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The secret life of a sessional instructor

Some instructors could lose their job as easily as you could lose your mid-semester notes

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Sessional instructors, also known as adjunct faculty, are every university’s secret. We know they exist, but we don’t know too much about them, what they do, or why job security in academia is such a large issue.

Don’t be surprised when I tell you that a significant portion of your courses at SFU might have been taught by sessional instructors. I’m taking four classes this semester, two of which are being given by sessional instructors. The Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU) at SFU has reported that sessionals provide over 20 percent of undergraduate courses.

What is adjunct faculty?

Sessional instructors are, simply put, professors. But the thing is, they lack a certain status that comes along with the title of a regular professor — and they certainly lack some of the perks regular professors are given. The reason: SFU is taking advantage of sessional teaching contracts. As students who roam these concrete structures on top of Burnaby Mountain, there are many things we don’t think about because we’re too preoccupied with our lives; but unveiling the life of a sessional instructor makes for a good reminder that we should always be asking SFU to do better by its students and employees.

Why don’t we know about sessional instructors?

Universities are here to help us navigate our careers, educate us, and take all of our money, but there’s a lot going on beneath the surface that most of us do not know about.

We take multiple courses, earn our degrees within a minimum of four years and move on — but have you taken a moment to consider the people who help you get there? Have you wondered about the person who stands at the other end of the classroom? Their experiences, their lives, or even their official position in the university?

Sessional instructors stand at the middle of the hierarchy of the teaching faculty. They are often unsure if they will ever move up the ladder to become regular professors while they cling to their temporary teaching positions, hoping to be kept on in future semesters.

Many courses at SFU — varying from foundational courses such as FAN and FAL to graduate-level courses — are taught by employees who could easily be let go with just one month’s notice. This discrepancy isn’t widely talked about, because the university extracts the same amount of skills from sessional instructors as it does from a senior professor.

If little to no job security isn’t enough to turn you off, note that it’s common practice to also pay lesser salaries and provide minimal benefits.

Universities across the country, SFU included, profit from the short-term employment of sessional instructors, with no obligations to them as employees.

As Derek Sahota, chief steward of the TSSU, told The Peak, “all sessional instructors stay to teach, despite the difficulties, due to the hope and the dream of becoming a professor.” A hope, he said, that can cause a sessional instructor to be stuck in middle-ground hell for decades. Sessional instructors can be the heroes we need in the classroom, but most of them get the bitter end of the bargaining table.

SFU’s love/hate relationship with adjunct faculty

When I interviewed Sahota, it was early on in the semester and the Convocation Mall was full of new graduates going through their well-deserved ceremony. We met in the AQ and he shared with me what, in his opinion, it means to be a sessional instructor at SFU.

Sessionals have been a part of SFU’s teaching faculty for decades and have become an integral support system. Even though sessional instructors are meant to be one-off people covering for full-time professors in situations of emergency, some instructors at SFU might even teach up to 15–16 courses per year, Sahota added. The goal behind having sessional instructors then is no longer the reality for these educators. Universities are taking advantage of this position. Instead of using them as temporary substitutes, they are keeping instructors in the limbo of academia.

This out-of-sync working relationship is now leaving sessional instructors to reevaluate the power dynamics in their work environment. The nature of the work is precarious, to say the least, as their contract ends immediately after the four-month semester.

Accepting a job, fully aware that you may be relieved of it in a few months, and knowing that your job prospects will always be uncertain, is a burdensome load to carry. However, sessional instructors bear it nonetheless because of their love for teaching.

SFU hires sessional instructors who are competent and capable of replacing full professors. Adjunct faculty members have the same experience academically as a full professor, and are either completing or have newly pursued their PhDs. Sahota explained that they view the position of sessional instructor as a bridge to becoming professors, but soon realize that “there are no professor jobs” available to them.

When asked if there was any real opportunity for the university to do something about the lack of opportunity, Sahota was adamant there was.

