Sessional lecturers, adjunct professors, contract academic faculty — these are just some of the job titles that encompass a growing number of university teachers who work under precarious and often underpaid conditions. Our members are a varied group, and here I will discuss the first of four categories or “types” of contract academic faculty, using my own work history as a template.
For many of us, our first steps into the life of uncertainty begins as we approach the final years of our doctoral program. At this stage, we are gleeful and excited to have the opportunity to teach undergraduate courses in our field. We are told that this will give us important teaching experience, and after all, most of us are obtaining our doctorate with a view to an academic career. And for some this is the outcome, but this is a very small portion of our numbers. In my own case, the teaching took up an incredible amount of time, I had close to 500 students and although I had a fair number of graduate teaching assistants to help I was also responsible for mentoring the GTAs. Teaching and writing a dissertation are not highly compatible (unless you are fortunate and are teaching an upper year seminar that focuses on your topic) and all too often the result of this opportunity is that your dissertation is delayed and you run out of funding. Now you are caught in a bit of a trap because your funding runs out and you must continue teaching to support yourself, at least that is what happened to me. In fact during my final semester as a doctoral candidate I was teaching four courses at four universities in different parts of the province. Somehow I managed to cobble together a decent dissertation, but I was scrambling around teaching and grading and therefore not able to produce a robust publication record. By now I had a fairly reasonable sense of the situation as during the course of my teaching I met with several colleagues who had been teaching assistants or sessional lecturers while I was an undergraduate. Some had been employed as sessionals for eight or ten years, despite active research programs and decent publication records. So, unlike many new graduates, I was not optimistic about my future job prospects… to be continued.