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CAUT Bulletin Archives

June 2005

Sessionals’ Anguish

It’s that time of year. Many of us have received disappointing course evaluations, disappointing in the sense that the passengers on the Titanic were disappointed to find out their ship was sinkable. In fact, as a sessional lecturer, my evaluations have probably sunk my application to teach at a local college.

Now, after the fact, I know my lectures were unpopular compared to most others in the university. There are improvements I can make, although I’m mystified by many of the complaints. I suspect I’m a poor teacher, certainly I’m now considered as such by my department. However, in the other part of my life, I analyze data and design experiments for other people and it makes me uncomfortable that nothing was really tested here. For example, did the students actually learn less from me? Of course, given two teachers who are otherwise equal, the employer should choose the one that has the better student evaluations.

However, suppose there’s an inverse relationship between student satisfaction and student learning? Unlikely, but possible. The point is no one from my department ever dropped in to check that my teaching was adequate. We’re just presented with students’ comments (transcribed by departmental secretaries, resulting in anonymity for the students and exposure of the lecturer). At the very least, we should be invited to rebut those comments.

Most would admit that sessional lecturing is a poor deal. Academia is a zero-sum game. We train more PhDs than are needed. The difference in ability between those chosen and those rejected may be very slight or even due to chance, but the perceived difference in status is large. The losers from university competitions enter competitions for college positions and so on until the only option is to change careers or work for low wages — sessional lecturing.

We need an organization, perhaps called Sessionals Anonymous. Sessional lecturers need to stand up and admit they’re addicted to academia, that they became addicted as doctoral students and post-docs. They’re addicted to the adrenaline rush they get as they enter a lecture hall, to being called professors by students, although they make less money than their TAs.

They need to stop pointing to the few sessionals who have moved onto faculty; these are like the few hockey players who have moved from the minor leagues to the NHL. Randolph Ness suggests depression is caused by remaining in a situation, a relationship or a career, too long. He compares it to optimal foraging in which the “patches” are the situations. Well, sessionals, maybe it’s time to move onto another patch.

That being said, I enjoy teaching and I’m rewarded by the students who have learned and become excited by the material. In spite of my evaluations, I might be offered another course. Maybe just one more time ...

Robert St. Clair
Biology, University of Alberta