Sunday, May 22, 2022

My experience as a Unit-18 Berkeley Lecturer

From spring 2021 through spring 2022, I was a Unit-18 Lecturer for UC Berkeley in the EECS department. A Unit-18 lecturer is what is often called "adjunct"; it's not on a tenure track, isn't part of the "Academic Senate", and it's represented by a union. Since I don't have a PhD, I am not eligible for tenure-track lecturer roles at UC Berkeley.

Here's a high level overview of my 1.5 years at Cal, both in terms of courseload and "lifeload":

I include my lifeload above as I imagine my experience may have been different if I didn't have a young child to support financially and to care for in the evenings/weekends.

Here are my reflections on the various aspects of being a Unit-18 lecturer. I am grateful for the experience, as I've learned a lot, but alas, there were more negatives than positives in the end. I will be going back to industry, but perhaps one day will return to academia when it's a better fit.

Compensation: Too Low

My salary as a Unit-18 lecturer with a 100% appointment was about 100K annual compensation until our union's strike and new contract brought it to be about 107K. That compensation is technically for 9 months (since we "only work 9 months") but spread over 12 months.

That is the lowest salary I've had in quite a few years, especially since there is certainly work to be done over the summer/winter. There are also quite a few expenses to this job that I haven't had in tech jobs: parking fees ($118/month), meals ($15/day), A/V equipment for at-home Zoom instruction and in-campus hybrid instruction, snacks for staff events, etc. It's possible to ask for reimbursement for some of the latter costs, but I've had mixed success and have mostly stopped asking.

For comparison, if I were to take a software engineering job right now, I would earn a minimum of 160K (like at a startup with high equity) but more like 220K+. Plus sign-on bonus ($20-120K), stock options, annual performance bonus (10-40%), etc.

Courseload: Too High

Sp21: I actually found the courseload of my first semester at Berkeley quite reasonable. I co-taught CS61A along with Paul Hilfinger and co-taught CS302 with Dan Garcia. I had fortunately spent the month before starting at Berkeley going through the entire CS61A materials, so I felt prepared topic-wise. Hilfinger wanted to teach most of the lectures, so I instead focused my time on exam writing and other course improvements. That semester was also entirely over Zoom, which meant no commute time plus more compatibility with taking care of a 1.5 year old in the evenings. I was even able to attend staff meetings with my daughter napping on me.

Fa21: That semester was brutal. I co-taught CS61A with John Denero and CS169A with Michael Ball. This time, I gave all the 61A lectures, so I had quite a lot of lecture prep to do, ~6 hours per lecture. Fortunately, John wrote the exams so that was off my plate. I found it really difficult to balance CS61A (a massive class of 2000) with CS169A (still a fairly large class of 350), since 169A required a fair bit of work in writing quizzes/exams (5 quizzes, 1 exam), grading open-ended homework assignments, and staff management. I was also new to CS169A, so I was trying to go through the assignments before giving them to students, and that takes a lot of time.

On top of it all, I was also in my first trimester of pregnancy, experiencing the most fatigue and nausea I've ever had in my life, so it was difficult to force myself to stay up late to get everything done.

Sp22: Somehow still a pretty rough semester. I solo taught CS61A, co-taught CS169L (30 students) and co taught CS302 (30 students). I fortunately had the majority of my lectures prepped for CS61A, but I was admittedly eager to try out some course changes, especially since we'd received funding for a particular change that we'd been working on since the summer. Implementing changes in a course significantly increases the time required for new lectures, new assignments, TA training, support, etc. I found it hard to balance CS61A with CS169L and CS302, plus all the random other committees and commitments I'd picked up in the last year, especially on days where all of them suddenly had urgent things that needed doing. There were many nights where I thought to myself "I don't know how everything's going to get done by tomorrow, but somehow it will, please please I hope."

Generally, I think the workload formulas at UC Berkeley don't account for the many aspects of running a course. They consider the time required for lecture and office hours, but that is such a small aspect of everything involved. Many hours are required for staff management (given how large they can be!) and dealing with the increased number of edge cases that occur with large number of students (academic misconduct, Incompletes, extensions, incidents, etc). I think that teaching a massive course like CS61A, with perhaps 1 small course like CS302, should count as a 100% appointment. Otherwise, when faculty members are forced to take on too many courses, we often have to skimp on aspects, such as staff management or assignment refinement, and that skimping can have significant negative effects.

But You Get Winter/Summer Off!

Hahaha, no.

First of all, there is actually work that needs to be done during the summer. CS61A needs to hire 100 staff members for each fall semester, and it takes a long time to go through all the applications and determine which 100 people to hire, conduct interviews, contact references, etc. In theory, we were supposed to finish hiring by early June, but it just wasn't possible to hire that many people so quickly. 

Besides hiring, there's also preparatory work to do for the next semester, like if you're teaching a new course, since there's often no time allocated for that during the semester.

There's also grading that happens in the winter. Sadly, for CS169A, grading took so much time that we had to request an extension and then we stayed up til 1am on New Years Eve calculating the final grades and submitting them. Happy New Years! Resolution: Never do that again! 

But the real issue with the summer/winters is that my compensation as a Unit-18 lecturer was so low that I could not afford to not work at all during them. My bank account actually nearly went to $0 last summer, which hadn't happened to me since… college? I ended up taking on various curriculum/teaching gigs during the summer which paid some, but the payment came months later. I perhaps should have taken on software engineering consulting instead, which likely would have paid higher and sooner.

In the winter, I developed an online course for a company that would pay me based on the number of students that took the course each offering. The first cohort turned out to be small, so that didn't work out great for this year, but future cohorts may be larger, so the time investment may eventually be worth it.

