Research versus teaching: A sessional story

By Trevor Bacque

The University of Calgary is an institution that prides itself on an endless devotion to research and with adequate scores by different university ranking groups the school is doing well for itself.

It doesn’t take much searching to spot the scores of students in the library pouring over books, compiling information for papers, theses and presentations. Likewise, professors are spotted checking out books for research paramount to their tenured position at the university. But what about those who are strictly working as teachers, not researchers?

An estimated 25 per cent of the university’s staff are part time, or “sessional,” professors.

The difference between the two groups, tenure or tenure-track and sessionals is a widening chasm according to some.

“The dramatic expansion of the number of sessionals teaching is directly related to government cut backs,” said James Turk, Canadian Association of University Teachers executive director.

The university can save money very simply by hiring sessionals as opposed to tenured professors.

It’s quite typical for sessional professors to not have their own office, telephone or benefits — a business model the university borrowed from the retail sector, said Turk.

“Sessionals are being exploited badly.”

The former University of Toronto professor likens his own experience to the situation, saying his former school could get 15 courses taught when he took time off from teaching his regular five because of what he earned as a tenured professor.

“They are paid for the time in the classroom,” said Turk, and nothing else, including preparation, marking, research and curriculum activities.

“Sessional instructors make valuable teaching contributions at the University of Calgary,” said U of C vice-provost of faculty relations Sandy Repic in a prepared email statement.

“Many of the sessional instructors provide professional expertise that complement the courses available in faculties.”


While the love of the classroom keeps sessionals at the university, it appears some are moving to a state of perpetual weariness.

David Bergen said sessionals have to be always thinking of exit strategies when they don’t have a full time job, but still retains their flare for the subject.

“I can still do it for the love of why I got into it,” said the religious studies instructor.

But the silver lining of teaching is wearing thin these days.

“My biggest concern is lack of job security.”

At the end of each semester, Bergen has to re-apply to teach at the university, along with trying to get through annoying road blocks, like having library privileges during the non-teaching months and semester breaks.

“That’s a low blow having been an alumni of this university three times around.”

In his fourth year at the U of C, Bergen thinks the classroom should be an environment where one can go out on an academic limb, which is more difficult for sessional instructors.

“If a tenured professor holds [students to] too high standards and [they] complain, it’s water off his or her back. For me, the water sticks.”

Jumping ship

Allison Dube, a political science sessional for 14 combined years at the U of C beginning in 1989, recently accepted a full time position at Mount Royal University and likens it to something of a fairy tale.

“At Mount Royal it was like coming to the home I always wanted,” said the 58-year-old.

Dube has written editorials, appeared in news stories both on and off campus and never thinks twice about sharing his sharp opinions on sessional instruction.

“What I found about two years ago is that I was working full time and losing money because sessional pay was so bad,” Dube stated.

He remembers a specific incident at the U of C that led him to believe students were not looked after.

In fall 2006, Dube again took the reigns of a Political Science 201 class. He walked into the room and saw over 220 faces staring back him.

At that moment he knew the university did not care about the welfare of their students.

“It’s just not feasible that someone is going to be learning that much in that kind of setting,” said Dube.

Bergen calls classes of such a size “cash cows” for the university.

For Dube, the change is night and day at Mount Royal University where the largest of the four classes he teaches has 30 students.

The sessional trap

With a doctorate in hand, a PhD student has their best chance of employment at a university as a general rule.

However, once on the road as a sessionalist — perhaps to gain immediate classroom experience — the jump to tenure is somewhat of a rarity.

“It’s almost like the heavens have to be aligned for it to happen,” said the University of Calgary Faculty Association President Anne Stalker.

“It is a very hard thing to do.”

Dube once had an opportunity for a chance to jump on the tenure-track, but the four-time Students’ Union Teaching Excellence Award winner failed to crack the short list.

“I didn’t coin the phrase ‘sessional trap’ but it’s real,” he said.

For sessionals such as Bergen, the love of academia becomes a sole comfort once it becomes apparent tenure isn’t feasible.

“No one goes into doctoral work with the intention to be a sessionalist,” he said.

“I’ve given up.”

There are outs, however, and Dube is proof of that. With a teaching job at MRU, he is on probation for the first time in his life and has the chance for tenure in five years.


Sessional professors are all university educated, capable of teaching university students, but receive wages considerably lower than those of a tenured or tenure-tracked professor.

The U of C stopped handing out health benefits to sessionals July 1, 2007, yet those employed before that time can have theirs carry over.

TUFCA’s Stalker calls the treatment inappropriate.

“These other support elements, the lack of respect over the long term . . . it kind of digs away at you.”

Bergen is lucky enough to still have benefits, for which he pays about $400 per non-teaching month and must instruct six or more courses a year in order to retain them.

Dube, without explicitly saying how much he made, said he makes “a lot more” at MRU compared to his sessional days at the U of C.

Minimum rates of pay per half course for sessional instructors are stipulated in the collective agreement, said the university’s Repic, adding that the actual rate of pay for sessionals is negotiated with each instructor beforehand.

Sessional pay begins at $6,000 per course and increases depending on other factors such as teaching experience, said Stalker.

She calls the university’s efforts to make sessionals feel welcome and a part of the institution abysmal.

Dube echoed such sentiments and said MRU has given him something he never had before at the U of C.

“It’s not just the pay raise, it’s being made to feel secure and wanted.”

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