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Sessionals, up close

Sessional instructors are now a crucial part of the teaching equation at most Canadian universities. Some say it’s time to include them more fully in the life of the institution.

By MOIRA MACDONALD | January 9, 2013
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They are called sessional lecturers, part-time instructors, contract or contingent faculty and chargés de cours. Some are fresh out of graduate studies, others may have taught for years. Whatever their name, these non-tenured, non-permanent teaching staff share a common desire for better recognition, pay and treatment that more closely resembles how institutions treat full-time faculty.

University Affairs has assembled a sampling of what the pay, benefits, job security and other key work-related conditions look like for sessionals at a range of small, medium and large Canadian postsecondary institutions. Most were randomly chosen, while ensuring geographic representation. York University and University of Toronto were deliberately picked because they have a reputation among sessional teachers and with faculty associations for some of the best contracts for sessionals in the country. Vancouver Community College, which is neither a university nor a member of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, is included (in a separate chart) because its contract with sessional staff has been described as the “gold standard” by the New Faculty Majority, a group of academics in the U.S. that has organized to improve the working conditions of sessionals in that country.

A sampling from a range of institutions on the pay, benefits and other work-related conditions for sessional lecturers. Download the chart (PDF)
A sampling from a range
of institutions on the pay, benefits and other
work-related conditions for sessional lecturers.
Download the chart (PDF)

In the charts, salary scales presented are base rates; various academic departments may have their own arrangements for compensating contingent faculty. And, although universities employ a host of different kinds of non-permanent academic staff – including graduate students who may use sessional teaching as a way to gain experience – these charts focus on the teaching members who are no longer students and who teach on a course-by-course basis.

Pay is always a factor and, as our charts show, there is a wide range. But as important a benchmark as it is, it may not be the top job concern.

“The biggest one is job security. Its absence is profound,” says Leslie Jermyn, chair of the contract academic staff committee for the Canadian Association of University Teachers. She currently works on a 24-month, contractually limited appointment, teaching three full courses a year at York. A sessional teacher since 1993, Dr. Jermyn began teaching two years before finishing her PhD.

Her career is emblematic of a way of life. What once was a stepping stone for a PhD en route to a full-time, tenure-track appointment – or an interesting way to use a master’s degree – has become, for many, a way to earn a living. Some teach at more than one institution and in more than one city. To be sure, there are also those who do the job as a complement to full-time work in their fields, including business people, lawyers and civil servants.

Job insecurity

For those who hold a PhD, the difficulty in securing tenure-track jobs compounds the problem. While universities sometimes agree to seniority provisions that give an experienced sessional a leg up the next time a course they’ve already taught is posted – often called the “right of first refusal” – the reality for many is having to reapply every term for a course they may have taught for years. Often they don’t know with any certainty from one semester to the next whether they’ll have a contract at all.

“I’ve been called on a Thursday and told I’ll be teaching a full course starting on Tuesday,” says Janice McKendrick, a sessional instructor at the University of Prince Edward Island since 2008 who is taking a break this year due to family responsibilities. “You’re always watching for application deadlines to make sure you get in, not knowing if you’ll get the job or not.”

Many work without access to employer benefit plans. If they fall ill for more than a week, they may lose the job entirely. Pre-term preparation time is usually not fully compensated, if at all. Temporary unemployment between semesters is typical.

“If the courses I teach aren’t being offered anymore, or if I became sick, or if I decide to walk away,” says Jennifer Dimoff, “I walk away with nothing.” Ms. Dimoff is president of CUPE 3912, representing about 1,500 part-time faculty at Dalhousie, Mount St. Vincent and Saint Mary’s universities in Halifax. She has taught courses in religious studies and philosophy for 14 years.

Some might say take it or leave it – sessional work was never intended to be a full-time living, and it does not include the research or service expectations of tenured positions, so it deserves to be less well compensated than tenured positions. And that is true.

What that sidesteps is how dependent universities have become on sessional instructors’ services and how their use may affect the life of the institution.

No one we talked to for this article knew of any consistent tracking of sessional use across the country. Some faculty associations are keeping track of the proportion of sessionals to regular faculty: at the University of Calgary, for example, the 529 sessional instructors represent 23 percent of the faculty workforce. But the union doesn’t know what proportion of courses are taught by sessional instructors. In Ontario, the recent Auditor General’s Report (which reviewed how three universities support and assess the quality of undergraduate teaching) noted that at one institution, sessional staff “accounted for 24 percent of full-time equivalent staff and were responsible for teaching approximately 40 percent of its courses.”

In the United States, which does collect some statistics, one-third of faculty at four-year colleges and universities are contract workers, according to 2011 data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Some observers in Canada say that the overall proportion in Canada is probably similar.