If I was earning a higher base salary, then I perhaps could fully relax during the summer, as is rumored to be possible as a professor, but Unit-18 salaries put that dream farther out of reach.

Also, notably: I really couldn't take any vacation at all during the fall/spring semesters, whereas I could take a vacation every few months if I worked in tech. So I'm not sure how much it's really worth it if you have to go so hard for 9 months with no breaks in order to get those few months off. I think I'd prefer more breaks scattered throughout the year.

*Yes, there's a spring break, but I had to use that to prep lectures for the rest of the semester, due to a lot of overlapping deadlines in the post-spring-break weeks.

Benefits?: Health Insurance

My first lecturer appointment was only for a single semester (which may be standard practice?), and it meant I was only eligible for catastrophic insurance during that time. The HR officer advised me to get other insurance if I could, but my COBRA would have been $1500 per month, and I’m not married to my partner, so I stuck with the catastrophic insurance and just tried very hard to not get sick/injured. 

Unfortunately, I did have a medical issue at the very end of those 6 months, and ended up in a limbo for a few weeks between catastrophic insurance ending and comprehensive insurance kicking in, and I just constantly called an emergency nurse line for reassurance that I wasn’t dying. Finally, Kaiser kicked in and I was able to recover.

The Kaiser insurance plan is similar to what I've had in the past at tech companies, which I think is a good level of health insurance. I would have just appreciated it earlier :)

Benefits?: Maternity Leave

The maternity leave benefits for Unit-18 lecturers are not great. When I had my first baby while working in the tech industry, I got 4 months fully paid leave, no questions asked. At Berkeley, when I realized I was pregnant with a second baby due June 3rd, I had to do a lot of asking around to see how much leave I would be eligible for. I think it turned out to be  around 10 weeks, but since it would have been during the summer months anyway (during which Unit-18 lecturers receive payment already), HR suggested not going through the effort to formally go on leave. 

I also discovered I was eligible for "Active Service Modified Duty", which meant I could request a modification to my typical lecturing duties in the fall semester, as long as the department approved. I ended up requesting a semester where my only course would be solo instruction of 61A, but I would also do preparatory work for next semester's first time teaching CS160, plus writing the spring 61A exams and working on a few new 61A projects. Such a semester certainly would have been a lower workload than a semester teaching 3 courses, so I appreciate the chairs for approving it, but would still have been rough to balance with having a nursing 3 month old. 

Okay, But Teaching Is Fun?!

There are indeed many aspects of teaching that are very interesting intellectually and quite fun. What I love:

  • Lecturing. I like trying to figure out how to present something in a way that makes sense. Granted, I don't always succeed, but it's interesting to see when an attempt fails, too. I also love the questions that students ask, since it prompts me to learn something more deeply.

  • Assignments. Similarly, it's interesting to figure out assignments that will help students learn a particular topic. TAs often do a lot of assignment creation, at least in 61A, but I like working with them on that.

  • Autonomy. Probably the greatest park of academia is that we do get a fair bit of free rein as lecturers. If I want to experiment with a slightly different topic ordering or even a new topic, then I don't need to request permission from anyone above me. I do need to get staff on board and make sure they're comfortable with it, since they'll need to teach that in their sections, but that feels very different from the top-down decision making that often happens in tech.

However, there are also aspects of university teaching that are not that fun (to me), such as:

  • Academic Misconduct. I'm so sad when we discover students cheat. But we do need to look out for cheating, since it's unfair to students that aren't cheating if other students are freely allowed to cheat. 

  • Grading. Unfortunately, grades really do mean a lot at Berkeley, especially for CS61A, since L&S students must get a 3.3 average GPA in 61A/61B/70 in order to declare CS. Even a few points out of 300 can make a difference to someone's final grade and thus their ability to declare, so we get a lot of regrade requests throughout the semester. I've had some 20-email-long threads entirely about just 2 points. I totally get why students care about 2 points, since there's that dang GPA cap, but I still find it exhausting to reason about why one student should get 2 points and not another student. My best approach has to just been as consistent as possible, which often means erring on the side of being less generous.

  • Staff management. It's hard. I've done people management at various times in my life, but it's difficult to do it well while also trying to do many other aspects of teaching. I don't think I've done it particularly well in my time here. Part of that is never having managed undergraduate TAs, part of that is lack of time in being able to do mentoring, check-ins, etc. 

  • Service. There's this thing in academia called "service" referring to things like serving on committees. I believe it's viewed favorably for tenure-track faculty members when tenure is being decided, but for Unit-18 lectures, it mostly feels like unpaid labor. Some of the committees do discuss interesting topics and make important decisions, but I think Unit-18 lecturers should be paid more if that is going to be a part of our job, since we already have higher teaching loads than normal faculty.

  • Faculty Hierarchy. Unit-18 lecturers are very low down on the totem pole in terms of the classes of faculty members at the university. My first semester, I wasn't allowed on any of the faculty mailing lists. I'm still only a few of them, and I'll hear every so often about discussions that happen on the "real" faculty lists. There are also some faculty meetings we aren't allowed to join, like particular hiring discussions. It's not even that I want to be involved with all of these things; but it does start to feel bad when you realize increasingly how much you're excuded from.

I want to thank those at Berkeley who helped me get the lecturer position, as I've always been very eager to try out university lecturing. I hope that one day I may return as a lecturer at Berkeley or elsewhere, once it's a better fit for my financial and caretaking needs. In the meantime, I've decided to share my experience for others who are considering pursuing the same or similar roles.