I began teaching as a Teaching Associate at Arizona State University in the Fall of 2001. A few short weeks into the semester, 9/11 occurred. As it was elsewhere, the University felt the emotional chaos that occurred across the country. In a targeted effort to reach its students and ensure their physical and mental wellbeing, ASU asked Writing Programs teachers to continue to hold their classes in the days following the attack. Instead of teaching, we were asked to lead conversations about the attacks with our students to help them deal with the trauma and to identify students who may need additional help that the larger university could then provide.
So, what was the reasoning behind the request? Compared to other classes, Writing Programs classes tend to be smaller in size due to the structure of the class and the subject matter. These were the classes where it was likely that the teachers knew their students and would be able to implement this program effectively. By this point, I knew my students by name and even something of their background. Is the same generally true elsewhere in the university? The administration believed the answer was no.
So, who was trusted with the wellbeing of the University’s students during the week that followed? The majority of Writing Programs classes at the time were taught by contingent faculty: Faculty Associates and Instructors. Those with the highest teaching loads, the least amount of pay and job security, were the main face of the University in that moment. They were the ones who reassured their students, many away from home for the first time and thrown into a time of even greater uncertainty and worry.
Unlike the Instructors and many of the FAs at the time, I only did this twice and the emotional strain was intense. I can only begin to imagine what the days following 9/11 were like for those who did this four times. Yet, it does reflect what I have come to know of my colleagues once I joined the Instructor rank. They are giving to their students, to the department, and to the University—all for very little money and appreciation. The professional dedication of the Instructor rank continues to be exploited as we are asked to do more for less. The switch to a 5/5 teaching load emphasizes this fact.
We start broke—underpaid for the work we do, undervalued for benefits we bring to the larger University, especially given our high rates of retention in our classes. It is increasingly apparent that our time at ASU will leave us broken—overworked, increasingly underpaid, and fundamentally demoralized.
And what of our role in the larger university? Could we now do what we were asked to do in the aftermath of 9/11? For many reasons, I hope to never find out. Based on what I know of my colleagues, we will try. However, I worry that the conditions of our employment will make that impossible.