If something a student learns in her class helps to illuminate their own lived experiences, Crystal Chang will consider it a job well done. That job, however, does not come without sacrifice.
Chang is a continuing lecturer in the interdisciplinary social science programs at UC Berkeley. More specifically, she teaches courses in the political economy and global studies majors.
Being a continuing lecturer means Chang has completed the equivalent of 12 semesters of lecturing in the same department and an excellence review. While this position comes with relatively high job security as continuing lecturers will likely be rehired for the same number of classes every year, the journey to continuing lectureship is no easy feat, according to Chang. Even with a continuing lectureship, the university can still let a lecturer go if their class is canceled, unlike tenure-track faculty.
‘Not a common route’: The origin story
While completing her master’s degree at UC San Diego and later her Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, Chang worked as a teaching assistant and GSI. In those positions, she realized she loved teaching and mentoring students.
After almost accepting a lecturer position at UC Berkeley, Chang pivoted to pursue a postdoctoral degree at Stanford University. Rather than following the tenure track like most do after completing a postdoc, Chang said she reapplied for a lecturer position at UC Berkeley. She had just gotten married and was trying to have children, so she decided it would be a good place to start.
“It’s not a common route where people go, ‘Oh, I’m going to finish my Ph.D. and then think about making a career as a lecturer,’ because in this country, most people would have a very hard time making a career as a lecturer,” Chang said. “It’s very low paid, it’s contingent and there’s no job security in most places, so it’s pretty hard to think about turning that into a permanent position.”
At the time, a lectureship seemed like a progressive career path, Chang said. As the years progressed, however, she came face-to-face with the difficulties of holding a contingent position.
‘No guarantee that you’ll get rehired’: The reality of contingency
When Chang began teaching at UC Berkeley, she was an instructor in the Fall Program for Freshmen, or FPF. Because instructors are not part of the Unit 18 union contract at UC-AFT, they do not have any of the benefits that lecturers have or will have as the result of UC-AFT’s recent contract agreement.
One of the similarities between the two positions, however, is their contingent, or contract-based, nature.
“The position I had on campus was only a one-year contract, so what happens when you’re a lecturer is you just have to wait until every summer to find out if you’re going to get rehired, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll get rehired,” Chang said.
Under these conditions, it took Chang many years to build up her lecturing classes. Each year was different. The one constant was low pay.
Living under the low-income line
At six out of the nine UC campuses, lecturers make below the county’s low-income threshold, Chang said.
In 2019, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, reported a low-income limit of $69,000 for a one-person household. That same year, UCOP reported the annual salary of full-time pre-six lecturers to be $66,000.
Chang, however, reported that the median salary for UC lecturers is less than $20,000 given that most lecturers have only part-time appointments, among other factors. Chang’s W2 statement for 2019 was $35,000, she said.
“I think some students would be really shocked if they looked up their lecturer and saw how little money that they make,” Chang said.
Chang added that even after having spent 10 years getting a Ph.D., most of her students will earn more than her right out of undergraduate education, making around $70,000 or $80,000 in a professional field.
‘Fell through the cracks’: Inconsistent health insurance
Because the majority of lecturers teach fewer than six classes per year and are considered “part-time,” many are ineligible for benefits like health care and paid family leave. For example, one must sustain roughly a 50% appointment, or three classes per year, to obtain health insurance.
Even when one is eligible, it’s not always a guarantee that they will have health care when they need it. The bottom line, Chang said, is that rehiring someone each year creates a lot of paperwork. If that paperwork isn’t filed in time, it can have consequences.
“I didn’t have health insurance for several months, but I didn’t even really know it until I went to the doctor and they’re like, ‘Oh no, this health insurance card you have is invalid,’ ” Chang said. “It just fell through the cracks because it hadn’t gotten processed because it’s so much paperwork.”
It’s the lack of guaranteed health insurance, paid family leave, emergency child care, privileged parking and other benefits that make lecturers such as Chang feel like they are second class.
Freeway Fliers: Multiple jobs to make ends meet
In attempt to make up for the lack of pay and benefits, lecturers often take on multiple jobs, according to Chang.
In the contingent faculty world, these people are called freeway fliers, and in 2012, Chang was one of them.
“In 2012, I drove over three bridges three times a week in the Bay Area to teach at three different universities in the same term,” Chang said. “This is what most contingent faculty have to do; they have to cobble together a lot of different jobs just to try to eke out a living that way.”
It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that Chang decided she no longer had the energy to work multiple jobs. Her job in Berkeley would have to be enough, she said.
Fortunately, Chang has a partner. It is only because of that partner, she said, that she could live in the Bay Area and survive off of what she was making.
She has had several friends, however, who have had to give up their lectureship because they couldn’t make a living off of it.
“On the one hand, we all do this work because we love it. We love working with students, you know some of us who do research love that, we love the campus life and community,” Chang said. “But on the other hand, it’s so poorly paid and supported that it makes it hard to survive doing this kind of work. It’s definitely a labor of love.”
And love it she does.
The ‘epiphany’: Why she stays
Eight or 10 years ago, Chang loved nothing more than seeing her students’ writing improve or watching them gain confidence in their public speaking abilities — skills that they will use far beyond the classroom.
For campus senior Alyssa Perez, Chang’s class was one of the first in which she was encouraged to speak up and engage with the material.
For campus senior Nicole Green, a former staff member of The Daily Californian, Chang boosted her confidence in her critical reasoning skills, taught Green to recognize her own bias and gave her hope for her future.
“Her classes were classes where I realized that I actually had a foundation to pursue my goals off of,” Green said. “She gave me a foundation of knowledge and reasoning to be able to succeed in whatever I pursued.”
As the years have gone by, not only has Chang been able to develop her teaching skills, but delve deeper into what she loves about the job itself. According to Chang, it’s important to her that her students come away with an understanding of the world around them and their place in it.
As her campus senior Lauren Merrell put it, Chang doesn’t teach a political economy class, she teaches an “understanding the world” class.
For some students, this understanding helps them contextualize their own experiences and connect with one another on the basis of experiences they may share.
Jeanne Kim, a former student who has since graduated, said that Chang’s class allowed her to speak on her own life experiences and reflect on how she lives her life as an Asian woman.
“It gave me an opportunity to talk about things and feel like my professor understood me,” Kim said. “(Chang) was willing to open up the floor for people in class to kind of delve into their past or to bring up things that maybe we wouldn’t be able to really bring up because you never had the opportunity to in another class.”
Chang encourages not only group discussion, but student connection as well. According to Chang, a student can only learn so much from a lecture.
While it may force people out of their comfort zones, Chang said her class is only as successful as her students’ willingness to engage with others.
While her students remember the interactions they had with one another, they also value the interactions they had with Chang one-on-one.
As a first-generation college student, Perez said she felt Chang genuinely cared about her continuing her education. According to Perez, Chang connected her with the resources she needed to make graduate school more accessible.
As an international student, campus senior Brian Sumali said Chang helped to amplify his voice and that of other international students.
“She has such an impact on everyone,” Green said. “She very much centers around helping her students, that’s honestly why she’s a lecturer, that’s why she does what she does. The fact that she also has to go through so much in order to just help her students, it’s just like what kind of gets to all of us.”