Showey Yazdanian is a writer from Toronto whose upcoming novel Loopholes recently won the Ken Klonsky Prize for the best novella by a Canadian author.
In the short term, the contract faculty who teach the majority of courses at York University are striking for higher wages. In the long run, contract teaching needs to be abolished.
It's not just the abysmal pay – roughly on the order of $7,500 per course with teaching load varying from two to eight courses a year, usually falling somewhere in the lower middle – or the chronic uncertainty of pay-per-course four-month non-renewable contracts. It's that contract faculty, no matter how highly qualified or dedicated they may be, are permanently consigned to the shadows of academia.
The job of contract faculty is to slip into the classroom, deliver the prescribed aliquot of education, and then slip out again. They may spend weeks or months creating course materials and teaching strategies, but too often, this knowledge simply vanishes with them as they take up the next dismal temp job and a new cohort of students begins from zero.
Needless to say, it's a singular path. Contract faculty aren't generally paid to develop or update courses, aren't usually invited to sit on curriculum committees (or any committees, for that matter). They are mostly excluded from student and campus events unless they participate on a voluntary basis and they have no obvious prospect of career advancement, ever.
In the short term, creating what is essentially an academic underclass is probably a neat way to cut costs. In the long run, universities cannot function as vibrant hubs of intellectual activity when they are staffed in large part by a merry-go-round of temporary instructors who sometimes barely know their tenured peers or even each other.
At least part of the problem is that universities are torn by competing policy objectives.
On one hand, we recognize the value of a well-educated society; postsecondary institutions are swollen with record quantities of students and someone has to teach them. On the other, Canada is in hot pursuit of invention and innovation, and professors who excel at research are often rewarded with "teaching release" to enable them to produce more of it.
More research requires more graduate-level students – but once these bright young things have finished slogging out four to six years of laboratory or field work to gain their PhDs, what fate awaits them? Under the current regime, many are simply plowed directly back into the system as contract faculty, paid peanuts to teach mass quantities of undergraduates. And the cycle perpetuates – the profession feasts on its young.
All things considered, the dedication, passion and sheer tenacity of so many contract faculty is remarkable, considering the many ways in which they are basically incentivized not to bother. When you are paid for a minimum number of hours, why not do the minimum amount of work? Why bother reporting academic dishonesty when it takes unpaid time and untold effort? Why bother with interactive classroom technologies when reading PowerPoint slides aloud is just so much easier? Why pour untold hours into supporting troubled students who might reach out with problems ranging from drug addiction to sexual assault?
Finally, recall that in the absence of any other markers, contract faculty live and die by the student evaluation. Why bother ensuring that exams are challenging, rigorous and fair when it's hardly a trade secret that the quickest way to ensure "student satisfaction" is simply to inflate their grades? The fact is that most contract faculty do bother, and the reason is quite simple: They are genuinely passionate educators. Without this passion to sustain them, most would have quit long ago.
To many, the resolution to this is a quick, painful death: Contract teaching should mostly cease to exist. Instructors cannot be treated as dispensable when they are clearly anything but, as evidenced by the fact that York University has been crippled by its strikers, whereas the University of Toronto – it's still feuding with its teaching assistants but reached a tentative settlement with sessional instructors some weeks ago – remains open.
Instead, universities should create a permanent roster of salaried teaching positions, resorting to contract faculty only when desperate. Institutions such as McMaster University and the University of Waterloo have already moved in this direction, having recognized that professors need time, resources and a modicum of security to deliver the continuity, relevance and attention to detail that world-class postsecondary instruction demands.
A great education isn't meted and doled out by the hour, and great educators cannot exist in quarantine from the rest of the academic community.