UCI Composition and Workload Inequalities

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Recently a UCI humanities graduate program alumnus wrote a piece for Slate called “Thesis Hatement.” It’s one of those “don’t go to grad school” diatribes that crop up about once or twice a year. The biggest problem, according to the author, is that the university is relying more and more on adjunct and lecturers to teach, and those longed-for tenure track jobs are all starting to dry up. This is undeniable. But Karen Gregory wrote a response on her blog titled “You’re fucked, and you’re probably to blame” which makes a wonderful point:

‘[I]f you realized the Pannapacker “Truth,” then did you then get involved in your union, in an activist group, in an education alternative (like the Free University), or in a conversation with your students? When did you start realizing that a career in academics also means addressing the very conditions of our labor? What have you done besides comparing the kind of tenacity it takes to be a graduate student today to being a willful smoker who smokes “four packs a day” and hopes to not get cancer?’

It’s with this imperative in mind that I would like to address some of the working conditions that we are laboring under at UCI, at our own university. Specifically, I am thinking about courses I have taught myself: Writing 39B, Writing 39C and English 28C, though this extends to the other sections of W39 and E28, and probably to W139 as well.

When we think of the neoliberalization or privatization of the university, we generally don’t think of the humanities. These phrases usually conjure up massive hundred person classes in other disciplines which can test right-or-wrong answers, full of anonymous students and graded through scantron machines. We don’t think about our small, twenty-plus seminars where the instructors meticulously engage with student writing and thought. But more and more, I have become convinced that this is a major site of the neoliberalization of the university, and I have become more and more uncomfortable with the way composition and the E28 series is structured.

One of the major dimensions of neoliberalism is the production and reliance on contingent labor, a flexible workforce. That is, the ability on the part of employers to have a flexible workforce allows maximum profit extraction by 1. denying the pay, benefits and retirement fund that workers are due because of their seniority and experience, 2. ensuring that wages remain low by having a large back-up pool of unemployed or underemployed potential workers, and 3. maintaining flexibility in terms of labor (the ability to hire and fire rapidly, a fast turnover rate) in order to respond as rapidly as possible to changing market demand. Whereas the U.S. economy used to be founded on stable, reliable careers which built the middle-class, the trend that began in the latter half of the 20th century is towards more precarious jobs—more part time, more seasonal, and more self-employed (i.e. subcontracting).

In the university setting, this translates to fewer tenure-track positions and more lecturer and adjunct positions. These latter can be fired and hired at will; on the flipside, tenure is a very stable working condition. Tenure-track is more expensive, too. I don’t have access to concrete numbers, but I believe that lecturers make about half the salary that beginning tenure-track faculty make (but I’m not sure—I am more than willing to accept that this is a gross misestimate). Overall, it is in the university’s bottom-line economic interest to have more adjunct and lecturer positions, though it could damage the school’s reputation and hurt it in the long run. If the university cared for such things—I’m not convinced our school does anymore.

The English department at UCI (which houses writing and composition) is at the forefront of this trend. In Fall of 2011, the English department had 33.39 tenure-track faculty, and 23.9 lecturer positions for a total of 57.29 faculty overall (just roll with the odd calculations that lead to fractional headcounts, that’s not important here). This means that the English department instructor body is approximately 42% lecturer positions. To give some context: Classics has about 30% (though one of the lecturer positions were of the more stable “security of employment” kind, so only about 15% were Unit-18, the more contingent position), History has about 8%, while some programs, such as African-American studies and Philosophy, have 0%—no lecturers at all. The two departments which are arguably the closest to English in terms of disciplinary concerns and methods differ wildly but are both much lower: Film and Media studies has about 17% and Comparative Literature did not hire any lectures Fall quarter of 2011, but did have .37 lecturers in Fall quarter of 2010, which comes out to about 3%. The only programs in the Humanities which have higher percentages than English are departments that teach a lot of undergraduates complicated languages: East Asian Literature and Language (49%), and French and Italian (42%). (All data from the UCI Office of Institutional Research. You can find the specific document here. Note: I am ignoring Academic English because I am not exactly sure what they are and what their relationship with English and Composition is.)

