Into the light of day

Photo by Bima Rahmanda on Unsplash

One of the things I’ve been wanting to write about is why the work I’ve been doing at Mongolia International University has so meaningful to me. People have told me, “You can do better.” But it depends on what you mean by better. What I really want at this point in my life is to work where I’m needed doing something I enjoy and am good at, with people I care about, and MIU provides that. After ten years of teaching as a lecturer (i.e. part-time temp) at UCSD, I was ready for a more supportive work environment. Plus, it’s a chance to live in Mongolia, which is pretty amazing. Also, there are serious structural problems with academia that have accelerated because of COVID-19. American higher education is at risk of losing its best qualities in the neoliberal hostile takeover that has been sweeping the country. It feels like a good time for a change of scene.

I finished my PhD in Communication in 2008, sandwiched between the deaths of my father (2007) and mother (2009), with a two-year-old as well. Those were an intense few years, especially caring for my mother (who had dementia and was disabled) after my father died. I was on the job market when the economy collapsed. Over half of the 45 jobs I applied for my second year on the market evaporated because of budget cuts. During my third year on the market, I sent out five applications because there were no jobs.

I landed a postdoc at the University of Pittsburgh information school, but it was a horrible experience. It was six months after my mother had died, and I still was in the throes of grief. I had PTSD from dealing with hospitals and nursing homes. Moving across country away from my support network was hard, though one of my good friends from grad school had landed at Pitt as well. I had trouble finding adequate childcare for my daughter in a city where I essentially knew no-one; the waitlist for the university daycare for her age group was months long. The supervisors of the postdoc position (one of whom had been on my dissertation committee) couldn’t make up their minds what they wanted, and every time I started something, they would change what the project was about. In the end, I became mentally paralyzed, and I asked them to replace me.

We returned to San Diego and UCSD because I could teach there, and it was near my mother’s house, which I still needed to sell. Emma and I had our friends there, too. I needed to be somewhere familiar to regain my footing. So my time as a lecturer at UCSD began. I applied for other jobs for several years: non-teaching jobs at UCSD, jobs in other departments, at community colleges and other universities and organizations in the San Diego area. I was still a single working parent, so I needed some flexibility in my work schedule. I taught one semester at Cal State San Marcos (on top of teaching at UCSD), which was nearer the house I’d ended up buying after I sold my mother’s house. I had a good time teaching there; I loved the students, many of whom were first generation in college, and the work environment was much more welcoming. Lecturers are considered faculty there (they aren’t at UCSD), and there was much more scaffolding and support for new instructors. But the pay was lower, and they didn’t have any teaching for me in the spring semester.

So I stuck with UCSD longer than I should have. I was always hoping that I could just have the four courses a year I needed to teach to keep my family’s health insurance, but every year I had to fight for that. UCSD is not a friendly environment for lecturers, even though they depend on them to deliver undergraduate education.

For those who don’t know the difference, lecturers are people who are hired only to teach (not do research, though they often do research on their own time), usually on a part-time, temporary basis, with no job security and a low salary. One study found that around 25% of lecturers are on public assistance because they don’t earn enough money to live. They usually have the same qualifications as professors, who are hired full-time and for the long term. Professors have job security, full benefits, a career track with opportunities for advancement, and the full support of the administration, provided they do their jobs well and are granted tenure, which is basically lifetime employment unless they sleep with too many undergrads or publicly support Palestine or something else in “poor taste.” Lecturers often face losing their jobs at the end of the term if the department doesn’t hire them back. I was co-chair of the lecturer and librarian union at UCSD for a couple of years, so I have a lot of stories about how lecturers are treated by the university. (Currently UC lecturers have been working out of contract since January because the UC administration won’t negotiate in good faith. So there’s that, too.)

I faced a lot of indignities as a lecturer at UCSD, but I stuck with it for a variety of reasons. I loved some of the courses I had developed. I had ideas for more courses but was never able to teach them. I was able to branch out into Sociology and teach some really interesting courses for that department for about three years. Also, after we found Village Gate Children’s Academy, where Emma started in second grade after a bizarre first grade year at the local public school, I decided I was going to try to keep her in that school as long as possible. This was a good decision; it’s an amazing school. I continued to apply for other work in the area, but I didn’t have much time to devote to job searches, and nothing ever quite worked out. Then, we planned to leave the area after she finished 8th grade, and MIU came up, and it was just a question of riding it out.

