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Contractually Bound

Six myths about contract faculty in Canada

Let’s discard our false assumptions about adjuncts’ relationship with the university, tenured faculty and the public.


Sessionals face a great deal of adversity and insecurity, but clinging to certain assumptions blinds us to the reality of our conditions as an auxiliary academic workforce — and to insights on how to improve these conditions. Here are some myths that we need to discard.

1. Tenured faculty are your sworn class enemy

You may be paid a fraction of what they are paid for performing a similar duty such as teaching, and you may have an excellent teaching record, with plenty of experience and awards. However, people rarely will act in your favour if you are accusing them of holding onto a job for which you would be better suited. Plus, should you have aspirations to be hired full-time in your academic unit, this isn’t likely to happen if you’ve spent years raining fury on the very people you would be working with in a tenure-track position.

Some of your tenured colleagues were once just like you, on precarious contracts. And ever larger numbers of tenured faculty are coming to realize that protecting the interests of sessional instructors is in everyone’s interest. Let us debunk the first myth: that all tenured faculty are of one mind, speaking in the same voice, and in the back-pocket of the administration. If we’re to have any chance at improving the conditions of contingent academic labour, we must focus on how contract and tenured faculty can work together.

2. They are doing you a favour by allowing you to teach

In a tough job market, it may seem a blessing to be given any form of employment, especially if you are one of the lucky few hired to teach in your area of expertise. But, no one is doing you a favour by hiring you on a contract: it is a mutual agreement for labour. Ultimately, you represent a cost-savings for the university. That said, avoid comparisons between sessional work and slavery, for as David Leonard points out, this rhetorical hyperbole is not only inaccurate, it is also offensive to those in the world who are entrapped in forced labour. Speak of injustice, not slavery.

3. Our interests are better served by bargaining independently

Some administrators might hope that we would split off from faculty associations and certify as our own bargaining group. But this is not a good idea. It might grant those administrations that aren’t labour-friendly a great deal of leverage to play one group against the other. Several universities do have separate bargaining units for sessional faculty, including York University and the University of Toronto, but these arrangements are not always ideal.

I think a better route is to remain in a single association while acknowledging the interests of sessionals and of full-time faculty are different. Yet, there is enough common ground to integrate faculty of all ranks and to communicate the needs of sessionals to full-time faculty. A case might be made in terms of the UBC Faculty Association that now represents all faculty. Facing what may be a growing attack on unions, smaller associations may be more vulnerable.

4. “It’s my fault.”

You may at times feel guilt or shame for being in the sessional stream for too long, and start to think that it is your own fault. Keep in mind that no matter what you did or what you now do in your career, the problem at its root may be about economic realities and delayed retirement by many tenured faculty. This has led to less hiring of new tenure-track faculty than was expected.

You are a highly qualified and underpaid professional. The fact that you aren’t on the tenure track probably doesn’t signify any professional flaws. The challenges facing academia were not your creation, and you are not to blame for how the hiring crisis plays out. Some of us have been led to believe that what we do is of lower value than the work of our tenured colleagues, but take stock in what you do: by leveraging your intellectual skills, you design and deliver meaningful lectures that edify your students. When the university boasts of its teaching excellence, take pride that you are part of what makes that statement true.

5. The majority of sessional faculty are professionals working in other fields

This is a very commonly propagated myth: that sessionals or adjuncts are performing their duties as a supplement to full time professional careers in law or medicine. If Irene Smolik’s situation is any indication of the norm, it may be closer to the truth that a majority of sessional or adjunct faculty rely on this employment as their primary source of income. Since we don’t have the data, we just don’t know for sure. For those who would like to gain job security outside academia, the rigours of teaching several courses, sometimes at multiple institutions, leaves little or no time to perform a job search, let alone prepare for an interview.

