By Kristina Meshelski (Assistant Professor at California State University, Northridge)
Cal State Northridge is a large, regionally focused state university in Los Angeles (in the San Fernando Valley specifically, that made famous by the movie “Valley Girl”, etc.). Locals call it CSUN. The Cal State system is the largest state university system in the US, and CSUN is the largest within that system, with about 35,000 undergrads. It also one of the cheapest 4 year universities in the US –for California residents it costs about $6,000 a year, and most of our students qualify for federal grants to offset this. It is a majority Latina/o campus. Many students are the first in their family to attend college. Almost no one lives on campus, and many live at home with their parents. Many others are a bit older than traditional college age.
Our official full time work load is 5/5, with 1/1 being devoted to service, meaning a teaching load of 4/4. Given this, though we are expected to do some research in order to get tenure, we are not actually paid to do any research, unless we win special “reassigned time”. Reassigned time is relatively plentiful for those on the tenure track, but it is assigned on a competitive basis and you have to apply for it every single semester. I have not taught a 4/4 yet, and I don’t plan to, but I have spent a lot of time filling out applications. This would be incredibly frustrating were it not for the support of a really great department – my colleagues do research and they want me to do research. I think this is something people often misunderstand about “teaching-focused” institutions; they can vary greatly depending on the department culture. At CSUN we have philosophers publishing in top journals, and with top presses, and some who barely publish at all. I was questioned rigorously at my job talk, and while my colleagues do care deeply about the quality of my teaching, they are supportive of efforts to get out of teaching as well. (I find from talking to people that this is not always true at some teaching-focused places.)
That being said, since we do not have a graduate program, and most of us live far from campus, we have to work pretty hard to find time to simply “talk philosophy” with each other. We bring in visiting speakers (usually from around Southern California to save money) and we schedule reading groups, but I can go an entire semester without seeing someone if our schedules don’t happen to align. In a way, this makes department meetings more fun – there is usually a lot of chatting and catching up to be done. We also have very limited funds to travel to conferences, and none to buy books or anything like that. Our offices and classrooms tend to look like prisons, hospitals, or high schools, but if you bring in your own furniture, rugs, and lamps you can make it much better. My office has great windows, but they are sealed shut. Our library has few books, but many computers. I order everything from interlibrary loan.
My classes are typically capped at 35 for lower division courses, and 20-30 for upper division. Since philosophy is not the most popular major, the upper division courses can be under-enrolled, which makes them much more like actual seminars. I usually teach one upper division course and 1-2 sections of a lower division (personally I like doing intro or symbolic logic). In practice this means that I will teach anywhere from 20-100 students a semester. I’ve found that I kind of max out at 75; any more than that and I feel that I am relaxing my teaching standards to make the grading manageable. Since we rely on a scandalous amount of part-time lecturers to fill in any teaching gaps, I typically get to teach whatever I ask for, at whatever time I want. Like just about everyone else at CSUN, I make all my teaching two days a week so I don’t have to drive to campus every day. Our students do the same thing, coming to campus two days a week and usually work in some retail capacity the other days. This is why they are often exhausted, and rarely take advantage of campus amenities like the library or the gym. Also why about 5-25% of every class will stop coming and stop turning in assignments by the middle of the semester.
Despite the fact that CSUN is not a very selective university, I find that when it comes to political philosophy (my AOS), the students can be very sophisticated. I’ve noticed that some philosophers think of their teaching as an opportunity to open their student’s eyes to the severe injustice that exists around them. Whatever I’m doing, it’s certainly not this. My students, as a whole, are pretty woke already. If anything they need some shelter from the real world, and some way to recharge so they are less cynical. I hope I am giving them tools to understand things more deeply and to express their ideas more fully, but in my darker moments I worry that I am just a gatekeeper sorting them into those worthy of moving up to the middle class and those not worthy.
Service is service. I try to take on assignments that come with reassigned time, and not get too caught up in pointless things. You can get out of a lot of committee work at a large university by simply not asking to be put on any committees. I try to really put in work where it is meaningful, especially if it relates to making our major more diverse and inclusive, but I put my research and my teaching first. So far I am getting away with it, but I will probably have a lot more to do in the future. There is a committee for everything here.
Overall I love this job. But I am willing to move. CSUN has no official mechanism for spousal hires. My partner has been adjuncting here in the English department for the last five years. He makes good money compared to what most universities pay, he is in our union, has health benefits and some guarantee of continued classes to teach. But he shares a tiny office with six people, and has no choice of classes, or role in university governance. He is doing research, and he works hard to mentor students in the same way that I do. There is no good reason that his contributions shouldn’t be valued in the same way that mine are. In fact no good reason that any of our adjuncts aren’t valued in the same way.