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For teaching-only faculty, a controversial role

By MOIRA FARR | NOV 03 2008
Those who can, teach
Gilbert Arbez says his three-year appointment as a teaching associate provides a higher salary, better benefits and more job security than a year-to-year sessional contract. Photo: Colin Rowe

Gilbert Arbez loves his job. As a full-time “teaching associate” at the University of Ottawa’s school of information technology and engineering, Mr. Arbez has spent the past five years teaching undergraduate courses in computer science, software engineering and computer engineering.

“I worked for many years in a lab with machines all day,” he says. “Now I have interaction with human beings. I love the idea of being able to touch the lives of students. My greatest pleasure is when a student comes to me and says ‘Because of you, I decided to go into software engineering.’”

Although his position is “limited term” (he recently completed a five-year stint and accepted a new three-year appointment), Mr. Arbez is happy to have it. It fulfills his desire to challenge himself through teaching and provides a higher salary, better benefits and more job security than a year-to-year sessional contract. It also includes a research component for teaching which he likes because “you have to keep up to date in your field so that you can stay relevant and package the course information.”

Mr. Arbez believes he and other non-tenured teaching associates play a significant and valuable role at the university, by shouldering more teaching responsibilities so that tenure-track professors can engage in the research and administrative tasks expected of them. “I hear them all the time in meetings saying the teaching load is too heavy,” he reports. In all, it’s a great fit for Mr. Arbez. “I feel very well accepted and appreciated by the professors.”

For the University of Ottawa, having an instructor so dedicated to teaching excellence is a real asset, says Robert Major, the vice-president academic and provost. In 2001, the university introduced the position of teaching associate, along with two other designations – limited-term replacement professor and science lecturer – to meet the demands of a growing undergraduate population. The demands are especially severe at a university that offers many courses in both French and English.

“It was mainly the issue of the student experience that led to this,” explains Dr. Major. “We have part-time sessionals, but they are busy elsewhere.”

He cites the typical case of a lawyer who teaches a single law course from year to year. These part-time instructors fill a need and make up a considerable portion of the teaching staff at most Canadian universities – as much as 40 percent, according to the Canadian Association of University Teachers – but they don’t teach anywhere close to 40 percent of the courses. Dr. Major says, “getting people here full time and specialized in undergraduate teaching is added value.”

Teaching-only trend

It sounds like a classic win-win situation for instructors like Mr. Arbez and his university. But the introduction of teaching-only positions has worried some academics, who fear that Canadian universities may be heading down a road already traveled by colleges and universities in Britain and the United States. At some institutions in those countries, the majority of academic staff are designated as teaching-only. Other observers don’t believe that will ever happen in Canada because of strong opposition from unionized faculty.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers is compiling research on the number and nature of these teaching positions at Canadian universities. CAUT spokesperson Vicki Smallman says the issue is coming up more often in collective bargaining, as universities struggle with budgetary constraints and growing numbers of undergraduate students.

It’s a dilemma for universities: how do they promote and enhance the research that brings prestige (and funding) to the institution, and at the same time provide a high-quality learning experience to undergraduates whose fees increase every few years? How do schools attract excellent long-term teachers if all they can offer are sessional contracts?

Full-time tenured faculty at Canadian institutions acknowledge these realities, but for the most part are opposed in principle to teaching-only positions, seeing them as a dangerous precedent that eventually devalues the traditional professorial role, says Ms. Smallman.

“It changes the nature of the academic appointment, by unbundling teaching from scholarship and service. To be an effective academic, you have to be engaged in all three.”

This fall, in contract negotiations with its faculty, the University of Windsor had hoped to increase the number of teaching-only positions but withdrew the item from bargaining when it met strong resistance from the Windsor University Faculty Association. (The contract negotiations were resolved in October after a two-and-a-half week strike.)

Last year, the issue led to student protests at Carleton University when Al Pilcher, a popular instructor with the Sprott School of Business, didn’t have his term contract as a full-time lecturer renewed. The university argued that the business school’s accreditation, funding and reputation hinges on its research capacity, and that when funding for a full-time tenure-track position became available, it had to concentrate on hiring a professor with a track record in research as well as teaching. Mr. Pilcher, despite his teaching talents, doesn’t have a PhD. Hundreds of students signed a petition to have him reinstated. He accepted a contract to teach two courses this academic year.

Carleton’s stance that its resources were better spent on full-time, tenured professors engaged in research was an evolution for a university that has, unlike many others, had full-time lecturer positions since the 1970s. In fact, it was the Carleton faculty union that sought these innovative posts more than 30 years ago, in an effort to limit the number of sessional teachers hired and the number of courses those sessionals taught.

