Let’s Talk About Precarity (3/4): Precarity and Teaching

Pedagogy of the depressed? 

In this third post in our series addressing the experience of precarity amongst French historians in the early stages of their careers, we look at the issue of teaching. On the whole, our respondents indicated that they enjoy educating the next generation of historians and students of the Francophone world. But it does seem that teaching is becoming a particularly contentious ball in the early-career juggling act. The combination of low pay, isolation, overwork and pressure to perform that many of us tolerate as standard often appears absurd to our family and friends in other walks of life. This combination can, indeed, leave us feeling as though we’re not only performing a juggling act, but are also doing so unicycling on a tightrope, blindfolded, over a pool of hungry sharks.

This may seem like a rather dramatic analogy. But as the last post in this series made clear, some of the difficulties experienced by our respondents – particularly as regards to pay, work-related health problems, and simply having a roof over one’s head and a community to live amongst – are truly existential. Many postdoctoral workers and PhD students on temporary, hourly-paid and fractional teaching contracts are not being paid enough to live on: often far less than the £9000+ per year paid in tuition fees by their students. And, much as teaching can be truly rewarding and exciting, the responses to our survey raise the question of the extent to which departments and universities take advantage of the enthusiasm and energy of “younger” colleagues when it comes to teaching. Are we being left drained and cynical as well as skint? And what is the impact of this upon our students’ learning?

In what follows, we relate how our respondents described tackling the challenges of teaching in the UK university in 2017. What is the impact of precarity on teaching and learning – and on teachers themselves? As well as the big issues, we look at some more specific questions, on which opinion proved more variable. Do we feel supported or ignored by our departments and colleagues, and why? Are we more likely to have to teach outside of our research specialism than more established colleagues, and if so, to what extent are we – and the students – OK with this? Is energy being wasted on duplicating preparation for the same courses as they are taught by different people, year after year, and are there issues of copyright and intellectual property of which we should be aware? What of the TEF? We round off the post by recounting some of the ways in which our respondents are already dealing with the demands placed on them. What more can we do, and what more can we demand?

Summer grubbin’: term-time and teaching-only contracts

As certain colleagues on permanent contracts would have it, a nine-month or ten-month, teaching-only contract leaves the ‘early-career’ (this term surely by now being a euphemism for precariously-employed) academic with a glorious month or three to go digging in the archives by day and building sandcastles on the Côte d’Azur by evening. Our respondents begged to differ, indicating the impossibility of undertaking meaningful research in the summer whilst not earning a salary to bankroll it. As one put it:

“What I find is often left out of conversations about short-term contracts are the in-betweens (generally summer) periods. Last summer, I had 3 different contracts in July and August – so the ‘oh you are on a 10-month contract so you will get to spend the summer working on your research’ makes me annoyed to say the least.”

Other responses indicate that unemployment – whether during three months in the summer (a quarter of the year!) or indefinitely, whilst seeking the next position – is a condition common to the holder of a History or a French PhD. A teaching-only contract is usually synonymous with a temporary contract, and not knowing what comes next nor where the next pay cheque is coming from was – as we explored in the last post – is a great cause of stress amongst respondents.

Mixing it up: teaching outside your specialism

All respondents had taught outside their research specialisms, but we detected mixed feelings about this. For some, it represented an opportunity “to think in broader terms and understand bigger processes that affect my special field”. But most felt positively about the practice only to the extent that their financial position left them stable enough to absorb extra work. “The first time, I massively over-prepared. It helped, but would be unsustainable in the future (at the time it was part-time teaching whilst on a funded PhD, so I was not completely relying on that money to survive).” Efficiency in planning and teaching was found to come only with significant “experience”, and so “help from wonderful colleagues” was considered to be all the more crucial, particularly at first. There was praise for the module leader who “was incredibly organised and helpful to (those) teaching the seminars, literally giving them lesson plans that covered everything… Without that support, I’d have been in trouble”.

On the other hand, almost all respondents described teaching outside their specialism in terms of being “stressful” and taking “a lot of extra preparation and reading”, something which was generally found to leave (even) less time for research. Respondents were likely to be covering courses that an academic in a permanent position was able to create to correspond to his or her own specialism. When ECRs are offered the ‘opportunity’ to create their own course, it is all too often – as Harry Stopes’ piece for the LRB blog pointed out – in their own time, and at their own expense. Precariously-employed university teachers are subsidising the very institutions that refuse to provide them with stable work.