During my last year as a lecturer, my union was involved in contract negotiations. We were asked to give testimonials during bargaining so that the administration’s negotiators could see the human side of the lecturers and what their lives and struggles were like. I wasn’t able to attend in person, but I wrote the testimonial below, and it was read at one of the bargaining sessions by a lecturer colleague. It will give you an idea of what we go through to do our jobs. I’m posting it here because I feel like lecturers need to tell their stories. These things should not be kept in the dark. COVID-19 is going to change higher education forever, and one of the things I see happening now is mass layoffs of lecturers all around the country to cut costs. Lecturers are the budget’s low-hanging fruit, but they are also the core of undergraduate education in the United States. Some 50 to 75% of undergraduate courses are taught by lecturers. It’s unclear to me how universities expect to keep functioning without them.

Most people I talk to, even people who have gone to college, don’t know about these issues. They don’t know that universities have a two-tier hiring system for instructors that leaves the majority of the undergraduate teaching staff in permanent insecurity. Many lecturers don’t talk about their work conditions, for fear of retaliation or because they are ashamed. We stay in the dark with our struggles. This post is my effort to come into the light of day. And this is my testimonial:

I am a continuing lecturer in UCSD’s Communication Department and a lecturer in the Sociology Department. I received my continuing appointment in Communication in 2015, and I have been teaching in the Sociology Department since Spring quarter, 2016. I’m also a solo parent and the sole support of my teenaged daughter, who was born while I was a graduate student here at UCSD. This is a statement that I wrote for the March 13, 2020, UC-AFT bargaining session at UCSD, based on my experience as a lecturer at UCSD.

What the “continuing” in “continuing appointment” really means is that there will be continuing efforts to get rid of you. You think, once you get it, that you should be safe for a while, but you’re not. You become a target for removal. You’re considered expensive, and your experience as a teacher, knowledge of the students, and familiarity with the curriculum aren’t considered sufficiently valuable. Somehow, administrators have told me, it’s better for students to have a continuous supply of new faculty because it brings in “fresh blood” (the exact phrase used), despite the fact that temporary faculty are unfamiliar with UCSD, won’t be here more than a year or two, and can’t build ongoing relationships with students. This “fresh blood” approach is not applied to permanent faculty. Ultimately, instead of bringing a feeling of job security so you can finally relax and focus on teaching, the continuing appointment brings new sources of anxiety and stress that interfere with your work.

First, there is getting the continuing appointment to begin with. People warned me that when it got closer to the time when I would be up for a continuing appointment that my department would cut back on my courses so they could put me up for an appointment at a reduced workload. I didn’t believe it would happen to me; I had been teaching four to six courses a year, and always had at least the 44% workload (four courses per year) I needed to keep my family’s health insurance. I often worked 50 or 67%. What I didn’t understand was your employment history doesn’t matter for the continuing appointment.

The only thing that matters is the academic year before you are eligible for the continuing appointment, when they conduct the needs assessment. It doesn’t reflect your usual contribution to undergraduate teaching but only what you teach that specific year. And my department significantly changed my schedule for that year. Instead of giving me the four courses I usually taught, they gave me two “new” courses at 50%, so that I would teach only one course per quarter but could still keep my benefits. That one course per quarter is what stuck for the continuing appointment. The paperwork was clearly done improperly, because there were two documents from the department, one asking for a 50% appointment, and one asking for a 33% appointment (three courses per year). Both had the same date and signed by the same person. The 44% appointment I was hoping for—four courses per year and enough time to keep my benefits—wasn’t there at all. I only saw these documents months after the fact, because all of this is done secretly without input from the lecturer.

The 33% appointment was what I got. It meant that I would no longer be eligible for benefits. It meant that each year I would need to apply for extra courses from other departments to keep my family’s health insurance. Fortunately, I was able to get enough teaching from the Sociology Department, though it involved applying for teaching each year and often not learning the outcome of the application until the last minute. My Sociology appointment would often be for a quarter at a time, so the feeling of precarity never went away. I never felt that I had any real job security, even with a continuing appointment.

Aside from living under continuing threat of losing my family’s health insurance, there have been many other issues during my years as a lecturer here. And I know I’m not alone in that. For example, I’ve been assigned courses that were not in the UCSD General Catalog. Students generally don’t take courses that don’t seem to exist, so those courses always get low enrollment. That low enrollment is used against you in excellence reviews.

