Saint Mary’s professors speak out on the College’s proposal to implement the Graduate Student Teaching Fellow program.
By Victoria Vidales
As Saint Mary’s administration moves forward with the implementation of the Graduate Student Teaching Fellow program, adjunct faculty members are voicing their concerns for the potential loss of their employment and quality of education for students. The Graduate Student Teaching Fellow program would allow Graduate Students to teach undergraduate classes for a variety of introductory disciplines. Although the College has been adamant that the program would not effect tenure or tenure track faculty, the fellows would be a risk to adjunct faculty, who do not have as much administrative protection. As a result adjunct faculty have been vocal with both administrators and students hoping to persuade the former to reconsider and the latter to support their opposition to this program.
In regards to comparing teaching loads, Professor Thomas Cooney, of the English Department, said “The adjunct faculty does the heavy lifting at the College. Their workload is heavier than the tenure faculty. They spend more time with students.”
If allowed the Graduate Student Teaching Fellows would teach any introductory courses that correspond to a graduate program at Saint Mary’s. This would effect professors from a vast range of disciplines. Professor Cooney was involved in the creation of the Graduate Student Teaching Fellows program, however, he claims that the program has transformed from the original intention.
“I’m coming from a specific place that no one [from Saint Mary’s] comes from. I’m the one who set [the Graduate Student Teaching Fellows] up. I’m the one who put this into motion and I know all the negative aspects that are not being considered. Most importantly that less than one third of students that applied to the program had an English degree. Its often difficult to find three qualified students for graduate fellows,” Professor Cooney said.
Professor Cooney claims that the original program allowed for teaching interns, who were mentored by a faculty member during their second year of study. Professor Cooney wrote the policy for the program and enforced it for 15 years. Although Professor Cooney fully supports graduate students in their educational endeavours, he believes that as the amount of graduate student workers increases the program would not be beneficial for graduate students, undergraduates or professors.
“There have been really strong graduate student teaching fellows but that does not mean that this program should be fully implemented,” Professor Cooney said.
Professor Mary Volmer, of the English Department, is an alumna of Saint Mary’s and former member of the Graduate Student Teaching Program. Although she credits the teaching program with helping her develop her own craft in the classroom, she notes that the increase in fellows for the College in the place of adjunct faculty would severely change the dynamics of Saint Mary’s education. Professor Volmer recognizes the importance of relationships between students and professors in and outside of the classroom, and how these relationships are a part of the attraction to the College.
“I came to Saint Mary’s as an undergraduate and as an athlete and I chose Saint Mary’s over other colleges because of the academics, the small class sizes, and the fact that I would be taught by professors, not graduate students. [As a professor] I have been able to develop relationships with students that go far beyond the classroom, and that’s what I fear with graduate students teaching courses is that very few if any are going to come back to teach so you don’t have the same relationships that professors are able to develop,” Professor Volmer said.
Professor Volmer notes that especially for first year students, who are mainly taught by adjunct faculty, the Graduate Student Teaching Fellows would not be able to provide the same attention that an adjunct professor does. Professor Volmer advises that Saint Mary’s administrators must re-examine the College’s Lasallian values, which adjunct faculty believe are not being considered with the implementation of this program. Above all, Professor Volmer argues that adjunct faculty choose to teach because they enjoy working with students, and that the students’ experiences within the classroom remain their priority always.
“[Adjunct faculty] are not willing to sacrifice [students’] education for some unknown financial savings. We know because we have been students how important it is to have professors across campus as sounding boards and mentors. That’s why we are fighting to remain. Very often the subject matter is secondary, there are other ways to make money. We choose to be with students,” Professor Volmer said.
Professor Cooney highlights this claim as well, arguing that this program proposal from the College is a part of a larger blind spot from Saint Mary’s administration when it comes to valuing adjunct faculty. He claims that adjunct faculty members provide not only expertise within the classroom but share their talents with the general public. Professor Cooney says that the College should focus on promoting the talents of their existing faculty, not trying to replace them with graduate student workers.
“I would advise the College to re-route the ridiculous amount of money that is being spent on useless dean positions and put the funds into qualified instructors who are publishing to a greater amount of readers than tenure faculty,” Professor Cooney said.
Professor Cooney claims that if Saint Mary’s administration would invest in adjunct faculty they would be able to see the incredible amount of work that adjunct professors provide towards the College. If this investment in adjunct faculty were to occur Professor Cooney claims that it would validate professors’ work and invest in student learning.
“Many adjunct professors have written novels that have been reviewed by The New York Times. Professors Chrsitine O’Brien, Mary Volmer and Jeff Chon all have written incredible works yet the College sees them as expendable. Meanwhile students pay money to deans that they will never meet or see. This is a nationwide problem not just exclusive to Saint Mary’s,” Professor Cooney said.
Professors hope that students will realize their dedication to them and receive their support as they face this new program. As Saint Mary’s moves forward with welcoming the College’s new president Richard Plumb for the upcoming academic year, adjunct faculty are hopeful that he will recognize the importance of adjunct faculty, and remain committed to protecting their jobs.
“We would love [the new President] to recognize the potential Saint Mary’s has and how much a part of that potential adjunct faculty are,” Professor Volmer said.
Victoria Vidales '21,