In honor of Labor Day, I’m posting a transcript of an interview I did in January 2016 to support the founding a non-tenure track faculty union at Duke. We went on to succeed at creating the Duke Faculty Union in March of that year. You can read here about some of the victories in our first contract such as a pathway to multiyear appointments, clearer reappointment procedures, and wage increases.
What’s it Like to Teach at Duke as a Non-Tenure Track Faculty?
Interviewer: James Cersonsky (Service Employees International Union Employee)
Interviewee: Tina Del Carpio (Biology Lab Instructor)
Let’s start with the nuts and bolts. What are you currently teaching and working on?
I work as a lab instructor in Biology 201, Intro to Molecular Biology. It’s a really huge course. We typically have somewhere between 250 and 450 students. I work primarily on the lab component, in multiple lab sections and in helping run all the behind-the-scenes tasks. There’s a lot that needs to happen in a class that routinely has this many students.
Every Biology student at Duke is required to take the course, as well as Biomedical Engineering and some Evolutionary Anthropology students. Most, if not all, pre-med students will take our course. People who do research-focused biology will often come through our course.
It seems like your work lies at the intersection of a number of disciplines. How did you get involved in this area?
As a student at Duke, I took this course the very first year that it was created at Duke. I really liked working with my instructor, who was already working full time on the course. This led me to apply to a similar position.
I wonder how you see it differently as a faculty member.
There was definitely a transition to being behind the curtain. I was happy to see the amount of work that goes into pedagogy—what we’re teaching, how we’re evaluating what students are learning.
In terms of forming a union, I’ve also seen how little support there can be for people in different positions at Duke. I always felt like my position was a uniquely bottom-rung position within the department—and that this was why I started with only a semester-long contract and no benefits, and have had to work my way to a 12-month contract and affordable insurance. It’s been a surprise to see how prevalent this type of situation is throughout the university.
How would you break down the time that you put into classroom teaching and other, perhaps less noticeable, obligations as an instructor?
In my position, my requirement is primarily to do teaching, primarily for my lab sections—and always being available to meet with students. This includes open office hours that are available to all students in the course, not just for people in my sections. One of the nice things is that the hours are very flexible. Sometimes that means that I’ll come in at 5:00pm on a Thursday to meet with a student.
The other main responsibility is helping train the graduate students who teach part of our course. Every week, we model the labs for them and make ourselves available to them.
What have you seen change for faculty and students over your time at Duke?
I don’t know if the deficit in, say, health insurance and benefit coverage, or professional development funding, has really changed, but I’ve noticed it all more.
I also think that right now is an interesting time to be in tune with college campuses across the country. There are so many discussions of gender and race that I don’t think happened to quite the same degree when I was an undergrad not so long ago. I’d like us to keep moving in that direction—to keep talking about different challenges that people face, and about people’s different life experiences, rather than trying to pretend that these differences don’t exist.
How do you see these conversations play out in the work that you do?
Firstly, we have to agree that there is an inherent advantage to diversity, to having people with different voices and different backgrounds. When we bring in those who are on the margins, we all benefit.
So much of the sciences is problem solving. There are people out there who are brilliant, but I think that most of the major questions that we’re asking—for example, related to curing cancer—are going to take a lot of different approaches and ideas to answer.
What does this sort of commitment—to female faculty, to faculty of color—entail for students?
For students, diversity among faculty at Duke is something that needs to improve. As an undergrad, I had a lot of instructors who were female, but the number of instructors of color that I ever had I can name on my fingers, and possibly on one hand. When you only hear certain voices, it’s a little troubling.
Having role models is really important. One semester, our students talked about a Scientific American article describing the research of a woman named Katherine Pollard. When one instructor asked what students got out of the article, a female student answered, “I didn’t know women could do this kind of science!” The instructor thought this must have been a joke, but the student was sincerely surprised to hear that a woman conducted this interesting research that connected biology and computer science that opened a new window into evolution.
The fact that there are young women at Duke who could be interested in the sciences who are unaware what women are doing blows me away. It’s important to have people in faculty positions to lead these conversations and point to scholarly role models. This helps foster a welcoming environment and opens people to the idea that anyone can do this work if it’s what they want to do.