By Scott Atkinson
Photograph by Erin Emory
This is why I teach.
I’m perhaps halfway through my digital stack of about 100 student essays for freshman composition at the University of Michigan-Flint, a long and sometimes tedious process, but one that still offers up pleasant surprises along the way — students who have sat quietly all semester but have found their voice on paper. Students who have giggled their way through class discussions but write and research deeply about depression or anxiety. Some are political, taking on completely different sides of an issue and earning top marks — they’ve learned what the class is about: doing the research, putting in the time to think through an argument, being aware of your shortcoming and listening and acknowledging other points of view. I may not create career writers in freshman comp, but I hope I can make career thinkers. In an age when political pathos reigns supreme, I hope I can usher forth 100 or so critical thinkers from across the political and ideological spectrum each semester who can inject more ethos and logos into the world.
There’s one such paper that particularly stands out, written by a young woman who sits near the front and, I don’t believe, has ever raised her hand. The paper is about the need for more awareness about LGBT issues. The paper strikes that tone I look for — professional while still passionate, the kind of tone that might convince someone other than those who already agree with you to listen — but it’s also just good. From the overall structure down to individual sentences, it just works well. She also took the time to survey students, to go out and do her own field research, which I don’t require but am, of course, impressed by. So I don’t just give it an A but send the writer an extra note, asking if I might use it as an example for future classes. I tell her also that, beyond its simply being good, I think it’s a good topic for many of our incoming freshman to read as they begin their college careers. I send an email, too, to make sure she sees the note. I know that not all students pay attention to the comments on their papers, skipping straight to the grade, and so I want to make sure.
I get an email back:
“I honestly love reading your comments,” she writes after a brief apology on her delay in responding. “When you suggest something that I should change or say something is wrong, it’s not like it’s a slap to the face. I appreciate that you do give us comments on what we did wrong and praise us for what we did right.” She goes on to talk about the survey she did, how it led her to rethink her topic and flip her thesis around, and I’m that much prouder. Getting anyone to change their mind through research is tough. Seeing it happen with someone who just entered voting age is impressive.
She signs off: “I didn’t even think you knew who I was but thanks for making my night.”
This is why I teach, and afterward I went through a familiar process. I had that feeling like I had done the thing I’d set out to do as a teacher. I tell my wife, who makes me feel even better. “You’re a great teacher,” she often says, and I like hearing her say it.
I am, like so many of my colleagues, prepared for what feels like an inevitability — walking away.
But then our conversation inevitably turns to our financial need — the repairs required on our 100-year-old home, the college tuition we need to save for our children — and the compensation I receive for my work at UM-Flint: I take home a little over $29,000.
I am not a professor. I am a lecturer. That means that despite teaching the same classes as tenure-track faculty I make fewer dollars and have less security. It means that I, like a lot of my colleagues, work a couple of other jobs. In my case I do a lot of freelance editing and writing, which I can force around a teaching schedule, but which often bleed into weekends and evenings. That makes it tough to find the time to hang drywall and, despite the other jobs, there’s still not a ton of money left to pay someone else to do it.
My fellow lecturers and I, in fact, teach the majority of classes at the University of Michigan’s satellite campuses — 58 percent in Flint and 52 percent in Dearborn — and a third of the classes in Ann Arbor.
And yet many of us are struggling. We work those other jobs. We fill out the paperwork to assure the University of Michigan that, no, these other jobs will not interfere with our ability to teach. It’d be great to spend more time planning classes, giving those 100 papers a little more time, and just being present at the place we want to professionally call home. We love our jobs, and yet so many of us are prepared to leave them, to never have an exchange with a student like the one I’ve mentioned above. I have told my wife, over and over, that being mentally fragmented between two — usually three — jobs, just doesn’t feel worth it, anymore. It’s taking its toll. I’m tired of telling my own kids to “hang on” because there’s one more thing I have to take care of, simply because teaching the next generation of professionals somehow doesn’t equate to being paid like a professional. I am, like so many of my colleagues, prepared for what feels like an inevitability — walking away.
In fact, for two days this week, starting today, I had planned to walk away and participate in a two-day strike while contract negotiations continued to crawl. Negotiations, I found out from my union reps last night, continue to not go well, but are now not quite awful enough to justify a strike. One of our organizers told me we’re still “not even close” to having a deal. I hesitated to sign the sheet saying I’d participate. It’s not my students’ fault, and while I don’t hold it against my colleagues who have brought up our current struggle with the university for better pay in their classes, I have a hard time bringing up my own personal and financial issues in English class. We’re there to write.
I voted in favor not so much for my current students, but my future students, the ones I hope will benefit from an instructor who is more fully available to them.
I didn’t know how to feel about striking when I signed that sheet. Now that we’re not, I’m still not sure how I feel.
