Despite unreliable employment and low pay, I am not yet willing to give up on the idea that I can make a career out of teaching writing at the college level. Right now I earn the least that a lecturer can possibly earn, full-time, on this campus: $34,500. That figure is much less, of course, after taxes and health insurance contributions.
Here’s a scenario that keeps playing out in my mind. A University administrator and I walk around campus. We encounter a tour group — a whole herd of high school students and parents clutching shopping bags from MDen. Imagine the administrator interrupting the tour group for a short speech:
This is Mindy, he’ll say. She teaches mostly first-year writing courses here at the University. She spends her unpaid summers planning classes and developing innovative essay assignments; during the school year she plans, conducts classes, grades piles of work, holds office hours, writes letters of recommendation, makes an effort to get to know her students, and takes part in campus community events. She responds to emails morning, noon, nights, and weekends. Every time you write a paper for her class, she’ll respond to you with an individualized three-hundred word letter describing the successes and weaknesses in your work. Her goals are to support your development as a human being, thinker, and writer. In fact, especially during your first year, she may be the only faculty member who knows something about you beyond your name and grade. Also, she received a teaching award at U-M.
Then imagine the administrator saying, The leadership of this University deems her work — and, by extension, your learning experience in her classroom — to be less valuable than the salary of an average public school teacher in every single state in this country. Less valuable, even, than the salary of a first-year teacher without a graduate degree in Michigan.
Imagine the prospective student puzzling over why a school with this reputation pays me tens of thousands of dollars less than their public school English teacher made. To be clear, I don’t think any public school teacher should make less than they do. But I know my work is as valuable as theirs.
Imagine the parents of that student wondering what their tuition dollars would be for, if not to support truly exceptional classroom experiences.
I love teaching writing. I am so happy to work with the students I meet here, and to collaborate with colleagues in my department. I do not want to do another job instead — I long to do this one, my clear and obvious calling. For that reason I’m asking that my salary for this job be tenable long-term.
As I understand it, the administration’s justification for paying us so little is that we’re replaceable. Of course we’re replaceable — out of U of M’s thousands of employees, few if any possess a skill set so specialized that no one else in the world could adequately do their job. I don’t mean to be impertinent. I simply want to point out that what I think the administration actually means when it says lectures are replaceable is that it has a lot of experience replacing us.
Lord knows I don’t want to leave U-M. But without a significant change in the way this university values my expertise, my hard work, and my contributions, it will eventually replace me, too.