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.
Lamees Al Ethari has been a lecturer in the Department of English Language and Literature since 2015. Let’s meet Lamees!
What does your job include right now?
My contract officially defines my load as 80% teaching and 20% service. I teach 7–8 courses per year, mostly ENGL 109 (Introduction to Academic Writing) and creative writing courses, but occasionally also literature courses. In 2019, I developed and taught a course titled Displacement Narratives in the Arts First program.
In addition to teaching, I keep active as a researcher and creative writer. I participate regularly at academic conferences, readings, and literary festivals. I have also published a memoir and a collection of poetry. I co-founded a SSHRC-funded community writing and performance workshop, The X Page, for local immigrant and refugee women. I have been a coordinator and an editor with the workshop since 2018. I am also a nonfiction editor for The New Quarterly, a national literary magazine housed in St. Jerome’s University.
What parts of your work are you most passionate about?
I love teaching—it’s really a big part of who I am professionally. But I also love doing research—research allows me to work on projects that relate to my own academic specialization.
While some of the research I do is on pedagogy, most of my research is on immigrant women’s narratives, especially from the Middle East. I focus on their journeys from home, the trauma they endured, what they left behind, and their experiences of trying to resettle in the diaspora. I have applied that research in teaching both my writing and my literature courses.
What has your experience been like trying to navigate the process of becoming a continuing lecturer?
That’s a really interesting question. A lot of the process actually seems very much up in the air. Each person seems to have had a different experience, and my questions weren’t answered in a timely manner because no one seems to know what the process is, and it’s not the same across different departments. Originally, I understood that I could apply in my fifth year, but that turned out not to be the case. The situation kept changing, there was nothing solid to go by, no guidelines to follow.
I submitted my application at the end of 2020 and didn’t hear anything about the application for a few months. (I finally received my continuing offer in May 2021.)
The lack of information is problematic and needs to be addressed by the Faculty and the University or it will continue to be problematic for those who follow after me. I’m not the first person in this kind of situation, and it’s not just for continuing status. A clear and consistent process will allow lecturers to plan ahead and be prepared.
Have you applied for any research grants while working at Waterloo, and how did that go?
I’ve applied for two research grants. I faced some complications with the first application process because, once again, there were no clear guidelines for lecturers applying for grants. However, when I applied for a SSHRC Connection Grant in 2018, I was told that I just needed to get approval from my chair, who supported the application and the project. We were awarded the grant in 2019, which funded the first cycle of The X-Page workshops.
Research grants, like these, allow us to be part of the academic community and they help us expand the work we do in our classrooms. I know that many of my lecturer colleagues are working on interesting and innovative research. They would benefit greatly from research grants that could support and fund their projects.
What would it mean for you to have professorial status and/or tenure?
I feel like I’ve been talking about this for a really long time! I’ve known about the model at U of T for a while and discussed it with some of my colleagues. I think it’s a good idea because there are a number of lecturers who want to focus on teaching, or research in pedagogy, and this model is a really great opportunity for them. It surprises me that this is not something that has come up for us here before now.
What would it mean for you to have a term dedicated to professional development every couple of years, or a sabbatical every few years?
It would be really important to have that opportunity. Sabbaticals and non-teaching terms provide us with the time to develop our teaching, update research, and find new ways to introduce material in order to keep our courses interesting and engaging.
For me, a sabbatical might also offer more time for research and/or writing. With the current teaching schedule of seven courses, there’s no time carved out for that. Ideally, the 1-in-6 non-teaching term should provide lecturers with the time to do research and other projects; however, after 14 continuous courses so many of us are drained and need the time to update syllabi and develop lessons. Unlike a sabbatical, we also have to keep up our service commitments.
The other factor is getting proper credit for research when you are able to do it. Even though many of us publish papers and do the same kinds of research activities as tenured faculty—while also teaching seven courses a year—the credit falls under teaching as well on our annual evaluations. It would be helpful to have even 10% on our evaluations assigned for research if we are interested in including it.
From your perspective, what is working or not working in terms of onboarding or career development for lecturers at Waterloo?
That’s a hard question. For career development, I’ve gone to workshops and teaching conferences, but those are not specific to lecturers. CTE likely offers some things, but with our schedules it’s really hard to find the time to attend. I actually haven’t noticed anything specific offered for lecturers.
When I began teaching at the department, I noticed that we did not have a designated colleague to assist lecturers with, for instance, clarifying questions about policies or workloads. I was lucky to have a couple of lecturer colleagues who were supportive. They created an informal network to support and help each other. Over the past few years, the number of lecturers has grown but we still have many unanswered questions regarding policies.
How has COVID impacted your work?
With in-person writing courses, I am used to including workshop sessions and one-on-one time with students. These activities allow students to share work, discuss writing strategies, and ask questions without worrying about marks or credit. Especially in creative writing courses, students would enjoy sharing their ideas and receiving feedback from each other. With remote learning, these activities have become summative and lack the interaction between the students.
For many lecturers in my department, we have been continuously teaching 2–3 courses a term from fall 2019 till now, without any substantial breaks. With remote learning, any free time from teaching and marking was spent trying to adjust to online learning or develop syllabi for the upcoming term.
How do you make a difference at Waterloo?
As an immigrant from Iraq, my experiences differ from most of my colleagues in the department. Living through war and leaving my native home somewhat shaped my teaching and my community work. Over the years, I have tried to find ways to connect my students to the diverse local community. I feel that my students have become more aware and engaged in the stories of newcomers from around the world.