The secession of the pleb

Dr. Allison Dube speaks out about the state of sessionals at the U of C

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Students would not normally see a difference between sessional and tenured lecturers. This is a good thing: we sessionals are generally as well qualified for the job and we do it at least as well because most of us love teaching rather than focusing on research. Recent media attention has highlighted difficulties we face, such as low pay, lack of benefits or security. These issues are forcing me to leave the University of Calgary.

Rather than enumerate sessional conditions once more, I would like to tell a story. I want to convey--in this first part--why I have put up with the situation for so long. A following part will focus on what I have learned.

It was the summer of ’69

Well, moreso fall. I became an undergraduate here and had the triumphs and tribulations students have now: new relationships, disillusionments and having to explain a 1.6 grade point average to my parents. It is slightly curious that I decided to become a university lecturer. In 1989, just completing my PhD at the London School of Economics, getting a year's contract here was a dream come true. I was paid $25,000 for the fall and winter sessions. In real terms, I never made that much for lecturing here again.

Through seven years, I experienced the ups and downs of sessional life. Teaching one course when you hold a post-doctoral fellowship, for example, is a nice bonus and a chance to gain experience. But being at the bottom of the academic food chain became frustrating and I left in 1996 to write and to help look after my ailing mother.

Floundering after losing my mom, I jumped at the chance to lecture again in 2001. I could again try something I loved and essentially come home. This university was, after all, where I had grown up--intellectually and generally--years before.

The Good

I soon remembered what I had loved most about academe: the students. Events solidified this. We all remember 9/11; I have equally vibrant memories of the day after, facing my Political Science 201 class. Looking into the eyes of these young people I saw anxiety and perplexity and a deep craving for hope. I also felt--as a 50-year-old representative of the generation responsible for the world these students would inherit--just how much we had let them down.

As I got to know that class, it seemed so clear: these young people could--and had to--lead the world better, not just on issues that led to 9/11, but in environmental, social, and economic matters. I also felt an urgency on all these fronts. It seemed far more important to support these students than to write a few academic articles. Sometimes I tell my students that the great task of their generation is to right the wrongs and clean up the mess left by mine.

Such thoughts made decisions easier, the joys more intense, and disappointments harder to take over the following years. Learning people's names, providing decent feedback on their work, and giving them as much time as possible became crucial. This may seem to reek of self-sacrifice, but nothing could be less true. I have had fantastic experiences and intense joys. If any of my students think I gave them anything, let me be clear: I have got far more back!

My students--and whole classes--have given me times verging on magical: joys of knowing people well enough to read reactions in their faces and to see idea flashbulbs go off, the pleasure of feeling trusted and supported by over a hundred people at once, joys when people see that their own experiences are valid building blocks and that their instructor is learning from them and cheering for them. One student said she always felt that I looked up to my students--that is exactly how I have felt.

Another layer of happiness came from following students through several courses. This is essentially going on a new journey with a group you know and love, into a new world. The pleasure comes not just from seeing individuals develop, but from watching a group develop its own spirit, and seeing--as trust in each other solidifies--people start to learn through each other's eyes. However, this has all come at a hefty price.

The Bad: You do the math

Students working at Starbucks are shocked to realize they are better-paid than a quarter of the lecturers at their university. In 1989-90, I replaced a professor on leave and got $25,000 plus benefits for teaching five half-courses. This seemed all right 18 years ago. Getting $4,000 per course seven years later was harder to accept. Returning in 2001 after five years away, incredibly, my pay per course had gone down to $3,900.

In 2002-03 my salary for doing five half-courses was $21,500. But it gets better (or, as it were, worse): not only was this less for the same course load than thirteen years before, to obtain the modest benefits package I needed to teach a spring course. Five courses per year holds you in a full-time part-time ghetto. For me, the desire to do decent work, plus health issues, have often limited me to that number.

Though I advanced to the big-bucks level on the sessional scale--about $6,000 per course--it has become impossible to hang on. Recently, when I have taught four courses per year (generally, a full load in tenured ranks), I have looked at my salary of $25,500 and realized that due to far higher student levels on one side and no benefits on the other, I have been doing more work for less pay than over 16 years ago. Worse, this is not even counting a cent for inflation.

How can a single person paying for a mortgage and personal health coverage most years afford to work here? Simple: find another source of income. Some years ago a generous uncle gave me a condo. If I had not been able to count on the modest extra rental income, I could not have been able to work here at all.

I am lucky. After all, I am at the highest step on the sessional pay scale. Many, if not most, sessionals at this university make less than I do.

But wait, there’s more!

Sadly for sessionals, low pay is only part of the story and as the other parts emerge, I feel the relevance of all this to students also starts to hit home.

One might think that giving time and commitment to students, and doing a credible job for such minimal reward would be considered an act of loyalty, which might count for something. Not so. A student once asked me, did not good survey results and teaching awards count for anything? I told her that for sessionals, they usually counted for less than nothing. For to reach for these things, every minute spent with your students is critical, and every one of these minutes is one taken away from your own research and writing. It is overwhelmingly these latter things--not teaching--that count.

More, a major reason I have stayed here is to get my students back for subsequent courses. This enables trust to grow, is incredibly satisfying and gives students a sense of belonging to a unique group. But my getting series of courses was chiefly only ever through luck--for example, from tenured professors leaving on short notice.

In April 2006 at the Students' Union Teaching Awards ceremony, the university's vice-president academic spoke about the millions to be spent to improve the quality of teaching here. I wondered, to a former student, how much of that money would get to sessionals, and how much of a |difference such funds might make to the average student's experience.

The following year, both intuitions were confirmed. In the fall, I stepped into a Poli 201 class twice as big as ever, with well over 200 students. I did what I could, again for less money than either of my teaching assistants got. But I knew the quality of the experience for students was such I would not go into that setting again. Also that year, I had desperately wanted a senior course, to complete the journey with about a hundred students I had followed through the previous three years, but there wasn't $6,000 budgeted for this. While not making the short list for a real job that year had hurt, not getting a course with that group hurt far more.

One conclusion of this part of my story may sound bitter, but most sessionals and my students will see it as a simple statement of fact. That is, whatever good I was able to do for my students through the years, it is far fairer to say it was done not because of--but in spite of--anything the administration of this school has done. ­--

Long ago, the plebian class--providers of citizens, soldiers, and productivity for republican Rome--saw no future in their own home city ruled as it was, and seceded: they just walked out. This university has been my home; I have two degrees from it and I have served my students as well as I could. But under present conditions, the ruling corporate patricians in administration have provided me with neither enough pay to live on, nor any semblance of honour for the contribution I make.

This particular pleb will secede after spring session.