These are my thoughts on the part-time university teaching situation where I live in Japan. You may read my version of affairs, and nod your head in agreement. Or, you may not. It is more than possible you have not experienced what I have. Your personal viewpoints and opinions about the state of affairs in the part-time teaching world may be very different. I respect that, and I hope you will respect my take on things as well.
**It should be noted that my current working situation is bliss; the students, the people I work with and for, and the atmosphere all come together to make it a great place to come to every day. I will miss it dearly.
I enjoy and invite discussion on any of my blog entries. For this particular piece of writing, I will not allow any proper names to be used. If readers wish to speculate by throwing around names of people or of schools, I will not publish the comment. Please leave that kind of speculation for outside of my blog. Thanks in advance!
Thank you, and enjoy your visit to The Basement Blog.
Becoming Part-time (and Grasping at Straws)
Work has been on my mind a lot lately. And for good reason. The position that I hold at the university where I teach has run its course. Six years is the maximum contract term, and the end of my final year is looming just up ahead. For many full-time foreign university instructors in Japan, this is par for the course. Tenured positions do come up, but they are generally for PhD holders, and, rightfully so. I’ve seen my husband and many friends put in the hundreds of hours necessary to complete a Doctorate. The least they should get is a bit of job security at the end of it. That isn’t always the case of course. There are no guarantees. I do know that at this point in my life, a Phd is not something I’m ready to take on. But, never say never, right? For the time being, though, the teaching positions with the most security are out of my reach.
I guess it would be over seven years ago when I began the search for the job I’m in now. I remember how I felt, scanning job ads, bulking up my resume with presentations at JALT functions, and spending many late nights completing assignments for my MA. I was wired for work, and so very ready to begin full-time teaching. At that time, I was teaching fourteen or fifteen classes at four different universities. As a part-timer, I had quite a lot of freedom when it came to textbook choices, lesson planning, and organizing my day outside of the set teaching hours. But I was exhausted. I had co-workers who were teaching twenty or even more classes per week, getting from campus to campus on mopeds, gunning at full speed to get to the next classroom on time. I admired their tenacity, and I understood why they were working so hard.
There are a couple of incentives for part-timers that go beyond the love of teaching; the pay itself is half decent, and the holidays, well, the holidays are beyond great, especially when compared to what is the norm for most workers not only in Japan, but all over the world. For many part-timers, summer vacation generally begins in late July and goes to mid-September. Winter break can work out to be from nine to twelve days. There are National holidays in the mix, and when spring arrives, many part-timers can plan extended holidays and trips overseas to see family. Classes generally wrap up the second to third week of January and start up again the first of April. That’s right. Up to two and a half month’s break to recharge and get ready for the new semester. It makes teaching twenty classes a week, at not a bad hourly rate, really quite enticing. Well, it was enticing. Now I’m not so sure.
Things have changed in the part-time teaching world while I was away and putting in my own six years of duty at my full-time gig. Of course things have changed. I know one of the symptoms of getting older is to wax nostalgic over “the good old days”, and I have to admit, that’s what I’ve been doing. And you can imagine that if I, someone who has only been putting in time for less than a decade, if I’m pining for the way things used to be, the teachers who have been at it for two, even three decades must be more than a little fearful of what the next few years will bring about. The world of part-time teachers has always been a competitive one. Classes aren’t guaranteed, and if you’ve got a good schedule, you want to keep it. But universities choosing to outsource employment to dispatch companies have popped up with more and more regularity since I left part-time teaching, and student numbers have been going down. This has created a tension within the ranks which has upped the level of competition to such a degree that I’m not sure whether or not I’m cut out for it.
I’ve been putting feelers out and asking lots of questions to friends who are in the trenches. They sit in the staff rooms at the various universities, and the gossip and rumours are rampant. This isn’t new either. There was certainly gossip flying around when I’d pop my head in to make photocopies or check my mailbox when I was a part-timer, but I’d usually stick around for only a few moments, say a few hellos, and then leave. I’m not sure if that’s really an option now, for if you aren’t sitting at those tables in the staff rooms, listening to the gossip and rumours, you may miss out on the next big juicy job offer that so-and-so’s friend’s wife’s boss heard about. Networking is absolutely necessary, and who you know can often be more important than the number of presentations and articles on your CV.
The staff-room discussions that go on between classes at various campuses around town could be the key to getting the next great part-time, or possibly full-time set-up. And, because of the nature of the university teaching business here, these talks can become, at times, a little testosterone fuelled. The female persuasion is not equally represented in these parts, so naturally, the banter is geared more towards male interests which aren’t always necessarily job related. It does make it a little more difficult to be part of the “in” crowd, or, should I say, the “in-the-know” crowd. These discussions that centre around common interests and tastes can lead to friendships and solidarity and promises of keeping one another up-to-date on the job front. It can be difficult for a woman to integrate herself easily into these chats. If and when she does, she can hopefully forge friendships and contacts, and be on the same playing field as her colleagues. She may even be considered ‘one of the guys.’ Hmm.
