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.