Iʼve been thinking lately about temporary teaching jobs. In general, academic departments are built around the assumption that affiliations will be long-lasting and have a personal component. Thus, little attention is paid to the situation of temporary workers vis a vis departmental and university resources: in HR-speak, “onboarding.” Iʼve had mixed experiences with this aspect of jobs, and so I set out to write a list of questions that I think itʼs important for new temporary teachers to have answers to. I take as the paradigmatic case a fixed-term contract to teach one module in linguistics for one term at a UK university, because those are the parameters that most closely match my own experiences and those I know enough about to extrapolate from. Of course, if your own situation is different you might want to change some things, but I feel the principles should hold up fairly broadly.
Before getting on to the list, I should make two things clear. The first is that this post is absolutely not a criticism of my colleagues (or students) who have participated in the experiences underlying this list. I wrote above that the necessity of a list like this comes from an ongoing reorganization of the fundamentals of the academic labor market. This affects both the teachers as well as the departments that use their services.
There are always lessons to be learned in life, but in the context Iʼm writing about my constant experience has been of good and passionate people doing the best that they can in challenging circumstances that have been imposed on them. Some of them have in fact gone far beyond what in turn could be expected of them to help me avoid the sharp edges of many of these questions.
Secondly, what is the purpose of this list? Most obviously, it might help people who are early in their careers and faced with the prospect of one of these jobs to prepare themselves for the demands of the job, and avoid pitfalls obvious in hindsight that can sap time and motivation. But I also hope that it has a broader impact. Permanent teaching staff can make sure that their incoming colleagues have access to this information in an easy-to-reference format. Those with institutional clout can make sure that their institutions address some of the shortcomings that underlie these questions. And those who have never held a similar position can reflect on how what seem like trivial (though doubtless annoying) administrative details from one perspective become more onerous when undertaken without institutional support and on a very limited budget of time, salary, and energy to tackle them.
Without further ado, a list of questions for aspiring temporary lecturers
- Are there materials for this module available from past years? Can I be added as an instructor to the VLE(/Blackboard/etc.) for past versions of this module, so that I can access these materials all at once rather than having them trickle in? Is there a policy or guideline about reusing exam questions from year to year (my own questions or those used by other instructors)?
What are studentsʼ expectations about the availability of materials and feedback on the VLE? Will the lectures be recorded? Are students expected to take notes during the lectures? Is there smart board technology that I can use during the lectures?
- What criteria is my teaching being evaluated against? Are there student assessments in the mid-term and/or at the end of the module? Are there other assessment methods (e.g. observed teaching – this might sound intrusive but can actually be an excellent opportunity to get feedback about your teaching from an experienced senior colleague)? Is there a departmental teaching strategy that I should be aware of (especially in light of Tef)?
- What are the Universityʼs training requirements for fire safety / information security training / occupational health assessment (the “display screen equipment” assessment; these are three legally required bits of training for new employees)? Have the hours to complete this training been included in my contract?
- What is the marking scale for this module? What is the expected distribution of marks? (Marking scales vary drastically in different countries, and less drastically but just as unsystematically across institutions in the UK.)
- Are there any deadlines or dates I should be aware of for submission of exams/assessments at the beginning of the module (for the external examiner), the return of marks for assessed work during the term and the final exam, Board of Examiners/Studies meetings, etc.?
- What expectations are there of me once term time is over? Attendance at next termʼs BoS meeting(s)? Setting/marking resit exams? Will I be separately paid for these if (as is often the case) these hours are not included in the initial teaching contract?
- In light of the rise in mental health morbidity and mortality, what resources does the University provide to staff for supporting students who present to me with signs of such difficulties? How can I access the Universityʼs employee counseling services (for this or any other reason)?
- Other than teaching and dealing with students, are there any activities that the department expects me to undertake as part of “good citizenship”? For example, attendance at open days, student presentation days, talks/receptions, etc.
- Conversely, what steps will the department take to make me feel included in its intellectual and social life? Have I been added to the email lists or other venues via which announcements are distributed? Will you assign me a “buddy” or mentor on the full-time staff who will make sure to include me in formal and informal department activities (and answer any other procedural/administrative questions I have)?
- How do I access the copy machine? Kitchen/break room? Office supplies? Mail facilities? Will I have after-hours access to the building that my office is in?
- Will I have the opportunity to access training that the institution provides? For example, teaching techniques, research/grant writing workshops, and other information sessions (recently, legal clinics for EU staff post-Brexit).
And finally, one set of questions that youʼre unlikely to be able to get an official answer to, and even asking will make HR types nervous (at least the clever ones). Nonetheless, itʼs important and worth finding out as soon as you can from unofficial sources:
- What do you see the future of this position being? Do you anticipate advertising for another similar temporary position next semester/year? Do you anticipate making any permanent hires in the next year or two?