People ask me what it’s like teaching college, especially when they find out I’m not tenure-track. It’s tough to know what to say. I graduated with a guy who’s adjuncting at five different colleges — having to learn five different grading and attendance systems and policies, using five different email addresses, driving across the state to five different campuses. At least I can say I have an office and some security. Then, usually, someone will get the guts to ask what I get paid, and as their mouth hangs open I remember that it isn’t just bad — it’s awful.
It’s easy to forget sometimes how bad the pay is. I am not destitute. My bills are paid (thanks, overwhelmingly, to my wife, a successful and incredibly talented hair stylist) and my unfinished house is otherwise beautiful. I’m treated by the university as though I should feel lucky. Enrollment in Flint is down, they say, this is what we can afford. For a while, I bought into it. I was a team player. I did, after all, choose this profession knowing it didn’t pay well.
But I now know that’s bullshit.
To pay us lecturers what we’re asking for — an annual living wage of $56,000 — it would cost The University of Michigan $30 million of its $513 million surplus in the first year.
The University of Michigan currently has a $513 million surplus, and has averaged more than a $300 million surplus for the last three years.
The starting salary for a full-time lecturer is currently $27,300. The Lecturers Employment Organization is asking for a starting pay of $56,000.
To pay for this, it would cost The University of Michigan $30 million of that $513 million in the first year.
Their first counter-offer was $28,300. The next, $29,300. With people beginning to picket and the threat of a two-day strike starting today, that number jumped to a whopping $34,000 yesterday.
Those aren’t counter-offers. Those are messages, and the message is clear: This is all you’re worth. They don’t want to budge. We teach the majority of our classes in an institution dedicated to learning, and yet we know, down to the exact dollar amount, how much the learning we provide is valued. We know that the supply and demand curve for people like us is not in our favor. If I leave tomorrow, there are no shortage of people with advanced degrees in writing and rhetoric who would love to have my office … until the moment they come to the same conclusion my colleagues and I have. As far as the University of Michigan is concerned, I am little more than a widget — one that it produced itself. I graduated from UM-Flint and was — and in many ways remain — proud to teach there. It is my Hogwarts. It is in the city I have dedicated most of my professional career to writing about.
This is an issue across all three of our campuses, but it is especially dire in Flint, a city that is used to being ignored and cast aside, whether by the industry that built it or by the state that caused and ignored its poisoned water. UM-Flint is being similarly cast aside and ignored by the larger system it belongs to, at every level.
As my colleague and friend, Stephanie Vidaillet Gelderloos, pointed out recently, many of our students in Flint are the first in their family to go to college. We have more than double the percentage of marginalized and minority students than Ann Arbor does and, in Flint, our DACA students, our Dreamers, have no financial support, while they receive generous support (as they should, she pointed out) in Ann Arbor.
“Sadly, in this country, student achievement is linked to income,” she said.
This is being felt everywhere at UM-Flint.
I advise the student newspaper, which may also soon be on the chopping block, and am currently preparing to figure out how to justify continued funding. My students have won places in competitive internships, have gone on to become professional writers and editors. Yet instead of investing more in a program that could attract more students and help them grow, I’m working to justify how much we spend on printing the paper against how many people pick it up off the stand. I didn’t think I’d ever have to explain that the investment we’re making is not in paper, but in the lives of students.
It was hard, as I canceled classes and prepared to walk out of the campus I call home, not to think of some other negotiations that took place about 80 years ago. To compare the struggle of UM’s lecturers to the 1936 sit-down strike that gave rise to the United Auto Workers union feels audacious. Maybe it is. But just as those workers created Flint as we knew it, UM-Flint is supposed to be remaking Flint as we want to know it. For that to happen, though, you need people invested in the community, and people who feel as though their community — including their employer — is invested in them.
But this goes beyond Flint, and beyond Dearborn, and even beyond Ann Arbor.
Just as the sit-down strike led the way for organized labor throughout the country, perhaps, on some level, we in Flint — and Dearborn, and Ann Arbor — can once again lead the way — at least in higher education. Really, this is part of a larger fight. K-12 teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky have and continue to stand their ground in demanding more investment in education. And when their students go to college, they should continue to have teachers who can be fully present and invested in continuing that education. It’s not right to pay us as little as they do, just as it’s not right that my old grad school buddy should be working at five different colleges. It’s not right that we claim to value education while we continue to not value educators.
I hope more will join the fight. I hope states and school districts and boards of regents at universities everywhere join this fight. There is an opportunity here to do more than adequately compensate workers. There is an opportunity to show the country that education — and educators — are things we truly value.
The University of Michigan fight song declares that we are “the leaders and the best.” Perhaps our regents, with me and my colleagues, can join this fight, and act like it.
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