Adjuncting/Sessional Teaching – does it get a bad rap?

I finally made a decision to take leave without pay from my current HS job and go back to university FT to both complete my degree and to re-invigorate my CV with some teaching in my discipline and at a tertiary level.

Adjuncting (US) or sessional (Aus) work gets a bad rap for being underpaid (when marking, lecture attendance etc are taken into consideration) but I worked for almost 9 years as an adjunct and as FT faculty and being able to secure part-time employment that pays a good hourly rate (yes, marking takes time but it can be done in your own time) and is associated with study/research, at least in some capacity and also helps develop the CV. The main problem that people have with adjuncting is that it is difficult to move past it and into full time, permanent or tenure-track employment. The statistics for adjunct staff are staggeringly high – I have seen it ranged from 35-65% of all university teaching staff, which is a big whallop of people no matter which way you spin it.

I can only speak about the situation in Australia first-hand but when I was researching online for big-picture information, I found no blogs or websites devoted to or run by Australian adjuncts except for Uni Casual – without exception, every single  website, blog and article was from North America and the USA in particular. I don’t know if the situation there is more critical or if the adjuncts are just more vocal but it is difficult to measure the impact of sessional staff in Australia by comparison.

For me, I found myself hard done by (in my opinion) at my current HS job. When I took the position I was informally advised by email that if I taught English for 2011, they would give me the extra media teaching that was going to open up in 2012 when the school was having it’s first year 12 students. The position that was put together was 50% English and 50% Media – perfect for me but instead of giving it to me, they gave it to an outside hire. To add salt in the wound, I was not told about this decision, I was simply given a 2012 timetable that had a full English load and I found out by total accident about the new hire. Now, I followed this up with my principal but he not only down-played the previous assurance I had been given but gave me platitudes about how much I was needed in the English Department (never mind that all my degrees are in Media/Cultural Studies or that I have over 8 years experience teaching media at tertiary level).

I was angry and hurt and generally pissed off and as I had recently returned to complete my doctorate, I wondered if it was possible to patch together an income that would allow me to take leave-without-pay and focus on finishing the damn PhD and getting the opportunity to teach in my area – this clearly wasn’t going to come from the secondary sector which showed very little respect for my skills, knowledge base or experience (although admittedly it did/does pay a reasonable salary).

And here’s the thing. After 6 weeks of soul-searching, internet-searching and list-making, I put in my application for leave on Tuesday at 4pm and by Wednesday 10am I had a tentative offer of some sessional work. After a phone chat at around 11:30 pm I received a firm offer of work – with enough income for a base salary to meet most of my needs. It seemed both providential and telling – the tertiary sector (re)welcomed me with open arms while the secondary sector, while paying my bills (and addmittedly, that is no small thing in this day and age) ignored me.

So, while I may be re-joining the ranks of the exploited, sessional work is going to allow me to stand my ground and rescue my dignity with my current employer and have the opportunity to follow my dream of completing my doctorate  – it  isn’t offering security or anything long-term, but it is offering a way to meet my (current) needs and that counts for something.

If you are new to adjuncting, some of the more insipid problems are not always immediately apparent – for example, a large part of getting ahead in academia comes from writing and publishing and while FT faculty have time for this built into their salary, adjuncts get no paid time to publish. Getting stuck in the adjuncting rut can result from lack of publications (although there are many well-published adjuncts out there).  Another issue is that sessional work is well, sessional. You only get paid for when you teach and given that most universities (at least in Australia) run 2 x 12 week semesters, that is only 24 weeks a year that pay – big problem. There are a couple of ways to approach this, take on more teaching and let the research lessen a little for those 24 weeks. This isn’t ideal of course but if you can live on say 6 hours of sessional work then try and secure 10-12, you will need to work hard (and the grading … oh the grading …) but this will allow you to ferret some money away for the times that you don’t have any hours so that you can spend them writing your dissertation rather than stressing about money! Note: there is one issue in doing this; if you are a PhD candidate in Australia, you are very lucky because not only does the government completely cover all of your tuition costs, but you are most likely in receipt of an APA (Australian Postgraduate Award) which gives you a living stipend. This is roughly enough to cover rent and some food (in WA, cost of accommodation is comparable to NYC, seriously) but not quite enough to really live on – the internet would be a luxury for example. So it is usually necessary to subsidise this with teaching and this is where sessional work is perfect .. but … as a condition of the APA, you are not allowed to work more than 8 hours between 9-5 Mon-Fri. This can put a dampener on an earnings like I have described but, note the 9-5. Many universities offer night or after 5pm classes and this is a way around that clause. Also, there is summer school and online education which both allow top-up earnings. You just need to get creative!

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