An email blast goes out from the director of composition to all the adjuncts, graduate students, and temporary-contract full-time instructors who teach writing at a large state university. The director of composition is chipper about a professional development opportunity at a neighboring institution and he’ll reserve space for any of the teacher-persons who want to go, the fee paid by the English Department. The invitation is for a workshop with a nationally recognized composition scholar, and the teachers can carpool. For teachers, professional development means a day without teaching, but a day spent talking about teaching, and this is a welcome and often productive change. Almost as an afterthought, the director of composition ends the email by saying anyone who would like to attend the workshop who teaches on that day should arrange for a substitute to teach their classes.

If you’ve never heard of substitute teachers for college classes, that’s because they don’t exist. A substitute is a teacher-person who goes from school to school, and from class to class, to sit in when the regular teacher has taken a day off. Since the students who attend high school, middle school, or elementary school are required by law to sit in those classrooms, the job of the substitute is to watch the kids, end of story. The teacher calls their principal and says they won’t be coming in that day and the principal goes down the list until someone agrees to substitute. It’s never been the teacher’s responsibility.

Professional development is important for teachers: professors go to conferences to stay relevant and to make contacts. It used to be that the university would pay for this, and that’s still mostly true, though it’s almost never the case for the kinds of teacher-persons who received the director of composition’s email. The director of composition recognized that these were teacher-persons who needed professional development for different reasons. The adjuncts, the graduate students, and the temporary-contract full-time instructors were all in the same boat, valued for their semi-pro status, and the director of composition would escort them to the nationally recognized scholar like Scouts on their first camping trip. No one believes that the workshop attendees will ever achieve the heights of the national scholar, no matter what their potential, and in the meantime, they’re still expected to adhere to university policy and to be sure the classes are being taught.

The director of composition should have known more than anyone that it would be next to impossible for composition teachers to get substitutes for their classes, due to the number of them attending the workshop and the number of classes those teachers regularly taught. You see, there’s no substitute pool for them to draw from, so they have to ask unpaid favors of each other, because they certainly can’t ask the tenured professors, who have minimal contact with contingent faculty as they come and go from year to year. Despite the good intentions of the director of composition, the contingent teachers have been reminded that they can’t pretend to claim the perks taken for granted by tenured professors and also do their jobs effectively.

What college students buy with tuition dollars has changed, with a shift in the direction of the utility model of the public high school, with bodies in seats, and mandatory attendance. As a full-time teacher-person at a state university, I’m asked to report on attendance, I have a required number of hours I’m supposed to sit in the office I share with another professor who also has a required number of hours to spend there, and I’m supposed to get a substitute if I know ahead of time that I’m going to miss a class. I happen to believe, because I’m an idealist, that students pay for an education, which is an abstract unquantifiable commodity. Meanwhile, administrators see tangibles that can be represented with numbers on spreadsheets: the number of students per department, the number of seats per class, the number of classes per semester. Whatever else we might say about student-persons, they are undoubtedly numbers, and they pay in dollars that can be divided, so that a class period that has been paid for must occur.

When a student tells me they want to be a teacher I suggest they try substitute teaching. It doesn’t cost anything, one doesn’t need a license, and there’s no prep. They only work the days they want to work and if they are even semi-competent, the schools will keep calling them back. For my own part, I had good experiences as a substitute teacher. It let me know that I was able to go into a classroom where I was greeted with extremely low expectations, yet I could trick the students into learning despite themselves. Anyone who thinks they want to teach will get a pretty quick sense of whether they still want to teach after they’ve tried substituting.

As sensible as this sounds, this suggestion, that a student should try substituting is almost always greeted by the student with disdain. We tend to think of ourselves as better than substitutes, even those with no teaching experience. And so asking someone to be a substitute for a college class only works if that teacher is already in a position that comes with a degree of disrespect. By comparison, instead of asking “Will you be the substitute for my classes?” a contingent teacher might try out some of these equivalent phrases on their colleagues: “Will you babysit my child? Will you be a server at my wedding? Will you pick up my mom from the airport?” The only reason I need a substitute for my classes is because the director of composition told me I did, and the only reason the director of composition told me I did was because the university administration, a.k.a. the numbers people, told the director that I did.

I’m in a position that comes with disrespect, though my students don’t really know it, because whether I go to a workshop for faculty development or not, I’m a professional. Sometimes, the students who turn their noses up at the suggestion that they try substitute teaching will say, “I don’t want to teach high school. I want to do what you do. I want to teach college.”

I tell them that if they teach in the public secondary or elementary schools they’ll have better job security and will likely be paid more. They might have to deal with student discipline or with standardized tests, but maybe that’s not such a big deal. Maybe it just is. It’s teaching after all. It’s a calling.

Blind faith in the capitalist meritocracy makes it surprising for a student to hear that a professor with a Ph.D. can make less than a teacher with a bachelor’s degree, someone they might think of as more like a smart mom than a scholar. But at the end of the school year that teacher won’t be let go simply because her contract has run out. She’ll almost automatically be kept on the payroll, and she’ll be given a raise. At public secondary or elementary schools it’s easier to keep someone around than to do a new job search, so even without tenure there’s almost always job security. At institutions of higher education, however, they pretty much always run job searches, even when they have someone they want to keep around. A professor on a temporary contract might be asked to reapply for the job they already have, or their renewable contract could be replaced with one that is nonrenewable, because the rules can change without warning.

I cancel class to attend the workshop for faculty development, I make no attempt to get a substitute, and no one complains. I get to the workshop early and the director of composition sits at the table with me. By the end of the day, I think the director of composition has a better idea of me as a teacher than the impression I give shuffling through the halls exhausted between classes. It’s a small triumph, since my contract will run out and a younger less-experienced teacher-person will soon take my place, very likely someone who won’t question the absurdity of being asked to find a substitute for a college class.

Numbers people are numbers people. They’re going to do what they’re paid to do. They don’t sit in classrooms and most have never taught. But the decisions they make will affect the people at the institution with the least autonomy: the students, the grounds workers, the custodial staff, and the temporary teachers. If those a little higher up, who the university stakes its reputation on, don’t stick up for the these people, who often can’t stick up for themselves, and who are the foundation the university rests upon, the people at the bottom will founder. Students will pay for less, teachers will be expected to do more for less, and that longstanding marketing tool, the school logo, will come to represent a swindle, a façade, a hollow promise, a substitute for what used to be genuine.