Classroom Time: My UW Story

For many outside of academia, it seems as if the only work professors do is when they stand in front of a group to teach a class. But then again, we not only have a teaching role—as in the K-12 model most people are accustomed to, and which requires a whole different preparation—but we are also scholars. Just like the M.D., J.D., and D.V.M. candidate, a PhD recipient attends the commencement ceremony for the professional degrees. Being a university professor involves: teaching, research in the area of specialization, service, mentoring, and more, including the intensive preparation of graduate school.
With the news recently that the University of Wisconsin System may be about to receive the largest budget cuts in its history, some politicians have suggested “more classroom time” for professors, which demonstrates a general lack of understanding of what does our profession entail. This is why, as a Madison alumni and current faculty member at UW-Milwaukee, I want to tell my story.
I began my trajectory as a Teaching Assistant of Spanish at UW-Madison in 1997, when I started the Master’s program. At the time, Madison was the only Big 10 institution that did not offer tuition remission, meaning that every month our take-home pay for teaching a daily section for which we were fully responsible for was $60. Thankfully, the efforts of the Teaching Assistants Association to bring Madison up to par with the Big 10 were successful. I should mention that in language courses, TAs are not “assistants” who guide the discussion session for a professor’s class; TAs in languages prepare their lessons, teach daily in a highly interactive pace, do their own grading, and as they get trained over their first semester, write their own quizzes and exams.
Why would anyone agree to this at such pay, one may ask in retrospect or from a detached perspective. Well, because we had been admitted to a top graduate program in our field, one with international recognition and one with a most solid foundation for scholars in the making. We were informed that we would receive 33% of a certain yearly amount every month.
As years went by, news about pay cuts were, and have continued to be, the order of the day. In the early aughts, TAs were working without a contract because the state legislature would not recognize what had been negotiated in good faith. Still, they (we) were putting in valuable classroom hours. Throughout the years, many of us worked other part-time jobs to accompany our teaching and our immersion in graduate studies as a way to make ends meet. Also, many of us, with a 9-month pay that would cover rent only partially, had to take student loans if we were to complete our educational goals.
When I completed my preliminary exams and became a dissertator, I also became a lecturer, which meant that I was not represented by the TAA anymore. At the time, I also became a part-time faculty member at the Madison Area Technical College. I would have 2 intermediate-level language courses at UW-Madison, and then two first-year language sequence classes in the evening at MATC for a grand total of 16 credits in one semester. Combined, that was more than a full-time professorial job at a teaching-oriented institution. That was a lot of classroom time, to say the least. This allowed me to bring in about $2000 a month in net pay. MATC only paid for hours of instruction for part-time faculty.
As it is the product of years of reading, investigating, writing, fine-tuning of research, critical, and professional skills, the dissertation took several years to complete, as it does in most cases. In 2006, I earned my PhD and switched gears from graduate student to the professorial mode. Aside from the sustained opposition from political forces to strengthen the university, I had made Madison my home and was fond of Wisconsin and wanted to stay in the area. Luckily, there was a tenure-track position right up my alley at UW-Milwaukee, for which I was delighted to receive the offer and accept it.
This is now my eighth year at UWM. Certainly, I can attest to what professors do with their time. We teach, which means that we: envision courses, write the syllabus, assess and choose materials for them, read primary and critical sources for our lectures, grade compositions and exams, evaluate projects and proposals, advise and mentor students, and write letters of recommendation for them. We also work on our scholarly research, which requires: reading more primary and critical sources, outline arguments for articles and books, write academic presentations, attend conferences, edit and revise texts, review our peers, and whenever possible, integrate our research with our instruction, deciding on what is appropriate for the undergraduate at the graduate level. Also, we participate in numerous departmental, divisional, and campus-wide committees (some of which we chair) organize symposia, evaluate a student’s skills for a study abroad program, serve as major professors for graduate students and members of thesis committees, and so on.
And let me be clear: I am not complaining about my job and the many responsibilities it implies. We welcome hard work because we know it very well since our graduate school years. But just because we are dedicated to our job and like it, does not mean our work should be devalued due to a lack of understanding about the profession and scholarly life and/or be underpaid and undermined by misguided ideas about what education, instruction, and training represent.
Classroom time is vital. It is core to the learning process, but it necessarily requires what goes on behind the scenes: the years of preparation to earn the degree that allows one to be a university professor, the on-going professional development and scholarly production that allows one to remain on the profession, as well as the planning, grading, and evaluating that takes time, dedication, and patience as instructors.
In my years at UWM, merit pay has become virtually non-existent. We were furloughed for a couple of years, and then Act 10 was implemented in 2011 making our take-home pay remain stagnant. In this light, this is a major labor issue as well as an educational and professional one in scope. UWM is the only research-oriented public institution in Milwaukee, the state’s largest city.
The UW System cannot afford more unprecedented cuts that would be detrimental to its core mission and its social, cultural and economic impact on the state. We already have the Wisconsin Idea. Let’s honor it.