For the 10 institutions featured in this story, the numbers of non-student sessional teachers, as provided by their bargaining unit, ranged from 177 at the University of Winnipeg to about 1,000 at York University. Because the universities include different categories of contract faculty and the figures aren’t all comparable, these numbers aren’t provided in the charts.

A funding problem

Richard Sigurdson, dean of arts at the University of Calgary, agrees that there is a “documented increase” across North America, and beyond, in the reliance by universities and colleges on non-permanent academic staff. Sessional instructors represent a cheaper and more flexible labour pool when universities are straining to adapt to changing needs under tight budgets. “There is no secret here that it is directly related to the decline in funding,” as well as the rise in enrolments, says Dr. Sigurdson.

Although the position of sessional instructors is still “precarious,” Dr. Sigurdson believes their working conditions have improved in recent years, simply because their growing numbers give them more clout and thus make university administrators more aware of the employment challenges that these workers face.

Bonnie Patterson, president of the Council of Ontario Universities, says sessional instructors “play an incredibly important role for us in terms of our responsiveness to student demands and the fluctuations that occur in various areas of study as they change over time.”

There’s no doubt, she says, that some institutions are using sessionals “as a pretty important part of their financial strategy.” But “equally important, this is also a way of getting the right human resources in the right places, given the kind of change that can occur, and trying to balance the multiple responsibilities of the permanent, core faculty members.”

So the institutions need them. And, an important academic staff group that is unhappy with its lot eventually influences the tone of the university. “If nothing else, it’s a real morale problem” says Doug Owram, former deputy vice-chancellor of the University of British Columbia Okanagan. Surveys at UBC Okanagan showed sessionals were the staff group with the lowest morale because of their lack of job security, he says.

A host of potential solutions have been proposed, from multi-year teaching contracts to teaching-only positions. The better contracts for sessionals provide access to funds for professional development and even grants for research, something sessionals complain is hard to do without university support.

Teaching-only positions, as a remedy for the job-security complaint, remain controversial. How desirable they are depends on how these positions are structured. At York University, “alternate stream” full-time positions are tenured, focused on teaching and pay about 10 percent less than regular faculty positions. But Ms. Dimoff, in Halifax, says she considered a lecturer position whose job security and benefits were appealing, but decided that teaching 10 three-credit courses a year for $60,000 was a recipe for “a burnout job.”

From the university’s point of view, quality control is an issue. And one barrier to offering improved job security for sessionals may be the university’s concern that it could get stuck with a bad lecturer.

But the solution to that is to set the bar high at the beginning, says Frank Cosco, president of the faculty association at Vancouver Community College. The institution can mandate a probation period and rigorous evaluation throughout it, so that it hires teachers it can feel confident about. VCC has “stringent hiring committees that are dominated by faculty,” says Mr. Cosco. “We know there has to be a trade-off: if you want job security, you have to show you’re going to get quality teaching.”

Exemplary contract

At VCC, as few distinctions as possible are made between part-time and full-time instructors. Tiered systems of pay and benefits are almost non-existent. If instructors teach less than a full-time load, their pay is pro-rated against a full-time salary. Those teaching half-time (defined as a minimum of 12.5 hours of assigned work, including service) also receive benefits and become “regularized” as permanent staff after satisfactory completion of a probationary period of two to four years.

The pay-off to the institution, says Mr. Cosco, is that “people are focused on their work” instead of what their next job scramble will be. “That builds a better sense of commitment to the college and to the department.” Of course, colleges are not the same environments as universities. Full-time college faculty aren’t expected to do research, making it easier to find ways to put part-timers on par with full-timers.

But there still may be ways universities can improve things for sessionals, and some of these cost little to nothing at all. “The biggest need is just a change in attitude,” says Trevor Tucker, a sessional instructor in English for the last 10 years at the University of Ottawa.

Mr. Tucker compiled a list of ideas for making sessional instructors feel like valued members of the university community. “The need for connection to the university,” says Mr. Tucker, “may be a bigger issue than the pay issue.”

His suggestions for alleviating the “teach-and-leave” sessional syndrome include offering training and mentoring in teaching, with some of the training given by senior members of a department. Another recommendation is to allow sessional instructors to pitch ideas about new courses they believe would be of interest to students and potentially to teach them, too. Creating some office space for them, together in one area and close to regular faculty, could improve collegiality and intellectual interaction.

“There is no attention to this vast resource” known as sessionals, says Mr. Tucker. “And it could hugely benefit the institution.”

Meanwhile, U of Calgary dean Dr. Sigurdson suggests that launching teaching awards specifically for sessional instructors could have at least two positive results: they would create incentives for sessionals and recognize their value to the university. The University of Manitoba, where he previously worked, is one university that offers such awards.

Another idea is to include sessionals in departmental meetings or have designated sessional representation on committees (although where this has happened, sessionals aren’t always paid for their time).

