A Casualty of COVID-19 Employment Cuts Speaks Up

It may be easier for institutions to think associate lecturers should be the first to be let go when things get tough, writes Clarissa Eaton, but our colleagues and students need us.

May 18, 2020
 
 
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On my last day teaching the class this spring, I reiterated to students a point I have made throughout my Composition 102 course: “Your voice matters, you have significance and your right and responsibility is to find a way to reach your audience and let your voice give you power.”

Well, wasn’t that some great foreshadowing? The next day, I had my own turn to be powerless. It began with an email titled “Non-reappointment for fall 2020.” The day before classes ended, more than half the non-tenure-track faculty received an email stating, “the University is giving notice … of its intent not to appoint or reappoint any associate lecturers or clinical associate lecturers for the Fall 2020 semester.”

This came as a surprise to department heads and teachers like me, who had just put extraordinary effort into transitioning to a remote format. So rather than be a hypocrite and do nothing, I’m writing about it.

I’ve had my turn being powerless before -- as a single mom struggling to support two children. I’ve also had to learn patience. For 25 years, I was forced to have a different focus than my own self-fulfillment as I cut my own college dreams short and supported my children all the way through college. Finally, I returned to college myself, got my bachelor’s degree, got my master’s degree and found a home at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

There is nothing better.

The students here at UMass are amazing and worth the time it took me to be able to teach here. They are both a challenge and a delight. So many years of living on hot dogs, of not being able to buy my children Christmas gifts or fun trips, finally led to a place where I can not only make a difference but also belong.

I understand the struggle some of my students endure. When the student raising a child on her own tells me she will have to miss class because of childcare problems, that’s a no-brainer. Bring the child if you can -- I know what it’s like! When the young man caring for his ill father and working nights falls asleep in my 8 a.m. class, I’ll wake him kindly and figure things out. I know what it’s like. These students, my colleagues, my department heads all made the waiting and the struggling to get here worthwhile. I’ve been happier teaching composition the last two years here at the university than ever before.

Sure, it isn’t great being on the bottom, being an associate lecturer. But in the English department, no one has ever made me feel like some kind of lower entity. We have a common goal -- the one all teachers should have. We want to teach.

Perhaps the camaraderie I feel in my department is what makes this blow so hard. I’ve immersed myself in this university. I’ve taught first as a grad student and then for two years as a teacher here. Four courses a semester. In fact, last fall, I taught five! I’ve joined in teaching seminars, participated in meetings, taken on extra projects -- all because I’ve wanted to fully be a part of this department, this university, this community. Service hours aren’t required from people in my position, but I’ve taken part because I’ve never thought of my position. I have only thought of the joy I’ve experienced working here.

Still, I’ve always felt a little bit of insecurity, knowing my job was not guaranteed. I’ve known it would be three years before I’d get a continuing contract, and it would take two years to be promoted to lecturer. But I’ve wanted to stay at the university, so I’ve taken the risk.

This pandemic has forced everyone to adjust in some way. I’ve struggled to transition my courses to remote format and put in many extra hours to individually help students through their own crises. And that is the same effort that my colleagues have put in.

But instead of that lovely promotion to lecturer next fall, I may be floundering for work, health insurance and a way to pay a mortgage -- a way to keep myself, my daughter, son-in-law and newborn grandson from losing our home. I was so close! How convenient to cut me off now.

I understand that the pandemic has forced universities to consider making cuts they hadn’t planned on and probably really don’t want to make. But there is an injustice here. The most vulnerable employees, and the ones whose sole responsibility is to teach, are all too easy to remove from this system. Because this letter of non-reappointment makes it obvious that we are not actually members of the university system. We are only associates. I’ve never before felt like only an associate at the university. This is my home. And they just shut me out.

I may be one of the lucky ones and have the opportunity to teach here again. I certainly hope I do, so that I can once again work with students. Especially those students who feel insignificant, who struggle to show their abilities and potential because of a society that brushes them aside as if it is not worth the extra effort to meet their needs. I tell them they matter. Maybe, at first, they think they only matter to me, the nerdy composition teacher who thinks writing can solve problems. But as they find their voices, and gain respect for their abilities to contribute, they also gain confidence.

Right now, just as I’ve advised my students, I have the responsibility to use my voice for all of us who have been treated as lesser members of a community. It may be easier to think of associate lecturers as an unnecessary part of the university and the first to be cut when things get tough. But we are needed by our colleagues and our students. We care just as much, and we work just as hard. It may be easier. But is it right?

Bio

Clarissa Eaton is an associate lecturer at the University of Massachusetts at Boston (for a few more days).

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