Now, during last year’s campus-wide assessment of departments, English was singled out as one of the strong departments within the Humanities, it was deemed as one to “protect” (you can see how the Academic Planning Group and Academic council voted on it here).  One of the major factors that went into this calculation is the ratio of student credit hours per faculty (a.k.a. how many “butts in the seat” did faculty teach?) and majors per faculty (a.k.a. how many English major students were there compared to faculty?). We are not sure what the student credit hours per faculty number for English is, but from the “Needs Attention” memo, English had a Majors-to-faculty ratio of 23.04:1. This data looks like it comes from the 2010-2011 year, and in fall of that year there were 647 English students (find the numbers here). Working backwards, this means that the number of faculty used in this calculation is 28.08 (on the books there were 33.5 tenure-track faculty members, and 58.64 overall tenure-track plus lecturers). I am not able to reproduce exactly the calculations, but these numbers are fairly close, so it is clear that the number of faculty used in the assessment doesn’t consider lecturers. If lecturers were considered, then the majors to faculty ratio would be much lower. (If you are unaware of the “Needs Attention” memo and its implications, I wrote a reading guide for it last year, though I was unaware some key aspects of the situation.)

What is the upshot of these numbers? Basically, because the university doesn’t consider lecturers in their calculations, this means that there are fewer faculty members on the books. The work that lecturers do, the effort, labor and attention they give to individual students, becomes invisible, as the numbers of students taught are attributed to tenure-track faculty who do not ever see these students. This then looks very “productive” to the university administration. Consider the status of a course like 39C, which has about 69 sections of about 20 students each this quarter. That’s over 1,300 students a quarter! All in all, there are about 117 sections total for 39A, B and C this quarter, and assuming that there are on average 20 students per class, that’s about 2,300 students taught by lecturers and TAs, overseen by one tenure-track faculty. Now picture this as it would look from the administration’s calculations: over 2,300 students taught per faculty member! There are very few other courses—if any!—that can match this ratio on campus.

But it’s not just lecturers whose face-to-face work with students that’s effaced, it’s also graduate student TAs. Take E28, which has 6 sections and teaches 146 students this quarter. E28 TAs plan class, assignments, and readings and is overseen by one course director. To the university, that looks like one faculty member teaches 146 students, though in reality the vast bulk of actual instruction is done by graduate student workers.  The same holds, of course, for the TAs who teach sections of the 39 series.

Having TAs and lecturers teach is very cheap for the university, and in this era of funding cuts (which are still coming, even after the passing of Proposition 30), the university wants to cut costs as much as possible. But the view from the bottom is that the stable, secure tenure-track jobs are disappearing in favor of jobs that pay poorly, have no benefits and are very insecure. We graduate students bemoan the growing dearth of tenure-track positions, even as we work in the exact conditions under which these positions are disappearing. And it’s very hard to act against that which we support, and which also supports us. Teaching these courses can be a great experience, though the emotional and psychic workload (if not the countable hourly workload) is very heavy. I, for one, loved teaching 39C and E28, and would love to do so again. But at some point, don’t we have a responsibility—to our students, to UCI’s future and the future of public education in general, as well as our own future job prospects—to demand that it be otherwise? I will not pretend to know what, exactly, a better university would look like, nor how to achieve it. I do know, however, that it begins with demanding to have our labor, our time, effort, and attention, recognized by the university. It begins with transparency in our institution. And with our work being visible.

In his Spring Memo for 2013 our new Dean, Dean Georges Van Den Abbeele, mentions that “workload inequalities” will continue to be a concern for the humanities. I agree with this concern, though I am not sure that we would be in agreement as to the nature of the workload inequalities in the humanities. This phrase raises again the specter of the calculating logic of the “Needs Attention” framework, and we must make sure that it does not simply repeat the bean-counting “butts-in-the-seat” modes of assessment that the former endorsed. “Workload inequalities” must not only look at students as simply numbers, but should take into consideration the different modes of teaching at work across the campus; it must take into consideration actual labor being done, rather than students processed. This is paramount not only for our own working conditions, but also for the quality of education we offer our students.