Meet the lecturers: Burcu Karabina

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.

Burcu Karabina is a lecturer in the Faculty of Mathematics Undergraduate Office, working in the Digital Assets Group (DAG). She came to Waterloo in 2019 with five years of online teaching and course development experience to help build online courses and digital assets equipped with the latest teaching technologies and pedagogies.

Burcu Karabina

What does your job include right now?

I teach mainly service courses such as introductory algebra, linear algebra, and calculus, both online and face to face. In addition to my teaching duties, I research and implement recent teaching pedagogies, incorporate evidence-based teaching and learning practices into our online course design. Working closely with the Centre for Extended Learning, DAG creates and designs an inclusive, accessible, student-oriented online learning experience. My workload balance is 30% teaching and 70% service. I spend most of my time developing online courses. The pandemic altered this balance dramatically, but it is slowly going back to normal. A lot of what we do in DAG is at the intersection of teaching, service, and research, so these weights are not a true reflection of our day-to-day operations.

What parts of your work are you most passionate about?

I am very passionate about utilizing digital technologies to bring the online learning experience to the next level for our students. In a rapidly changing world, we get a deeper understanding of how we learn, and technology is an integral part of it. We recognize that learning is an evolving process, not an end product! I find it fascinating that every course I teach is different than the previous one. I always learn something new from my students and my pedagogical research, and I always find myself trying something new in my courses. My job offers a life-long learning opportunity!

Have you applied for any research grants while working at Waterloo, and how did that go?

Last year, I had a chance to collaborate with a research group at National Research Council Canada. We prepared a proposal for a New Beginnings Initiative grant to enhance academic integrity using privacy-preserving tools. I was disheartened when I realized that I am not authorized to manage a research grant as a lecturer, and I cannot serve as principal investigator for the project. Our grant is approved, and I will still play a key role in the project, but my name will always be on the sidelines due to my job title. I am very passionate and excited about this research project, but, unfortunately, there will be no formal recognition of my efforts from the Unviersity, since research is not included in my job description. I know I am not the only lecturer in this situation, and it is very unfortunate.

We all need the time and the peace of mind to reflect on our teaching experiences and invest in our profession to serve our students better, to make this university a better place.

What would it mean for you to have professorial status and/or tenure?

The biggest problem with the current continuing lecturer promotion path is that it is very mysterious. Policy 76 states that an appointment to continuing lecturer is “understood to be unusual and offered only in special circumstances,” which is clearly no longer true but adds to this mysteriousness. As a new faculty member, I hear a lot of stories about the process. There are vague guidelines, and the current performance evaluation system does not support continuous professional development and research into our profession. Yes, there are many resources, but no structured guidance sets us up for success. Yes, professional development is encouraged, but pedagogical research does not weigh in our contracts. Service duties are not clearly defined, but they make up a significant percentage of our contracts. Many lecturers are buried in heavy teaching loads with large class sizes, worried about their contract renewals. They cannot even find time to take their well-deserved vacations.

We all need the time and the peace of mind to reflect on our teaching experiences and invest in our profession to serve our students better, to make this university a better place. A well-structured and guided career path that leads to professorial and/or tenure status would mean that lecturers are given an opportunity and space to grow into their careers, with a possible research component. With mutual support, the faculty and the university can work together toward a common goal.

What would it mean for you to have a term dedicated to professional development every couple of years, or a sabbatical every few years?

In the Digital Assets Group, we have a flexible teaching arrangement between three and six courses a year, depending on the projects we work on. This is my first non-teaching term after five semesters. It has only been a few weeks, but I already feel refreshed and energized with many new ideas to try in my fall teaching. I am taking a few professional development courses, working on three side projects, learning new skills, and supervising two online learning assistants. I finally had a chance to check off several papers from my reading list. Everything changed so fast in the last two years. It is very nice to catch my breath and dive deeper into all the great ideas that flourished in online learning communities during the last few years. If all lecturers had a term dedicated to professional development every couple of years, they could plan their career development more efficiently with less stress.

Due to the pandemic, our responsibilities and the number of hours we spent on course development almost doubled.

From your perspective, what is—and isn’t—working in terms of career development for lecturers at Waterloo?

I joined the faculty with five years of online and face-to-face teaching experience and three years of online course development experience. I was working as a senior instructor in the USA. When I requested some of my teaching experience to count toward my continuing lecturer promotion path, the answer was a definite no. When I reviewed the guidelines and the checklist for continuing lecturers, I found conflicting information.

Again, there are a lot of resources but no clear timing and criteria. Starting my promotion clock from zero, moving to a different country with a young kid, and taking a challenging role in a newly established group were significant risks for me. In addition, COVID-19 did not make things any easier for our family to adjust to our new way of living.

On top of all these, feeling the contract renewal pressure and the uncertainty of the continuing lecturer path, I often found myself feeling anxious and working for long, long, long hours. In the end, all the work I have done was much appreciated and recognized.

It would be nice to have some training for new faculty at a faculty level, some faculty level orientation, and maybe a faculty mentorship model to reduce the stress new faculty experience on a foggy path to promotion.

How has COVID impacted your work?

Due to the pandemic, after a sharp shift to online teaching and remote learning, our responsibilities and the number of hours we spent on course development almost doubled. Course enrolment in Math almost doubled after many co-op placements fell through due to the pandemic. We were able to hire some of these students as Online Learning Assistants (OLA). Students and OLAs did an amazing job supporting our efforts by providing continuous and constructive feedback. I always believed that students should have a voice in course design.

Before the pandemic, taking an online course was a choice for students and many online courses were designed around instructor satisfaction. With support from CEL and OLAs, during and after the pandemic, our students had a voice in online course designs.

How do you make a difference at Waterloo?

It is a very gratifying experience to know that UW Math courseware we author makes an impact beyond UW. UW Math courseware is used in several countries, including the USA, UK, and India. Also, our experience and efforts in online teaching made it possible for the Math faculty to offer continuity for many math courses with tons of positive feedback from students during these challenging times. 

Next: Learn more about lecturers or the policy changes we’re pursuing.

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