“Of course, the lack of employment opportunities is a universal problem, but we feel that there are small ways in which SFU could provide safety nets to these instructors,” he said.

Sahota elaborated on the successes that TSSU has achieved in collaboration with the university to make sessional instructors feel more secure about their jobs. One of the mechanisms established recently through the collective bargaining process is the seniority system.

“Depending on the number of courses or semesters a sessional instructor has taught, they can gauge the probability of getting a course next semester.”

Universities across the country, SFU included, profit from the short-term employment of sessional instructors, with no obligations to them as employees.

To earn a sufficient and comfortable living, many instructors might teach multiple courses at various universities within a semester. Sahota described these instructors as “travelling professors,” who live and work out of their cars since they commute between different universities to teach.

Despite what may seem to be an unjust system, there is some light at the end of the tunnel for adjunct faculty. SFU has a policy in place that guarantees every sessional instructor to become a limited term lecturer — a more secure position — after teaching 16 courses within the duration of four years. This policy is another success story from the collective bargaining, Sahota said.

But, for many sessional instructors, it’s an arduous process to begin reaping any real success from their position.

Their side of the story

As Peter* sat down at the table across from me, he told me what it was like to be a sessional instructor here at SFU.

“I applied for the job out of a whim and was surprised when I got it,” he explained. He summarized how he had worked as teaching assistant and a research assistant at SFU, but was surprised that he was never actually interviewed for his new role.

“They didn’t interview me, they said I got the job and I was given the course details and asked to prepare for the course,” he continued. The casual manner with which he was hired is something Peter has reflected on over the years. As he suggested, the position might have been initially offered to someone else, but after they declined, the job fell right into his lap.

“I felt like I was hired based on a need rather than my credibility.” A common practice on the administration’s part is that sometimes sessionals only get notified about a course two weeks before they are to start teaching, and there are many ways this can go wrong.

Peter teaches on an average four courses at SFU and feels satisfied with his pay, which is more than the average of what other sessional instructors make at SFU, all thanks to his specific department.

Despite feeling financially secure at the moment, he mentioned that in the summer of 2015, when tensions between the TSSU and the university were at their highest, no sessional instructors were hired. He sighed, “I often feel insecure in my job and I’m terrified at the thought of losing it, because teaching is the love of my life.”

Echoing Sahota, it seems many sessional instructors are willing to take the risk if it means getting to do the job they love.

Among many shortcomings of his department, Peter seemed to be most disappointed by the lack of communication and encouragement.

“They would rather pay attention to a professor than to a nobody. [. . .] They really don’t pay attention to what I’m doing,” he said. He shifted in his chair and unpacked the idea for me.

Sessional instructors, he asserted, have to deal with anything that gets thrown at them. That ranges from being excluded in departmental meetings, to having no say over which courses they would like to teach, or having no say in the outline of the course. Sessionals enjoy minimal to absolutely no autonomy.

“In the seniority system, there are a lot of people above and below me and I do not know where I stand. And, if I were to make a mistake as an instructor, my department could implicitly get rid of me next semester. It’s because the hiring process is not transparent enough,” he said.

Sahota also hinted at this feeling of censorship, saying that “sessionals feel like they are forced to hide everything” in order to not risk losing their jobs.

Problems such as no benefits, crammed and shared office space, increased class sizes, and sometimes quality and quantity of teaching assistants only add to the stress experienced by adjunct faculty, according to Peter.

The precarious work for only passable pay has some wondering where the money goes. As Sahota suggested, most of the money earned through increased employment of sessionals goes to the middlemen: the people at the clerical and managerial levels of SFU, who aren’t instrumental to the university experience of a student.

As a sessional instructor who has to settle for less than what could have been, Peter is still cautiously optimistic. “I like to see big, I like to dream big, but I don’t get to teach big,” he said.

Often sessional instructors are seen as failed professors, but Sahota emphasized that this is not the case. “It’s a failure of the institution, not the failure of the sessional instructor.”

*Name has been changed to protect the anonymity of the source.

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