Shaun Bartone is committed to the love of learning but struggling to get by
Shaun Bartone has a passion for the pursuit of knowledge and wants future generations to be just as enthusiastic. It’s not unusual for someone in his position who has devoted a career to research and teaching in higher education.
He says academics have a responsibility to instill a love of learning in their students. “Teaching is about inspiring students to pursue something to the end — to the highest degree. It’s an emotional task as much as an intellectual one,” asserted Bartone, a sociology and social work instructor at Dalhousie University.
But with universities increasingly relying on “standby academics” to teach courses, contract academics who teach for their love of academia tend to get a raw deal.
“It’s a struggle to serve our students all while shouldering the burdens of life as a contract academic,” Bartone said.
He’s been teaching in post-secondary institutions for almost two decades and has two master’s degrees, a law degree, and is in the last stages of writing his dissertation.
He says he witnesses the impact of casualization on students every year.
“It affects them emotionally. Students ask what I will be teaching next year and I have to tell them I don’t know if I will be teaching at all. Students need to be inspired and motivated to learn.”
As faculty liaison of his union local, CUPE 3912, he said he hears concerns from all contract staff. Teaching may temporarily pay the bills, but the stresses that come with it present a dangerous trade-off.
“There is the financial burden, where a contract position means you are teaching for pennies on the dollar and often have no benefits of any kind,” Bartone said. “You never know what or when will be the next course you teach, let alone if you will be able to pay rent.”
Besides worries about job prospects and financial stability, he said it’s becoming more challenging to facilitate and support student learning.
With tuition fees in Nova Scotia increasing faster than anywhere else in the country, students are accruing massive debt and juggling jobs on the side to make their way through school.
Their education, Bartone argues, requires long-term support and mentorship. Similarly, faculty need ongoing support to learn new technologies, to implement new pedagogical methods, and to maintain motivation. And yet there is still much to be done to improve the working conditions of contract academics on campus, both for their benefit and ultimately for the students they teach.
“I just recently overheard a student ask another student why Dalhousie had so much money for new buildings but no money for professors,” Bartone noted.
“In a society where there are many distractions, it takes a large commitment to mentor and support students. We are at risk of losing this in a society where professors are spread thin,” he added.
Even though Bartone has been teaching at Dalhousie for more than 10 years, he says he’s never been listed as a faculty member on the university website.
“When you are invisible, it is hard to feel respected as a professional,” he said. “And it makes me concerned about the future of universities.”
What’s also concerning, or perhaps alarming — according to Bartone — is the higher percentage of historically marginalized faculty from equity-seeking groups among the ranks of contingent workers compared to tenured faculty.
“Queer faculty, faculty of colour and women are more reflected among the precarious workforce in comparison to the tenured workforce,” Bartone said. “Structural discrimination, institutional racism and homophobia come into the equation when we think about how to challenge these inequalities.”
Despite the scope of the issues facing contract academic staff, Bartone remains hopeful for the future.
“Union involvement among sessionals is on the rise across North America,” he said. “They now see it as their only way to have the job and salvage their jobs; so that is good. And there’s increased attention being drawn to the lack of respect and the tiered system that has surfaced.”
The part-time faculty at Dalhousie, through CUPE 3912, formally joined forces with the broader academic staff movement earlier this year when the union joined CAUT.
Bartone is optimistic that, with the support and solidarity of other contract academic staff units across the country, CUPE 3912 will succeed in improving working conditions at Dalhousie.
“Equal pay for equal work is the only fair standard,” he said. “We are looking for a career track, in line to qualify for full-time positions and benefits. We are not settling for peanuts anymore.”
After all, he argues, the students deserve better.