Also used against you are negative comments from student evaluations of your teaching. Researchers have shown that student evaluations of teaching are biased in terms of gender and ethnicity, and there are serious doubts about their validity in indicating teaching efficacy, much less “excellence.” Some of this research has been carried out at the University of California. Yet department chairs routinely cherry-pick comments from student evaluations to support or disparage lecturers’ teaching records. In my own case, comments from the quarter in which my mother died back in 2009 (my first year as a lecturer) have persisted in the department chairs’ evaluations of my teaching. No faculty member from either of my departments has ever observed my teaching. I’ve also noticed that one department chair can characterize my evaluations as “very good” while another describes them as “concerning,” which means there is no standard for interpreting student evaluation results.

There is also lack of transparency in performance evaluations. In 2018, the department’s Academic Personnel Specialist forged my signature on my 2018 excellence review, dating it to six weeks before I had even seen the file for the first time. I was sent the final file the day that it was due at the Dean’s Office and only given three hours to review the entire 90-page file (one of which I would be teaching). When I objected, the department faculty re-reviewed my file and voted to give me no merit pay increase, instead of the 3% merit increase they had voted in favor of the first time in response to the exact same file. This has had an impact not only on my paycheck but on my salary level for calculating my retirement benefits. I was being punished for pointing out what was at best a procedural error but was also effectively depriving me of the opportunity to review my file.

On Friday, June 28, 2019, I received an emailed memo from the Dean’s office that I was being laid off effective July 1, 2020, because of “lack of work.” The memo came as a complete surprise, with no mention from my department that a layoff was even being considered Also, while the memo from the Dean cited “lack of work,” it was unable to name the courses they wouldn’t need me to teach—it simply read “(insert course names here)” where the specific courses should have been named. I still haven’t been able to clarify who among the senate faculty will be teaching my courses next year or which courses they didn’t need me to teach. One of the courses was listed as being taught by “staff,” which means a lecturer. (It’s a violation of our contract to offer a continuing lecturer’s course to another lecturer after they’ve been laid off for “lack of work,” for obvious reasons.)

I also found out in December 2019 that, despite my 12-month appointment and being hired to teach additional courses in the Sociology Department, I would be losing my family’s health insurance. I had to spend the first month of 2020 shopping around for health insurance, and I traded in my UCSD HMO with a $150/month premium for a $700/month premium plan and a $12,000 deductible from the California insurance exchange. How can I afford that on a lecturer’s salary? I can’t, so I have basically been pushed into “retirement,” leaving UCSD one quarter earlier than I had planned.

This is my story, and I know there are many lecturers with far worse stories. Many lecturers who were laid off before the continuing appointment, who were hired only from quarter to quarter, who were dropped right before they were due to start teaching a course they had already prepared because a tenured professor decided they wanted to teach it. As a union leader, I heard many of these stories. The abuses are astounding. What lecturers need is to be able to concentrate on their teaching—on serving the students, which is supposed to be the primary mission of the University of California. Instead, we are left dealing with one bureaucratic nightmare after another. This does not improve our ability to teach. It is demeaning, demoralizing, and exhausting. And yet we keep at it, because we care about our students. We only wish that the university administration cared about them as much as we do.

6 thoughts on “Into the light of day

  1. It’s really distressing, Jericho. I totally understand your desire to be where you’re appreciated and valued. At the deepest level, that’s what we crave, in our work. Financial insecurity is bad enough. Soul-killing ill-treatment is the worst. Higher ed has to change (the economic system along with it).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Marie! Thank you for the comment. Yes, higher ed is definitely going to change, but it’s unlikely now that it will change for the better. COVID-19 will likely kill tenure, which could be good, but it’s unlikely that university administrations will go in a more positive direction. The turn to neoliberalism is too entrenched at this point. I think running schools like failing businesses is going to become the norm. I wish I could be more positive about it, but this is what I’m seeing happening right now.

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    1. That’s why a change in the entire political economy is needed as well. I forgot to say i loved “basically lifetime employment unless they sleep with too many undergrads or publicly support Palestine or something else in ‘poor taste.'” So much paradigm shift is needed. As Naomi Klein says, the house is on fire. That means pretty much all institutions at this time. I’m glad you’re seeing something better in Mongolia. Would that this country learned from other models around the world. But that’s too much to ask, clearly.

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  3. I’m not sure things are any better in Mongolia. There is a lot of corruption there, and the government has on the surface accepted a turn to a US-style neoliberal capitalism, but with an authoritarian communist hangover. And the Chinese influence is apparent, too, though mostly unwelcome. It’s an interesting mix of problems.

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