Teaching by Numbers That Don’t Add Up; or, Not in the Mood to Celebrate an Anniversary

On the eve of the tenth anniversary of broadcastellan, I look back at what this blog once was and what it has been reduced to over the years.  The neglect is due in part to the fact that I struggled to engage an audience or generate interest in my study on radio, which, under the title Immaterial Culture, was eventually published as an academic book in 2013.  I think a copy of it still lies in some corner of the Theatre and Television department of Aberystwyth University, the institution that is my current employer.  It attests to the lack of imagination, ingenuity and respect of said institution that my offer to deliver a lecture on the subject has never come to fruition.  But that is only one of my grievances.

Why there is so little going on here at broadcastellan has mainly to do with my being too busy to devote time to what is essentially a hobbyhorse I can no longer ride at leisure.  My life has changed considerably since that first tentative entry in May 2005; in terms of my academic career, it has not changed for the better.

As a zero hour contract employee at Aberystwyth University, I work virtually daily for little or no pay.  No pay, you ask? How can that be? Well, I spent months creating two courses in art history that I delivered at a university in China in October 2014 and March 2015.  I received no compensation for this preparation; the work was simply not time-tabled, nor thought of as deserving of pay.  There is no shortage of examples; so I consider the most recent one.  Today, I was denied pay for work that was expected of me.

Showing my support for the university, I agreed to teach a course that apparently no full-time member of staff would touch.  For this dubious privilege I was to be remunerated on an hourly basis.  On that iffy foundation, I was to prepare a series of lectures and seminars.  No, let me revise that: I received no money for the preparation.  If the hourly lecture rate is meant to reflect preparation, the rate is below minimum wage.  

I am accustomed to this practice, having worked under such conditions for years.  In this case, there was quite a bit of research, the subject being The Language of German Politics.  I have not lived in Germany in about a quarter of a century and have not voted since before the wall came down (which is just about the time I left).  I was told that the instructor who had taught the course previously did not leave behind any notes on which to draw.  If it was a part-time instructor, I can sympathise.

Why leave behind your intellectual property, even though such rights are violated routinely at institutions of higher learning that take everything from you and take credit for anything you do (such as publishing a book or staging an exhibition that happens despite one’s work for the university, not as a result of it).  Anyway, I enjoy a challenge; a member of staff recently referred to my sense of enjoyment as masochism.

Agony it certainly turned out to be, at times.  I did not receive a contract for signing until three weeks into teaching, at which point it was impossible to withdraw.  There is no mention of pay for grading assignments in the contract, and there were to be 63 individual written papers and 21 final exams to grade.

On average, I spent over 40 minutes reading and marking each essay or translation submitted, sometimes considerably longer.  For each piece of writing up to 1000 words I was permitted to claim the staggering amount of £2.53.  This meant that I worked below the minimum wage, and in many cases quite significantly so.

This is so demonstrably unreasonable that I expressed my incredulity to the Human Resource department of Aberystwyth University.  After all, the task of evaluating the effectiveness of a translation is not simply a matter of right or wrong. As someone who has studied translation theories, I regard translation as an interpretative act that is – or should be – to some degree open to debate.  It is a debate I could hardly afford to have with my students, at least not at the rate of £2.53 per 1000-word manuscript.

I was familiar with these appalling pay rates from other teaching assignments at Aberystwyth University and have tolerated them heretofore without comment.  Though assessing a translation is not equivalent to reading a manuscript mainly for its content, the pay rate is the same.

This by-the-numbers approach to remuneration – and education – is detrimental to the quality of teaching that an institution like Aberystwyth University can deliver when it is relying on part-time staff.  I tried not to short-change students by providing fewer comments, as records will bear out.  I read each submission literally word for word in order to assess responsibly and provide detailed and constructive criticism on matters such as word choice and sentence structure.  This, I believe, is as it should be, and I expect neither praise nor gratitude for my conscientiousness.

As a zero contract hour employee at another department of the same university I routinely meet with students for tutorials.  It is an important aspect my teaching.  Anyone’s teaching.  Due to the decision of the European Languages department to pay me only for the hours I spent conducting lectures and seminars, I was unable hold individual meetings with my students there.  This contributed to student dissatisfaction, instances of which were brought to my attention just as I was about to depart for China.

Yes, I had another teaching commitment, on behalf of Aberystwyth University, while three of my courses were going on here in Wales.  I took off for Beijing with a sense of failure in the face of adversity; and, despite the module coordinator’s assurance that she had ‘heard a lot of praise for [my] teaching,’ the message left me disheartened.  Had I been permitted to conduct tutorials, I would have been able not only to address student concerns but also considerably to bridge the gap created by my China assignment.

It had been suggested to me to mark more leniently to ease tension.  However, I reject the notion that the lowering of standards should be considered as a measure to assure or boost student satisfaction.  Instead, I followed the departmental marking guidelines from which my standards were derived.

Being unable to meet with students resulted in spending more time assessing performances so as clearly to explain how each mark was derived.   This effectively lowered my pay for each assignment.  As I told the head of department, I do not think it fair to our students to provide fewer comments as a result of staff members’ time constraints.

Not being able to hold tutorials, I was also forced to spend more time responding to student inquires via email.  This time is not remunerated, either.  That I had to spend time in class detailing marking criteria, for instance, also limited the time allotted to delivering the material (almost all of which I created myself, as no lecture notes or presentations were available from previous years on which to model my own performance).

The department’s decision to cut corners further by denying me payment for a meeting with – and requested by – the module coordinator to finalise work that requires double marking is, apart from being unjust and insulting to me, a shortsighted decision that impacts negatively on the marking and compromises its fairness.  I had assumed it to be a matter of course that I should be paid for such time; I stated in an email to the module coordinator that I would bill the department at the ‘meeting’ rate, upon which the meeting was called off.  I have informed the department that I am unwilling to conduct a discussion about marks via email, thus without pay.

I told the department that I would not accept any further employment under the same conditions.  To do so would mean to accept Aberystwyth University’s exploitative practices.  The contract is phrased in a way that only underscores its inadequacies.  There is mention of time and a half pay and double pay, for instance.  Such a contract can never be honoured when the work in question is teaching.  I routinely work weekends and late into the night.  There is no mention anywhere of remuneration for any time spent designing or preparing for courses or responding to student email.

There is also no mention of marking.  As a long-time zero hour contract employee I might be expected to be familiar and perhaps even reconciled to such terms; but teaching languages is, as I said, vastly different from teaching other subject matter, as language comes – or should come – under closer scrutiny than in other disciplines.  Responsible teaching of languages will therefore almost inevitably result in a pay below the minimum wage for part-time staff.

All the while, my dedication to teaching has made it difficult for me to pursue my career as a writer, from which I derive as yet no income.  For a year’s worth of teaching, I get paid under £10,000.

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