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In my opinion

Advice for sessionals

A part-time professor’s most important lesson: survival.

BY STUART CHAMBERS | JUN 09 2022

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.

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  1. David Seljak / June 13, 2022 at 11:34

    These are all good ideas for individual survival in an unnecessarily unfair and precarious work environment. I would add that the single most important tool for survival is unionization and, if already unionized, robust participation in campaigns to mobilize members to better their working conditions–especially during collective bargaining. The author’s reference to seniority indicates that Dr. Chambers already works in a unionized environment. Many contract academic staff do not. They need to organize immediately. Those who are already unionized need to mobilize. While providing excellent guidance for individual survival, Dr. Chambers begins this op-ed by pointing out that the problem is systematic. Consequently, the solution needs to be collective.

    • Stuart Chambers, PhD / June 20, 2022 at 15:30

      David, I agree with you that the solution needs to be collective, but I would add “radically” to collective. In 12 years, nothing has changed for sessionals. The only way to make any substantive change would be for all part-timers to walk out for an entire semester–the entire four months–and not to return until their demands are met. How about paying benefits and liveable wages? The media paid attention when Algonquin College profs in Ottawa walked off for the semester (they were 72% part-timers). Most people are completely unaware of how badly part-time profs are paid and treated. Without a radical walkout, there will be no real change.