“Good” NTT vs. “Bad” TT: A Conversation (Part II)

By erica j. Whitaker, Lecturer, Mathematics Department, University of Kentucky 

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Recently Karen put out a call for comparing a position as a tenure-track professor at a small teaching college, versus a clinical position at an R1 school. My own career teaching mathematics has been roundabout and varied; I’ve had visiting positions at small liberal arts colleges, regional campuses, and large R1 schools (lots of moving due to health issues and a 2-body problem); so I’ve experienced a variety of teaching positions. I enjoyed research, but my love of teaching is what motivated me to finish my doctoral degree. I always assumed I was working toward a career teaching at a small liberal arts college, or other university with a teaching mission. Instead, I have (hopefully finally) ended up at an R1 school in a lecturer position, and overall I am happy here. Someone who is motivated primarily by research would not enjoy my position at all; but if your motivation is mostly teaching and also perhaps service, it might also work for you.

The idea of “fit” is so important, and in my experience independent of the type of school. I have worked at a small school where I felt valued and supported, and another where my skills and needs just weren’t a good match for the position. I’ve worked as an instructor at a different R1 who did not (at the time) value them at all – there were all sorts of awful, petty ways they reminded us of this. But my current position has lots of support at many levels. 

The main difference in my day-to-day life at a small school versus a large school has to do with my role: At a small school, my main role was that of a university faculty member, who happens to teach in the math department. It was typical for me to regularly interact with people from many departments in my day-to-day work life, whether officially on committees or just wandering the hall. It was easy to find a diverse group of colleagues with whom to eat meals, exchange ideas, or work on projects.

At a large school, my main role is that of a math professor, who happens to be employed a lecturer – some of my colleagues have their entire university experience within just our department. For me, I appreciate the broader view of university life. I have volunteered for service assignments and experiences to make sure that I can hear voices other than just mathematicians, but forming and maintaining those connections takes more effort than at a small school. 

Here are some of the pros and cons of my lecturer position, compared to teaching at a smaller school:

I have the resources of a large, active department in my area: seminars, colloquia, software and library access, but none of my job security depends on original publications. I feel as if I have the best of both worlds, with my sometimes-brilliant colleagues and new energetic graduate students each year, but with no pressure on me for scholarship. Because of the high teaching loads I am personally not worried about long-term employment. It seems very unlikely they will run out of classes for me to teach; but my “rolling contract” is not the same as tenure. I’m reckless about speaking my mind sometimes, but occasionally I will keep quiet on something knowing I don’t have the same job security. 

My position is full-time with benefits with the same standard benefit package available to tenure-stream faculty. Because this university has a hospital, clinic and medical school on the same campus, I can walk from my office to routine and specialized care when needed. Both logistically and financially, the medical benefits are stronger than what I’ve seen at smaller schools. But, while it does not affect me personally, the maternity and paternity leave options are not as strong for lecturers as for tenure-stream faculty. My salary is higher than what I could have earned at the small schools I considered, but lower than that of my tenure-stream colleagues, even those just starting. (I just keep reminding myself of the first fact, if I am occasionally rankled by the second.)

My job is very challenging, but the challenges are different than at a smaller school. I have fewer preps and fewer teaching contact hours than at a smaller school, but many more students as some of my classes are very large (in the past five years, I have taught over 4000 students). There are many more sections of each class, so it is easier to prepare a schedule where people teach on the days and times of their choosing. For example, for health reasons I prefer to teach classes 10AM or later: this was much harder to arrange at a small school with a limited schedule. But I teach many courses that are lower-level, and only occasionally something for mathematics majors. I will never serve on a dissertation defense, will never be promoted to “professor”, will never be eligible to be department chair (which can be a pro or a con; but the choice was not mine). In taking this job several doors closed to me, while others opened. 

One of the more rewarding aspects of my position involves mentoring graduate students in their teaching duties. Some of them appreciate having someone to discuss teaching with, who isn’t also assigning them grades or judging their studies. I also observe a lot of their classes and have written  teaching-focused job letters for applications. The relationship with graduate students, something between being a professor and colleague, is something I wouldn’t have experienced at a smaller school. Another rewarding aspect comes from working with the undergraduates, who are often appreciative of my focus on teaching and caring about their well-being. 

About the “second class citizen” concern:

Before I even applied, I asked some specific questions to help determine the status of lecturers within this department. For example, I asked about travel funds, as much to notice how they answered the question, and whether the process and availability was different for lecturers. I was pleased to learn it was completely an option, and that they are open to travel for professional development, not just to present original research. I’ve been supported and encouraged to travel when it was appropriate.

I also asked about leadership and committee service. In my department there are several committees where the important decisions are made; most of them require a lecturer to serve each year. Lecturers are voting members for almost all issues (but not, for example, for tenure and promotion decisions). At the college and university level, lecturers are eligible to serve on most major committees and on the faculty senate. Because I have worked at positions where my status was less than ideal, I am protective of my situation here, and willing to do the service work to help maintain this status. 

Finally, I asked directly, “are lecturers second-class citizens, or are they full members of your department?” If they had told me it was perfect, I wouldn’t have believed them; but they admitted it was a work in progress, so I was encouraged. I especially appreciate that my department thinks of lecturers as faculty – so when something involves faculty, we are included. When appropriate or needful, they distinguish between lecturers and tenure-stream faculty. 

Overall, the large university setting has many opportunities and resources, and allows me to direct my career in the directions that interest me and fit my skills. Like any position I have seen or served in, it can be exasperating or amazing, sometimes all at once. 

About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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