Some faculty members who see teaching as less valued than research at Canadian universities support the creation of full-time teaching-only positions as a way to address this problem. Tim Lethbridge, a professor and colleague of Gilbert Arbez at the U of Ottawa’s school of information technology and engineering, is one of these. He supports the new teaching positions but doesn’t like the term “teaching only.”

“I think we could call it ‘the education stream’ and put them on the tenure track,” he suggests. “There would still be pedagogical research, developing curriculum materials. I know there are many who would find that arrangement satisfactory.”

He objects to the relatively low value placed on teaching work in academe. “Tenure and promotion is based on research. The bar is set so much higher for teaching – you’d have to be recognized as world-class” to be promoted based on teaching excellence, he says.

Dr. Major, the U of Ottawa’s vice-president academic, says it doesn’t make sense to think less of people for concentrating more on teaching, on research or on service.

“Professors have different portions of these in their workload and it changes throughout a career. Some will do more teaching than research. A research chair will have a decreased teaching load, as will a dean. Are they seen as lesser faculty members? No.”

Job security

While the university is willing to consider the idea of tenured teaching positions, the faculty association resists the notion, he says. “I can understand the discomfort of faculty unions, which is why we provide safeguards and very complex wording in the collective agreement.”

Those safeguards include strict limits on the numbers of teaching positions in arts and science faculties and carefully defined roles for the three new designations the university has created.

For Richard Sigurdson, dean of arts at the University of Manitoba, the best arguments for what his institution formally calls instructors (levels one, two and three) are that the positions provide quality teaching for undergraduates and job security for colleagues who would otherwise face year-to-year contracts.

“We had a situation where these good, well-trained teachers would have to wait until May or June every year to see if their contract would be renewed, and that seemed unfair. We wanted them to be fully participating members of the faculty, with benefits and a chance of getting promoted through the ranks” of instructor.

Like Dr. Lethbridge, Dr. Sigurdson doesn’t like the term “teaching only.” He notes that U of Manitoba instructors also do pedagogical research, attend conferences, are eligible for sabbaticals (called research study leaves) and in some cases fulfill service roles in their departments.

The position suits Andrew Osborne, an instructor of French language at U of Manitoba since 1990 and currently associate head of the department of French, Spanish and Italian.

“I was delighted when this position was posted,” he says. “I’ve always enjoyed teaching and course design.”

He says he’s been well received by colleagues, who view him as a valuable member of the department. His colleagues appreciate his teaching skills and the fact that his willingness to take on teaching as a primary role gives flexibility to those who prefer to concentrate on research, he says. “Not everyone is comfortable in front of a large undergraduate class.”

Dr. Sigurdson adds, “For some, like Andrew, it’s a perfect fit. They have good qualifications, they are excellent teachers, but research isn’t their strongest interest. And we are serving the needs of students by using people with different strengths in different roles.”

But for scholars with PhDs who want to pursue university careers with a strong research component, these positions would not be ideal, he acknowledges. The job is not a stepping stone to the tenure track.

“That’s where you would get tension and unhappiness, because the university cannot give them the time and resources they might like for research. It’s important that individuals know what it is they’ve applied to do.”

Dr. Sigurdson doesn’t think Canadian universities will ever make a “wholesale move” to greater proportions of teaching-only positions as has happened in the U.K. and U.S. At the U of Manitoba, full-time instructors make up just five percent of university faculty positions. And since the jobs were introduced, the professorial ranks have also grown overall. “We have to keep a careful balance,” he says, “and make sure we don’t use these positions as replacements for the professorial stream.”

What constitutes the correct balance of teaching, research and service, for individuals, departments, faculties and universities as a whole will continue to be debated. With university budgets perennially tight, it remains a reality that many departments rely on contract teachers receiving low pay, few benefits and no job security. In this light, is the creation of a small number of teaching positions a justified compromise? People like Gilbert Arbez and Andrew Osborne are happy with their career situations, and stand as examples of academics who give teaching full attention and commitment. In Dr. Sigurdson’s view, “this is the ethical way for universities to go.”


Reflections on job security from the “Dean’s Blog” by Richard Sigurdson

… One can find oneself as an academic either living a life with enviable job security or extreme precarity. It is without a doubt that tenured university professors enjoy perhaps the greatest level of job security among major occupational groups – not to mention relatively high pay, flexible work hours and a good deal of autonomy in their workday life. Yet those academics who do not procure tenured appointments remain among the most insecure workers among us.

To read Richard Sigurdson’s full essay, “Precarity and Academic Work,” go to www.umanitoba.ca/faculties/arts/dean/ and check the Dean’s Blog archive (lefthand column) for Dec. 4, 2007.

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