As we work on securing improvements to the working conditions of teaching-focused faculty at the University of Waterloo, FAUW is interviewing lecturers across campus to find out more about their experiences at Waterloo—and how potential policy changes might affect their work.
First in our series is Elena Neiterman, a continuing lecturer in the Faculty of Health, at the School of Public Health and Health Systems (SHPPS). She came to Waterloo in 2015 from a contract teaching position at McMaster University. Let’s meet Elena!
The work of lecturers varies across campus. What does it include for you?
I normally teach six courses per year, including undergraduate courses in Health Promotion, Public Health Ethics, Canadian Health Systems, and Sociology of Aging, and graduate courses in Qualitative Research Methods. I also supervise undergraduate and MSc students.
I do a lot of service activities. I serve on the SPHHS Undergraduate Studies Committee, Recruitment Taskforce, and Annual Performance Review Committee. I also supervise Online Learning Assistants. At the Faculty level, I represent our School as a Teaching Fellow, serve on the Online Teaching Taskforce, and am part of the working group for the Faculty of Health Strategic Plan. At the University level, I am on the CTAPT committee, which aims to provide recommendations on how the university should assess teaching effectiveness in a way that truly captures the amazing work many of our UW instructors do in classrooms and beyond.
Since COVID, I am also casually working as a tech assistant at home, trying to fix the internet and solve Zoom problems. I have five children, and, as any other parent in Ontario, I am navigating my online work and children learning from home.
While my work assignment does not include research, I do quite a lot of it because I find it engaging and fascinating. Currently, I am involved in two big pan-Canadian projects. One examines work experiences of Canadian midwives to identify factors that improve their workplace retention. The other explores mental health-related leaves of absence and subsequent return to work among knowledge workers (academics, accountants, dentists, midwives, nurses, physicians, and teachers).
I also have long-standing interest in women’s reproductive health and work on a number of pedagogy-related smaller research projects, including a textbook on health promotion.
What parts of your work are you most passionate about?
Teaching is my passion. I like being in a classroom and interacting with students. Since COVID, this has become more challenging – I mostly spend my teaching time staring at a camera and I miss seeing my students, but I make do.
Since I teach some required courses in our program, I usually know most of our students. It is really exciting to see “my” first-year students graduating!
What was the experience of becoming a continuing lecturer like for you?
I came to Waterloo from McMaster and was really glad to join SPHHS where we have such an interdisciplinary group of scholars. I found my colleagues to be supportive and welcoming and I feel “at home” at SPHHS.
Being hired permanently meant that I could finally sleep at night – it is nerve-racking not knowing if you have a job next term. I teach six courses in our program, and I think that the School has benefitted from knowing that I am here “to stay,” as they can rely on me in planning courses.
Have you applied for any research grants while working at Waterloo, and how did that go?
I finished my PhD at McMaster University and my postdoctoral research at the University of Toronto. Both schools were research-intensive, and while I held a contract teaching position at McMaster before coming to UW, I was always encouraged to apply for external grants.
Coming to UW, it was made clear that I cannot apply for Tri-Council funding. I also was not eligible to apply for some internal UW grants. This was disappointing, as I always saw research as an integral part of my work, helping me to stay up to date on my teaching.
Luckily, I was still eligible to apply for Centre for Teaching Excellence grants that support teaching-related research. Some of my work on these grants resulted in publications in peer-reviewed journals and presentations at UW and national conferences.
One of my research projects, exploring technology-related distractions in academic classrooms, which was conducted with Christine Zaza and supported through a CTE LITE grant, was featured in local and national press.
Teaching stream faculty at UofT and McMaster have professorial status, and there’s a committee exploring something similar for Waterloo. What would it mean for you to have professorial status and tenure?
As a continuing lecturer, I feel that I’ve reached my professional “ceiling” – there is nowhere further to move, there is no formal recognition for any type of teaching or research activities that I do. This is disheartening, given that I really feel that I am still only in the beginning of my professional career.
Being able to have tenure or professiorial status would mean that UW recognizes the work that I am doing, that my motivation to grow professionally will be officially reflected in my career development. It would mean that I, too, am worthy of being called a professor.
As an added benefit, it would mean that I do not need to explain to my students and colleagues I meet at conferences what “continuing lecturer” means and how it is different from being a teaching professor – this term elicits many raised eyebrows.
What would it mean for you to have a term dedicated to professional development every couple of years, or a sabbatical every few years?
I feel excited about my upcoming non-teaching term. I’ve taught non-stop since September to free up the summer to work on my teaching development and my research. While I am still expected to continue with my service assignments, I will have time to prepare for my fall teaching term. I am teaching three classes in the fall and want to create courses that will be meaningful and engaging for students, which is much harder when designing remote courses.
I also am looking forward to focusing on my research and writing this summer – I have five papers that are still in process, three conference presentations, and a few student papers that need my attention. I am also finishing up writing my textbook.
Having a formalized term for professional development would mean that I can spend time learning to be a better teacher, that I can have dedicated time to developing the most amazing courses. It would also mean that I can engage in research-related activities with the recognition that this is part of my work (and not just a “hobby”).
From your perspective, what is—or isn’t—working in terms of career development for lecturers at Waterloo?
One thing that I find working very well for lecturers’ career development at Waterloo is the incredible support provided by the Centre for Teaching Excellence. I am grateful for the many opportunities they offer to enhance our teaching.
I find it frustrating that UW lecturers do not receive formal recognition for the research work they do and are not offered a tenure track option like at other universities. The term ‘lecturer’ is in itself somewhat demeaning, because it classifies you as the “other” vis-à-vis the conventional term of ‘professor.’ And we do not simply ‘lecture’; we inspire, we teach, we spark our students’ curiosity, and we build with them continuous relationship. To do that, we need to be valued and respected, both as academics and as instructors. Formalizing continuous career development for lecturers would mean that our administration recognizes that teaching means more than just “lecturing.”
How do you make a difference at Waterloo?
I like to think that I make most of the difference through my teaching. Inspiring my students to be great is what makes me most passionate about my work. I also think that my commitment to teaching enables me to promote a healthy and stimulating teaching culture, both in Waterloo and beyond.
I think that my research—which is still flourishing, despite being a “side gig”—helps Waterloo to promote its image of an institution where research matters, even if it is done by lecturers.