Between bites of pad thai in a crowded restaurant on the Ryerson campus, my colleagues and I chew over the community college teachers' strike, now in arbitration.
We decide that the OPSEU strike and its demand for an increase in full-time faculty is an early warning call for what is happening right across the university system.
And we're guessing we aren't the only sessional teachers out there thinking this way. Because what the sleek, sexy new buildings at Ryerson and U of T don't reveal is that your average Canadian university has become a bit of a sweatshop.
The professor many students see behind the lectern has six to eight years of professional training, has written books and published in peer journals - and has no hope of a teaching career.
I've been a part-time (aka sessional) instructor for 10 years, working without benefits, job security or a decent wage. I have a PhD and make $5,000 and a bit per course. Sessionals teach over half the courses in my department . Don Elder, president of Ryerson CUPE local 3904 sees a growing trend, "Part-time faculty has almost doubled in the past 10 years.'
While numbers are difficult to get across the board, the trend holds true on many Canadian campuses. OPSEU estimates part-timers make up close to 50 per cent at community colleges.
Recently, CUPE, our union, asked us to keep a log of all our hours. I counted up every single minute I spend, not just in the classroom, but also on mandatory office hours.
I clocked the time preparing lectures, responding to e-mail from students and faculty, running around town renting videos or buying books (all out of my own pocket), doing library research, preparing assignments, grading papers, writing references and responding to grade appeals. I was stunned by my calculations. My hourly wage comes in at $11 an hour.
Few, if any, of my students are aware that many of their instructors work for less hourly pay than most make on summer jobs, under labour conditions that resemble those in the fast food industry. My paycheque for Ryerson every week (I teach two courses) says I've worked six hours.
Our lack of job security makes the filing of grievances, or even the raising of legitimate concerns, almost impossible. In the Ontario college system, sessionals are even barred by law from organizing. "The treatment of part-time staff [16,000 college faculty and support workers] is abysmal," says OPSEU's David Cox.
At the Canadian Association of University Teachers, Vicki Smallman believes the single most important thing her organization could achieve is "to change the nature of sessional teaching positions. They have to be paid for research to allow them to move into full-time positions, and each course must be paid on a pro rata basis - as a percentage of full-time work.'
Our fragility within the system leads to another extremely troubling aspect of sessional work: the loss of academic freedom of speech.
Gwendolyn Bradley, a staffer at the American Association of University Professors, writes in the journal Academe, "The greatest threats to academic freedom today may not be the kinds of blatant attacks that make headlines, but rather the silent self-censorship of thousands of professors holding temporary, insecure appointments."
Ryerson spokesperson Janet Mowat contests this charge, saying part-timers don't as a rule do research, so this kind of muzzling isn't an issue. Part-timers make up 23.7 per cent of total faculty at Ryerson, and contrary to CUPE'S charge, she says this has held steady for eight years. The university's addition of 52 new tenured positions next year, she says, will further reduce this percentage.
"One reason for part-timers is to expose students to [teachers with] real-world experience,' she say, referring to trained academics with a background in a work sector.
Still, any way you look at it, the many unemployed PhDs are a huge boon to the academy, a steady source of cheap, highly educated labour that it's loath to replace with more expensive tenured positions, another move toward the corporate university. Little wonder that Ontario colleges have dragged their heels.
At Ryerson, I find myself teaching much larger classes for the same wage I got 10 years ago. Rent's gone up, transit and gas prices have increased. And I'm doing more administrative work: ordering my own textbooks, buying my own office supplies.
Here and there across North America, organizing initiatives that focus on part-time teachers are producing results.
In 2001, California university faculty successfully lobbied their state legislature to increase the percentage of full-time faculty in the state system to 75 per cent over eight years. This included the conversion of sessional positions into full-time appointments.
Recently, the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, a North America-wide organizing effort, set up shop at UBC. At its 2004 annual conference in Chicago, sessionals from across North America marched through the downtown core. CUPE and CAUT (Canadian Association of University Teachers) have also attempted organizing drives. CUPE recently organized a bargaining unit of sessionals at U of T and has one at Ryerson.
My colleagues and I trade ideas as we linger over our green tea. Briefly, we fantasize about a nation-wide strike of part-timers. But we're sympathetic to the plight of students, too. "We should enter our classrooms dressed up as fast food workers," someone suggests. "Ask me why I'm wearing a visor."
The restaurant is emptying out. We pay our bill and drift apart for the weekend, knowing we're going to be working through most of it, marking papers and prepping for the coming week. The system is broken, and it's leaning on thousands of people like me to keep it alive.