Back-to-School Edition: The Case for Hiring Full-Time

I’m honoured to devote today’s post to a letter that I received from a full-time college prof, who argues that the ongoing health of the college system, the quality of the education it provides, and its larger role in the Ontario economy all depend in no small part on breaking the college system of its addiction to adjunct faculty.

It’s a theme I hope to come back to througout the year, and I urge all faculty — full-time or adjunct — to share their experiences and their opinions about how we can collectively address this issue.

On to the letter — my sincerest thanks to the author, and to you for reading it.  Best of luck on the first days back to school.

The Case for Hiring Full-time

I was a sessional professor at a college in 1990 for 10 months. I remember feeling like I was being literally thrown into the classroom, which I actually found quite thrilling for some reason.

I was younger then.

I went through the curriculum documents and the textbook, if there was one, and somehow managed to put together something. I was enthusiastic and smiley and the students and I had a pretty good time together. We made some movies, put together a newsletter, held debates – it was great! But I remember there was this nagging voice at the back of my mind: Is this what I was supposed to be doing?

In some ways, the teaching was easy but evaluation was another matter entirely! How do you assign a mark? What do you base it on? Whom do you pass or fail and why? Well… I passed everybody that first session. I mean, they all did their work and nobody really stood out one way or the other to me. It was either that or fail them all, I guess.

Everyone around me was so busy and no one asked what I was up to or offered any suggestions about anything one way or the other. They seemed happy with me when I appeared to know exactly what I was doing, so … well, I won’t say any more here or I’ll get myself into trouble.

I also remember how stressful it was, not knowing if I had a job next month or not. And even worse, what was I going to do 10 months later? Fortunately, there were tons of students and I got my 10 months’ stint. I had finally figured everyone out by that time, too. I even failed a few students, and not just because they never showed up.  Anyway – I figured everything out and then *poof* I had to go… Where? I had no idea.

They gave me an amazing letter of recommendation. “Outstanding”, it said. I’m so proud of that letter and still carry it around with me everywhere. I have it right here! The college and I were a fit!! I could feel it. So why did I have to leave? Why couldn’t they keep me on? And why were they always frantically looking for new people just like me to teach there?  Professors like me who won’t know what they are doing for a session or two, and who will have to leave as soon as they figure it out. It doesn’t make much sense, really!

Well, it is more than 10 years later and I’m full-time now. I wasn’t a sessional long, lucky me – 10 months at one college and 10 months at another. Now I am one of those busy ones who can’t see a name in the ever-changing horde of new sessional professors my department constantly employs.

I experience the tension from the other perspective now. Before I heard, “the sessionals don’t prepare students for this”, “weren’t aware of this”, “lost this”. Now it’s, “the full-timers earn these huge sums of money and only teach ‘x’ number of hours, while we have to do all this for so much less!” And “they get paid holidays, but we have to go on EI”. It is not a nice tension and I’m sure it exists in other departments, too. I don’t know how this is supposed to make you feel, but frankly I feel embarrassed and angry.

And I notice, because I teach the upper-level students quite a lot, that the quality of the students graduating is better when they have been taught by professors whose names I know and recognize. I can see first-hand that it does make a difference to have professors on staff full-time who attend staff meetings, participate in curriculum development and discuss pass and fail benchmarks and strategies.

 So why is this going on? Why is this total reliance on contract faculty acceptable? Is it necessary, financially and logistically? Is it in the best interest of our students, our colleges and society as a whole? This is a wealthy, civilized country isn’t it? When I try to explain this to friends and family, they are shocked: Sessionals teach more hours, don’t get benefits, and can only work 10 months. However, it seems to me that if they teach the same students and classes and pay the same taxes they should get the same pay and benefits. That’s what should be happening.

We are told that there just isn’t the money to hire full-time. Companies all across the board are hiring on a more short-term contract and part-time basis. They have books to balance and that, they say, is the only way to do it. Don’t get me wrong, profit is important. Someone has to balance the books and I’m glad I don’t have to do it. (I have a hard enough time with my own finances.)

But, to take an example, I do fork out the extra money and take the extra time every day to buy and prepare decent food. It keeps me and my kids healthy and strong and, in the long term,  I know I will be spending less money on medication and health care. In other words, I’ll be saving SunLife thousands and thousands of dollars.

I’m trying to make the point here that quality makes financial sense. Quality and profit are twin sisters – they need each other and you don’t have to be a Toyota Hybrid to understand that. Of course, cars are easy to recall, but how do you recall a thousand students?

And I do see money in the college system. It’s being spent on renovations and computers and I’ve also heard of big salary increases of 11% and 15% bonuses for upper management. Wait a second! Bonuses? Why are they getting bonuses if they can’t hire full-time? But the bonuses, it seems, are profit-based, and profit they do achieve. Wonderful! Now find a way to calculate bonuses based on profit and quality, and I’m all for them.

Fortunately, I think this “revolutionary idea” seems to be catching on because, according to the newspapers, the salaries of hospital CEOs will now be based on profit and performance. Honestly, I can’t believe it took us all this time to come up with that one. Anyway, money! It seems to be there but what, I wonder, is the best way to spend it?

 I often walk through the U of T downtown campus – everyday sometimes – I love the place. And is it even better looking than it was in my day! Flowers and trees and shiny new buildings! Wow! But the last time I took a course, which was a few years ago, it cost 10 times what it did back in 1985 when I was a full-time student there. And there were 90 people in the class, whereas in 1985 I only remember there being about 25 or 30.

It was not the same intimate and intellectual experience, even though the professor was amazing. Poor guy, I remember the look on his face the first time he came into the classroom. Scratching his head, he stared at us and seemed to want to walk right out of the room again.

So these are trends we are seeing across the board. But what is better for students, we need to ask, beautiful buildings or small affordable classes? And what is better for students: professors with direct experience and expertise – ones they recognize in the hallway, have heard about from other students and can go back to for a visit and a letter of recommendation, or professors who come and go like the breeze?

More to the point, is this really smart long-term planning for the colleges? We are in a recession, yes, but refusing to hire full-time is not good for recessions. Jack Layton made that point earlier in the year. Full-time jobs mean big consumer spending. When I was a sessional, I lived in a rental, shopped at “No Frills”, and didn’t go on holiday. Now, I own my own home which I renovated (thereby keeping other Canadians employed), I shop for food at organic farmers’ markets, and I rent a cottage every summer. I had no idea getting a full-time job would change my life so much.

Just think of all the big purchases college sessionals and part-timers are dying to make, and how that could help the economy. More than that, think of all the kids they could be having, who they could eventually send to colleges and universities like ours. I used to be one of those single mothers taxing the system. Now thanks to my full-time job, I have enough money in RESPs to send my daughter to McGill. That’s where she’s going in September, and I’m very proud of her.

We need to hire more full-time professors in the colleges. It just doesn’t make any sense not to. No matter how you look at it. It needs to become a financial priority and the money can and should be found. It would be better for the students, all of the professors, the colleges and even … for society as a whole.

 

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