Most students, their parents, and the media do not understand academic labour issues very well. This is largely because there is a perception that university professors are professionals who are paid a salary commensurate with their experience, education, and skills. In provinces like Ontario, which publish an annual list of all public employees making over $100,000, the media likes to report on how many professors at each university made the list. This, in turn, reinforces the view that professors, as a whole, are well-paid professionals. This, however, is not the case.
These discussions leave out a significant percentage of university faculty, variously called contract instructors, sessionals, or adjuncts. The original purpose of contract instructors was to replace regular faculty who were on leave or sabbatical, to address unexpected enrolment blips, or short-term gaps in expertise. Thus, traditionally, regular faculty who held permanent full-time positions would teach the vast majority of courses and, occasionally, someone would be hired to teach the odd course. This has changed rapidly during the present generation. It is estimated now that in North America the majority of undergraduate courses are taught by contract instructors. The situation is not as dire in Canada (yet), but we are slowly creeping up towards the standard being set in the United States.
At Carleton University, where I have taught since 2007, it is estimated that at least 25% of courses taught at Carleton are taught by contract instructors. When I looked at course offerings and teaching assignments in one department at Carleton last summer, I discovered that it routinely had over 60% of its courses taught by contract instructors. My point here is that what was originally conceived as a temporary, short-term solution to a temporary, short-term problem has become the norm.
The reason why administrators love using contract instructors is that we are cheap. In 2012-2013, contract instructors at Carleton were paid $6,483 per semester long course. This rate is 8% below the provincial average and $1,000 less than what is paid just down the road at the University of Ottawa. No wonder administrators love to use us and no wonder our President referred to us as “less well-paid individuals” in an editorial in the Globe & Mail. The collective agreement also stipulates that we cannot teach more than 2.0 credits (i.e., four semester long courses) during the fall/winter session and no more than 1.0 credits (i.e., two semester long courses) during the summer session. This means that the maximum salary of a contract instructor at Carleton—assuming they are lucky enough to get that many courses assigned to them—is a whopping $38,898. To put this in perspective, it would take nearly eleven years for the highest paid contract instructor to make what the highest paid administrator makes in a single year.
But, note, contract instructors are deemed to be temporary, part-time employees by the university. This, however, is not the case. I have been teaching at Carleton since 2007. I have taught in the Department of Law & Legal Studies and I have taught in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology. I have taught at all levels of undergraduate instruction, ranging from first year seminars to fourth year honours papers (the supervision of which, by the way, is uncompensated). My regular teaching load is 2/2/1. That is, I teach two courses in the fall, two courses in the winter, and one course in the summer. (Alas, for the second half of the summer, where I never get a course, I have to apply for EI until my next contract starts in September—assuming, of course, that I have a contract.) The standard teaching load for regular faculty (that is, permanent, full-time professors with the title of assistant professor, associate professor, or full professor) is 2/3 or 2/2, depending upon the faculty they teach in. (However, regular faculty can receive teaching load reductions due to graduate supervision, research, and service commitments.) In other words, as a temporary, part-time employee I teach somewhere between the same and more than permanent, full-time employees—who are paid somewhere between two and a half and three times as much as I am.
It is true: professors have additional responsibilities. For instance, they are required to conduct research and they are required to participate in service. While I do not have any institutional support for doing research, I nonetheless do, in fact, do research as best I can. One paper was published this past December and I have another due to an editor at the end of April. I plan on doing more writing in the summer. The difference between me and a regular professor in this regard is that a regular professor has institutional support (an office, a computer, a research budget, a stable income) while I do not.
The other part of a permanent, full-time professor’s responsibilities is service. This is where I cannot participate, but I would like to participate. Contract instructors are not allowed to sit as contract instructors in Senate nor are they allowed to sit on the Board of Governors, the two highest governing bodies on campus. We are not considered to be members of the departments we teach in nor are we considered to be members of the faculties we teach in, thus we cannot sit on departmental or faculty “boards” (which oversee the administration of faculties and departments). Similarly, we are not allowed to sit on any committee as contract instructors at the departmental, faculty, or university level. In other words, although the university could not run without us, we are not allowed to take part in running the university. I’d do service work if I could, but I’m not allowed to.
The short of it is that contract instructors are a lot like regular faculty in the roles we perform, but our treatment by administration is significantly different. Most of the ways in which our treatment is different is invisible to students and, indeed, most students don’t know if their instructors are on contract or permanent employees (which is revealing in itself). I won’t speak to the experiences of the “average” contract instructor, but I can speak to my own experiences:
- I do not have an office on campus. This means that I cannot meet in a private location with students. If students want to meet with me, we have to do it either immediately before or immediately after class while another class is pushing its way into the room. Alternatively, we can try to fight for a rare seat at one of the coffee spots on campus. In either case, this is not the best place for students—who are often nervous talking to their instructors—to discuss potentially personal issues that might be affecting their work.
