During the past semester I was employed at four Dutch universities: the University of Leiden, the Radboud University Nijmegen, the Free University of Amsterdam, and Utrecht University. All part-time, all fixed-term, all teaching-only. Over the past few years, I’ve often worked on 2-3 contracts simultaneously, just for teaching one or two courses, with durations varying from two months to a year and part-timing between 0.6 and 0.07 fte. I’d like to point out some of the practical problems I’ve encountered in the course of the past few years in such contracts. None of this is in any way an indictment of my direct colleagues or supervisors, which have been generally supportive and understanding of my situation, the need for combining multiple jobs, and my family commitments.
Often my contract would start only a few days before the start of classes and sometimes during the first week I would not have any login credentials and could not upload any materials to the digital learning environment, was unreachable through the institutional e-mail address, and could not access the intranet. Despite the fact that in most cases it was known months in advance that I would come to teach, I received my contract and credentials at the very last moment, leading to delays and inconveniences as classes would start without the digital infrastructure and information in place. When hiring temporary personnel, please make sure to have everything ready on time, i.e. before the classes start.
After the end of a contract there are a lot of loose ends: institutional e-mail and other accounts will be deleted; you cannot access any student data anymore, so you often can’t answer their questions; you have to archive exams and papers at the institution and you cannot access them anymore; any response you might have to teaching evaluations becomes meaningless if someone else is teaching the class next year, students might as well not bother to fill them out (no institution has ever given me access to previous evaluations); if you even have the chance to participate in meetings, there’s scarcely any chance for follow-up, since you’ll be likely gone by the next meeting; whatever innovations you introduced, will go up in smoke, since you won’t be in a position to inform your successor, so there is no continuity in teaching, etc. When hiring temporary personnel, please think of how you can enable them to further benefit your organization and your students: anonymize teaching evaluations and make them available, allow temps some access privileges to the student data for courses they’ve taught, offer a forwarding service for e-mail, include temps in meetings about their courses even if their contract hasn’t started yet, and keep them informed about further outcomes and results even after the end of their contract.
At most universities there is a fixed time-limit for grading student work, whatever the size of your contract. So whether you’re a full-timer or employed at 0.2 fte, you’ll have to grade those exams within the same timeframe, e.g. 10 workdays. However, if you only work for a university one day a week officially, that doesn’t mean you get two months to grade everything: those are calendar workdays. I understand that students need feedback in a timely fashion, but this also sometimes leads to ridiculous expectations (grading 100 papers in 10 days is actually doable, but only if you don’t have anything else to do). Precisely when you have to work multiple jobs, you cannot flexibly dedicate a full work week just to grading for one institution. When hiring part-time personnel, make sure that the demands placed on them are reasonable considering the size of the contract. For instance, grading deadlines should be doubled when the contract is smaller than 0.5 fte. If you find that unacceptable as an institution, then offer better contracts.
In most cases a part-time temp doesn’t get any private office space to meet with students, as any office space is shared with multiple colleagues and you often don’t even get a desk of your own. Countless times I’ve had to talk to students while standing in class or in the hallway after lectures, in a noisy, crowded lunchroom, or in another non-private space. This is less than ideal, especially when the student needs to discuss a personal problem (related to family, (mental) health, disabilities, etc.) that prevents them from attending class, doing an assignment, finishing on time, etc. When hiring temporary personnel make sure that there is some official, institutional arrangement for meeting students one-on-one in a safe, private environment. And not just “oh, but you can use my office!”, we need structure, not charity.
A new temp isn’t automatically aware of how things are done at an institution, what all the unspoken assumptions are, so it makes sense to hold at least one official talk at the beginning of the contract, so that there will be no misunderstandings about the respective duties and expectations. It also makes sense to have an exit talk, where the institution can get feedback from the temp, which can bring in a fresh perspective and challenge entrenched traditions. However, despite my many contracts, including those lasting longer than one semester, I’ve only ever had one single “Results and Development” interview (“Resultaat en Ontwikkeling”: a meeting with your boss on performance, career development, and potentially extending or renewing a temporary contract or making it permanent). I had to request this interview myself, otherwise it would not have taken place. The R&D talks are meant for giving feedback in both directions, but if you don’t do them and hence don’t have a written record, the problems experienced by temporary lecturers will remain invisible. When hiring temporary personnel, please make sure to offer them R&D interviews.
All this is not meant as a personal complaint or a cathartic airing of grievances: my situation is not unique. I speak from personal experience, but this is not about me. Precarious temps tend not to speak up and fear to bite the hand that feeds them. Yet, 40% of academics in the Netherlands are on fixed-term contracts. Assuming that you are familiar with the job market, with the collective labor agreement, perhaps even with job union guidelines, you will discover soon enough how much universities try to wiggle and squirm out of their obligations: “the prospect of a permanent employment contract after a maximum of two years of temporary employment” is an illusion. Your contract will terminate before two years, and you’ll be sent home for six months, only to be called on again next semester. Universities undercut union wages by using temps, both as lecturers and as postdocs, to do just one side of a full-blooded academic job which should involve both teaching and research.
Contracts like these, part-time fixed-term teaching-only, are harmful to all involved (students, universities, lecturers) and should not be offered.
Great post. It also shows that it’s not just inherently unfair to the temp worker. It really impacts quality of education for students, if professors don’t have the time to give good feedback to students. A sloppily graded paper is incredibly frustrating and a missed opportunity for development to a student. Also not having good facilities for individual feedback sessions is an example of not just to the detriment of the temp, but also to the students.