6. Public opinion is on your side

Although some members of the public profess strong sympathies for progressive labour standards, most people do not have an intimate understanding of labour issues inside the university system. When you tell people what you do for a living, they may seem perplexed that you are not highly compensated. Also, you can’t assume that the public is on side if the prevailing opinion is that faculty hold sinecure, overpaid positions that do not provide maximum value for tuition dollar. Even though this opinion may be at stark odds with the reality for both sessional and full-time faculty, convincing the public of the scale and complexity of academic labour issues won’t be quick or easy.

Kane X. Faucher
Dr. Faucher is an adjunct with the title of assistant professor of media, information and technoculture in the faculty of information and media studies at Western University.
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  1. Jack Longmate / March 5, 2014 at 08:25

    (Part 2 of 2)

    4th myth (“It’s my fault”). It’s a myth because the hiring of armies of cheaper contingent faculty in lieu of decently paid tenured faculty is a systemic problem, and contingents are the victims. Some policy makers, like legislators or trustees, may jump on that bandwagon too and blame contingents for their dismal career decisions. One legislator recently proclaimed that if impoverished part-time faculty were to quit teaching and instead enter retail, over time they could work themselves up into management and then earn a respectable livelihood. His perspective dismisses the public policy problem by explaining it as poor career choices.

    5th myth (adjuncts are, in fact, professionals elsewhere). During the last 22 years when I have taught as an adjunct, I have also held a full-time non-teaching job. I have a Masters in Higher Education and, just after graduate school, taught full-time for seven years. At my college, I don’t think most adjuncts have full-time jobs elsewhere.

    A former college president was afflicted with this myth; he once argued that since many Olympic College part-time faculty members don’t rely upon their teaching as their primary source of income, the imperative to improve part-time wages is not as urgent as some activists might claim. Indeed, when push comes to shove in either bargain or legislatures, those subscribing to this myth are not apt to feel great sympathy for sessionals/adjuncts/contract faculty. Undermining that myth are publicized examples of non-tenured faculty on food stamps.

    6th myth. The idea that public opinion is on our side is an important myth to expose. Often we non-tenured faculty proclaim that if only the general public, or parents of college students, or our legislators knew our situation, things would change, which sometimes compels our academic side to conduct surveys of working conditions so we might have proof. But just as the knowledge that smoking is linked to cancer hasn’t stopped smoking, that awareness won’t bring about reform. Change usually doesn’t come on its own or with new knowledge alone but with a shift of power.

    Jack Longmate

    Adjunct English Instructor

    Olympic College, Bremerton, WA USA

  2. Jack Longmate / March 5, 2014 at 08:26

    (Part 1 of 2)

    First, thank you for this examination of preponderant myths affecting contingent faculty.

    Myths 1 (tenured faculty are the enemy) and Myth 3 (independent unions): Being involved in a current legislative effort in Washington State to establish the right of non-tenured part-time faculty to form collective bargaining units separate from tenured faculty, I read these with great interest.

    In the abstract, a single voice representing all faculty is stronger than isolated voices. But that is only possible when a genuine community of interests exists relative to job security, compensation, advancement, etc., across the upper tier of tenured faculty and the lower tier of contract/contingent part-time faculty. At times tenured faculty ARE the enemy. In states like Washington and California, full-time tenured faculty can elect to teach overtime (overloads) for extra income, displacing their fellow part-time union members whenever they do. In the case of Olympic College of Bremerton, Washington, some of tenured faculty who are the heaviest users of course overloads happen to be union officers. Also, tenured faculty often carry out supervisory functions. A part-time faculty colleague of mine has had conflicts with his full-time faculty Division Head, who happens to double as the union’s grievance officer, which certainly compromises the union’s ability to provide support for those it represents.

    The ideal situation exists at Vancouver Community College in British Columbia: a single tier of all faculty and an ethos of equality for all. At VCC, all faculty, whether full-time or part-time, whether permanent or probationary, are paid according to the same 11-step salary schedule. All faculty accrue seniority, and seniority is the primary determinant of work assignments, not full- or part-time status as it is on my U.S. campus. Also, most faculty are permanent or regular and most of those who are not are commonly on tract to become permanent. It such a situation, it makes sense for all faculty to belong to the same union because I believe they can genuinely speak with a single voice.

