Stuck in Sessional Siberia

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By Josh Wingrove

Sarah Sweet always thought she’d be an english professor. Her father and sister are both sessional instructors and, after receiving her PhD from Queen’s University last year, Sweet became a Ryerson sessional.

It was a long journey. Between her three degrees and her public education, Sweet was 29 years old before she got her teaching position at Ryerson.

It took her eight months to leave.

After being hired last year as a sessional instructor — hired on a per-course basis with no job security — Sweet quickly realized the ivory tower wasn’t for her.

Sessionals teach the majority of Ryerson’s lower level arts courses. Sweet and her office mates — she had to share an office with two other full-time sessionals — wondered if students could tell the difference between a sessional and a tenured professor.

On a light week, being a sessional is a 50-hour-a-week job. Heavier weeks topped 70 hours. Sweet had no guarantee of a job the next semester, and the pay was $912 bi-weekly, after taxes. The conditions are far from ideal, but she said people put up with it for the promise of two things — status and tenure.

“If you remain in teaching, you’re still a university professor, even though other profs know that as a sessional you’re nothing, you’re nobody, you’re a slave.

“As you work so much and get paid so little, the real reward you have is the sense that you are living some sort of intellectually verified life, that you are somehow living a life of thought,” Sweet said.

Tenure is hard to get. As a sessional, Sweet had been hired only to teach. But to be promoted to a tenure-track position, a committee would look at her research, which Ryerson neither paid her nor afforded her the time to do.

Many sessionals are stuck in that rut. Ryerson is trying to re-brand as an academic research institution, leaving behind those who teach exclusively. There are six new professors this year in the english department. Each of them was hired from other schools and each brings a strong research background. One, Susan Hamilton, had her teaching audition for last year’s hiring committee in Sweet’s classroom. After an hour of hearing the history of the periodical publication in what was supposed to be a literature class, Sweet’s second-year students had seen the way Ryerson is changing.

“Ryerson is moving towards a research-based faculty, a research-focused faculty, and that concerns me because it means that teaching will be less of an important thing. Academe has so little to do with teaching, it’s almost ridiculous. Teaching is considered to be, by many professors, incidental,” Sweet said.

Anastasios Venetsanopoulos, who is in his third week as Ryerson’s first Vice President Research and Innovation, said the balance between teaching and research is paramount in academia. Venetsanopoulos added that Ryerson’s strengths — practical education and out-of-the-box thinking — will remain its strengths.

“If (profs) only want to teach, they’re just glorified high school teachers. If they’re only interested in research, they should enter (private) industry,” Venetsanopoulos said.

Lorraine Janzen, the dean of english at Ryerson, said the workload for professors has been typically unbalanced — teaching has been more important than research. A good researcher is better prepared as a teacher, she said.

“University teaching, to me, is distinguished by the synergy between research and teaching,” Janzen said.

Sweet was frustrated by what she felt was a demand for marketable research. She said its all about getting grants, such as the department’s three Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grants Janzen boasts about.

Sweet didn’t think it was worth it, but others hold out hope. Jennifer Chambers shared an office with Sweet last year and has stuck it out, hoping for a better deal as she works alongside tenured colleagues with lighter workloads and heftier paycheques.

“While sessional work can be personally rewarding, it can also be crippling to your self-esteem as you know you are considered, recognized and paid as ‘less than’ other people in your department, even though you probably interact more directly with more students,” Chambers said in an e-mail.

History professor Arne Kislenko began his time at Ryerson working as a sessional for nine years, which he described as being “lost in the wilderness.”

“It is, to some degree, the price that you pay if you want to teach and want to be a professor at a university. It’s a very steep price to pay,” Kislenko said. Today, Kislenko has tenure and is, after winning TVOntario’s Best Lecturer award last year, arguably Ryerson’s highest-profile teacher. This semester, he has five classes — most profs, tenure or sessional, have just three.

“Generally, teaching is more and more important here. From my particular view, it’s the reason that we’re here,” Kislenko said.

“I don’t want this to become exclusively a research institution. I would certainly fight against that because, to me, teaching is a priority,” he added.

Sweet wasn’t willing to stick around and wait for Ryerson to find its new identity. After a “near-intervention” failed to bring her back to academia, she’s secured a government internship doing communications work at the Ministry of the Attorney General. Even as an intern, she’s got a two-year contract, works regular hours and is making double what she did at Ryerson. She likes working in a team and gets very excited for casual Fridays.

“I can read books for pleasure for the first time in six years, because I have time. I am actually reading more, seeing more movies, watching more television and, in many ways, having a more active mental life now than when I did when I was teaching,” Sweet said.

“(Leaving) was a very difficult decision to make — very difficult — but not at all in retrospect because it all seems ludicrously clear now.”

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