In the U.S., some tenured faculty have taken on the cause of contract teachers. One of the most prominent is the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success, a research project led by Adrianna Kezar, associate professor of education at the University of Southern California.

“Few institutions have developed policies and practices to support non-tenure-track faculty members or include them more completely in the life of our campuses,” wrote Dr. Kezar and two co-researchers in an essay for the online publication Inside Higher Ed this past fall. It’s a situation, they said, that cannot continue if universities and colleges expect to improve the quality of student learning.

With universities so dependent now on sessional teaching, even in Canada, can they really afford to lose experienced sessional teachers who are finding their work situations untenable? “What we end up losing,” says Ms. McKendrick, the sessional teacher from UPEI, “are very good teachers who would like to stay in the profession and yet can’t manage the conditions.”

Moira MacDonald is a journalist who specializes in education and writes often for University Affairs. She has been working as a teaching assistant in Ryerson University’s journalism school for the past three years.

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  1. sessional / January 9, 2013 at 12:06 pm

    as you mentioned sessional is not supposed to be permanent. In fact, people should be discouraged from sitting on sessional positions too long and instead find a real job. it’s like funding grad students for as long as they wish, if necessary for 15 years “because they need to live too”. It’s temporary, let’s treat it as such. Everything else just encourages the solidification of the problem.

  2. Dr. Don Moore / January 9, 2013 at 12:58 pm

    Another issue not raised here is the effect of an increased use of sessional lecturers (I am one) on students. Since completing my PhD, I have been teaching at a university where the teaching staff is approximately 95% sessional lecturers, at least in my department. Many of my students follow me from course to course, but this continuity of mentorship, pedagogical method, and course content is an uncertainty at best, given my position. Secondly, with no real ties to my institution, the continuity of course content and teaching methodology is also uncertain for students, since sessional faculty are not expected to attend curriculum meetings, or ever even meet most of the people who are supposedly their colleagues. Long term contracts are no solution in this regard, since the right of first refusal for individual courses is a far more certain form of job security than a contract which will almost certainly terminate. Lastly, even though the job market and economics has driven an increase in the use of sessional lecturing, I personally am not convinced that someone who has little time for research due to a large teaching load can remain as effective as a teacher in the long term.

  3. Daphne Bonar / January 9, 2013 at 1:13 pm

    Although it is nice to see more and more articles that address this issue in a variety of publications, I still find that even the terms of the discussion betray a failure to fully appreciate the circumstances facing sessionals.

    To begin with, the term “part-time”, when applied to sessionals who teach more than 4 half-courses a year, does not accurately describe the work experiences of these professors. Most of my sessional colleagues (with the exception of those who teach a course “here and there” to supplement another job or who teach fewer courses in order to accomdate children) work full-time, handling a course load that for most permament faculty members would be considered “over load.” Moreover, these colleagues need to teach twice as many courses as the permanent faculty at most universities in order to earn similar amounts of money. These people are most definitely working full-time when they are lucky enough to be employed.

    Another important part of the whole picture is that many of these sessional professors are trying to continue to do their research and publish in order to remain competitive in a market that has seen a severe reduction in tenure-track appointments in the past decade (one of the important reasons for the unviersities’ reliance on sessional faculty).

    I can not count the times that my students have told me (at several insititutions)that the most communciative, effective and dedicated professors they have had are sessionals. There is no argument that could be made to suggest that a sessional professor, engaged in her field and pursuing her research, is a threat to teaching quality. However, there always remains the concern that if sessionals are unable to pursue research goals they will abandon them and eventually find themselves teaching concepts, methodologies and theories that are out-dated. Such a scenario would compromise the purpose of university instruction.

  4. Sandra Hoenle / January 9, 2013 at 1:44 pm

    I’d like to point out an error in this article. The number of contract academics in the US is not one-third of the faculty, but rather only one-third of faculty has tenure; meaning two-thirds are contract workers.

  5. Dr.Doinglittle / January 9, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    Kudos to UA for posting this. That said, I find it odd that they would report on the pay rates for half year courses when most sessional contracts – at least from my experience – are for one-term courses. These pay half the figures listed and it’s pretty rare to see sessionals get more than 4 of these a year. Do the math and you’re about as well off working at Futureshop.

    Also, let’s not gloss over the fact that current faculty bear a lot of responsibility for creating this mess. The overproduction of graduates and the overall exclusion of sessionals in faculty associations and collective bargaining, have created an abundance of cheap labour. The bottom line is that freshly-minted grads can and will do the same work for less than half the price of faculty, who have failed to demonstrate their worth, or that of the tenure system, amid these changes. In short, university budgets have been cut because there was ample room to cut them due to imbalances in supply/demand.

    Regardless, the evidence here reveals just how pointless it is to pursue a PhD in hope of becoming a professor.

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