Academic departments at universities across Canada rely on sessional lecturers to fill out their course offerings every term. Sessionals – usually all-but-dissertation PhD students who are hired on a flat fee, per-course basis – are like intellectual mercenaries fighting in the trenches of the academic world. As a lightly grizzled veteran, I’m writing to share some observations about the good, the bad, and the ugly of sessional teaching.
Getting some (but not too much!) teaching experience looks good on your CV, and that’s why most PhD students get into the racket. If you’re gunning for a faculty career, then just finishing your dissertation and getting the degree probably isn’t going to cut it: Prospective employers are also looking for publications and some evidence that you can teach. Requests to include a teaching dossier with faculty job applications are code for “please provide proof that you don’t absolutely suck at teaching”; in other words, copies of student evaluations from previous teaching. My students are surprised to hear that the reason why I’m teaching the course is to get their evaluations, but it’s largely true.
The life of an intellectual mercenary is about more than just career building, though. Teaching, at least for me, has been very satisfying and rewarding. You learn way more about a subject by having to teach it, and you are reminded of how broad your field really is – which can be a helpful antidote to thinking, reading, and writing only about your dissertation topic for years at a stretch. This can rejuvenate your writing if you’ve been feeling stalled for a while. You also realize how much you actually know, usually at the same time you realize how much your students don’t know. The overwhelming majority of them are keen and enthusiastic, though, and very much willing to learn.
Of course, you might discover that you really, really hate teaching. Not all teaching is created equal – lecturing to 200+ students three times a week for a term is very different than running a seminar for 9 students three hours a day for a month – but some people wouldn’t like teaching no matter how favourable the conditions. If this turns out to be you, then perhaps you should consider pursuing something other than a faculty job with your PhD after you’re done.
It’s not all fun and games. First of all, one certainly doesn’t become an intellectual mercenary for the money: Sessionals usually make between $4,000 and $5,000 per course, and at first glance this looks like a decent deal. Three hours of teaching time per week, plus an hour in the office, for a standard 13-week term translates to an hourly wage of between $77 and $96. Cha-ching! But wait… consider that you’re also looking at a couple of hours per week just answering student email, about three hours of prep time per hour of teaching, a bunch of marking (averaged out to 4 hours per week, including final exams), supervising the final exam itself, and a day of course design work up front, and suddenly the hourly rate becomes $15 to $19. Factor in mandatory union dues, CPP, and EI contributions to the tune of $300 per contract, and you’re looking at $14 to $18 an hour. It’s better than a kick in the pants, but if you were looking for a lucrative part-time job, this isn’t it.
Not only is sessional teaching not lucrative, it isn’t really part-time, either. I suspect that every PhD student thinks the same thing about his or her first sessional gig: “This is great! I’ll teach a few hours a week, and spend the rest of my time on my dissertation, and since I normally spend so much time on Facebook and PhD Comics I won’t even notice a difference!” Not so. First, the weekly workload explained above is not 4 hours per week, but 15-20 hours. Even teaching one course, particularly if you haven’t taught it before, can take up a big chunk of your workweek. Teaching two courses that you’ve never taught before basically suspends progress on everything else. Plus, teaching can be more exhausting than you expect, so much so that not even the grad student’s secret weapon (caffeine) can overcome your need for rest.
You could aspire to be the laziest part-time lecturer ever, and by putting in the least possible amount of time and effort overcome these two problems. Your students will notice this, though, and their course evaluations will reflect it. Since those same evaluations are ostensibly the reason you’re doing this… well, you don’t need to attend the CMSS to be able to figure that this isn’t the best strategy.
Remember how I said that some teaching experience looked good on a CV, but not too much? While you have to have done some teaching to round out an application for a faculty job, teaching experience alone is not going to get you that job. At a major, research-oriented university, glowing student evaluations are nice in a candidate – but not nice enough to compensate for a weak or non-existent publication record. In other words, being a prolific writer and a merely competent teacher has a better probability of success than being an unpublished researcher but brilliant lecturer. (Where you got your PhD also matters a lot, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish!)
This almost creates a catch-22, because sessional teaching is so time-consuming that each course you take on is very likely to delay the completion of your PhD, as well as delay any spin-off publishing you might be trying to do. Sure, it’s less time-consuming once you’ve taught the same course a few times, but by the time you’re in this position you have already sunk more hours into that course than it’s worth to you. The opportunity costs of sessional teaching – the stuff that you don’t do because you’re teaching – create two very significant hazards for intellectual mercenaries.
The first hazard exists for the all-but-dissertation PhD student. You want to get a bit of teaching on your CV, and get some decent course evaluations, but you also want to finish the program in a timely manner, try to publish a few articles along the way, give papers at conferences, and not starve or go crazy in the process. Sessional teaching offers steeply diminishing returns under these conditions: After you’ve done a few courses, your time is much better invested in research, publication, or a speedy completion. None of these carry a short-term payoff, though, whereas teaching offers a thousand bucks a month for a course (or four to five thousand in one month for spring/summer teaching!) For a grad student, that can be hard to pass up.
Then there is the hazard of becoming a lifer – the “Mexican day labourer” of academia, as one of my fellow mercenaries puts it – trying to cobble several part-time teaching positions into one full-time career. Some lifers manage this by becoming regular sessional instructors at multiple universities in the same city, thus overcoming any restrictions on how many courses they can teach in a year at any one institution. This is an uncertain existence, though, since the number of sessional opportunities varies a lot from year to year, with no guarantees about how many courses will need filling, or whether they will be ones you can teach.
Ultimately, being a lifer is a dead-end path. Time passes quickly, and you can suddenly realize that you’ve had a PhD for years but haven’t published any research during that time. As a result, you’re not a serious contender for a faculty position anywhere: You’re trapped. The chair of a political science department once came right out and told me that if you found yourself slipping into this trap, you were better off getting a full-time job outside of academia for a few years and then coming back later. After you’ve spent too much time in the trenches, it is said that even the departments you’ve taught for may come to see you as just a mercenary, not faculty material. This hasn’t been my experience yet, but I don’t plan to continue doing this long enough to find out if there’s any truth to it.
The Last Word
All in all, getting some teaching experience under your belt is a good idea – particularly if your degree is going to say “military and strategic studies” instead of the more traditional “history” or “political science”. Just be careful of the risks when you sign on.
As for how to sign on, cast the net wide: The strategy that worked for me was to send a CV and cover letter to every university and college in the area expressing interest in upcoming teaching opportunities. You will get a whole lot of nothing by way of reply, until months or years later when some department chair somewhere is in a jam because they have a fully enrolled course and nobody to teach it. Your name will leap to mind, your CV will be dug out of a filing cabinet, and you will find yourself with a teaching gig.
Getting the first course is the hardest part; impress people with that first course and getting subsequent ones will be easy. The challenge then becomes keeping your eye on the bigger career picture, and knowing when to pass further sessional opportunities by. Go for courses in the spring/summer terms: They have smaller enrollment (which means less marking!) and you usually do the entire course in one very intense month. This minimizes the opportunity costs of teaching, though it may leave you burnt out for a week or so afterwards. Try to teach a few different courses that span a broad range of topics in your discipline, rather than one super-specialized course a few times.
Above all, remember that a brief stint as an intellectual mercenary is a normal and noble part of the academic experience, but spending too much time in the trenches can condemn you to a life there. Getting through the front door to a faculty position will require things that time spent in the trenches will deny you, such as a solid publication record. Sometimes, though – rarely, but sometimes – an exceptional teacher can be promoted from the ranks.