BY LISA LISTER, DR. COURTNEY ADAMS WOOTEN, JENNIFER MESSIER, ANNA HABIB, VIRGINIA HOY, CARLOS CHISM
The foremost value of the Mason Vision is “Our Students Come First.” Instructional faculty like us center our labor around this value. We work with first-generation, immigrant, working-class, BIPOC students, student-athletes, and an increasing number of students with accommodations, mental health issues, and personal or family crises. We help them navigate the challenges of caring for family members, working forty or more hours per week while taking a full course load and overcoming various challenges. We perform critical work that helps our students become engaged citizens and well-rounded scholars who are prepared to act.
And yet, many of us, particularly contingent faculty who perform the lion’s share of instructional labor, have been overworked and underpaid for years. With the ongoing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are buckling under these crisis conditions at a time when our students need more individualized attention from us. The attention that our labor conditions make it impossible to provide.
We need immediate, significant changes to our workloads to effectively serve our students and realize the Mason Idea.
This is not a new problem. Instructional faculty labor conditions were difficult before the pandemic. For years, many of us sought change through institutional pathways such as the faculty senate, university, college, and department level committees, and community forums, with piecemeal or dismissive responses from the university administration. All too often, studies and recommendations have been celebrated as victories, while implementation is neglected.
Our unsustainable labor conditions have not only persisted but they have also been amplified by the pressures of pandemic-era teaching. The reality is that an ongoing pandemic makes learning and teaching incredibly difficult. As sites for inquiry, critical thinking, and collaborative learning, our classes can help students process and push through these difficult times. But making our classes live up to this challenge requires more laboring over lesson design and assignment sequencing, more time providing feedback on projects and meeting with students, more time to adapt the curriculum to meet student needs and incorporate emerging and antiracist pedagogies, and more time listening to students and addressing their unique needs.
We were already pushed past capacity before the pandemic. Now, with these COVID-related challenges, we are at crisis levels of burnout.
Many of us feel the same as Deborah M. Sims, an associate professor of writing at the University of Southern California who recently wrote that the “Bone-deep burnout and the care obligations heaped upon me by my institution felt like a lead vest as I limped across the finish line in December.” Or as Jonathan Malesic, now a former theology professor, wrote in his piece on academic burnout, “What happened to me, and what is happening now in higher education at large, is burnout. And the pandemic has only made things worse.”
While the pandemic revealed and exacerbated student, faculty, and pedagogical needs, they are not temporary; this is the new normal. As is widely known, the K-12 school system is buckling under the pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic. The students we serve now and in the years to come will be affected by the pandemic and the incalculable toll it has taken on our K-12 education system. Mason’s faculty can meet that challenge, but only if we are provided the time and energy to do so.
There is at least one solution to these problems. For writing-intensive courses, the university policy needs to concretely follow the guidance of professional organizations like the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), which recommends no more than 60 students per semester for every full-time writing instructor, and no more than 15 students in any writing-intensive course. This means hiring additional faculty at salaries which would help recruit the highly qualified candidates our students deserve. Making this shift would free up significant amounts of prep and feedback time, allowing faculty who teach writing-intensive courses to provide an excellent education without burning out. We call on the Mason administration to implement the solution–not to continue studying and discussing the problem.
We understand that this requires an investment; one financial estimate for reducing WI workloads in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences suggested a nearly 7-figure cost, and CHSS is not the only college with WI faculty. Since our students would directly benefit from this investment, and it aligns with the top value of the Mason Vision and the administration’s commitment to faculty, we believe that the costs are worthwhile and essential. Particularly since WI faculty teach approximately 20,000 students per year (nearly 10,000 of those in the composition program alone).
We have been told repeatedly that department and college-level budgets would struggle to finance reducing the size of these classes and increasing the number of sections for writing-intensive courses. We call on the Board of Visitors and President Gregory Washington to set aside funds in the FY 2023 budget to fully fund a university-wide initiative to improve these teaching and learning conditions. Mason is a $1.3 billion institution. Surely we can find the funds to create better labor conditions for overworked faculty and better learning conditions for all our students, now and in the future. They deserve no less.
Lisa Lister, Associate Director of Composition (ENGH 101), Full Term Professor, and Faculty Senate Rep.
Dr. Courtney Adams Wooten, Director of Composition and Assistant Professor
Jennifer Messier, Assistant Director of Composition (English 101) and Term Assistant Professor
Anna Habib, Associate Director, Composition for Multilingual Writers, and Term Associate Professor
Virginia Hoy, Term Assistant Professor, GMU-AAUP Liaison
Carlos Chism, Term Assistant Professor, and Member-at-large, GMU-AAUP Executive Committee
Lisa Lister, Dr. Courtney Adams Wooten, Jennifer Messier, Anna Habib, Virginia Hoy, Carlos Chism