Part-time post: long hours, atrocious pay

May 17, 2002

Plus no social life, unpaid preparation and nightmares. John Brogan reveals the grim reality of a visiting lecturer's life.


At secondary school, the mere mention of James Watt and his separate condenser was enough to spur me to a bout of truancy. Fortunately, our teacher was of the same mind and raced through the industrial revolution with a speed that would have put Stephenson's rocket to shame.

Steam power was quickly consigned to the dustbin of pre-O-level history, and I felt confident that I would never have to think about it again. And I did not, until some 15 or so years later, when I found myself in front of 40 first-year students giving my first university lecture. The subject? The impact of steam on the industrial revolution.

Teaching subjects of which I have only the merest knowledge has become something of a common occurrence. I had always known that finding work directly related to my doctoral research - on the far left in early 20th-century Italy - was unlikely, but I had hoped that my knowledge of modern European history would keep a roof over my head and give me time to carry out more research on a subject to which I had dedicated so much time, energy and emotion.

I did teach on a modern European history course while working on my doctorate. But in the past two years, bar one guest lecture, I have not given a single lecture on any topic that I have studied since I left school.

Normally I do not get told about any work available until a week or so before the semester starts - it has been as little as the day before - when a university realises that it has not allocated for someone on sabbatical leave, that a full-time lecturer has other commitments or that there are more students than they thought. This means that lessons, first and second-year lectures and seminars, are normally prepared the week before I teach them. Weekends are spent desperately trying to cram my head with the relevant information and then organise it in some vaguely coherent form.

Information for the lectures is stored in my short-term memory, as if I were carrying out last-minute revision before an exam, before it is discarded to be replaced by the next week's subject. Now I am teaching 14 and a half hours a week, with highlights including the Roman occupation of Britain, proto-industrialisation and sanitary reforms in Victorian London. This feat of mental dexterity is not good for my mental or my physical health. Meanwhile, my social life, which I put on hold while I was working on my thesis, has finally died.

I live in constant fear of being caught out by the students, and I have nightmares about being asked which books to recommend for essays on subjects that I have not yet got round to reading about. In my favour, though, students generally are not as challenging as they used to be.

Why do I accept the work? Well it is difficult to say no. What other work is available to a historian who hopes to stay in his field? I did not sweat blood and tears over my doctorate simply to abandon the subject once it was over. My long-term aim is to continue my research and eventually to teach in an area where I have a greater interest.

Full-time lecturers constantly advise me to keep going and that something will turn up eventually. But the weekly trawl through the education jobs reveals only the dearth of positions available - except for people to send in their CVs so they can be put on a list of potential visiting lecturers. (Done that.) Personally, I would not be surprised if future teaching in the new universities was dominated by antipodeans on the one-year European walkabout.

Besides the constant mental exhaustion, the resulting increased need to visit the pub and the complete lack of time to dedicate to researching my area - the reason I stayed in education - my main gripe is (no surprise) pay. In London, the pay is on average about £30 for each hour taught, which sounds a lot. But there is no pay for the hours of preparation, the exam and essay marking, student tutorial hours, responding to emails from students and other such tasks. I once worked out that I was probably on no more than £5 an hour.

To pay for food last semester, I had to supplement my meagre earnings with administrative work, for which I was paid £12 an hour. After eight years in education, with a first, an MA and a PhD, it is pitiful. Not to mention that there has been no pay during the holidays and that at the end of the semester you are not sure whether you will be needed for the next and will not find out until roughly a week before it begins.

That gives you a long summer of temping or finding whatever work is available while you mull over whether it is really worth it, given the paltry rewards and with little prospect for change in the future. I am quickly reaching the conclusion that it is not. In fact, when my students found out what I earned, they also advised me to change jobs.

John Brogan (not his real name) is a visiting lecturer at universities in the London area.


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