Dear Madam or Sir:

Your article “Revenge of the Part-Time Professors” [December 12] was too short to tell the full story. The most telling comment in the article came from Columbia executive vice president and provost Bert Gall, who implied that unlike full-time professors, part-timers do not need to “improve themselves professionally”–or are not paid to do so.

A “professor” who is not improving herself is not a professor. Teaching any college course, including freshman composition, the bread and butter of part-timers in English, requires continual study. This means, at minimum, keeping current in the voluminous literature on the subject and developing the intellectual content of courses.

It might seem that first-year, general-education courses such as composition are the easiest to teach. In fact, as many tenured full-timers will readily admit, they are the most difficult. By and large, these courses are taught to 18-year-olds–people whose intellectual potential is at its peak. Their introduction to college-level writing can be the most valuable or the most destructive course they’ll take in college.

A full-time part-timer, one who teaches four, five, or six classes per semester, has to design courses, study the course material, write syllabi, plan lessons, teach classes, meet individually with her students, grade papers, and spend hours commuting from one university to another. She may have 80 to 100 students or more. There are part-timers who maintain such a schedule and manage to read a journal article or even write a paper now and then. But they are in the minority.

And that’s still not a full picture. According to some estimates, only 7 percent of American high school seniors graduate with the ability to read college-level material, yet many colleges, including Columbia, are open admissions, meaning they will, in effect, take anyone with a high-school diploma. As a part-time “professor” of college-level English who has worked at a number of Chicago-area institutions, part of my job involves dealing with students who can’t spell “two” and “the,” a responsibility that drains the time and energy I have to develop the intellectual content of my courses and pay attention to the kids who are getting Bs.

Yes, the profs suffer. Yes, an unending supply of them will continue to nail themselves to the cross to deliver quality instruction. But it’s the students who are really burned and the students who ought to protest. At Columbia College–where the conditions are not exceptional, but typical–a group of 20 or so tuition-paying freshmen enrolled in a first-year writing class brings in $168,000. That group will receive the services of a “professor” who is paid $1,482 for teaching all of them. When you sign up for a course, what are you paying for? The paint on the walls?

Laura Nilges-Matias

PhD Candidate

Loyola University