- I do not have a phone, computer, printer, or photocopier. This would follow from not having an office: if you don’t have an office, then, obviously, you don’t have anywhere to put a computer, printer and phone. This means that I have to either pay to use the printers on campus or I have to do all of my teaching preparation at home. Either way, these costs come out of my pocket.
- I have to carry everything I bring to campus with me everywhere I go. This might seem like a strange complaint, but, because I don’t have an office, I don’t have anywhere to put winter boots, a winter jacket, to leave my bag, to put student assignments, and so on. In the winter I have to decide between wearing appropriate outdoor footwear and indoor footwear. Either I wear boots and don’t break my neck outside, but thud around the classroom or I wear shoes and risk breaking my neck, but comfortable in the classroom.
- I have to apply to keep my job every semester. In order to facilitate the myth that I am a temporary, part-time employee, I am required to constantly re-apply to teach the courses I have been teaching for years. This is a pain in the ass because the forms are constantly changing and the rules are constantly changing. It is also insulting. I’ve been doing the same job for seven years now. Yet, I am constantly reminded that I do not count, that I am not a real employee because I have to, essentially, beg to keep the job I have.
- I earn less now than I did when I started. According to the Minister of Finance, the average Canadian family has seen a 20% annual increase in salary over the past few years. I’m clearly not average because relative to increases in the cost of living, my take-home pay has steadily decreased. In effect, the university asks me to take an annual pay-cut so as to facilitate the construction of unneeded buildings on campus, such as the monstrous “garage mahal.”
- I am invisible. I have not spoken face-to-face to a chair of either of the departments I teach in for at least four years. They do not make contract instructors feel welcome—because we aren’t. At best we are an uncomfortable reminder that despite their Marxist pretensions, they are as petty as the petty bourgeoisie they decry and as neo-liberal as the neo-liberals they critique in their radical journals.
- I receive no benefits. Although the last round of negotiations agreed to implement extended health benefits for contract instructors (this was a major win for us), the university has pulled back from this commitment during the current round of negotiation (this is a major reason why we are prepared to strike). I have not been to a dentist since starting at Carleton: my teeth hurt. A lot. If I get sick (as I did two winters ago with pneumonia), I have to pay for my medicine out of pocket and it was around $200. That is, I had to decide between potentially having the power to my home being cut-off or dying of pneumonia in my thirties in a wealthy first world country. It isn’t easy to do the already demanding work of an instructor when you are worried about getting sick (and campuses are dens of flu viruses), missing classes, getting fired for not showing up, and having to buy medicine you can’t afford.
I have taught at Carleton for a long time now. I have worked under five different chairs and I don’t know how many deans. My impression is that working conditions have steadily worsened during this time. I used to have an office; I don’t anymore. I used to have access to a computer; I don’t anymore. If the Chair decides to communicate with a lowly specimen such as myself, it is done through multiple intermediaries: the assistant to his secretary or some-such. (I don’t know who these people are because no one bothers to tell me.) They issue decrees that make no sense. Their e-mails begin, “As you know…” As I know? That implies I was told something prior to receiving this strange edict. Whereas I feel we used to be treated with benign neglect, now I feel we are treated with aggressive contempt.
It is for these reasons that I voted to give my union a strike mandate and it is for these reasons that I am prepared to walk in a circle four hours a day, five days a week until we have a fair contract. A fair contract is one that adequately compensates us for the work we do; a fair contract is one that recognizes that we are human beings and an essential part of the university; a fair contract recognizes us as post-secondary education professionals and not as “less well-paid individuals.”
The sad thing is that I wouldn’t teach if I didn’t like it. None of us would willingly choose these working conditions if we did not like to teach. Our desire and eagerness to teach subjects that we love is consciously exploited by over-paid administrators who seem to delight in treating us like pariahs. I really do like teaching. Sure, I complain about my students when I’m disappointed that they didn’t do their readings. We all do that. The problem is that my working conditions are absolutely intolerable. I cannot tolerate working under these conditions for much longer. My students say that like me as a person and that they like me as a teacher. (Some say neither, but you can’t win all the time.) They say they derive value from my courses and thinking about things they’ve never thought about before. That is, in my courses, my students receive an education. Nonetheless, the outcome of my working conditions is that my life is fraught with anxiety and depression—and not having health benefits, I cannot afford to see a psychologist nor can I afford drugs. A teaching job in a university shouldn’t take a physical and mental toll on people, but it does.
It sounds like a truism—because it is, I suppose—but my working conditions are my students’ learning conditions. My working conditions are terrible. I do my best to shield my students from this, but they aren’t getting the full education they are going into debt to receive and, largely, the cause of this is that senior administrators are more interested in pet projects like lavish parking garages, unnecessary new faculties, shiny new buildings while the old ones decay, and football.