More on the Sessional Instructor Debate: Some Thoughts

In a previous post, I provided some perhaps unpopular observations and arguments to a debate surrounding the pay and working conditions of sessional instructors.

Recently, my colleague, Dr. Karen Lochead, provided some important counterarguments to my original post. Let me respond in kind.

Below, I’ve reproduced her comments, with my responses.

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Lochead: Whether a sessional instructor (or Contract Academic Staff – CAS – as they are called at WLU) is interested in a future tenure-track position is really besides the point. The working conditions and pay scale of CAS are unacceptable.

Alcantara: I think it matters to some extent in that some jobs are meant to be part-time (and short-term/medium-term positions) and some are meant to be full time careers, and so the pay and working conditions created by the employer reflect that underlying idea.  But I agree that the working conditions are generally unacceptable. The pay scale, however, is somewhat reasonable if we realize that sessional instructor positions are not tenure-stream, salaried positions.  Sessional instructors are hired on a year by year, course by course basis and are not employed by the university to do research and service. They are hired to be course instructors only.  Period. Some may do other things, and that’s there prerogative.  But when it comes down to the actual, paid duties, CAS are paid to teach the courses to which they have been hired.

Lochead: Although CAS are being increasingly relied upon to provide courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, CAS have no job security. It is true that there are some CAS who enjoy the flexibility of contract-by-contract employment, but a much larger number regularly feel the strain of being unable to predict how many courses (and which particular courses) they might be teaching in any given semester and over any given academic year.

Alcantara: I agree that CAS have no job security, much like how supply teachers at the high school, middle school, and primary school levels, don’t have job security.  This sucks.  No question.  But that’s nature of the position.  It’s very clearly a contract by contract system and nobody gives candidates the impression that life as a CAS is anything but a temporary employment opportunity.   The CAS system fluctuates according to enrollment needs and tenure-stream sabbaticals and leaves.  Individuals may decide they want to pursue a career as a sessional instructor, but then that requires realizing the nature and the vagaries inherent in the job.

Lochead: This also means that unlike tenured/tenure-track faculty who generally teach the same complement of courses year after year with only occasional modifications, many CAS are regularly teaching a new complement of courses. As a result, CAS are regularly required to dedicate a significant amount of UNPAID time to developing new courses from scratch, reviewing and selecting course materials for such new courses as well as for courses they haven’t taught in a while, organizing tutorials/labs, preparing courses syllabi, developing tests, exams and assignments, etc.

Alcantara: Why is prep time considered unpaid time? For full time faculty, 40% of our paid work is teaching. Teaching not only means classroom time during the term, but also the prep involved beforehand and afterwards.  So, again, let’s consider the $80,000 tenure-stream example.  In this example, the tenure stream faculty members is getting $32,000 to teach four courses.  The sessional is receiving $28,000 for his four courses.  In both cases, that portion of the salary includes prep time, right?

It is true that sessionals have to teach many more new courses (although that rapidly becomes less true every year that a sessional teaches in a department because they build seniority in certain courses and therefore get them everytime they are advertised).  But it’s also misleading to say that full-time faculty members do only “occasional modifications” to their existing courses.  That may be true for some, but for most young and mid-career faculty members, course curriculum is constantly changing even when the same course is taught by the same tenure-stream faculty, given new research finding, new teaching technologies, new pedagogies and new insights into how we learn, etc.  This year marks the fifth time I’ve taught PO 263 but the course structure, lectures, tutorials, assignments, and even pedagogies have changed dramatically every year as I seek to incorporate all of the things mentioned above.

Lochead: Making this situation even more unacceptable is the fact that CAS contracts are only extended 2-4 weeks before the start of each semester. This means that all of this important course prep work has to be accomplished in a very short amount of time AND well after the final submission date for textbook and coursepak orders. Consequently, it is much more difficult for CAS to ensure that course materials are ready for students on the first day of classes than it is for tenured/tenure-track faculty.

Alcantara: I agree this is a MAJOR problem and ideally universities need to address it by hiring well in advance of the term.  In some cases, however, it is impossible to do so if only because some faculty members go on an emergency leave at the last minute, or a pregnancy leave, or the like.  Or another CAS drops out of a course because they took a better offer elsewhere.  In those cases, the university only has 2 weeks to hire before the term starts.  I’m not sure what the solution is to this problem.

Lochead: It should also be kept in mind that many CAS are in fact teaching on a full-time basis. By ‘full-time’ I mean teaching 3-4 courses in both the fall and winter semesters (and occasionally during the spring & summer semesters as well). This compares with tenure/tenure-track faculty who teach 4 courses per academic year. And many, many CAS are also engaged in a wide variety of unpaid service activities such as student advising, committee work, guest lectures, preparing letters of reference, etc.

