In the hospital lobby, I’m grading papers while my partner has surgery. It’s Friday at 5 p.m., and I hoped we’d be home in time for my 4:40 p.m. class, but when I found out the surgeons were running two and a half hours behind, I emailed the students to cancel. With this cancellation, I used all my sick days for the semester, because for a Monday-Wednesday-Friday class, I am only allowed three cancellations. I know my department wouldn’t drop my contract next semester for missing an extra class. I know they are impressed with my teaching. I know I will be given classes in the fall, but being a lecturer, I am never certain.
On and off, my heart pounds. Behind me, the loudspeaker announces numbers for tickets at the pharmacy, and I whirl around to the sound of someone yelling, “Fuck this shit!” The sun descends and I’m still not through grading papers, because they take twice as long now that my students have learned about ChatGPT. First, I put all the papers through GPTZero, but there are too many false positives, so I take the flagged text and try to reverse engineer it in ChatGPT. Then I try in vain to find a website for a file comparison that isn’t just looking for direct plagiarism. I realize I cannot stop my students from cheating. Is it even worth it to try?
At 5:04 p.m., I get a call that surgery was successful and my partner is being moved to recovery.
“When can I come up to see them?” I ask.
“We don’t allow visitors.”
I want to fight the nurse’s decision because I know my partner is waiting—know they expect me upstairs—but I don’t, and I don’t ask why I’m not allowed up. Is it because I’m not blood family? The nurse goes over a handful of care instructions and hangs up. I take a deep breath and continue grading.
When I heard about ChatGPT, I hoped I’d have one more semester before needing to address the issue, but I was out of luck. In class, I found out students used ChatGPT to do research, to help with paper structure, to find statistics and to find open-source code buried in the depths of Reddit, but students also admitted to using it to write assignments.
One of my students came to class late, and when he entered, he slammed the door, rustled his paper bag full of food and dragged his chair. I kept my voice steady, but I trailed off as I waited for him to sit down. During a writing exercise on how to analyze quotes, I asked how the exercise went, and he whispered, “Bullshit.”
“What was bullshit?”
“The exercise. It’s so boring.”
As the class processed his words, I saw eyebrows fly up and jaws drop. In response to the student, I laughed and said, “These exercises might be boring sometimes, but you need to know how to analyze quotes better for your papers.”
I used to teach high school, so I don’t take what students say personally. This is their education and, unlike my high school students, it’s their choice to be here. They are paying for it, and they decide how much they want to commit to learning. When I was in grad school and only taught one class a semester, I forced students to remove their earbuds and put away their phones, and I only allowed laptops for writing exercises. Now that I teach four classes a semester, I don’t have the energy to force them to pay attention.
At the hospital, I get a few more calls about care, medications and instructions to go to the pharmacy. Then I get dead silence for an hour. Then two hours. Recovery was only supposed to last half this time. I check my phone, and my partner hasn’t texted me. I check missed calls. Nothing. As I grade, my vision blurs. Whenever someone walks by, I wipe my eyes and hide my face.
Colleagues express surprise that I teach four classes a semester, saying it is too much work or grading or students, but four classes a semester is roughly nine classes a week. When I taught high school, I taught six classes a day. Teaching college, I have more time and am not trapped in a suffocating building from 7:45 a.m. to 5 p.m., but my pay is less. My starting salary at the high school was $43,000 a year, and my starting pay as a lecturer was $4,500 a class. If I teach eight classes a year, that is only $36,000. If I pick up a summer class, my annual pay is $40,500, but I need to teach two summer classes to exceed what I made as a high school teacher. And I’m one of the lucky ones, because I know some lecturers working for $3,000 or even $1,000 a class.
Rent is skyrocketing. Pay is stagnating. Students pay more tuition than ever, and as a result, their expectations have risen. They want more feedback, more individual attention, more organization, more, more, more. Meanwhile, I basically took a pay cut this year, because my pay did not rise to meet inflation. Do I cut corners when I teach? Absolutely. I grade everything except major assignments on completion. I line up my syllabi across classes to reduce my prep. I’m supposed to have multiple student meetings a semester outside of class to help generate paper topics, but I build it into my class time. I only read final drafts of papers unless a student seeks me out. I write before I grade. If I haven’t used all my sick days, I cancel class to give myself a break.
In the lobby, instead of grading, I stare at my phone. What-ifs spiral in my head. What if something went wrong? What if I have to call my partner’s parents? What if my partner has to stay overnight? If they have to stay, what if the nurses won’t let me see them?
The student who told me my writing exercise was boring admitted to using ChatGPT for his writing assignment, but GPTZero only flagged a few paragraphs. I tried to reverse engineer his writing but couldn’t generate his phrasing. I tried finding a website to compare the documents, but nothing came up. I could reach out to my department, report him to the honor board, fail the assignment or force him to write it again. But at the end of the day, I’m not paid enough to care.
Finally, I get a call from the nurse. She tells me my partner is dealing with severe nausea, which is why recovery is taking so long, but they will be wheeled down soon and I can take them home. When I see my partner, they are clutching a puke bag, face pale. In the car, I take the turns in the road slowly, drive the speed limit on the highway and try not to speed up or slow down too quickly.
Over the next several days, I help my partner up and down the stairs, bring them breakfast, buy us groceries, cook and clean. I don’t have time to grade or update my course syllabus. I don’t have time or energy to email students or meet with them.
I want to tell the administration, “You get what you pay for.” Some lecturers commit to nine hours of student meetings a week. Some lecturers give feedback on every draft. I will not.
Some lecturers teach full-time and have another job, like I do. Some lecturers pick and choose which bills to pay. Some lecturers sell plasma to make ends meet.
Meanwhile, in faculty meetings, where everyone’s lips are glued to the ass of the department head, the instructors and the tenure-track faculty squabble over the closing gap in their incomes, while lecturers are told they should feel lucky they aren’t being paid even less. I love teaching, but my priority is myself, my partner and my art. Only my writing can get me a permanent position, and so I write and I write and I write to get myself out of the lecturer hole.