The plight of PhD students: Part II

At some universities, PhD students are offered instructor positions in their upper years or at least put into a pool of possible PhD student instructors.

At Trent, conversely, PhD students compete directly with adjunct professors for these positions, and many of the adjuncts have postdoctoral degrees or have taught courses in the past. Thus, a limited number of Trent PhDs teach courses during their four+ years as doctoral candidates.

The few PhDs that taught or currently teach at Trent often get their instructorships handed down to them from their dissertation supervisors or when a faculty member goes on sabbatical.

This is a phenomenon not unique to Trent, but there is something of an “Old Boy’s Club” in this hiring process, for lack of a better phrase.

Of course, this is not to say that the students are not qualified for the job, but under this model, teaching opportunities are up to chance rather than the respective skills of the applicant.

I spoke to several Trent PhD students for my previous article on this topic (Issue 7). I also emailed Trent’s PhD departments to get their angle on the matter. I did not receive a reply from anyone in Indigenous Studies, Material Sciences, and Environmental and Life Sciences.

I invite the chairs to comment on PhD student instructorships by sending a Letter to the Editor or contacting Elaine Scharfe (Dean, Graduate Studies). I also invite PhD students to do the same.

On behalf of Canadian Studies, Cathy Schoel mentioned that the new School for the Study of Canada “will likely explore” PhD student instructorships.

Without an undergraduate program up until recently, Canadian Studies PhDs did not have courses in their field to teach, although I believe that courses in Politics, Women’s Studies, and Cultural Studies may have been appropriate for those students.

Schoel noted the Department’s policy of not granting student instructorships “until particular progress is completed in their program.” On behalf of Moira Howes (Dean, Arts and Sciences) and Scharfe, Stephanie Williams (Associate Vice President, Human Resources) provided a similar statement: in order for the University to grant approval of a PhD student instructor, the student must have made “appropriate” progress in their studies. However, there is no mention in the Collective Agreement about students making progress in their programs before being approved for instructorships.

The graduate student union (CUPE 3908 Unit 2) has been discussing the matter of combining work and student life in Collective Agreements and bargaining. According to Schoel and Williams then, the University already recognizes work and student life as inseparable. Future bargaining of wages, tuition, and so on, will hopefully keep this in mind.

Further, for PhD teaching appointments in other departments, Williams’s statement is simply false. Students without a completed dissertation chapter as well as students with a nearly complete dissertation have taught or currently teach courses.

Now, this is either another instance of the “Old Boy’s Club”, or student instructorships are integral components of a student’s PhD program and should be explicitly treated as such, regardless of progress.

The Cultural Studies department seems to be making headway with the PhD student instructorship problem. Jonathan Bordo (Chair, PhD), Hugh Hodges (Chair, BA), and other faculty members have begun discussing the possibility of teaching fellowships. These are specific positions for PhD students to teach courses in their field. With the retirement of faculty members and the University’s refusal to replace this faculty with tenure track hires, courses in the Academic Calendar will simply not have a suitable instructor. Bordo thinks these can be filled by PhDs.

His model does not take away adjunct positions within his department; these will still be filled by the rotating circle of underpaid contract faculty without job security. The PhD teaching fellows will add value to the undergraduate program while also gaining invaluable experience. I noted in the last article that PhD students should have some teaching experience in order to later be suitable candidates for tenure track positions. At the moment, most Trent PhD graduates are far behind their peers graduating at other universities.

The Cultural Studies third-year comprehensive exam would also serve a greater purpose in Bordo’s model. The comprehensive exam usually requires students to construct a syllabus in their chosen field of specialization. This syllabus could be used to teach a course in students’ fourth year of the program. Bordo also mentioned hiring recent PhD graduates to teach courses.

Deans Howes and Scharfe both understand the importance of PhD student instructorships. They feel that the process can be improved and hopefully discussions with department chairs will continue (or begin).

Last year, the CUPE Unit 2 bargaining team negotiated an agreement with Trent that allows PhD students to instruct more than one course during their tenure (Appendix E in the Unit 2 Collective Agreement) – formerly, they could teach one. The new article is helpful for students who’ve held or currently hold teaching positions; however, my claim that there are so few courses available for students to teach marks the article insignificant for efforts to solve the larger problem.

I also asked the Deans and Human Resources for clarification on article 5.10 of the Unit 1 agreement. The article states that some PhD students and postdocs may be given a course to instruct without competition. Williams informed me that the article is rarely used and I’ve discovered that PhD student instructors are never Unit 1 members. Thus the article that grants PhD students some power to change the lack of instructorship opportunities is rendered irrelevant.

How do we get more PhD students in the classroom? I wasn’t able to get the precise details by the time of writing, but the way current third- and fourth-year PhD student instructors are paid necessarily guarantees that there are extra funds in a pool of graduate student money. Put differently, the funding for PhD student instructors is already in place, apart from the tuition paid by enrolled undergraduates. It is now up to students, faculty, and undergraduate and graduate administrators to work together and develop PhD student instructorships for every PhD department. Once a secure plan is in place, since unused money is there in the graduate student funds, there should be no good reason to continue with the current teaching model.

At the recent Graduate Student Association AGM, I discussed the possible formation of a committee to continue to investigate the topic. CUPE will likewise discuss PhD instructorships further.

It is in the interests of current and future PhD students that the GSA and CUPE coordinate their efforts. With the enthusiasm of students, faculty, and Deans, PhD student instructorships will surely become a reality.

About Troy Bordun 0 Articles
I’m a recent graduate of the Cultural Studies PhD program. My research includes contemporary film, film theory, and the history of moving-image pornography. In addition to writing for Arthur, this semester I’m teaching in the Cultural Studies department (Intro to Integrated Arts) and Continuing Education (Writing Short Film Scripts). I also work at the Trend (come say hi!), among other small jobs as they come up.