Sessional Faculty in Canada and Adjunct Faculty in the U.S. Share More Than Just An International Border
by Christopher Cumo
Eileen Lohka taught French seven years at the University of Calgary as a sessional, what U.S. residents would call an adjunct. She followed her husband, a biologist, to the university and could not find full-time work in a one-university town, though her schedule was no less frenetic for being part-time. Several preparations, grading papers and exams, and advising students all devour her time.
“I never close my door and therefore spend a lot of time with students, mine and others,” she says.
Lohka knows how readily administrators take her for granted. They have no incentive to hire her full-time because she already teaches for the university, allowing them instead to lure someone with a different specialty. Like any adjunct, she can recite the litany of poor pay, no
benefits, and no job security, a system Lohka works to improve as a member of the Board of Directors of the University of Calgary Faculty Association and of the Committee on Contract Academic Staff of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.
“I am never afraid to speak up,” she says, a candor that leads her to hope that Canadian universities will one day abolish sessionals.
But this may be Pollyanna-ish.
“Speculation is that the numbers [of sessionals] are similar to U.S. numbers,” says CAUT organizer Vicky Smallman.
Indeed 45 percent of Canadian faculty are sessionals, according to the August 30, 2000, issue of The Daily Statistics Canada, nearly identical to the 46 percent of U.S. college and university faculty who teach part-time by an AAUP estimate. Nevertheless Smallman urges caution in interpreting these numbers, noting that although Canadian law requires universities to collect data on faculty, many provide no or incomplete information.
The data, even if fragmentary, reveal a range. Sessionals are 55 percent of faculty at McGill University and more than half the faculty who teach introductory courses at Simon Fraser University. At the other pole they are only 18 percent of the members of the University
of Calgary Faculty Association, though their proportion at the university may be higher because not all of them are in the union. Between these extremes is Bishop’s University, where 35 percent of faculty are sessionals, though this number is an underestimate because it does
not count summer faculty, most of whom are sessionals. Were they tallied, sessionals would be half the faculty, believes Daron Westman, vice president of the Association of Professors of Bishop’s University. Sessionals are 34 percent of faculty at Carleton University, 30 percent at Wilfrid Laurier University, and 27 percent at the Universities of Alberta and Toronto.
As in the U.S. “the trend [in Canada] is growing,” says Lohka, and faculty-union representatives at Simon Fraser University, Bishop’s University, the University of New Brunswick, McGill University, the University of Alberta and Carleton University agree, though no single
reason explains the increase. Administrators are filling retirements with part-time faculty at the University of New Brunswick and are converting full-time contracts to single-course contracts without benefits at McGill.
The matter is less clear elsewhere. Writing-center coordinator Margaret Proctor at the University of Toronto believes the number of sessionals has leveled off, perhaps even dropped. In 2003, however, she expects freshman enrollment to double in Ontario as public secondary schools move from a five to a four-year program, filling university classrooms with graduates of both programs, a
cohort that will swell universities for four years, tempting administrators to hire temporary faculty those years. Indeed administrators at Carleton University have negotiated with faculty a 50 percent increase in the use of sessionals between 2003 and 2006.
At the universities in British Columbia, “We were watching an alarming and steady increase in the number of part-time and sessional faculty,” says Linda Sperling, staff representative of College Institute Educators’ Association of British Columbia, a union of 7,000 faculty in British Columbia’s universities. But during the last five years CIEA has pressed universities for more money, perks, and job security, making sessionals less alluring to parsimonious administrators.
Also analogous to the trend in U.S. universities is the fact that the humanities bulge with sessionals.
“The vast majority of our contract faculty are in the humanities,” acknowledges Westman.
In 2000, sessionals at Carleton University taught 122 courses in the humanities and social sciences but only 21 in the natural sciences. That year Wilfrid Laurier University employed 139 sessionals in the humanities but only 20 in social work. They teach half of all English courses at the University of Toronto, and English departments in British Columbian universities “have always had large numbers of non-regular faculty,” says Sperling. McGill University and the University of Alberta also rely most heavily on sessionals in the humanities.
Karen Needham is an exception. An entomologist, she came to the University of British Columbia in 1990 as curator of the Spencer Entomological Museum, a full-time position until a budget cut later that year reduced it to part-time. She became a sessional to supplement her income and at first enjoyed the freedom of not having to teach every term. But after five years she grew frustrated at having been repeatedly passed over for full-time employment and in having to cobble together an existence with three or four contracts per year and working summers in the museum, never knowing from year to year whether the department chair would offer her a class. The
person who teaches too long as a sessional is typecast, she warns.
