When someone asks me what I do for a living, I say I’m a teacher.
“Oh?” they ask. “What grade?”
“Actually, I teach university students, at UCLA,” I say.
“Ah, you’re a professor, then,” they offer.
“Actually, I’m a lecturer,” I say.
“You teach at UCLA, right? So aren’t you a professor?” they ask.
“Not exactly,” I say.
In fact, there are two kinds of faculty teaching at major universities these days: professors and lecturers, or some other kind of adjunct faculty. Almost any UCLA undergraduate course could just as easily be taught by a lecturer as by a professor. From the student’s point of view, instructors all look the same: You go to class, hear lectures, take exams, do projects, maybe visit the teacher in office hours and never really know whether that person behind the lectern is a lecturer or a professor.
However, there are differences. For one thing, lecturers don’t get a seat in the faculty senate. Also, we get less recognition overall and we make less money. Furthermore, most of us can only get a part-time contract, so we might end up teaching one course at UCLA on Mondays and Wednesdays, and teaching somewhere else Tuesdays and Thursdays.
By denying lecturers a seat in the Academic Senate, the University of California suppresses the input of almost half of its undergraduate teaching faculty. By offering a majority of lecturers only part-time appointments, the University destabilizes undergraduate education by promoting discontinuity in course content and teaching methods. And by paying lecturers significantly less than professors, it lowers the morale of the very people who teach many of its undergraduate courses.
The good news for students is that lecturers are usually more student-centered and tuned in to student needs. This is because professors are hired mainly for their research, while lecturers are hired to teach. And while some professors might want to focus more on teaching, today’s university system discourages it.
As Jacques Berlinerblau puts it in his book “Campus Confidential: How College Works, or Doesn’t, for Professors, Parents, and Students,” professors are tacitly rewarded for avoiding teaching undergraduates as much as possible. That is through no fault of their own, but because of the way the system works: Professors’ careers advance in academically important ways – grants, publications, prestige, notoriety – by them paying comparatively less attention to teaching undergraduates than to their research.
The inconvenient truth is that in today’s large universities, teaching affords less prestige to the scholar than research does – research is thought to be in a higher realm of scholarship. Now more than ever, universities invest large sums of money in a few “star” professors who will bring in grant money, endowments and high U.S. News & World Report rankings, while giving few resources to faculty whose primary passion lies in the classroom. Just last month, UCLA was ranked by Times Higher Education as the No. 1 public institution in the U.S., and UCLA routinely ranks near the top in research performance and many other indicators, such as student diversity.
Things weren’t always this way, though. Before Proposition 13 and the massive state budget cuts in the 1980s, almost all university courses were taught by professors. But, for financial reasons, universities have had to let their professorship dwindle and consequently have increasingly relied on lecturers and other adjunct contingent faculty to do the teaching.
The use of lecturers as a significant teaching force is part of a global trend toward relying on contingent workers. For example, Uber drivers and freelance web designers have plenty of “freedom,” but also have little to no access to health or retirement benefits, and don’t always know where their next job is coming from. Their lives are thus less stable than the lives of workers with reliable employment. Similarly, the University keeps most of us lecturers guessing about our next appointment, and we end up only focusing half of our energies on teaching our students, with the other half on keeping our jobs or finding other ones.
In both business and academia, the management almost entirely reaps the benefits when a contingent workforce is in place. In the case of lecturers, the University benefits from hiring highly qualified personnel with very high standards while avoiding many of the responsibilities that employers traditionally have to their workers, such as offering health and retirement benefits.
I love my job, my students and my teaching – as most of my colleagues undoubtedly do. And we do our very best to give you, our students, the experience and education that you deserve and have paid for, despite the UC allocating fewer resources to teaching and focusing more on securing grant funding and sought-after rankings. We do this work because we believe in it. And the University knows that we will keep coming back for the opportunity to do the work that we love, even if the pay is lousy and the conditions are not fair.
Lisovsky is a lecturer in UCLA Writing Programs. He is also president of Local 1990 of the University Council of the American Federation of Teachers, a union which represents UC lecturers and librarians.