymaking.

Please, moneymakers and decision-makers, at least give us the satisfaction of knowing who will teach our classes, and give the adjuncts the respect of being able to claim what little is theirs.

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