Sessional Rant …

Now I’m not one to bite the proverbial hand that feeds but after sitting through a Welcome session that extolled the virtues of putting student experience first, I just need to make a few comments about the way sessional instructors are treated ACROSS post-secondary institutions.

I’ve been doing sessional work for almost nine years now.  I did have a year there where I landed a Limited Term appointment and had access to PD funds, an office and a modest start up fund.  But for the most part my academic career has been that of a sessional instructor.

Sessionals are typically hired for one or two terms.  They teach one or two courses (sometimes more).  They are temporary faculty and as such don’t get paid what a tenture-track faculty member would get paid.  As part-time employees they are not usually eligible for any kind of benefit plan.  And yet they are expected to give students excellence in teaching.  Or so the rhetorical stream of consciousness that spews from administrators desks would suggest.

How are we, as sessional instructors, supposed to do this when we are working in substandard conditions?  This has been the case regardless of the size of the institution I’ve worked for; it applies across disciplines and faculties.  Typically a sessional instructor is hired close to the start of term (meaning that course prep must be done on the fly), they are given last minute access to IT services (including learning management systems, which means said systems are not used to their full potential), they are given ridiculous office space (usually shared, often little access to this space during the week, meaning marking and lesson prep must be done at home and confidential student meetings are difficult or impossible to schedule).  They are not expected to engage in research and are given no opportunity to do research even if they want to (ironic because one of the keys to landing a continuing position is to have a strong research plan).

This isn’t new to academics.  Seasoned faculty I’ve spoken to agree and empathize with the plight of the sessional instructor.  There is sympathy expressed but no suggestion that changes might be made to the system.  It is what it is, we all pay our dues, it sucks but that’s life.

And yet institutions who claim to offer the best undergraduate education for their students rely heavily on sessional instructors.  This seems at odds the reality of the sessional instructor.  But then I suppose sessionals are not supposed to go to the Welcome sessions or open campus meetings.  I didn’t receive an invite either year I attended and have been greeted by surprise by both staff and faculty when I show up at such meetings.  Why would a sessional ever attend such things?

It has always seemed ironic to me that sessional instructors are only supposed to be on campus when teaching – if you dare wish to be in your office or get involved in the greater university community, you are viewed with suspicion.  In some cases I’ve actually had administrators tell me I could not be in my office except for scheduled office hours (despite the fact that the office was empty when I wanted to use it for marking and drop-in hours).  And yet should one land a continuing position suddenly you are expected to attend committee meetings, be available to students and have a presence on campus.

So perhaps the whole excellence in teaching talk should be rethought.  If an institution is going to rely heavily on sessional instructors but not offer support for its sessionals then one has to question how serious it can really be about excellence in teaching …

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