From an economic perspective, part-time professors are treated poorly. In fact, the entire non-tenure-track system has been characterized as exploitive. Sessional instructors are not only underpaid, but they receive no pension, benefits, or job security. The reality is that most aspiring professors will never receive tenure. Therefore, contingency plans are required for those who still want to teach at the undergraduate level.
I speak from experience. For the past 12 years, I have specialized as a part-time professor, and to be honest, I love my job. But, like any occupation, there are times that are more demanding than others, circumstances that will almost certainly test your resolve. More than anything, sessionals must learn how to survive in a competitive environment that can be unpredictable. What I offer here are specific lessons I have learned along the way to help mitigate problems for other part-timers who have chosen this career path.
Take any class offered to you
Sometimes, the only classes available result in scheduling nightmares. For example, three-hour lectures may start as early at 8:30 a.m. or as late as 7:00 p.m. Often, several courses land on the same day, or are crammed into one semester. If you encounter any of these scenarios, accept them willingly. Moreover, be ready to adopt another colleague’s course. If you are asked to step in, grab the opportunity. You may be given only a couple of days, or perhaps a few hours, to decide because a department is under duress to fulfill the contract. Over time, seniority will build up to the point at which you may receive upwards of seven to eight courses annually.
Focus on teaching skills
Since the classroom is where sessionals develop a reputation, they are expected to become master teachers. Lessons must be directly related to a course’s major themes, on target according to the syllabus, and interesting enough so that students will engage with the material. PowerPoint, YouTube, and various forms of social media will aid with visual appeal, but they are no substitute for professors who own the subject matter. Be organized, speak with authority, and provide an abundance of feedback, especially on exams and essays. If you find detailed feedback too tedious, you are in the wrong profession.
Publish if you have time
Although not mandatory, publishing is recommended for two reasons. First, it helps establish a sessional as someone with expertise in a specific discipline. Once enough confidence grows, lecturers can showcase their ideas by writing opinion pieces for major dailies, websites, or academic forums. From there, part-timers can publish magazine pieces, peer-reviewed journal articles, or books (both popular and academic). Second, publishing enhances editing skills. Appropriate word choice, a good turn of phrase, proper sequencing of ideas – these elevate with each subsequent publication. When sessionals correct essays with more precision, students’ writing abilities improve.
Assess your evaluations honestly
If a course goes badly, you need to find out why, and quickly. With no job security, a sessional employee cannot afford a string of poor assessments. It is important to examine repeated comments, especially those related to the use of technology, lecturing ability, feedback on assignments and availability after class. Professors may not like to hear it, but students are revealing hard truths about our ability to conduct a class professionally.
Protect your academic freedom
Sessionals may experience interference from other professors, deans, or directors who want courses “harmonized.” That is, they want to make the readings, the marking schemes, and the themes in one course mirror those of another. Keep in mind that all professors enjoy academic freedom – a freedom that prevents any authority from meddling in the design of a course. One cannot establish an identity by imitating someone else’s ideas or style. Crafting your own pedagogical methods and selecting your own material – these are what make a course distinct. My advice: it is better to fail developing your own voice than to succeed mimicking someone else’s. If genuine respect is what you seek, it can only be earned by taking risks. It starts with carving out your own niche within the classroom.
Stuart Chambers, PhD, is a part-time professor who teaches in the faculties of arts and social sciences at the University of Ottawa.