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Against All Odds, Contract Instructors Work at the Cutting Edge of Their Fields

Written by
and
December 1, 2019
Against All Odds, Contract Instructors Work at the Cutting Edge of Their Fields

A common myth about universities is that while permanent professors make brilliant contributions to the state of knowledge in their area of expertise, contract faculty are simply harried teachers with no time to develop a research program, let alone write and publish their own scholarship.

There’s a formal basis to this misconception: contract instructors are hired to teach, not to do their own research, whereas the job of a tenure-track professor is typically a teaching-research-service hybrid. Contract instructors are only paid to teach a given course. If they do undertake their own research, it’s unpaid.

But a lot of Trent’s contract instructors research, write, and publish, often with support from CUPE 3908’s Professional Development Fund. The applications for the PD Fund gives a glimpse of another side to the life of the contract instructor: members must outline their research and make a case for monetary support for fieldwork, labwork, equipment, research assistance, and conference fees or conference travel costs. Contract instructors are highly educated and skilled education workers. Most have pursued their intellectual curiosities to the highest level in their field, and welcome the opportunity to have their research supported. Even those contract instructors who have no inclination to do original ‘pure’ research in their discipline often innovate in teaching methods and in the use of technology in the classroom.

What bothers them is the expectation that they will write and publish original research, all essentially in their spare time. Job postings for contract instructors often explicitly state that the successful applicant will have researched the subject, and even when they don’t, applicants generally demonstrate their capacity to teach a subject by pointing to related research they’ve done, though they aren’t paid to research.

Tenure-track professors at Trent and elsewhere, who don't have to reapply for their jobs perpetually, are paid to do research; most do, but some don’t. And while not publishing any original research can make tenure-track faculty uncomfortable and ashamed, and even get them a strongly worded letter from the Dean, it’s unlikely to cost them their job.

Contract instructors, however, though they are understood as being simply teachers and not true scholars, are quite often hired or not hired on a term-by-term basis according to how much they have researched the course area. So contract faculty are if anything, under more pressure to publish: they’re not paid to do it, but their jobs depend directly on it.

Not only is this practice exploitative, it is very unpredictable. Hiring committees made up of permanent faculty are easily distracted by something new and shiny, and are highly suggestible when it comes to prejudices about contract instructors; they can convince themselves in any given instance that teaching experience is more valuable than research, or vice versa. While most applicants will have done some mix of research and teaching in their careers, the balance has to be just right for that course, that committee, that day.

When I was first looking for teaching work, courses I applied to teach would routinely be awarded to people who had published more than I had. I eventually got a fellowship that supported me to do my own research for two years – a luxury that allowed me to finish my first book and start new research without having to scrape together a living from teaching contracts. I went back on the job market when my fellowship ended, and found that even for single courses, hiring committees were looking for someone with more teaching experience than I had.

It’s a common problem. Although most contract instructors, like most tenure-track faculty, enjoy both teaching and research, and would enjoy a career that recognizes and supports both, the reality is that, for contract instructors, research is almost always lost income. They get paid to teach, not to research, but are expected to do research, which may or may not count for much.

Many scholars will pursue their professional curiosity, whatever their employment situation, but many can’t afford that luxury. Doing it because it’s expected as an applicant and then having it count for nothing – and still hearing from tenure-track faculty that only they work at the cutting edge of their fields – is infuriating and unfair.

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