This post is the first in a series. Part 1 considers doing sessional teaching for financial reasons. Part 3 looks at what to do if you decide it’s not worth it. Part 4 helps you approach sessional teaching strategically so you get the skills you need. The introduction is the same so you can start anywhere.
As term time approaches, those of you who don’t have tenure track or tenured positions in universities may be considering various options for sessional teaching (sometimes called adjunct professors, or part-time lecturers). I’m not talking about Teaching Assistantships, but rather opportunities to teach one or more courses, usually for a flat fee (albeit paid biweekly or semi-monthly or whatever). I’m also not really talking about limited term full-time appointments (teaching only or teaching & research) though some of the same considerations may apply.
Sometimes these offers come in very late in the game (even the week before term starts). We all know that the pay is low for the work involved, and that it will not reflect your experience or training. It is never a good idea to act as if you are desperate. So what kinds of things might you consider before taking that sessional teaching?
An excellent reason to do sessional teaching…
You need the experience
If you are going to make a career as a scholar in higher education, you are going to need to demonstrate that you can teach courses in your field. This is also where the difference between being a TA on a course and actually teaching a course makes a difference.
The amount and kind of teaching experience you will need will vary depending on what kind of academic career you are looking for. It matters what course you have the opportunity to teach. Teaching for experience needs to be part of a career plan. Don’t worry if your plan is still vague. The more decisions you make about where you might like your career to go, the easier these decisions are going to be.
What counts as “in your field”?
It will be helpful to do a bit of research (or at least thinking) about the kinds of more permanent positions you might apply for.
- What kinds of departments would you like to work in?
- Are there many of those? If not, what other kinds might work if they had a particular approach to that discipline?
- Are there 100% appointments in your field or are people mostly joint-appointed? If the latter, what would be the most likely joint-appointment for you?
- What courses are commonly provided to undergraduate students in those kinds of departments/programs?
- What courses are often considered a compulsory core for undergraduate students in those kinds of departments/programs?
Using what you know about those questions, you can look at your own CV and figure out where the holes in your experience are. Are there opportunities to do sessional teaching that would fill one of those holes.
An example for interdisciplinary scholars
I had a client who was finishing a PhD in Cultural Studies. She had some background in English Literature and her Cultural Studies interests overlap somewhat with English Literature. However, her CV doesn’t really have anything on it that says she can teach mainstream English courses. Since a lot of Cultural Studies research is happening within disciplinary departments or, even where stand-alone programs exist, many of the faculty are joint-appointed with disciplinary departments, it made sense for her to get some experience teaching an English class.
English departments typically structure things in terms of types of writing (prose, poetry, drama), time periods (contemporary, 19th century, 18th century, etc), and geography (British, American, post-colonial literature in English, etc). So she looked at the closest fit for her and then kept an eye out for opportunities to teach a relevant undergraduate survey course.
The same basic principles apply for those trained within a discipline. The drive to specialization in research makes a lot of scholars feel unprepared to deliver more general courses. And yet general courses are very important components of undergraduate education.
North American scholars should not assume that having done a comprehensive exam in a particular area is sufficient evidence. Teaching something like a 2nd year undergraduate course in the area of your comprehensive exam will strengthen your CV, and your preparation will largely focus on pedagogical issues rather than learning new material. If you haven’t done a relevant comprehensive exams (or have PhD from somewhere that doesn’t do them), don’t worry. If you consider yourself a scholar within a particular discipline, you should have enough knowledge to teach undergraduate courses in the field.
You might also consider the reverse of the previous example. If you end up in a department that is involved in interdisciplinary programs or contributes to general humanities requirements (e.g. in a liberal arts college), what might you contribute? Do you have any opportunities to teach that type of course now?
Is it worth it?
I faced this kind of choice in the 3rd year of my doctorate. My supervisor had advised me that it would be better not to teach and focus on getting the dissertation written. Her advice was based on the assumption that the teaching available to me would likely be teaching assistantships running seminars on introduction to sociology courses, something I’d done for a couple of years already. Doing that again wasn’t going to add anything to my CV and would take time away from my dissertation. Finishing the dissertation was going to be more valuable to my career than another year of seminar teaching.
However, a part-time position came up at another university teaching a final year undergraduate course directly in my field (sociology of the family). It was a maternity cover. The employment conditions weren’t bad and it was within commuting distance. That particular teaching experience would be valuable to my future career, and as such I decided to take it even though it would likely delay finishing the dissertation.
If you decide to do sessional teaching and experience is one of your main reasons, make sure you actually get the experience you need. In the next post, I’ll talk about how to get the most out of your sessional teaching.
This post was edited 8 November 2018.