Sessional faculty can’t be the solution

Overuse of sessional faculty can’t be the answer to an affordable education

We all want an affordable education, but the overuse of sessional faculty just can’t be the answer. It only leads to a poorer quality education and unfair working conditions for those who teach us.

Your favourite professor has taught the classes you’re taking for years. Not only does she know what she’s talking about, she knows how to teach it and cater to your learning needs. She’s the most valuable piece of the puzzle in your learning. Every year, however, she has to reapply for her own job because she’s a sessional faculty member. This year, the university has decided not to renew her contact. Now what?

It’s a situation that can lead to stress from students and professors alike, and it’s one that can greatly affect the quality of education, and it happens all the time.

“The reality for many is having to reapply every term for a course they may have taught for years. Often they don’t know with any certainty from one semester to the next whether they’ll have a contract at all,” Moira MacDonald wrote in a Jan. 13, 2013 feature for University Affairs.

Last year, TRU cut approximately 60 per cent of its sessionals in the faculty of arts, citing a drop in enrolment.

Michael Crawford, a full-time social work instructor, said in an April 2014 interview with the CBC that sessional faculty are being referred to almost like retail clerks, hired only to cover demand at peak times.

Crawford also noted that retired tenured faculty are being replaced by sessional faculty.

I almost understand TRU’s actions here. They’re facing dwindling government funding and have to make up the difference somewhere. But again, this can’t possibly be the solution. What would happen if TRU ended up as a revolving door for sessional faculty? Knowing your stuff is all well and good, and I don’t distrust the qualifications of sessionals, but what about the wisdom? Where does the continuity come from?

Two students also spoke with the CBC about the cuts at TRU, including how it affected their ability to graduate on time and receive a quality education.

“We’re seeing a 28 per cent decrease in the sessional staff in upper level credits, which means these students are going into their final year of education excited to graduate, and we are having to draw out our degrees for 3-4 years just to get the credits to graduate,” Casey Helgason said.

“We have four tenured professors, currently. As of this fall one of them is going on maternity leave and her classes are just being dropped and other teachers are being expected to pick up the slack for that. I have two classes I was going to take next year and they’re just not available anymore,” Braydon Wilson told CBC.

At the end of the 2014 winter semester, when students found out that TRU had decided not to renew the contract of political science professor Robert Hanlon, a petition was posted around campus asking for signatures. The petition asked TRU to overturn the decision to “keep political science a healthy and educational department” and it was signed “Political Science Students.”

The petition appears to have worked, as Robert Hanlon is listed as teaching four courses in the 2015 winter semester.

The voice of students may have played a part in the case of this professor, but what can be done for the rest? Students aren’t typically aware of the employment situations of their profs, so how can they always be expected to know what’s going on?

Despite this bit of progress, the problem seems to be one that isn’t going away. As of Sept. 8, there are 46 job postings for sessional faculty at the TRU campus in Kamloops. Compare this with 19 non-sessional faculty currently being hired.

Let’s hope this isn’t a good indicator of where things are going.