O Captain, my Captain

Posted by September Blue Thursday, 17 April 2008

If you haven't yet read what Sisyphus has to say on the subject of how undergrads' education is affected when they're taught by those of us with eighteen jobs, no money, and a complete absence of job security in whatever teaching position(s) we've got, then you should. A sample:

Students don’t want rigor or quality even if they know that’s what they should want. It takes not only time and effort and experience as a teacher to push them to what they really can achieve rather than what they want to get away with ---- not only these qualities but also a certain sense of security, a willingness to be tough, to be respected rather than loved. And that’s not going to happen if next quarter’s employment rests on getting great evaluations and next year’s rests on getting out another article and 50 more applications out this month.

She's right, and it's something I've been thinking about a bit recently, trying to shuffle my teaching and my various other jobs around so that all of them get done to a passable standard. And 'passable' would be the word. I'm not saying that my students are getting completely screwed over, but they're not getting the same kind of deal that they used to, either. And there is nothing like working alongside this year's new TAs to have this brought home to you, believe me.

(Here, I'll go a little way towards defending myself by pointing out that some teaching-related corners could do with cutting once in a while. There's definitely a law of diminishing returns when it comes to teaching prep, and after a certain point, spending even more time preparing for your class can actually work against you; I know I've fallen into the 'damn it, I spent ages reading all this vaguely relevant secondary material, and if you eighteen-year-old first-years aren't going to come up with the same insights all by yourselves, you'll just have to sit here and listen while I lecture at you for three-quarters of a discussion class!' trap, back in the past. There's a happy medium. As for whether I'm currently hitting that medium, though, well... maybe. Possibly. No.)

But at least my teaching's getting done, to a point that's definitely a lot more... pointy... than some of my other stuff. If I cut too many corners on teaching, it'll have an immediate effect on my students; if I cut too many corners on job applications or working on publications or getting my damn PhD thesis hardbound and handed over to Registry, then that only affects me, and the effects won't become visible for a while. And it's the same way with the rewards: teaching can pay off instantly with a good, talkative class, and lets me actually feel like I'm doing fairly well at some part of academia; applying for jobs and working on publications and looking at my PhD ever ever again, on the other hand, is just misery-inducing. So when I do have spare time, it's... not exactly going towards advancing my research profile, if you see what I mean.

Anyway, I seem to have got off-track. Where I wanted to go with this is a conversation I had a few weeks ago with one of my friends, a TA who's nearly finished her PhD. Because there are some weighty staff shortages in her department, and because she's really good at (and enthusiastic about) teaching a particular part of her field that's notoriously difficult for students to get a grip on - let's say, French theory, although it's not - my friend's ended up with quite the teaching load. Quite the teaching load. Lectures, classes and sciencey-related lab things in large number. She's been happy with this so far, but now that she's close to done with her thesis - and now that her funding's close to gone - she's thinking about some other plans.

So, my friend speaks to her head of department, after he e-mails to let her know that she'll be given the same teaching load for the next academic year too. Says, well, you know I love teaching, but my funding's running out, and this won't cover my rent. So, here's an idea. You were vaguely talking about hiring a teaching fellow for next year if I left, right? Why don't you hire me at pro-rata teaching fellow pay for, well, let's call this part-time?

Splutters, worried-looking frowns, &c. Listen, he says, I know you're a great teacher, and I agree with you - the workload you've got here is easily what I'd class as 0.5 part-time for a teaching fellow. But I really don't think we can afford that at the moment. The students love you, though, and we don't have anybody who can teach the [French theory] stuff, definitely not as well as you can... how about you stay on your current pay for next semester, and we'll maybe think again the semester after that?

No deal, she says. Sorry, and you know I do love teaching, but on that workload I can't fit in enough hours elsewhere to get paid enough to live off when it's all added up.

Please, he says.

Sorry, she says.

An aggrieved sigh. Think about your students, he says.

No, she says. Your students.

She's my current TA hero for saying it, but it's a bleak, bleak world where such is the case.


  1. Francofou Says:
  2. "She's my current TA hero for saying it, but it's a bleak, bleak world where such is the case."


  3. Laz Says:
  4. You already know I think you guys are getting shafted... All TAs need to seriously think about banding together and working towards better pay and conditions for all. I believe when people do this it's called a Union. Maggie didn't completely destroy them, although she certainly tried...