It hurts when you call me professor

They’ve got Ph.D.s. They’re paid like fast-food workers. And they’re your teachers

Allison Dube is the kind of professor who greets students by name even though his classes often have more than 100 people. He regularly extends his office hours and provides his home number so students can reach him at any time, and he uses words like “magical,” “joy”, “adventure” and even “love” when describing the “amazing journey” he takes with each new class. By his own admission he “sounds like a Hallmark card.” It would be easy to dismiss it as rhetoric if it weren’t for the fact that his students express similar sentiments when describing Dube in course evaluations: “I would take a course from Dr. Dube even if I was assured a failing grade,” says one student. “My vocabulary does not contain adjectives positive enough to describe Dr. Dube’s teaching,” says another. The 55-year-old University of Calgary political science lecturer has won three student-nominated Excellence in Teaching Awards.

And yet Dube doesn’t have a full-time faculty position at Calgary, known as tenure or tenure-track status. He probably never will, although he would desperately love this appointment. He is a part-time instructor—also known as a sessional lecturer, contingent faculty or contract acadmic staff—who is paid on a per-course basis. His pay is low: $6,150 per three-credit or half course. Last year, he made just over $26,000, about a quarter of what a professor his age at Calgary makes. He also has no job security, no pension and few benefits. He is part of a large and growing group of academics who refer to themselves as “the invisible faculty.”

Over the past 20 years there has been a dramatic increase in the use of contract academic staff at Canadian universities. Critics argue that university administrators are doing it primarily for one reason: it’s cheap. “They don’t pay them equivalently, they often don’t get benefits, they don’t have the same access to offices and other kinds of things,” says Jim Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers(CAUT). Turk calls it “a response in large part to inadequate funding from the federal and provincial governments.”

Anecdotal evidence from Canada’s campuses suggests that the percentage of classes taught by sessional faculty is high and growing. At the University of Saskatchewan, 320 sessionals teach roughly a third of the undergraduate classes, according to the union representing part-time workers at the university. At Carleton University, there are almost as many part-time sessional lecturers as full-time academic staff, according to the most recent figures available for the fall of 2005. In an interview with Maclean’s, the president of the University of Toronto, David Naylor, said about 22 per cent of his university’s courses in the humanities, social sciences and sciences are taught by sessionals.

National numbers don’t exist, because each university measures its sessionals in different ways. Some include graduate students and research assistants; some don’t report figures at all. The most recent StatsCan numbers available show that there were 28,200 part-time faculty hired by universities in 1997-1998, a growth of nearly 10 per cent since 1990. During the same period the number of full-time faculty hired by universities decreased about eight per cent. StatsCan stopped collecting this data years ago, because “part-time faculty” was defined differently by each university, making national numbers arguably meaningless. “It’s almost embarrassing when people ask, ‘What do you mean you don’t know how many faculty [you have]?’ ” says Bob Truman, director of institutional analysis and planning at the University of Waterloo.

For the bigger picture, experts look south of the border. According to the American Association of University Professors, since the 1970s, the proportion of tenured and tenure-track faculty members at U.S. universities has dwindled from about 57 per cent to 35 per cent, while the proportion of those not on the tenure track has grown from 35 per cent to 65 per cent during the same period. In Canada, too, there appears to have been an increase in the use of sessionals.

For the past four years, George Williamson has been a part-time philosophy instructor at the University of Saskatchewan. The most he has earned in a year is about $15,000 teaching two three-credit courses in the fall and one course in the summer. To help pay the bills, some sessionals teach courses at more than one university. Williamson doesn’t have that option. Instead, he works part-time at a call centre in Saskatoon taking reservations for Marriott Hotels. “Ideally I’d like to settle at some university and get research done and teach at a reasonable level of pay,” says Williamson, 44, who did his first two degrees at Saskatchewan and a Ph.D. at the University of Warwick in England. Last week, members of CUPE 3287, the part-time union that Williamson belongs to, voted 78 per cent to go on strike if their employer does not table a better offer, particularly on wages. Saskatchewan sessionals earn between $8,616 and $9,276 for a six-credit or full-year course.

Sessional pay at all universities is considerably below the salaries of full-time faculty, ranging from $6,000 to over $13,000 for a full-year course, depending on the university. In addition to wages, part-timers have significantly different working conditions than regular faculty. Amenities such as office space, a telephone, mailbox, library privileges, photocopying and a computer are not necessarily available to contract academics.

Williamson chuckles when describing a construction trailer that for three years he used as an office, until the university finally upgraded him last fall. “Occasionally the heater broke down, and at the far end they had a hole in the roof that was fixed.” In an effort to help students find him during office hours, Williamson posted a map of the campus on the website with a big red arrow pointing to the trailer. He used a computer that a friend had lent him and he shared a phone. He now shares an office in a building.