That’s not always so easy. In the past, when I’ve sat in on the between-class discussions, I couldn’t help but sense that my presence might be putting a damper on the talks, that some of my colleagues may have felt they had to tone things down a bit, or perhaps not be as candid as they could be had I not joined the group. Or, sometimes not. The pendulum can swing dangerously the other way as well. Some of those discussions, unfortunately, can go beyond what would be seen as academic shop talk, or last night’s football score, or the latest, greatest software downloads. The banter can get aggressive, sexist, and the talk about the students can take on connotations that would make most teachers, man or woman, uncomfortable. And that’s when being one of the guys, whether you actually are a guy, or one of the few women trying to fit in, gets weird and awkward. If you call someone out in front of the group for being inappropriate, then you’re that teacher. The one who is too sensitive, who doesn’t get the joke, or, the horror, is way too PC. You’ve spoiled the party. And, when you aren’t around, you could be the next great topic for the gossip mill.
In this tepid job climate, I don’t think anyone wants to be that teacher. Myself, I don’t want to be talked about and avoided because a few of the guys in the school yard regard me as humourless or overly PC. I’m too old for that crap. But, as I said before, word of mouth is crucial in the part-time teaching world, and if you’re not a part of the group, you’re not going to hear the word on the street.
As seriously as I take my job as a teacher, I know that if I jump back into that world, I will have to be ready to play the game, a game that at times is very far removed from the fundamentals of teaching, lesson planning, or research. I don’t believe I’m alone in my view that all of the politics and who-knows-who are a part of a not very evolved, but somewhat complicated interaction amongst the colleagues themselves, as well as with the people who hire them. It’s a strategic game, and it can get quite competitive. And, most importantly, if you don’t know the rules, you could most definitely lose out to a stronger opponent, an opponent who may not necessarily be a more qualified or a better teacher, but rather someone who knows how to navigate their way through the game more skillfully. After six years of relative peace and absolutely no need to sit in a staff room in order to secure my position on the playing field, I’m not completely sure I’m prepared to get back into that game. The rules have changed somewhat, and it seems to have gotten a bit rougher out there since the last time I played.
Oh, and recently, a new style of game play was introduced. As far as I know, it has only been tested out in one playing field, but it was a pretty bold move on the part of the rule-makers. It’s called the game of chance, and it involves straws. Yes, that’s correct. Straws to determine who will keep their classes, and who will, well, you know, pull the short one. It’s genius, isn’t it? If all the rule-makers take on this innovative way to divvy up part-time positions, there really won’t be anymore posturing and maneuvering out on the playing field, will there? Part-timers will be able sit leisurely in those staff rooms, planning lessons rather than strategizing and gossiping, and the powers that be need only purchase a bag of straws at the 100 yen shop once or twice a year, and cut them up accordingly. Playing cards or dice could do the trick, too.
You may think I’m fabricating this story in order to emphasize how dire the situation has become for some part-timers. I assure you, I am not. Two weeks ago, a group of part-time university instructors went into their director’s office and played a game of chance in order to determine their work schedule. Each worker had his or her own reason for needing to hold on to all the classes they currently held. Problem was, there simply were not going to be enough classes to go around the following year. The director was in a very uncomfortable predicament. He had to make an extremely difficult decision that could make him unpopular with the workers, some of whom he had known for many years.
So, the straw idea was bandied about by the director, and a consensus was reached by the teachers that this would have to be the way it would be done. The method of chance used really didn’t have to be straws, though. A deck of cards or a couple of dice would suffice. Desperate times, desperate measures, right?
I call foul.
As hard as the decision would have been to make, it should have been made independently by the person in charge. That’s a big part of what a person in that position is paid to do – make difficult and unpopular decisions for the organization that he or she works for. If a person is in desperate need of a job, there’s a pretty good chance they will go along with a game of chance in order to secure their classes rather than let the executive decision be made by a higher-up, particularly if they are uncertain of the credentials or experience of the people they are competing against. In a sense, it may even feel like they have been given power over their uncertain destiny.
Once again, I cry foul.
Some may wonder why might an instructor choose games of chance over protocol? I thought about it a lot since I first heard the story of the straws, and I came up with a few possible scenarios:
The person whose credentials are not stellar but who has taught for many years, is popular with the students, and has a close relationship with higher-ups may choose the luck of the draw because he may get another year of teaching under his belt, even if he has not gone to any professional development conferences or created a fresh new lesson plan in years.
