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Adventures in Academe

The precarious workforce: An ongoing threat to quality higher education

A postdoctoral teaching fellowship could be part of a multi-pronged approach to combatting increasingly challenging working conditions.


It is time we exposed one of the worst-kept secrets that threatens high-quality higher education: our increasingly precarious workforce. As full-time professors retire, universities are not replacing tenure-stream positions at the same rate; instead, more and more courses are being taught on a contract basis (remunerated per course) or through limited-term or sessional positions (where instructors teach a large number of courses, with little time for research).

The precarious workforce places pressure on recent PhD graduates who enter the job market with fewer and fewer opportunities for tenure stream positions; they must work in conditions where they are paid very little while trying to maintain research profiles in order to find full-time employment. Instructors often must teach several courses per term – sometimes within different departments and even institutions – to survive financially. To make matters worse, contract courses are determined by resource allocation formulas that are as opaque as they are irregular. We all know this, and our knowledge makes us complicit. The question is: what are we going to do about it?

A number of universities – especially large, research-intensive institutions – have tried to combat these trends by creating teaching-stream and research-stream positions. Teaching-stream instructors teach a much higher number of courses without the same expectations of disciplinary research as research-stream positions, which have high research and low teaching demands for tenure, review and promotion.

The problems with this approach are manifold: when research and teaching are treated as separate professional spheres, we overlook the rich cross-fertilizations between knowledge production and knowledge sharing; furthermore, separating teaching and research assumes as a central premise that the classroom is a static space for knowledge transmission rather than a rich, engaging space for the creation of new modes of thinking and learning.

It is no wonder that, in the light of these changing working conditions, conversations about a crisis in higher education have been growing in the past two decades. The threat to the professoriate threatens student success – and by extension satisfaction, engagement and resilience for students and faculty. We are faced with processes that commodify students, dichotomize teaching and research, and divide administrators and faculty.

How do we combat this systemic inequality and reimagine an approach to higher education that is both ethical and sustainable? There is, of course, no easy answer. Every institution must share responsibility amongst faculty, librarians, administration and staff to think carefully and creatively about these issues. There are, however, a number of emerging programs with elegant and sometimes surprisingly simple solutions that give rise to hope.

In an attempt to reverse the trends of teaching and research streams, faculty and administrators at one university eradicated the senior instructor level during the latest round of collective bargaining. In its stead, the negotiating teams on both sides of the table struck a parity committee to establish a postdoctoral teaching fellowship by 2020.

A postdoctoral teaching fellowship would, in its ideal form, provide emerging scholars with teaching experience, professional development, mentorship, research support and the confidence that comes with being a member of a department. Salaries must be equitable, teaching loads should be lower than full-time teaching loads, and teaching and research supports would be generous and integrative. Some universities are particularly well-situated to design this type of program, especially ones that focus on undergraduate teaching excellence, have a clear liberal arts mandate and a curiosity-driven approach that places as much emphasis on building a soul as building a CV.

This model is replicable at other institutions with varying sizes and mandates if we are courageous and innovative and creative. A postdoctoral teaching fellowship is only one small intervention in what must be a multi-pronged approach to combatting increasingly challenging working conditions.

Will this initiative result in more jobs? Probably not. But if can we shift our institutional cultures to value teaching as a scholarly activity and a social responsibility, we can make a compelling case to fund more positions. When it comes to our precarious and contingent workforce, we can do more than we are doing. It is time to do something.

Jessica Riddell
Jessica Riddell is a full professor in the English department at Bishop’s University, holder of the Stephen A. Jarislowsky Chair of Undergraduate Teaching Excellence, executive director of the Maple League of Universities and a 3M National Teaching Fellow. Her column appears in every second issue of the print magazine.
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