This year, professor Brent Wood is teaching two full-year English courses, one at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., and another at the University of Toronto at Mississauga(UTM). He is part of a large group of academics who jokingly refer to themselves as “road scholars” or “gypsy scholars.” Every Monday morn-ing Wood teaches a 9 a.m. class at Trent and then hits the road for a more than two-hour drive to UTM in the afternoon. He has a similar schedule on Tuesday. He’s taken on fewer courses this year because he’s doing research on his own time, in an attempt to produce published work that will get him off the sessional treadmill. When he’s at Trent, Wood generally holds office hours at the Seasoned Spoon Café, because the office he shares with several colleagues isn’t ideal for private discussions. “It’s really not so hot for creature comforts,” Wood says of his working conditions at Trent.

What bothers Wood more than office space or commuting is not knowing until the last minute if he has a course to teach. “If they get a last minute surge of people enrolling at the end of August then the call goes out,” says Wood. “You don’t want the students to know that you just hired a prof a week before the course started.”

Does any of this affect students? Most students might find it difficult to distinguish between part-time and tenured faculty. The difference in the classroom is not always apparent. But when asked, academics identify three broad areas where not only students but all faculty lose. Arguably the biggest issue is the hallmark of the university: academic freedom. “If you’re on a fixed term, limited-course contract and somebody powerful doesn’t like what you are doing, they don’t have to fire you, they don’t have to discipline you, they just don’t renew your contract,” says Turk. “Once you have a significant proportion on contract you change the whole character of the institution.” In the U.S., the shift toward non-tenured academics and its impact on academic freedom has been one of the most worried-over trends in higher education.

Another area of concern is the pay. Sessionals either have to find other jobs or teach more than a full-time load at more than one university in order to make a living that’s a fraction of what a regular faculty member makes. As a result, part-timers are often so harried that it is sometimes hard for them to prepare for class or meet with students.

Finally, part-timers aren’t given funding to keep on top of their field, publish and research. That may be bad for students; it’s certainly bad for sessionals. When a tenure-track job opens up, they can’t compete because they have no publications and no research, and faculty are hired overwhelmingly on research, and their potential to do more research. Once someone gets on the sessional treadmill, it’s hard to get off. Says Turk: “After four or five years you get locked into a job ghetto that you can’t get out of.”

Allison Dube at Calgary is a victim of the sessional trap. Last year he applied for a tenure-track position in political science and he was shocked to learn that he hadn’t even made the short list. “I put a lot of hope into getting that job,” says Dube, who admits that he has done little research since graduating from the London School of Economics in 1989. Given that Dube earned $26,652 last year, a higher salary would have made a big difference. A bigger disappointment was not getting an upper-year course he “literally begged” the department for that would have reunited many students—some who wrote letters asking for the course with Dube as the instructor—he taught in three previous courses.

It was especially grating when, at the Teaching Excellence Award ceremony where Dube was honoured, the vice-president academic talked about the university’s plan to inject millions into teaching. “If the kids are asking for the course, and they are really serious about lecturing, why not say, ‘give the poor sap $6,000 to teach the course,’ ” says Dube.

No one argues that per-course instructors have no place at the university, particularly in programs where a certain level of practical expertise is necessary, such as journalism or business. And there are many sessionals who are happy to remain teaching on a per-course basis. University of Toronto president David Naylor says that concerns about sessional lecturers are related mostly to undergraduate programs in the humanities, social sciences and sciences, where they tend to be most heavily employed. He would like to see a reduced reliance on sessionals, but believes they still have an important role to play. “Provided that there is careful mentorship to ensure that they are effective teachers, this is a win-win situation,” says Naylor. “It brings enthusiastic young instructors into the classroom, while letting universities be more responsive to students’ shifting interests.” That said, Naylor recognizes that some individuals return to sessional lectureships over and over again as they look for more permanent positons. To that end, the university has developed two categories identified as Sessional Lecturers 1 and Sessional Lecturers 2. Approximately 20 per cent of these teachers have been promoted to the second level based on classroom visits by the department chair as well as student feedback. As a result, Naylor predicts that the number of sessionals will likely fall as these people fill vacancies that come up in the tenure stream.

Despite low wages and poor working conditions, many part-timers are optimistic that things will improve. The reason: roughly 85 per cent of sessionals are now organized: “We are increasingly making these issues a priority,” says Turk. “I think we can arrest this devel-opment in the name of protecting the integrity of the university and our students.”