  3. Andrew Brook / March 5, 2014 at 12:34

    You did not go after the most prevalent myth, that the current situation with respect to part-time and contract faculty is basically OK and nothing much needs to be done about it (the attitude of every university in North America). It is not OK. Of two people with qualifications and experience of the same kind, if one has tenure and the other works on per-course contracts, the first is paid four times as much as the second (or more) and has job security for life. The other, in addition to awful pay, has no job security and usually no benefits (including no pension plan). Academia is one of the most inequitable employment markets there is. (I am senior full professor who has had tenure for decades.)

  4. Colman Hogan / March 5, 2014 at 12:38

    Kane Faucher’s claim that sessional faculty (SF) are better served by a single faculty association (FA), presupposes that an FA has the best interests of its SF at heart. While in some case that may be true, in general the claim doesn’t seem to measure up to the facts. All depends on the FA we’re talking about.

    Faucher cites UofT and York SFs, both represented by CUPE, and suggests “these arrangements are not always ideal.” It’s no secret that these are the two biggest universities in Canada, with the largest SFs. They also have the best SF contracts in the country, with York leading the way. I can’t speak with any authority about UBC (which is not much smaller than York), but in the sessional grapevine UBC SF contracts are thought to be sub-par. Perhaps, the new FA representation at UBC will improve this situation at Canada’s fourth largest institution.

    It may be that the political orientation of the given FA plays an important role in the nature of SF contracts at that institution. The York FA (YUFA) has been unionized for decades and has advocated for progressive labour relations for all faculty. The UofT FA (UTFA) is not unionized and has been farther to the right of centre.

    A bit of history. In 2004-5 I was a member of the bargaining team that negotiated union representation for the UofT SF (with CUPE) and the first SF collective agreement with the UofT. Up until that time the UTFA represented all faculty, sessionals included. During the union certification process, the UTFA appeared to back the UofT administration in challenging the right of SF to be represented by a union of their choice, and was conspicuously silent when the UofT administration launched three challenges against union certification with the Ontario Labour Relations Board.

    One of the reprehensible bones of contention on the part of sessionals was that the UTFA, while claiming it had the best interests of the sessionals at heart, condoned by turning a blind eye to the UofT’s unofficial policy of ‘three years and you’re out’. This policy effectively meant that for the overwhelming majority of SF after three years your sessional contract was not renewed.

    For SF at UofT the cognitive dissonance was enormous. Since the ‘three years and you’re out’ policy was unofficial (and yet effectively ubiquitous), tenured faculty could, and did, argue that the UFTA was the best choice for SF. I will never forget being told by the (tenured faculty) placement officer of one of the largest UofT departments that while there was no official ‘three years and you’re out’ policy, not renewing a SF’s contract after three years was in the best interest of the SF! The alternative, he claimed, was the situation at UBC, where SF were exploited in a dead-end treadmill of long-term, low-paying, large-enrollment teaching assignments, a situation that foreclosed the production of the research and publications that would lead them out of this low-rent ghetto. Effectively, the alternative proposed was the acute precariousness of ‘three years and you’re out’ or terminal exploitation. Thankfully, the SF rejected this false dichotomy and endorsed unionization, which has seen UofT SF contracts move from 20-25% below York SF to near parity.

    Moral of the story – what sort of FA are we talking about?

  5. Anne Bailey / March 5, 2014 at 12:48

    On Myth #5: we do have the data and have had it for a very long time. Please check out Indhu Rajagopal’s Hidden Academics (UToronto Press, 2002). Can’t believe that it was published nearly 12 years ago and we have still not moved this conversation forward in any significant way. Keep up the good fight!

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