The person who is relatively new but who is up-to-date in teaching methodology may choose the luck of the draw because she isn’t certain if her lack of experience may keep her from holding on to the classes she already has. Every class she can hold on to now adds experience to her somewhat sparse CV, and prepares her for moving up the academic ladder.
The person who is getting closer and closer to retirement age but who has taught consistently and well over the years and has kept his CV up-to-date with various activities may choose the luck of the draw because of a nagging and valid worry that his age may be a detriment when compared to younger, newer teachers.
So, in this small sampling you have a popular, well-connected teacher, a younger teacher who is familiar with current teaching methods and eager to try them out, and an experienced, mature teacher who can see retirement just over the horizon. This list could go on and on. Each teacher has their own strengths and weaknesses, and depending on who you ask, there are various reasons why each of those teachers should hold on to their classes. The one who is great with students and gets high evaluation numbers year after year? He should keep his classes. The one who has all her Master’s research fresh in her head and the energy to keep the students engaged? She should keep her classes. The one who has years of solid service and the wisdom of experience to share with his students? He should keep his classes. This decision can’t be easy, and when you add in a personal history that connects each teacher to the person who must decide, the choice then carries a certain degree of emotion and sentimentality. You know what? Straws are indeed beginning to look like the simplest way out of this uncomfortable predicament for all involved.
But then who said the role of decision-maker was going to be simple? When it comes to deciding which teacher is best qualified and has the desired strengths that would be most valuable for the job at hand, it’s up to the powers that be to decide; not chance.
I am an outsider looking in at this part-time world, and what I can see from my limited perspective is an atmosphere that is tinged with desperation. And, with desperation comes, at times, the awful realization that personal dignity may have to be set aside momentarily in order to secure that all important Wednesday morning class. The hours put in to earn an MA, the creative energy extended in order to develop innovative lesson plans, and the thank you cards received from students because they had a teacher who cared, all this means absolutely nothing when you are presented with a fistful of unevenly cut straws. Those long tubes of plastic are all that matter.
It may go something like this:
You walk into the office where the draw is going to be made. You nod and smile uncomfortably at your colleagues, and you give a nervous laugh as the boss makes a joke to lighten the atmosphere. The room is charged, but the energy is not positive. It’s like the air has been sucked out, and a vacuum has been created, causing a suction in your ears and a headache that makes your temples throb. You look to your left, and glance to your right, and as you hear the blood pumping in your ears because your heart is pounding hard and loud enough to make your body shake, you close your eyes and you extend your hand and hope for the best as you grasp for a straw. A straw that your boss took the time out of his busy schedule to cut and tailor just for you.
Go on. Take it.
* * *
I want to teach. I don’t want to play games, but I worry that as the job market continues its decline, it will become increasingly more difficult to separate what I love doing in the classroom from the politics in the staffroom and the games of chance in the director’s office. I love my students. I attend and lead presentations in areas that I find compelling and worth sharing. I write papers and share ideas with colleagues through faculty development. But, most importantly, I teach. And I teach very well. And because I know what I love, I’m going to look at this inevitable change in my life in a positive light.
How often are we presented with choices in our lives at a clear and almost tangible crossroads? We usually recognize those moments only in retrospect, and not months before. I can practically hear Robert Johnson plucking away on his acoustic guitar and singing his blues, and the sound of those chords and words are so clear he may as well be sitting right beside me. But for me, those crossroads just up ahead aren’t a place for making deals with a guy holding a pitchfork and wearing a red suit. They are an important junction, one that will lead me to what I am meant to do. Those crossroads are a place where important decisions will be made. I’m right now in the process of getting prepared for that pause in my journey, that fleeting point in time when I will find myself smack in the middle of those roads. The preparation for that trip to the crossroads involves writing, and writing honestly and from my heart about things I’m passionate about. What I’m writing now, at this very moment, is a crucial first step. How this is received I am most certain will be a part of the momentum that pushes me closer and closer to the decisions I need to make. Decisions that are true to my profession, true to the people I may find myself working with in the future, and most importantly, decisions that are in sync with my personal belief system.
When I arrive at those crossroads, and I’m standing right in the middle of that intersection, I’ll be afforded a panoramic view of choices. And it won’t be midnight. I’m picturing a sunny afternoon, pale blue skies, and nothing but a few trees and green grass stretched out for as far as the eye can see. I’m going to sit myself down on the hard and uneven pavement where those four roads meet, and I’m going to listen carefully. When the last blues note from Mr. Johnson’s guitar has faded, and the sound of cicadas in the distance create their own distinct buzz and rhythm to fill in the silence, I’ll hear a voice as I close my eyes. And that voice will be my own. And it will know exactly what to say as it guides me down the road I’m meant to be on. I’ll be listening.