by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Teaching”

An Unusually Polemical Post; or, Why I'm Confused By The Debate Over Teaching-Only Positions

Posted 12 May 2009 in by Catriona

I was reading a fascinating piece on teaching-only academic positions over at Sorrow at Sills Bend: a piece that was not only nuanced and thoughtful itself, but led to an engaged and engaging discussion (until the troll appeared, at least).

And it made me think.

Because I’m a sessional academic. A casual academic. Whatever term you want to use: I’m someone who is post-Ph.D. but pre-potential full-time job. And like many people in that position, I’m anxious about any number of issues.

About giving my job the attention and energy it deserves when the work is so fragmented and temporary.

About improving my pedagogical practice, and whether it is possible to even do so under these circumstances.

About expanding my pedagogical practice—is it becoming too restricted, since I work only in the lecture theatre and the classroom, and never at the level of course design and implementation (though I’ve been lucky enough to work largely with a convener who does invite the imput of her sessional teachers)?

About carving out little spaces of time to research and write, so necessary if I want to move past sessional teaching.

About whether my writing will become a chore and a burden rather than a joy, if it becomes a mechanical, frustrating process. Will I come to resent it, because it is unpaid, because it is squeezed into time when I would normally be relaxing, because it comes to be nothing but a means to an end (the job! the elusive job!) and I’m not achieving that end?

I think the anxiety about losing the joy I take in my writing would be the cruellest blow of all.

So if universities offered teaching-only positions, I’d be dancing in the streets.

Because I love teaching. Yes, I love my writing. But I love teaching—and I love teaching young adults in a mature pedagogical environment.

And, frankly, I can’t see where teaching-only positions would hurt the universities.

Yes, I’ve heard the argument that it would create a two-tier system, where research academics are elevated and teaching-only academics are relegated to the position of second-class employees.

But why should it? Unless we let it. Unless we endorse an argument that teaching is the lesser purpose of universities. Yes, universities generate research. They generate knowledge. But can they not do that while also acknowledging that many of the students who pass through them are looking for something more than just accreditation? That universities aren’t just job-training centres, and that in the lecture theatres and the classrooms and the labs, we are doing much, much more than simply spoon-feeding?

In my experience (in a certain discipline), full-time academics work extraordinary hours. And then they go home or lock themselves in offices and work even more insane hours to complete their research. Or they have to step entirely out of their teaching positions (via ARC grants, for example) to complete their research. And when that happens, their courses often suffer, especially the smaller, more advanced courses that so often depend on the work of a specific individual.

It seems to me (as an admittedly baised sessional academic) that there’s more than enough work out there for those of us who would enjoy being more teaching focused. And most of us would continue to research on our own (to the benefit of the universities): after all, as Lucy Tartan points out in the post I linked to above, sessional academics are already engaged in research, and we don’t get paid for it now, either.

But giving more money to teaching-only academics wouldn’t take away from the others. It wouldn’t ghettoise those of us who entered joyfully and willingly into teaching-only positions.

And it would vastly benefit the students. Their tutors would be able to give them more time and more energy than we can manage now. We could focus more on detailed feedback to their assessment, tailor the feedback specifically to individual students. They’d be getting something out of their degree other than credentials.

Because that’s something that worries me. If academia becomes increasingly fast-paced, cut-throat, competitive (whatever cliche works best to describe the process), if academics are pushed to complete more and more work in less and less time, then isn’t there a risk that the students will also be caught up in that, that only a handful of students who are already driven and dedicated will be able to truly benefit from their university education?

That wouldn’t be their fault. And it wouldn’t be the fault of the academics either.

But I don’t think it’s where we want our universities to end up.

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