Students 3/12/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

This has been an interesting semester. The backstory, for those who may not be aware of it, is that I work as an adjunct professor at a women’s college. An adjunct professor is basically a part-time temporary professor. We’re hired on an as-needed basis and are generally considered pretty insignificant. We don’t attend meetings, college events, planning…we’re pretty much “exempt” from all of the additional duties that make faculty full time rather than just adjunct.

It’s an odd thing for me. Having been a tenure track professor at one college, tenured full professor at another, and dean at a third, it’s not really easy for me to sit back and not participate, even today on a part-time temporary pay scale. So, I’ve taken on a few additional responsibilities, but I don’t know if anybody notices or not. And I make no secret of my status to my students. I figure they’ll figure it out on their own if I did try to hide it anyway. Heck, I think the fact that I’m using the general chemistry lab for office space is a pretty big glaring hint in and of itself.

Still, I’m supremely aware of my position. Faculty tend to have the same petty “clickish” positions just like anybody else. Untenured professor is lower social status than tenured, and non-tenure track is lower than tenure track. I’m not even in this list. I’m adjunct. I’m pretty much meaningless. Not unimportant, exactly; they wouldn’t hire me if they didn’t need me, but, just not…meaningful.

I try very hard to make myself available, but still feel very much invisible. It’s not easy being a chemistry professor in the first place. It’s not a course that most students take because they love the subject (I did, but I’m kind of a freak…most students take it as a requirement for another program), so chemistry professors are not terribly popular to begin with. Add “adjunct” on top of that and I pretty much expect to be disliked, disrespected, and easily overlooked.

So, imagine how I feel when students do show appreciation.

This has been an amazing semester. Several of my former students have reached out to me to tell me how much they miss me. One student even went so far as to refer to me as her “favorite chemistry professor”. Okay, like I said, chemistry professors don’t tend to be well liked so I’m not sure how much of a compliment that is, but it surely meant the world to me.

I mean that much more than you might imagine. Faculty hear complaints all the time; negative comments tend to flow very freely in academia from students, so when a student has something good to say about me, well, it makes it all worthwhile. Maybe she was blowing things out of proportion calling me her “favorite”, but I take it at face value, and very much appreciate it.

One of my current students gave me my very first “high five” from any student, anywhere. Touching students is, of course, completely out of bounds these days. I don’t even feel comfortable shaking their hands. Sometimes this restriction is a challenge, and, not, I don’t mean it like that get your mind out of the gutter. On occasion, a student will share something emotionally troubling with them. More than once I’ve had a student sitting in my office (when I had one) telling me how their parents are getting a divorce, or their dog died, or they’re afraid of failing the course. Some of these situations are more difficult to hear than others. It’s human nature to want to try to comfort students, to hold a hand or offer a shoulder, but the best I can do in our current society is offer a tissue. Unfortunately, I also understand that there have been far too many (mostly male) professors who take advantage of these situations for their own personal and frankly disgusting needs that makes it inappropriate for such often much-needed non-sexual physical contact. The “High Five” is one of the last acceptable forms of actual physical contact, and this semester, I’ve had TWO students offer them at two different times. The first one was a current student, and some weeks later, another student from last semester did the same. Since faculty are often thought of as “untouchable” these meant a lot to me.

Another way I try to make myself available is by eating in the student cafeteria. Okay, I kind of like the food (generally speaking although there are days that are exceptions), but mainly, I want them to be able to interact with me should they so desire. Sitting with or interacting too much with students, I know, is a bit like a middle school student getting hugs from their mother, so I don’t push it. I’ll smile and say hi, and maybe say a few words if we’re standing nearby in line, but otherwise it’s up to them to decide if they want to come over to visit with me. It’s just my way of making myself available without imposing on their personal space. I’ll sit at a table, so if they want to visit with me, they can on their own terms. Usually I sit alone, but one day I actually had not one or two, but three students stop by and chat with me, briefly but chat with me nonetheless, in the same day. I loved this!

Faculty are human. We understand that we’re “cootie infested”, but it really means a lot to us when students chat with us, have a kind word, or, yes, even offer a high five. It’s been a great semester.

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