Let’s Talk About Precarity (4/4) What’s in a name?

What’s in a name? Lecturer vs Teaching Fellow

In the fourth and final post of our series presenting the results of our survey on precarity amongst early-career researchers and their students in French History, we look at differences between hiring practices and the impact of these differences on individual careers as well as upon teaching and learning. What did our respondents have to say about the ways in which their institutions have recognized, categorized and rewarded their work?

Good practice vs. bad practice

Respondents were very keen to share examples of both good and bad practice when it comes to the impact of short-term/precarious contracts. More often than not, both could be found within the same institution:

“Good: I was given the opportunity to undertake an HEA-recognised qualification in the year that I worked there, thus helping me improve my teaching and my supporting of students’ learning. I also had a lot of practical and moral support from colleagues in the department. Bad: since I was on a temporary contract, the teaching qualification was ‘optional’ rather than compulsory as for new permanent staff. So whereas new permanent staff had time set aside in their allocated workload to study for it, temporary staff (all of whom chose to take it) did not. We were doing a postgrad qualification in our own – unpaid – time, on top of a teaching load that was considerably heavier than that of permanent staff. The situation would be improved by building in paid time for all staff to undertake a teaching qualification, including temporary/fractional staff.”

In other cases, well-intentioned gestures on the part of the department were stymied by the atomising effects of fractional contracts: “One of the teaching institutions I worked with ran a Teaching Assistant forum which was quite helpful… (but) turnout was low as TAs all teach on different days and understandably avoid to come back on campus for non-compulsory meetings.”

Examples of unequivocally bad practice and its consequences included:

• “Lack of institutional knowledge… combined with not having any sort of induction and a real lack of leadership from the convenors of the modules I work on.”

• “assuming temporary staff will be fine teaching far outside their comfort zone (often we become good at it, but it seems unfair to students who expect specialists)”.

• “over-burdening short-term staff with marking when they already have to devote considerable time to lecture-writing and class preparation. During one of my teaching contracts (a one-year Lectureship) I had so much marking to do (including weekly marking) that I had to give considerably less feedback than I would have liked and than the students deserved; my full-time colleagues, on a lighter teaching load, did not have this issue.”

• “Short-term contracts seldom come with the small research amount awarded to permanent members of staff, yet many academics on short term contracts are not paid through the summer… (so) it is impossible to afford presenting at conferences.”

The knock-on effects of bad employment practices for student learning may seem self-evident to paid-up members of the academic precariat, but they remain largely unrecognised by institutions, according to our respondents. Nevertheless, students themselves are increasingly conscious of them: “I have heard students express frustration at being taught by people who are only there for a few months: when students return to the material to revise they cannot turn to the member of staff who taught them for guidance. This would, of course, be improved by lengthening contracts—but it would also be helpful to make students aware that this was the case and stress that they need to make the most of their lectures and seminars while the staff member is still in post.”

Examples of good practice were fewer, but they were present in the responses. Here are a few:

• “those who go on sabbatical/are being covered sharing lecture notes and slides or seminar handouts, so the course ‘feel’ remains the same even with a temporary staff member.”

• “course unit directors on team-taught courses meeting temporary staff members to talk through expectations.”

• “giving temporary staff a choice regarding what lectures/classes they teach, so they can play to their teaching and research strengths.”

TF off

The common practice of advertising academic jobs as Teaching Fellowships rather than as lectureships had few fans (in fact only one “cautious supporter” who went on to criticise the practice). There was a strong sense that it contributed to the sedimentation of a hierarchical, “two-tier system” to separate those who were paid to research from those who, whilst still conducting research, were neither recognised nor paid for it. Many respondents noted the hypocrisy of departments which, whilst unwilling to include time and money for research in contracts, expect nonetheless that TFs engage in research-led teaching.

“Departments and universities know that they can advertise a six-month, 0.5 teaching-only contract and bright, capable people with PhDs in hand will flock to it, because they need it. Teaching Fellowships are sheer exploitation: it is a matter of fact that ECRs need publications to get jobs. It is a matter of fact that their teaching will be informed by their research. Therefore to not pay ECRs for their research is to exploit them, and to compel them to do it, unpaid, in their own time.”

And there were examples of discrimination in practice:

• “as a temporary lecturer, I was fortunate in that I had my application to share in the departmental research funding pot prioritised because my contract was fixed-term. But my job title was Lecturer. Those whose title was TF – in the same department – were not even allowed to apply. That was pretty disgusting given that they were ECRs just like me who needed to be producing research outputs in order to get their next job and who were in practice expected to be engaging in research-led teaching.’

Some respondents have been advised against accepting TFs, in more or less subtle terms. One recalled that: “My supervisor said teaching fellowships were getting ECRs to do other people’s heavy lifting. I’d agree!”, whilst another remembers their supervisor advising them to work (“in McDonalds if necessary”) and write to publish on the side rather than accepting “exploitative” teaching work that would prevent them from building a publication profile. A respondent noted that, having held a (temporary) Lectureship, they “would not now even apply for a Teaching Fellowship” and that, having now realised how comparatively exploitative they are, would rather leave academia than accept one.

Institutions, as more than one response made clear, could help by being “more ‘generous’ with their job titles” where a teaching-heavy temporary lectureship and a teaching fellowship more often than not amount to the same thing in practice, but carry very different amounts of prestige and indeed are paid at different grades. We might ultimately conclude that departments, by advertising jobs as Teaching Fellowships rather than as Lectureships, are not only denying themselves the opportunity to hire some of the most talented people, but even driving them out of the sector altogether, to where they might gain more stable and well-paid employment in other professions.

What do we want?

As well as eliciting and providing evidence of key grievances, we have tried to use this survey to garner a degree of hope, optimism, and practical advice as to how change might be effected. Our respondents had plenty of good ideas about what steps institutions might make to render ECRs’ lives bearable and at the same time to improve students’ experience of teaching. Key to these were, firstly, proper teacher training and support to gain a professional affiliation, included in the pay and hours, along with time for research. Respondents called for: “paid teacher training as many ECRs have to do their HEA fellowship etc at the point when they have the least time, money, freedom”; “encouragement and funding to apply to join the HEA”; and to “build in research time and time to get teaching qualifications into all contracts.” Some pointed to the need to ease the transition from department outsider to department insider, asking for: “meaningful preparation for teaching in a particular university context. It is not enough to have faculty ‘guidelines’, but new teaching staff need actual guidance by experienced members of the institutions about what to expect and how to deal with student expectations.” Similarly, “avoid lumping new, temporary staff with particularly heavy teaching loads” and instead “gradually increas(e) teaching load: when I started I had to suddenly teach a bunch of courses outside of my specialism and this nearly gave me a nervous breakdown—teaching should start gently.” Among the most prominent of calls, finally, was that “resources used by previous post holders should be made available.” Respondents asked for “a central bank of resources, and more support at individual institutions, e.g. sample lesson plans.” They suggested that permanently-employed colleagues can lighten the burden on ECRs if they “share teaching resources without having to be asked. That would make so much difference.”

What further questions need to be asked? What are your experiences? Please share below, or via #FHNPrecarity on Twitter.

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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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