I adore my work, yet I consider quitting every day: this is teaching

I wrote this text to reflect on my workload in Higher Education, seven weeks into Term 1 of 2019-20. I hope friends in similar situations add their voice, while friends in better situations and students become fully aware of the following example (here, mine). If nothing more, getting this down on paper was a meaningful process of clarification.  

I teach the history and theory of architecture, cities and design. This is my fifth year teaching and I got my PhD a year ago (2018). I currently work in architecture schools in three London universities, in the following roles:

  • Teaching fellow (0.14FTE)
  • Lecturer (0.5FTE)
  • Sessional tutor (10 hours per week)

I work with 7 student groups a week (each a separate module), on a total of about 220 students.

This amounts to five contact hours a day Monday to Thursday, and two contact hours on Fridays. That is 22 contact hours a week on a 0.64FTE + my hourly-paid contract.

For the first six weeks of term I worked an extra two contact hours on Mondays, with two separate groups of students, to cover for a staffing gap (total workload = 9 groups, 250 students, 24 weekly contact hours).

In addition to this, I attend meetings, conduct academic advising sessions, lead field trips and supervise dissertations in different departments. In December I am examining a PhD. Between this and next term, I must supervise and mark 40 dissertations, and mark a further 100 essays.

Course prep, emails and admin duties take place during remaining daily hours and at weekends. In fact, this text was mostly formulated on a tube ride, which remains the only time I have been taking for myself since the start of the academic year (my commute is 75mins per way two days a week, 60mins per way another two days, and 30mins on the other day).

On Monday 11 November I exceptionally worked from 9am to 7.30pm contact time. On Thursday 15 November I had a breakdown. On Friday 16 November I was present at work and did again, exceptionally, 5.5 hours of contact time.

Delayed contracts and payments mean that I can’t yet clarify the total salary I receive each month. In October I earned £1655 (but this is very partial). I will update this post at the end of November with the correct total amount.

Student responsibilities
Slide with student responsibilities for a Year 3 Dissertation module

The energy transfer involved in teaching astonishes me daily: the giving and receiving, the intensities exchanged, the strained minds, affects, voices. It is inevitable for this work to be deeply personal, intense and involved – and I don’t know how to do it any other way.

I see my responsibilities in the following order: developing humans of the world, citizens of the city, and professionals of the built environment – and I try to work simultaneously on all three scales.

This work is my peril and my joy. I have cried and laughed with students, developed unbelievable frustrations and elations from their slacking or their activation, and I have measured my own professional worth in relation to their achievements (another veeery slippery slope!). During term time, my life belongs to the students. Outside term time, my life belongs to me.

The thing about teaching is, you can’t do half the job. So whether you get paid, supported, encouraged and respected for it, or not, you will give it all anyway. Balancing the cost of this to mental, emotional and physical integrity, with the sense of mission for the work, is a painful daily negotiation.

To be clear: this workload is not the responsibility of any single institution, but is a symptom of how unsustainable higher education employment has become. The 22 hours a week I just mentioned, I brought them onto myself. Why? I am not entirely sure. Because I wanted to prove to myself that I could power through it, because I believe in it with everything I have, because I live in London and I want to afford to travel. But this is not just me. The difference between allocated and actual hours in higher education is pushing us all to breaking point, and my situation is by no means exceptional. The direct result of this is that University College Union members are starting 8 days of strike action on 26 November, on two separate counts: one for pensions and one for workload.

Tutor responsibilities
Slide with tutors’ responsibilities from the same Year 3 presentation

Our profession is becoming unsustainable. As much as I energise from it, I have never felt I am operating at capacity as I do now. I have so much love and respect for my colleagues’ work, and so many broken colleagues. Fuck you, system, for breaking your best people. And for making me consider an absolute exit from this career almost every day, while I do the work that I wholeheartedly believe in.

What of this then? Some thoughts on what is needed:

  • Urgent support for professional service and university support staff, whose workloads and precarious conditions make our situations seem privileged. UCL security guards, porters and cleaners are also undertaking industrial action this month to end outsourced work.
  • Deprioritise the student experience: bring back learning, development, responsibility. Fear of NSS results is engulfing all our activities in a toxic corporate cloud.
  • Create (invent!) time to develop mentoring relationships, both with senior academics and with students. Senior staff to speak up against the casual, unfair and precarious arrangements of younger staff.
  • Write research time into all teaching contracts without exception: there is no teaching without research.
  • For History and Theory and Contextual Studies tutors specifically: pool resources and create open source reading lists for spatial and built environment practices. So many colleagues across institutions repeat imperfect versions of each other’s work when supervising dissertations and recommending resources – more knowledge is better knowledge for all of us.

10 Replies to “I adore my work, yet I consider quitting every day: this is teaching”

  1. OMG, SABINA! After reading the post, I cannot believe the ad that wordpress chose to display at the bottom of your words:

    we all need a calming blanket, methinks! 🙀🤷🏻‍♂️🙄😂🙏

    love,

    Andrea Candiani +61 438 007 541 blackartprojects.com

    This message contains privileged and confidential information intended only for the use of the addressee. If you are not the intended recipient you must not disseminate, copy or take any action in reliance upon it. If you received this in error, please notify me immediately. Measures have been taken to detect the presence of computer viruses, however we cannot guarantee that this email and any attachments are free from viruses or other defects.

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  2. Hi Sabina, this is an uncredible text and I’m sorry to hear you’re going through this. Totally right to call this out. It’s unbelievable. We can’t not have you able to do research. Too precious. I hope this gets the notice it deserves and you and your colleagues start see some real change.

  3. It doesn’t make things better BUT LET IT BE KNOWN that you are a great teacher and a great person who will 100% change the lives of the students you come into contact with. Again, again, this doesn’t make this unsustainable shit-sty of a situation any better (and you can’t live off your influence), but its still something.
    BIG HUGS

  4. Sabina, I’m 4 years behind with this experience but I can clearly seeing it coming! However, I have lived long enough to ask you to think of that “one” student who will put your name among the list of his/her influencers throughout his/her life. THIS IS REAL! That’s a good enough reason to stay in. All evidences show that to survive, all academics, or at least young academics, should be part of a bottom-up participatory method that can make teaching a more sustainable job! The system needs a “counter point”. Let’s start with your suggestions. I’m on board! And please don’t leave me alone 😂

  5. Wow Sabina, reality is that shocking, a what a wonderful text conveying the key points of our lives as HPLs or with fractional contracts. It is just insane and way too many (and way too good) people in the same situation. We form the teaching front line in Architecture, I dare to say, as far as I have seen, more than the 50% of contact hours with students are done by people under such precarious situation. In the meantime, established staff struggle to carry on with ridiculous work overload. The system must come down to a group of people making decisions at a very high level, with enough agency to bring things down to what we have now, as well as to improve things and stop this inhuman approach to teaching. It’s a political struggle on how to properly finance higher education (and research!) or at least to direct existing funds to more people working hard but sensibly, with a decent pay. Where do the ridiculously high student fees go anyway? Just because this bing such a lovely job in such an amazing subject… it should not be like this. A big hug Sabina!

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