“The idea is that somehow you’re substandard, that you can’t make it in academe,” she says.
She admits to naivete in believing that if she worked hard and did her job well, the university would reward her with a full-time position. The reality, she now knows, is that so many people are chasing so few jobs that no university must reward its sessionals. “They have no incentive to retain you or to make your work desirable,” she says.
Needham is not alone in her frustration, much of which stems from poor pay. The Canada-wide average sessional wage, between $3,100-$4,500 U.S. dollars per three-credit course, may seem satisfactory, but it is a figure Christine Stoddard of Teaching Support Staff Union
calls “shitty.” Pat Finn estimates she made 50 cents an hour as a sessional in Carleton University’s law school. Sessionals at the University of British Columbia earn as little as 40 percent of full-time pay. At the bottom of the range is Athabasca University at $1,868 [U.S.] dollars per three-credit course, followed by Brandon University at $1,983, Mount Saint Vincent University at $2,032, and Dalhousie University at $2,048.
Canadian universities prove that the excesses of the casual-labor system are not unique to the U.S. Both Canadian and American universities fill nearly half their faculty with part-time instructors, stacking many in introductory courses, where preparation and grading are intensive. Neither system offers security, with sessionals and adjuncts often learning whether they will work only a few weeks before the term. Existence is precarious and piecemeal; many part-time faculty in both countries cobble together a livelihood with a patchwork of courses, often at different universities, supplementing their teaching income with other jobs.
At the other end of the labor system, administrators have their pick of part-time faculty because supply so outstrips demand that one can no longer speak of a labor market in Canada or the U.S. Instead the system, to borrow from Thoreau, condemns the mass of academics to
lead lives of quiet desperation.
This is not to say that part-time teaching lacks rewards. Lohka loves the interaction with students, but interaction alone sustains no one. Canadian universities, like their American counterparts, can do more to improve conditions for all faculty, not merely senior academics.
This realization should forge solidarity between sessionals and adjuncts, for although the terminology and country differ, they are part of the same labor system.
Sidebar 1: A Tale of Two Entomologists
Karen Needham taught entomology 10 years as a sessional at the University of British Columbia, earning $7,662 Canadian dollars
per three-credit course or $4,900 U.S. dollars. By stringing together courses and curatorial work at the University’s Spencer Entomological Museum, she makes $30,000 Canadian dollars a year, nearly U.S. $20,000.
Eric Erickson has been adjunct professor of entomology since 1986 at the University of Arizona. He teaches a beekeeping course that
would pay $4,500, though his status as a full-time entomologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture precludes him from accepting
the money. Erickson earns more than $80,000 a year and does not mind forgoing the adjunct pay.
Sidebar 2: Thanks to NAFTA, Adjuncts Can Head North
Imagine packing your teaching bag with all the usual things — books, corrected quizzes, paper, extra chalk — and then tossing in something not quite typical: your passport. To get to your class, you leave enough time not only for traffic, but also for a quick border check. When tax time comes around, you figure in both foreign and domestic earnings.
Why would you want to go through these hassles? Well, if you’re one of the thousands of U.S. adjuncts who lives within fair driving distance of the Canadian border, you might find that it’s worth your while to do so. Canadian universities, on the whole, pay adjuncts
$1,000 to $4,000 more per course than U.S. universities. And, under a little-known provision of NAFTA, part-time U.S. faculty can work at Canadian institutions with a minimum of bureaucratic inconvenience.
The acronym NAFTA (which stands, of course, for North-American Free Trade Agreement) might conjure up stereotypes of Mexican businesspeople crossing the U.S. border in search of better economic conditions. But the same regulation that allows those professionals
to pass freely through checkpoints also allows part-time and temporary university faculty to market their skills across both the Mexican and Canadian borders. Specifically, NAFTA’s Annex 1603 states that college, seminary, and university teachers count as “business
persons engaged in business activities at a professional level.”
In practical terms, this means that a Canadian university can employ an American (or a Mexican, though, for obvious geographical reasons, that’s unlikely) to teach a course without having to go through the usual steps required to authorize a worker under immigration
laws. A visa is still needed, but NAFTA puts cross-border employees on a sort of fast-track, granting them relatively hassle-free, one-year working visas renewable in one-year increments.
