Sometime in my junior year of college I began thinking about becoming a professor. I’d been, frankly, a lousy and bored student up until then. But at some point going to class ceased being a burden and became exciting. Unlike schooling up to that point, critical ideas—political ideas, radical ideas, difficult ideas, new perspectives, challenges to received authority, feminism—took center stage and the teachers, my professors, asked us to argue with them, to debate the material they brought to us. These professors were teachers and scholars; they exposed me to new (even when old) books, films, and thinkers but also their own work and a way of being in the world. I pestered them after class and in office hours. They were patient and enthusiastic, giving and challenging. Still, between my youthful narcissism and institutional obfuscation, I knew little of what brought them in front of me or how they became “professors.” Indeed, I know now that I didn’t even know what a professor was.
I am still not a professor. I have a doctorate and teach in a university. I am a writer and scholar. I design syllabi, grade papers and projects, write recommendation letters, advise university students, and even occasionally serve on committees, but I am not a professor. I am a lecturer, an instructor, part-time faculty, an adjunct.
It is seductive when students in my classes call me Professor Stork. They are good students who want to honor me, to respect their teacher, and acknowledge the work I’ve put in to stand in front of them. They—or at least some—see me as an embodiment of the precious opportunity represented by a university education, which they are paying so dearly for and likely will continue to pay for far into the future. But I begin my classes, during the obligatory “getting to know you” first session of the quarter, by stating unequivocally that they should not address me as “professor.” Ben is fine or “Dr.” Stork if they insist on formality. Then I try to explain what was never made explicit to me: professor—assistant, associate, full—is a university rank. It is an institutional category and relation. It carries privileges and responsibilities, it connotes authority and recognition. It means access to funding, research support, curricular influence, a scholarly community, and shared governance as well as a salary and job stability.
I tell my students this, pointing to the faint yet uncrossable line in the sand, not because I am attached to categories but because I believe students should know what I did not and should have a sense of what their education consists of. In the classroom the university is all too happy to have “professor” affixed to my name, eager to obscure the hierarchies the administration relies on for “cost control” and “budget flexibility.” If the institution will not be transparent, which it steadfastly refuses to be, then I will insist on making my position, in both senses of that word, clear. I then urge the students to inquire about their other teachers and to ask, “Who is this person entrusted with this essential duty? Who are they to this institution that brings us together? What is a professor?”
For now, suspending that earlier and perhaps naïve dream from my own undergraduate years, I simply want to affirm, without shame or resentment, that I am not a member of the professoriate but a member of the precariat. I will take solace in the bond between myself and the many other workers whose instability sits at the base of these institutions and their prosperity. And I will recognize that this precarity also joins me to the students in my classroom whose education is conditioned by these often obscure categories and whose debts undergird the functions of the institution.
By: Benedict Stork, Film Studies Instructor, Seattle University