Professional wilderness

When teaching matters less and less to the university

Last December, the local union representing many University of Toronto sessional instructors (including the present writer) filed for conciliation in its ongoing negotiations with the administration. A third-party mediator has been appointed by the Ontario Ministry of Labour in an attempt to help the two sides come to an agreement on a new contract. In the event that an agreement cannot be reached, the union has voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action. All these developments provide a backdrop for what I wish to focus on here.

I would like to draw attention to a much bigger picture by asking a simple question: “Is undergraduate teaching undervalued in North American institutions of higher learning?” My response can be stated briefly: the very existence of a strong trend towards hiring more and more non-permanent educators is the strongest possible evidence for the devaluing of undergraduate teaching in universities and colleges. As modern corporations, institutions of higher learning are finding reasons to “outsource” labour, on the evident assumption that education is just one more “product” on the market that should be produced and delivered as efficiently and profitably as possible. This has happened because those who are most rewarded by the system (i.e. tenured faculty and senior administration) perceive such an approach as necessary for the continuation of the very institutions that they manage. As in other sectors of the economy, the out-sourcing of labour is a convenient way of dealing with what are usually presented as unforgiving “fiscal constraints’’.

This approach need not be understood as part of some sort of conspiracy against non-permanent instructors among tenured faculty and administrators. Large institutions, particularly those with a long history, generate their own complex internal culture. Many features of such institutions are simply taken for granted as “the way things are”. Perhaps the emergence of a very large underclass of university educators is unavoidable given current economic conditions.

Then again, perhaps not. Human institutions are built up through the decisions (large and small) of countless individuals about goals, priorities, and the use of resources. These decisions involve values, either implicitly or explicitly held. What we need right now, I would suggest, is a substantial conversation about the values that are shaping undergraduate teaching. It is a modern myth that current economic conditions necessitate the out-sourcing of teaching. If the teaching of undergraduates was as valued as it should be, resources would be allocated. Why is it that we (quite rightly) designate significant resources for the education of children and youth from kindergarten to grade 12, but then decide that learning after high school can be effectively facilitated by educators who are divided between highly paid and fully supported “insiders” on the one hand, and a growing army of poorly paid and contingent instructors on the other? Is it really the case that teaching is of so little value that it hardly matters if many of its practitioners (who have been trained in the same way as tenured faculty) are now consigned to a kind of professional wilderness, never able to be meaningfully integrated into the organization unless they happen to land one of the increasingly rare tenured positions? Academic work is traditionally divided into three categories: research, teaching, and administration. What set of values has led North American universities to increasingly rely on poorly compensated and marginalized teachers, while the same trend has not appeared among researchers and administrators? We don’t outsource these two activities because they remain highly valued, whereas teaching is not. What I’m referring to here are the values inherent in the structure of the institution, not those values that individuals within the institution might hold or put into practice.

Anyone who cares about pedagogy and who has some experience in the classroom knows that teaching is a highly complex activity that calls for a great deal of dedication, experimentation, reflection, and patience. It should hardly need pointing out that good teaching is at least as challenging to develop as good research or good administration. There is a night-and-day difference between an environment in which students genuinely grow in the course of their studies and the all too common scenario in which large numbers of students are merely “accredited”. And yet this important part of the public role of our universities, i.e. the facilitation of real learning, is in the process of being heavily discounted. Research and administration are seen as fully professional activities, whereas teaching is not, at least if we consider how more and more postsecondary educators are actually treated.

Imagine a healthcare system in which specialists were able to say to general practitioners, “We know that you’ve had similar training, but because you’re only providing day-to-day medical care, your compensation is going to be about a third of ours, and you won’t have any say on policy.” To take another analogy, perhaps the teaching of undergraduates is evolving into something like dental hygiene: instructors play a merely supporting role to the main actors. The difference is that dental hygienists are not trained as comprehensively as dentists, but still have a reasonably well-paid and important role inside the system. This sector has not been outsourced to contract labour, for obvious reasons: in such a skilled trade (i.e. that of the hygienist), employers (i.e. dentists) want to keep high-quality personnel. I would suggest that sessional instructors are nowhere near to having this kind of integration in their sector. Given the difficulty and value (is this still the case?) of what we do, this should provoke a wider discussion among the stakeholders of the university system as a whole.

I’m not holding my breath, but those who are in the best position to effect change (tenured faculty and administrators) need to wake up to the fact that they are allowing the institution to which they have devoted their careers to become weaker with respect to its core mission of offering education to the wider public. This growing weakness does not reside in any lack of skill or dedication among the increasing numbers of sessional “faculty”, but is inherent in the structure of the organization itself. Yet surely no institution of higher learning, no matter what might be happening in the economy, has any business compromising its pedagogical culture. University teaching already faces a host of challenges (as brilliantly analyzed in a pair of recent U of T Press publications: Ivory Tower Blues and Lowering Higher Education). The last thing that the postsecondary teaching profession needs is for universities to continue to cannibalize their own in an attempt to maintain the status quo for a shrinking core of “important” employees. The problems are complex and run deep. One can only hope that all of us who value the university will be able to summon the intelligence and moral courage to think of a better way to pursue our collective mission.


Professor Adam Lehto

Department of Historical Studies

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