Archive for July 18th, 2008

At the start or end of my morning run, I often meet one of my neighbors running for the bus. He works as an on-call English instructor at various institutions around the city, and often gets the call to teach at the last moment in the morning. He doesn’t seem to mind, except for the irregularity of his pay, but I never meet him on his way to work without being thoroughly thankful that my own days as an itinerant instructor are long-past.

For the last few decades, most people with a graduate degree who hope to have a career in academia spend at least some time as a sessional instructor, scrambling for each semester-long contract, and often scrambling between community colleges during the work week to cobble together something like a regular pay cheque. My own experiences include a semester when I bused out to Fraser Valley College (as it was then) two days a week, and more than one time when I had fourteen hour days in which at least two or three hours were spent travelling. That’s time that I could have dearly used for marking or lesson preparation.

Sessional instructors have the lowest rank in academia, and everything about their working conditions reminds of them of the fact. Often, they don’t get a teaching assignment until a week or less before the semester starts – sometimes the night before. They get paid half what tenured faculty get, and often do twice the work, since they frequently teach lower level classes with more students. Most of the time, they have to share offices – or even study carrels in a crowded room. Officially, they don’t get paid for research, yet, if they don’t publish, they have less chance of being hired. Similarly, they are looked down on because their focus is teaching, but, unlike a tenured professor, they lose their position if their student evaluations are poor. Their rehiring is at the whim of their department, which means that wise sessionals will waste hours at every meeting and function, even though they have no voice. Yet they endure all this in the hopes that one day they’ll rise to the height of being a lecturer – which means they’ll be doing the same work for about the same pay, but not having to scramble for it. Meanwhile, they dream of winning a tenure position and dwelling in the halls of academia forever.

Sessional work is especially hard at the community colleges. For one thing, the classes are larger than at universities, and more assignments are required. For another, community colleges – even now, when they have morphed into degree-granting institutions of a kind – are often the continuation of high school under another name. Faced with the choice of finding a job or going to college, many middle-class kids will immediately register for college, which is cheaper than university and easier to treat lightly. For the sessional instructor, that means that the lesson that works in the more serious atmosphere of university has to be largely remade for use at a college. In fact, when I retreated after a few years into teaching only at university, the first thing I noticed was how much lighter my work load became. And I needed the respite, because, although I was young and healthy, the work was steadily grinding me down, especially since I needed to teach year round in order to keep above the poverty line.

Despite these disadvantages, I loved the work, especially dealing with the students. I was kept going, too, by a vague promise at one university that I would eventually be hired for some kind of full-time position. Dozens of Baby Boomer teachers would be retiring any day now, I was continually told – and when they did, I would be first in line for their jobs, because I had established myself as an effective teacher.

Then, slowly, the die started being weighted against me. My non-dogmatic approach to criticism was out of fashion with the then-dominant Post Colonialists, and, although I muttered jokes about being the token humanist, I was increasingly looked at askance. Then the chair changed, and the new one announced that, instead of reserving sessional positions for those who have proved themselves, the department would use the positions in order to trade favors for its grad students at other universities. Suddenly, my income became precarious. And, right about then, I noticed that, when tenured staff retired, they were either not being replaced or else being replaced by relatively lowly lecturer positions.

Seeing the writing on the wall, I made the jump to technical writing. From there, I was so busy leapfrogging into marketing, consulting, and eventually journalism that I’ve had little time to look back. If my new work was just as unsettled, I appreciated that it paid much better, although ordinarily I have only a minimal interest in money. It also had new challenges, such as taking on responsibility for large projects and developing customer relations.

Still, when I do look back, I sometimes wonder where I would be if I had stayed on the fringes of academia. Then I look at my neighbor and other people who started as sessionals the same time as I did, and I have my answer: In exactly the same place that I was.

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