Alcantara: Here, again, I would emphasize a CAS is not a tenure-stream position.  A tenure-stream position has a salary attached to it and a defined workload of 40% research, 40% teaching, 20% service.  A CAS is not a salaried position.  The workload and pay is on a course-by-course basis (and is 100% teaching). This is not to say that some individuals see and work as a CAS on a full-time basis (e.g. teaching 3-4 courses per term) but this does not mean that this individual has a salaried position equivalent to a tenure-stream position.  A CAS is also not expected to do committee work, guest lectures, preparing references of letter.  Student advising? Yes, as this would be part of the teaching duties but only for those courses they are hired to do.

Lochead: Using Alcantara’s calculations I don’t think it is difficult to conclude that the work load of ‘full-time’ CAS is equal to the 40% (teaching) + 40% (research) + 20% (service) required of tenured/tenure-track faculty. Or is there an assumption that tenure/tenure-track faculty should be paid more for the time they devote to research? I don’t agree with this assumption but even if one does, this discrepancy is easily rectified through the additional teaching many full-time CAS do during the spring and/or summer semesters.

Alcantara: Again, I would emphasize the fundamental difference between a tenure-stream position and CAS.  CAS is a contract by contract, course-by-course position. it is not a continuing or permanent salaried position, and so there may be some differences in pay. I agree, however, that tenure-stream positions should be paid the same, whether it’s a teaching tenure-stream position (e.g. a workload of 80% teaching and 20% service) or the traditional regular tenure-stream position (e.g. 40/40/20).

Lochead: Universities like WLU have committed to significantly increasing the number of students in their programs while keeping the number of tenured/tenure-track faculty the same. At the same time, the teaching requirements of tenured/tenure-track faculty have remained the same or decreased. It is high time that CAS were given the respect and compensation they deserve for the role they are playing in the changing arena of university education.

Alcantara: I agree! But the solution should be for universities to hire more tenure-stream teaching positions, which provide more stability, better working conditions, and better outcomes for instructors, students, and administrators.

Fair Elections Act Debate: One More Once!

Loren and I agree that the state should have a role in elections.

Where we fundamentally disagree, I think, is on this point:

“I don’t want Canada sliding further toward the U.S. in this respect, so I think we have a compelling interest in sustaining a credible non-partisan state agency [e.g. Elections Canada] to balance and correct the excesses of partisan politics.”

I agree with him that there must be some sort of mechanism in place to “balance and correct the excesses of partisan politics” but I don’t think it should be Elections Canada.
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First, we need to consider “the excesses of partisan politics” argument in terms of degree (e.g. a continuum). In Canada, we don’t suffer from the excesses that exist in the U.S. and so an expanded role for Elections Canada doesn’t make sense, nor do I think there is any credible or even anecdotal evidence that Elections Canada in its current role has created this situation or would be able to correct it in the future.

Second, don’t we already have mechanisms in place that do a pretty good job of correcting partisan misinformation and hyperbole in Canada? We have national, regional, and local newspapers, TV stations, and radio stations that cover elections with summaries and analysis. We have academics in Canada who are constantly in the media, giving interviews, providing seat projections and analysis of polls, and writing op eds and commentaries on twitter. We also have many independent pollsters, pundits, and think tanks, all of whom regularly provide analysis of issues, policies, and elections. So why do we need Elections Canada?

Third, why all of this hullabaloo over the information/motivational role of Elections Canada in particular? I agree with Loren that there is “a public interest in leveling the playing field of campaign spending and media access” but that’s not the job, nor should it be the job of Elections Canada! It’s the job of Parliament to pass laws and regulations on these issues, and for the police and the judicial system to enforce them.

In any event, I don’t think Canada will turn into the U.S. because of the Fair Elections Act. I don’t think Elections Canada with its present powers can prevent the type of hyper-partisanship and partisan hyperbole that critics are worried about, nor do I think Elections Canada should have the necessarily large amount of power that would be needed to actively prevent those types of activities from occurring in the future. I do agree that the Canadian state, along with civil society, should work together, no question, to provide information and motivation. But I just don’t see why it should be Elections Canada in particular.

LISPOP Associate discusses biggest challenge facing the federal Liberals?

Published Jan. 20, 2013, on CTV News.

LISPOP Associate Chris Cochrane discusses the first of five Liberal leadership debates. He discusses the challenges for the Liberal candidates and the party. One of the biggest questions to ask is how the less dominant Liberal party will position themselves against the Conservatives in the future.

Watch Here