So, for example, NAFTA would allow an American part-timer who earns about $1,700 U.S. dollars teaching a history course at, say, Fingerlakes Community College in Canandaigua, NY, 120 miles from the Canadian border, to take a position at York University
in Toronto and earn a salary nearly four times greater — about $7,000 U.S. dollars ($11,000 Canadian). (It’s worth noting, too, that the positions available in Canada are not only part-time ones; there are also plenty of full-time temporary openings out there, and these often
come with better benefits.)
That’s a best case scenario. According to Rob Lawson, York’s academic employee relations officer, York pays its contract faculty a higher rate than any other university in Ontario — and quite possibly, he says, a higher rate than any other university in Canada or North America. A more typical salary throughout the Canadian system is about $3,100 – $4,500 U.S. dollars ($5,000 – $7,000 Canadian),
says Alex Mercer, director of faculty relations at the University of Western Ontario. However, he adds, Western’s pay rate is higher than the average, too — part-timers there earn between $5,700 and $6,300 U.S. dollars ($9,000 and $10,000 Canadian), with 6 percent vacation pay, to boot.
That Americans can just land a job across the border, pop over, and pocket several thousand more per course than they can in the States sounds too good to be true, and, inevitably, there are challenges. The main sticking point is that many Canadian universities — York and Western included — are unionized, and their collective agreements require departments to hire qualified Canadians before they consider non-citizens. As York’s Lawson puts it, “The pool of applicants ranges from mediocre to rock star, and even if the lowest-qualified person in the pool has the highest number [based on points awarded for various factors, including Canadian citizenship], that person gets the
There is another obstacle. At York, and at many other Canadian institutions, “the appointments process is very internal,” Lawson says. Most part-time, semester-long positions are not posted anywhere. It’s difficult for anyone outside of a given department — unless there are connections — to even become aware of openings. David Robinson, associate executive director of the Canadian Association
of University Teachers (CAUT), confirms this.
“There is very little advertisement for part-time positions here,” he says. “I was a part-timer for a while, and I really saw an informal network. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an ad for a part-time position.”
Because of these issues, and perhaps because the specific clause of NAFTA has not been publicized, not many American college faculty take advantage of Canada’s more generous compensation rates. In fact, officials at the American Association of University Professors are not aware of any occurrences of the phenomenon. Says a spokesperson at the organization: “We have just started to look at NAFTA in terms of export and import of intellectual property. We haven’t looked at people crossing the border. That hasn’t come to our attention at all.” At the Association of American Universities, it’s the same story: Peter Smith, director of public affairs there, says, “I didn’t even know NAFTA applied to this.”
He’s not alone — it seems that many do not. But Smith agrees that if Canadian universities reimburse adjuncts at higher rates, and if other North Americans can actually land jobs there, more people will want to know about it. “It’s very, very interesting,” he says.
But how to overcome the two major obstacles? Western’s Alex Mercer says that “it’s more than likely that universities without collective agreements for part-timers would be more open to hiring Americans.” According to CAUT’s Robinson, there are nine universities
in Canada that do not currently have bargaining agreements for part-timers, including the University of Toronto, the University of Winnipeg, and the University of New Brunswick. At the other institutions, the ones with union restrictions, it could still be worth
putting in an application — if no qualified Canadians apply for a given job search, it would open up to Americans.
As far as breaking through the culture of internal hiring, there are resources available, despite universities’ tendencies to rely on internal networks. For example, two groups — the Association of Universities and Colleges in Canada and the Canadian Association of University Professors — publish print and online newsletters which list openings for limited-term, visiting, sabbatical replacement, and sessional/part-time faculty openings (http://www.aucc.ca/en/jobsindex.html and http://www.caut.ca/english/bulletin/classifieds).
That’s a starting point.
In addition, adjuncts who want to try border-hopping will have to aggressively pursue possibilities. Call upon contacts or get in touch with departments directly and ask about openings. Also, keep in mind something that could work to your benefit: At some universities —
York, for example — if you submit an application to a department within a certain period, you remain in the hiring pool and are automatically considered for any positions that arise in that department for 12 months from the time of your application.
Finally, there’s a more drastic option. A Canadian census released in March revealed that the country’s population growth is at an all-time low. Already one of the most welcoming countries when it comes to immigration, Canada is going to have to increase immigration
levels further if it wants offset its decreasing birthrate. With better pay rates — and more union action on the part of contract employees — maybe it’s time to consider a move northward.
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