On the positive side, our respondents had plenty of tips and advice for others in similar situations. These boiled down to two things: first, “strategic teaching planning (i.e. identifying key books, key questions)” ; second, asking for help. “Ask colleagues for advice and resources”, suggested one respondent, who also gave a timely reminder to ECRs that they can and must have confidence in themselves and their ability to apply the knowledge and skills from their research to other situations. “I remember that I have a PhD, a solid and wide knowledge base and excellent research skills and therefore can teach pretty much any aspect of literature. Also I’m no longer afraid to say ‘I don’t know’ and turn a situation into an opportunity for students to find answers themselves from reputable sources.” Instead of accepting to be overworked, can we cultivate, harness and deploy this kind of (merited) self-esteem and confidence in order to demand better conditions for ourselves?

Duplication of teaching prep

Most were emphatic: duplication of teaching prep can, and should, be avoided. The responses clearly indicated that current provision to support lecturers covering other people’s courses is far too patchy. Much depends on the presence and/or generosity of previous teachers of the course:

“Luckily I knew my predecessor and we had a discussion about what he had done; he offered me his notes and reading lists for certain topics, which I used as a springboard to develop my own. A system would be useful, however, as I was only able to avoid duplicating work by chance.”

The consensus from the respondents was that there should be systems in place within each department to ensure that temporary staff are not carrying out work which effectively duplicates that undertaken by multiple predecessors assigned, year after year, to the same modules. Where this is unavoidable, departments should ensure that the new work is properly recognised and paid for. A number of respondents suggested that collectivising teaching resources within a department would help, but had reservations about giving their work away: “Departments should be alive to the stresses of short-term teaching staff on such courses and therefore provide a ‘pool’ of resources (lecture slides, even lecture notes, seminar handouts – or at least advice on how to construct these for the relevant course). I myself have given lecture slides and sometimes notes to fellow short-term teaching staff friends and colleagues, even though we could all be up against each other in an interview in the near future! Yet I am obviously reluctant to share too much, so I would understand why other staff members, even permanent ones, would feel similar.” Another suggested taking matters into our own hands: “Perhaps there should be an open-access central ‘bank’ or wiki of lesson plans and resource sets somewhere.”

One respondent was concerned about lecture capture and podcasting: “Some students are pushing for podcasts of lectures, which I find worrying if the institution could then claim copyright. The same is potentially true of video lectures, so one could spend considerable time writing a lecture, only to find that it would be legally problematic to give it again elsewhere!” This comment brings to light the surely under-examined area of intellectual property and copyright in relation to the work of precariously-employed lecturers. (Are there any budding lawyers amongst French historians willing to offer advice on such matters?) Yet, as one response indicated, perhaps legal clarity and systematisation could work against ECRs as much as for them. “On the one hand, it is dismaying to design a course singlehandedly when you know your work will stay with the university once you leave in the very foreseeable future. On the other hand, short-term staff should be allowed to gain access to others’ materials, as they do not have the time to design their own material.”

How, finally, can we gauge the impact of university teachers’ precarity on students and their learning? We welcome your ideas below, or via #FHNPrecarity on Twitter.

The dreaded TEF

What seems clear is that the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) contains little or nothing that acknowledges the problem of precarious employment. All respondents were in 2017 aware of the forthcoming Teaching Excellence Framework, though almost half only “vaguely”. There was an utter absence of knowledge and clarity about what the TEF will mean in practice, and for whom. Perhaps, now that the first results are in, FHN networkers might wish to share their thoughts on the TEF on social media (@frhistnwk) or “below the line” here? (NB all comments on this blog get moderated before being posted!) In any case, our survey indicated a very marked general sense that precariously-employed staff can only be “more stressed out” by the measure. Our respondents did express that teaching quality does need to be better recognised. None, however, had any faith that the TEF will help. The only note of hope was that: “perhaps… all that teaching experience could look even more attractive for a permanent job, as universities seek to increase their TEF ranking.”

“It will add another element of pressure for those on short-term contracts, without necessarily leading to an improvement in teaching. A greater concern with teaching quality in general (not that the TEF will necessarily represent this!) could help early career staff to get more recognition for the work they do.” “I fear it may become a paralysing factor, as it will put even more pressure on early career teaching staff, who have so far developed their own teaching methods through contact with students.” Another respondent summed up the feelings of most of the rest in stating that the impact of the TEF would be “probably negative: already there is a high teaching load for most short-term positions; now it will be judged even more rigorously and may increase, undermining already-rare research time even further. It could also splinter ECRs into those who ‘research’ and those who ‘teach’ – you could get stuck as a ‘teacher’ and never be able to leave short-term contracts because you had no time to carry out research (this is admittedly already the case).”

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Sarah Wood and Ellen Crabtree would like to thank all the respondents who took part in the survey for candidly sharing their experiences.

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