At the end of last year my first book was longlisted for a literary prize. I didn’t make the shortlist, but I didn’t care. I know that awards are a little bit arbitrary, but that day I felt as if a space had opened up for me in the world of Canadian literature; I counted and the work I was doing mattered.
I teach at a respected university and I was pleased to see that someone posted a link to the prize announcement on my department’s Facebook page. For a moment, I wondered if someone might send out a congratulatory email on the department listserv. But when no one did, I felt silly for needing for such overt validation at work.
When it comes to work as a contract faculty member, I know I’ve got it pretty good. I’ve worked as a sessional lecturer for over a decade now and, for the most part, I like my job. I love working with students. And my days are flexible enough that I can make time for a writing career. Not only that, I’m lucky enough to be regularized, which means I have job security that many sessionals are denied.
Despite all these benefits I continue to feel the absence of something crucial in my life at the university: a sense of belonging. At first, wanting to belong seemed trivial—especially when so many contingent faculty across North America are worried about more basic things like job security or healthcare. But a quick search yields tons of research on the importance of belonging in the workplace. It matters. And in academia it especially matters for contract faculty.
An acquaintance tells me that she gave up on collegial respect years ago. She loves teaching and she finds meaning in her relationships with students—and that’s enough for her. I’ve been trying to convince myself that it’s enough for me too, but maybe it isn’t. And why should it be? Academia has a reputation for being competitive and exclusionary, but this is especially true for contract faculty— professionals whose work is, by definition, provisional.
I’m not alone in my frustration. I’ve heard stories from colleagues and acquaintances at a variety of institutions. An adjunct who worked long hours to win a big grant, only to have a tenured faculty member announce it at meeting while she was away, never bothering to mention her name or thank her. A sessional who passes the head of his department in the hallway every day, but even after two years has yet to hear a hello. A writer who was deemed unqualified to teach an intro-level literature class but was invited to guest lecture about his work, which was on the course syllabus.
In this way, I get the illusion of value: my accomplishments are as likely to be used for promoting the school’s public image as any tenured faculty member’s; but only one of us gets supported and promoted for the work.
The weight of any single instance of alienation or lack of recognition may vary, but their accumulation is heavy. I’ve spent some time thinking about the question of what my university, my department, my colleagues owe me. And I haven’t come up with a good answer.
My contract specifies that I show up to teach three days a week and that I keep a minimum number of office hours. That’s it. It doesn’t mandate—or even suggest—that I attend department meetings or serve on committees or advise students either formally or informally. In fact, because anything that isn’t in a sessional faculty member’s contract is considered unpaid work, we are often discouraged from doing any departmental service at all. This leaves contract faculty with two options. We can invest the time we don’t spend prepping, teaching, and marking in additional department activities with no additional pay. Or we can pursue opportunities for belonging and community outside of the institution. Over the course of my sessional career, I’ve experimented with both approaches, but neither has felt totally satisfying. Do I need invitations to a tenured professor’s holiday party? Not really. But would I like it if there was a culture of warmth and recognition, if we all knew each other’s names and used them? Definitely.
To be clear, this isn’t an indictment of tenured and tenure-track faculty. “I know I can also do more to create the community I’m looking for. But I am interested in considering how the institution is set up to create and sustain hierarchies—and how those hierarchies get in the way of genuine collegiality. I often sense a scarcity of resources: not enough courses or merit or grant money to go around. Not enough time to do everything that needs doing. Not enough jobs for each graduating cohort. Class sizes that are temporarily raised and then never readjusted, a cost-saving measure that sends those at the bottom of the hierarchy back on the job market.
Contract —in ways both obvious and subtle—that we are replaceable. In this climate, why would department heads or more permanent faculty bother getting to know new sessional or adjunct hires? If a sessional receives a contract for four or eight months, why bother attending department meetings? And, if you are lucky and those months turn into years, a point comes at which it seems too late to say hello to someone in the copy room when you’ve not said hello for the past three semesters.
A culture of social alienation is endemic to academia and damaging to everyone who works there, regardless of where you fall on the social ladder. It’s easy to point out systemic institutional problems, but it’s harder to figure out how to change them. I don’t have the answers but I have a few questions:
What resources really are scarce in our institutions? And how might we make space for those resources that aren’t limited by actual material constraints—things like warmth, recognition, and personal connection? How does the (over)emphasis on hard work and competition sustain the social hierarchies of academia? And how might we begin to question the notion of academia as a pure meritocracy, where status is always earned or deserved? How does the implicit expendability of contract faculty contribute to a culture of social alienation and dehumanization? What might those in positions of stability and power—tenured and tenure-track faculty, administrators, department heads—do to make those with less stability and less recognition feel like valuable, contributing members of a community?
I’m genuinely interested in the answers to these questions—and the further questions they inspire. I hope they continue the conversation about belonging, validation, and community within the institution.
Originally from Appalachian Virginia, Mandy Len Catron now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Rumpus, and The Walrus, as well as literary journals and anthologies. Her first book How to Fall in Love with Anyone: A Memoir in Essays was published in 2017. She’s been teaching writing and literature for over a decade.