From technology to teaching: How lecturer Kenneth Worthy found fulfillment

Photo of Kenneth Worthy
Sunny Shen/Senior Staff
Kenny Worthy, who left his career as a software developer to pursue a doctoral degree in campus's Environmental Sciences, Policy and Management department to combat the global environmental crisis.

Update 3/5/22: this profile has been updated to include additional information from campus lecturer Kenneth Worthy. 

For more than a decade, Kenneth Worthy worked as a software developer. The companies he worked for paid him well, sent him traveling to Europe and surrounded him with a lot of smart, interesting people.

At a certain point, however, Worthy began to think deeply about his career and what he wanted out of life moving forward.

“There were a lot of great things about (software development), but it wasn’t fulfilling,” Worthy said. “You think about what is the product of your life’s work and if the product of my life’s work was software for financial institutions and other kinds of businesses, that wasn’t something that was very meaningful.”

One thing that motivated him to act, he said, was the global environmental crisis. This motivation led him to UC Berkeley’s Environmental Science, Policy and Management doctoral program.

As a GSI, Worthy found he enjoyed teaching and was good at it. He also didn’t want to uproot his life for an assistant professor position on the East Coast that may or may not be permanent.

Concerned about accepting a position only to return to the West Coast if he didn’t receive tenure, Worthy decided the position wasn’t a risk worth taking, especially as someone in his 40s with established roots in the East Bay.

After answering requests to teach at schools such as UC Santa Cruz, UC Berkeley St. Mary’s College of California and New York University, Worthy had a full load lecturing about environmental history, philosophy, ethics and culture.

“I’m passionate about teaching students about the environment and where we are with the environment, what’s happening, the global crises we’re facing and what we can do about it,” Worthy said. “My disappointment is that we’re living in this moment of extreme danger and crisis, and … too many Berkeley students graduate with little environmental literacy.”

Worthy believes environmental and climate literacy should be a graduation requirement for campus students; however, there is no course that examines all of the facets of climate change, according to Worthy.

In fact, two courses Worthy has taught in relation to environmental ethics and bioethics have been cut or minimized due to a lack of funding. While campus has a commitment to Academic Senate faculty and by extension their courses, the same cannot be said for lecturers, according to Worthy.

“The way the university is structured as a large research institution is that the teaching often follows the research interest and field focus of the senate faculty,” Worthy said. “That’s good in many ways. … But you have to understand that research focuses often have to be narrow and siloed, … so what we might miss at Berkeley is courses that look at the big picture of why the global environmental crisis is continuing.”

Worthy added that although students shouldn’t be able to tell the difference between lecturers and professors, there are implications behind the title.

For example, because funding was cut for Worthy’s environmental philosophy and ethics course, students who want to take it can only take it during the summer if they can afford the cost.

In addition, when Worthy is offered a new class, he doesn’t know if he’s going to teach it just once or 100 times.

“A course is a huge enterprise; it’s a lot of work to develop and to run it, so having that instability affects our well-being in many ways, but it also affects our teaching because we don’t know how much effort to put into developing a course,” Worthy said. “It does affect students because if I knew for sure I was going to teach this course many times, I would bring in resources, I would consult with someone. … There’s a lot of things I could do.”

Oftentimes, Worthy added, he won’t be hired to teach a class until a couple of weeks before the class starts.

Although keeping a contingent labor force allows the university flexibility, it sends the message that lecturers are disposable, replaceable parts in the machine of the institution, Worthy claimed.

Though Worthy believes the pay and the way the university treats its lecturers continue to be inequitable, there are many improvements that have resulted from the contract between UC-AFT and UCOP.

Worthy cited the implementation of multiyear contracts, earlier appointment notification and increased compensation as improvements in workload reliability and stability. He also noted that his summer classes will now count toward his continuing lecturer status, given that he does not teach any courses or receive any credit for the spring semester.

Despite this “historic” contract, Worthy still has no idea whether he will ever teach at UC Berkeley again. After five or six years and many courses taught, the university still has no commitment to Worthy moving forward.

“What keeps me coming back is the importance of the subject and that I like working with students,” Worthy said. “I’m passionate about helping shape a healthier, more sustainable world, and doing that with students is something we can do together.”

Contact Veronica Roseborough at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @v_roseborough.