A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Premature Death of a Course: A Glimpse into how Universities Value the People they Pay to Teach

Last Fall I saw a Facebook post from a former student of mine from Shanghai who is now studying at the University of Michigan. In the post, he commented on Ann Arbor's air quality and expressed sadness and concern for his parents living in Beijing, for whom he'd just bought a new air filter. Coincidentally, directly below that post, Facebook showed me this meme, which had been shared by a history professor acquaintance of mine:
The juxtaposition of my former student's post and the professor's post got me thinking about the language of abjection with which we talk about pollution in China, and Beijing specifically, and about how air pollution constitutes a kind of Faustian bargain with the mephistophelean forces of industrialization and modernization. And it got me thinking about the history of that Faustian bargain--how it started in Europe, moved westward across the Atlantic, and now had moved westward across the Pacific.

These thoughts stuck in my brain for a few months, and by January I had come up with an idea for a course that I wanted to teach examining the history of urban air pollution. The course would consist of three units: one on nineteenth century London, one on twentieth century Los Angeles, and one on twenty-first century Beijing. The course would be interdisciplinary; within each unit we would examine scientific questions (chemically speaking, what was the air pollution in each of these cities, where did it come from, how was it measured, and how did it affect human's health and the environment?), humanistic questions (how did artists and activists work to make the air pollution visible and represent its effects?), and sociopolitical questions (how did politicians and regulators address the problem of air pollution?). The course would begin with Oscar Wilde's observation in "The Decay of Lying" that painters were responsible for making London's fog visible:
Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to a particular school of Art.
And it would end with the artist Nut Brother's recent work, creating a brick out of Beijing's air pollution:
I talked to several professors about the course, and they recommended that I propose teaching it for U-M's Program in the Environment (PitE). I wrote up a proposal and in April I met with the program's director, who happened to be a former professor of mine. He loved the idea, and wanted me to teach it as a 300-level PitE course in Winter 2017.

There was just one complication.

As I've documented on this blog, I've been a contingent faculty member at the University of Michigan since I completed my Ph.D. in 2013. My rank is Lecturer 1. U-M has four levels of Lecturer, Lec 1 being the lowest. In my experience over the past three years, the most frustrating thing about being a Lec 1 has been the instability--I'm hired from semester to semester, and never know whether I will be teaching, and if so, what classes I will be assigned, until the last minute. Twice I've been laid off for lack of work: in the Winter 2014 semester I had to take a temp job at the library to pay the bills, and in Winter 2016 I was fired from the English Department and the writing center, only to get a last minute partial appointment at the Honors College.

This past year, fed up with this uncertainty and seeing the hopes of a more stable faculty position rapidly dwindling, I decided to make a transition into academic libraries. I had already applied to and come close to being hired by several academic libraries; I decided to go back to school for a Master of Science in Information (MSI) to increase my chances of securing a good position in that field. This would have the added benefit of giving me something to do in Ann Arbor for the next two years while my wife finished her Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology. We could then go on the job market together with several career options between the two of us.

I had initially hoped to pay for the MSI degree by applying to become a University Library Associate (ULA), but, as luck would have it, the ULA program was discontinued for the upcoming school year. My backup plan was to pay for the degree by teaching as a Graduate Student Instructor (GSI). And that's where the PitE course comes in.

PitE has offered me a position for Winter 2017, but they have offered it to me at the rank of Lec 1. Now, previously, it had been the instability that frustrated me about work as a Lec 1, but now, from the vantage point of someone who is going back to graduate school, the disparity in financial compensation is coming into sharp relief. It's important to note that at U-M, a Lec 1 and a GSI can do essentially the same work: they can both be hired as a the instructor of record, teaching their own course, or they can be hired to lead discussion sections for a Professor's large lecture class, like a "teaching assistant" (though we don't use the term TA here in any official way). However, according to the standard contracts for a GSI and a Lec 1, the work looks very different in terms of how we are compensated. Let's look at a side-by-side of what a GSI might get for teaching one course vs. what a Lec 1 might get for teaching the same course:

Lec 1
% appointment?
Tuition waiver?
Full tuition waiver, the value of which can vary depending on the school. For the School of Information it is $10,000 per semester.
No compensation equivalent to the tuition waiver.
Approximately $10,000
Approximately $6,000
Health care?
Only for appointments over 50%

Now, I should note that GSIs only teach one course per semester, and because Lecturers usually are hired at a 100% appointment (three courses per semester), they typically do receive health care and their take home pay is substantially higher than graduate students. I should also note that, compared to many universities, these rates of compensation are something U-M should be proud of, and are the result of hard work on the part of the graduate students' union, GEO, and the lecturers' union, LEO. But still, looking at this information side by side, it's striking to note the disparity in how two ranks of university employees are compensated for doing the same work, especially considering that GSIs, almost my definition, are inexperienced instructors without advanced degrees, while Lec 1s are experienced teachers with MFAs or PhDs. I think this disparity speaks rather clearly to the university's priorities, which lie more with cultivating future scholars than with compensating professional teachers. The sad irony is that those future scholars are more likely to end up in a job that looks like a Lec 1 position than one that looks like a tenure track professorship.

I haven't yet decided whether to accept PitE's offer to teach the course in Winter 2017 as a Lec 1 with a 33% appointment, or to see if I can find a GSI position with another department. PhD programs at U-M typically guarantee GSI positions to their students--I had ten semesters of support as a GSI during my PhD program--but the School of Information offers its MSI students no such guarantee, meaning I have to apply to positions one at a time. There are few GSI positions in the School of Information, and positions in other departments are difficult to obtain for applicants outside of the department. For the Fall semester, I applied for over 20 positions in different departments and only last week received an offer to teach discussion sections for a class in the Screen Arts and Cultures Department. It's a gamble, but right now I'm inclined to let the PitE course die a premature death.

The urban air pollution course is a passion project of mine, and such being the case I have been willing to put in the extra work of building the course from scratch. But passion won't pay my tuition, or my rent, or my grocery bills, or my doctor's bills.