Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Monday, February 02, 2009

The Library of Unwritten Books

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Across Canada and the United States, including here at the University of Prince Edward Island, tenure-track positions - that is, full-time academic jobs with a guarantee of steady employment - are fast disappearing.

Increasingly often, professors who retire are being replaced by so-called sessionals, part-time instructors who are hired to teach a limited number of courses. Sessionals have no job security nor, for that matter, any particular loyalty to the institution. They are, as it were, here today, gone tomorrow.

Our own university is particularly 'fortunate' in this regard, because we have a mandatory retirement policy that requires professors to retire at age 65. So when a professor reaches that magic number, the administration can simply eliminate the position she held.

Sessionals, like itinerant labourers, often work at more than one university, in order to make ends meet, since they are paid a pittance per course. After all, that's the whole idea: to provide education on the cheap.

Needless to say, all of this is detrimental to the departments in which sessionals teach, and to the students they serve.

Sessionals are rarely available other than the few hours per week when they appear on campus, often in the evenings.

They teach only a few courses per year. And, because they barely know the students in their classes, they find it next to impossible to write persuasive letters of recommendation for students who wish to go on to graduate school or law school.

Indeed, often by the time students require these all-important recommendations, the sessional herself is unemployed.

Bad as this is for students, it's even worse for the sessionals. People who may have spent the better part of a decade earning their doctorate, end up either working at subsistence wages or leaving academia altogether.

Either way, one thing is certain: given that sessionals find it almost impossible to obtain grants, they will probably never do any further research in their chosen field, and we will never know what contributions these people may have made to our understanding of the world, be they in the humanities, sciences, or other disciplines.

I have a fantasy of creating a 'Library of Unwritten Books'. Here we would see all the books that were never written, by people who never got the chance to become full-time academics. I know a number of people, at this university and elsewhere, who were sessionals for a long time, until they "got lucky" and finally landed a job in their discipline.

They went on to write books that have made an impact, both within their specific fields of study, and in the wider world.

Had they not become tenure-track professors, their scholarship would no doubt be found only in my fictional library. We'll never know how many other volumes sit on the shelves in that imaginary building.