‘Lecturers live precarious lives’: Why it’s worth it to David Walter

Photo of David Walter
Sunny Shen/Senior Staff
David Walter, who has lectured in both the campus English and comparative literature departments, describes teaching as his "calling."

Related Posts

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

As a college student, David Walter was on track to becoming a promising young philosopher and poet. Little did he know that on Nov. 17, 2021, he would be surrounded by his fellow university lecturers on Sproul Plaza, celebrating a tentative agreement with the UC Office of the President.

As of Dec. 31, Walter will have spent six years of his life as a UC Berkeley lecturer in the comparative literature and English departments. However, because he has not completed 12 semesters in one department and earned the title of continuing lecturer, granting him some job stability, every semester has come with uncertainty.

Each academic term, his contract could have been terminated. Each semester at UC Berkeley could have been his last. Yet, almost every semester he receives a teaching appointment. He accepts.

“Lecturers live precarious lives,” Walter said. “For me, it’s worth it when you find your passion.”

On June 1, 2021, Walter’s first and only academic year contract was terminated — just as it is after every five-month appointment he receives. As far as he knew, he would not have a teaching job come fall semester. Walter continued the job search that goes hand-in-hand with a lecturer position.

On July 31, the comparative literature and English departments reached out to see if he could teach three classes for students who had gotten off the waitlist for UC Berkeley. They apologized for the “last-minute ask.” An indescribable feeling of relief washed over him.

Given classes began Aug. 25, however, Walter didn’t have much time to prepare new course content. Similarly, he wasn’t informed of his employment for the spring 2022 semester until Oct. 13.

Though lecturing is now his life’s calling, Walter says being a teacher was never his plan. His professor mentors at St. John’s College, however, encouraged him to go to graduate school. Seeing that the comparative literature department was one of the highest funded departments at UC Berkeley, Walter chose their program.

Starting out

Walter first had the opportunity to share his love of comparative literature with others as a teaching assistant, or TA.

When his graduate student instructor told him it was his turn to teach a class, however, he was “terribly scared.” According to Walter, the class went “horribly.”

“At the end of my first semester TA-ing, I read the student evals,” Walter said. “The question on the evaluation was: ‘What could the instructor do to make the class better?’ and a student had written, ‘Get another TA.’ That was really difficult to read, but I knew I had done a really bad job.”

Despite his initial lack of success, Walter got another shot at teaching as a graduate student instructor.

This time, he got to make the rules.

“I immediately had incredible connection and community with the students in the class,” Walter said. “I got high just from teaching, and it didn’t stop.”

As he continued teaching, Walter said he began to observe his colleagues to hone his teaching style and craft.

He wanted his students to enjoy what they were reading and discussing, as well as relate to the content. Walter added that he tried to pinpoint which material was disengaging students or going over their heads so he could adapt his teaching accordingly.

“All of the sudden it wasn’t about me, and it wasn’t about my subjects and books anymore. It was about engagement,” Walter said. “Once I realized that, it was like I was off to the races with all kinds of questions about how I could make the classes better for students.”

When worlds collide

Before beginning his life as a teacher, Walter was a TV and film developer in Hollywood. Walter’s business partner, his sister, taught him everything he knows about story structure and script analysis.

Though he is no longer in the industry, Walter said he incorporates his background in stories and scripts into his class to excite students. According to one of Walter’s former students, sophomore Mason McBride, it most certainly does.

“In (English R1A), he would point out something really interesting in a novel and then after class I would just, like, research it or find other texts online,” McBride said. “That was really fun, to like go down rabbit holes.”

But more goes into teaching a class successfully than meets the eye.

‘The next crack in the rock’

For lecturers, there is no typical workday. It consists of prepping for classes, teaching those classes and holding office hours as well as grading papers, answering emails and writing letters of recommendation.

Depending on the precarity of their situation, Walter said lecturers will also work additional jobs on top of the classes they teach each semester. Walter himself has taken on data entry, credit card processing, auto financing and organizing non-Senate faculty across the UC with UC-AFT.

“You never want to leave yourself stranded or without a job,” Walter said. “You’ve always got to make sure that next crack in the rock is there for your hand, otherwise you are stuck.”

As a result, applying for new jobs becomes part of lecturers’ day-to-day life.

At one point in his career, Walter taught two 90-minute UC Berkeley classes in the morning, held office hours and then took Caltrain to Stanford University to teach evening classes.

“That was particularly hard, but also really, really fun,” Walter said. “I went to sleep at midnight with a book on my chest and a lesson plan beside me in bed, and woke up at six in the morning, still finishing that book and finishing that lesson plan.”

According to Walter, all of his classes that year went very well. His supervisor at Stanford, however, told him they were not fond of people working other jobs while employed at Stanford.

Though he understood the supervisor sought to look out for her program, Walter said he was working multiple jobs because he had the capacity to do so and needed the money. He couldn’t live off of just one salary or the other.

“I had this impulse in my brain that wanted to say to her, ‘You don’t have the right to tell me not to work … to turn down a job from another university,’ ” Walter said. “We do other things, and we have all these fractured lives as a result of our economic needs and we accept that as a reality.”

More than a side project

On top of applying for and taking on new jobs to support themselves, lecturers work on their own passion projects or research.

According to Walter, professors are professional researchers who teach, but are also expected to conduct and publish research at UC Berkeley. In contrast, lecturers are professional teachers who, in order to further their careers, tend to conduct research without compensation from campus.

“(Lecturers) all have really interesting projects going that they don’t consider side projects. They are essential projects to who they are. It defines their academic identity,” Walter said. “That’s what fuels the teaching.”

Despite the uncertainty surrounding his employment status each semester, the projects he pursues outside of class remain constant. For the past 10 years, Walter has been working on a book about transnational crime across the southwestern border of the U.S.

Because the projects aren’t included in his contract, other responsibilities tend to take precedence, especially with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of these responsibilities was to ensure students still received the best education possible given the circumstances.

“Most professors were aware of (the pandemic) obviously, but they weren’t really considerate of the students on how it affects them,” said Katherin Velazquez, a campus sophomore and former student of Walter’s. “He really was able to empathize with the students and consider everything that was going on due to the pandemic … that really showed through the way he taught.”

Walter emphasized that it’s not only important for students to learn from their lecturers, but about them as well.

Each of them has different lives, different challenges and different reasons for continuing to teach.

“A calling is something that calls you, you don’t call it, unfortunately. I would have rather been a world-famous novelist,” Walter said. “But I just kept on gravitating back to (teaching) despite the fact that it kept punishing me because the classroom can change my day.”

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