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In my opinion

The precarious worklife of sessional instructors

We’re passionate about what we do but find ourselves at the mercy of a broken system.

BY ANONYMOUS | AUG 12 2022

During the current calendar year, I am positioned to teach at least ten courses on three campuses. I have worked either from home or in person during the pandemic, depending on the whims of the institution at which I have been teaching. I have commuted hours to and from work, because living in a major city is an expensive feat. I have juggled multiple professional tasks, including publishing, and presenting at conferences. I have reapplied for positions that I have taught multiple times before. And I have taught during the spring and summer months, a time when many full-time faculty focus on their “own” work – or quite simply take a break. This list does not include the additional tasks that constitute “ordinary life.”

I have epitomized the definition of the sessional instructor, or part-time instructor, or contract faculty member, or adjunct professor, or whatever each university chooses to call people like us. We are non-tenured and non-permanent members of the academic community. We are precariously employed.

Ideally, the sessional teaching position should act as a midpoint between obtaining a PhD and a full-time, tenured faculty position. Realistically, it becomes a career for many of us, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, due to a lack of other viable options. We are instructors who have a sincere passion for teaching, but seemingly entered the profession at the wrong time, one during which full-time faculty positions appear elusive.

Deidre Rose has argued that Canadian universities granting more doctorates each year has created a large pool of exploitable workers. Since 2000, Canadian universities have increasingly relied on contract faculty, at the expense of full-time positions, she writes. For the university- turned-corporation, sessional instructors are affordable and replaceable labour.

This is evidenced in our circumstances. We apply for positions on a semester-to-semester basis and are often told of our hiring just weeks in advance, providing us with minimal preparation time. The dreaded possibility of receiving fewer contracts, or even worse, none, can lead to panic. Since the start of the pandemic, we have moved back and forth between in-person and virtual teaching, which means that we have had to alter our course outlines and our methods of teaching repeatedly.

This new learning environment has meant that students expect a better understanding of their own difficulties, and increased accommodations. At times, this involves the expectation of email exchanges on weekends and holidays, requests for ad hoc office hours, and attempts at negotiations on assignments, due dates, grades, and late penalties, all of which can lead to additional marking well beyond the end of a semester.

Yes, we can say no to these requests. However, if we do not exhibit a certain level of understanding (or simply give in) we fear that this may be reflected in the course reviews that are increasingly important in the hiring or promotion process. Our students are frequently unaware that we are sessional instructors without the same level of support as faculty members. They are unaware of the number of courses and students that we have, and whether we have teaching assistants – which many of us do not. Ironically, the institutions that so closely focus on the mental health of students rarely prioritize the mental health of those who instruct them.

Let me acknowledge that faculty members may certainly experience similar circumstances. However, as sessional instructors we lack the added privilege of job security, benefits, increased pay, and, importantly, a sense of belonging. We are left to worry about whether our positions will be safe if we fall ill, have a child, must provide parental care, or experience a death in the family. We worry about whether we will retain our courses if, due to unforeseen personal reasons, we need to decline teaching a course. We delay important life decisions because our positions are neither consistent nor secure.

We find ourselves part of departments and universities where we belong, yet do not belong. There are times where we are not provided with departmental updates or listed under directories and are not invited to participate in meetings or sit on committees. We are expected to teach, rather than conduct research, which means that we have less institutional support for, and access to research grants. If we have made research and publishing contributions, we frequently do so on our own dime and during our own time. When we create our email signatures, business cards and CVs, when we attend conferences, and when we write reports, articles and books, we frequently wonder: What university, if any, should we identify ourselves with? For those of us who are thankful for the benefit of consistent employment, we are fearful of the stigma that is attached to sessional teaching. Will we now be typecast solely as a sessional instructor, and will a full-time position remain elusive?

As sessional instructors, we are passionate about what we do. Otherwise, we would not continue under such precarious circumstances, with our employment situations and personal lives dictated by each academic term. Many of us have PhDs, extensive teaching experience, and significant research and publishing contributions. We are dedicated to our students, our departments and to our universities. And yet, we are unable to ascend to full-time faculty positions.

Many of us are searching for two things: increased job security, and respect for our contributions. Putting pen to paper and writing this article was not a simple task. In fact, it was a lengthy one, in part because of this sessional lecturer’s teaching schedule, but in part because of a fear of retribution. As sessional instructors, more of our voices need to be heard, and more often. We find ourselves at the mercy of a broken system, one in which our union leaders work diligently on our behalf, but within institutions that put their own self-interests and pocketbooks ahead of hiring full-time faculty to educate our future generations.

Editor’s note: The author wishes to remain anonymous out of concern that publishing their name could hurt their prospects of obtaining a tenured faculty position.

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  1. KS / August 17, 2022 at 15:06

    Yes to all this. I marvel at your energy, bravery, and honesty! Thanks for giving voice to a situation that could be and should be different.

  2. Penny Moody-Corbett / August 17, 2022 at 16:03

    An unfortunate situation at our Universities

  3. Susie / August 19, 2022 at 06:48

    I have worked in the sessional gutter for over 20 years. This article is 100% accurate. Under paid, under appreciated, and over exploited. And we get to teach the “leftovers” – usually what nobody else wants to teach… And this author is very brave to write and post this. I do not blame them for wanting to remain anonymous. I may or may not have used my real name to post this…

  4. Anonymous / August 21, 2022 at 22:44

    Wow! This really resonates for me as a sessional faculty for 22 years with a PhD in the Arts and Humanities. Thank you for writing this. Things are pretty bleak for sessional faculty, but this article helps me feel validated and that at least I am in good company.