At the college where I currently teach, two high administration officers recently have announced their retirement. They have made the decision that their contributions to the field of education will soon cease and they will move their lives into a different direction, I suppose. Retirement parties have been planned for these two officials, and as I wonder about the future of retirement parties, I wonder if I will ever have one.
For the past ten years, I have been a professor in the liberal arts and the humanities, teaching on contract. I have been an IT, an itinerant teacher. Before my child was born, I was teaching at two separate colleges simultaneously each term: fall, winter and spring/summer. Every term, many of us – and there are many – await teaching offers that determine the number of subjects we will teach, based on our qualifications, and the number of sections. In the Fall semester, many of us usually get that temporary union status allowing us to reap some of the benefits of the full-time faculty such as basic health expenses, but come the Winter term, the hours fall and those of us who are more experienced network with other colleges and universities to ensure that we have enough hours to pay the mortgage, bills, transportation (gas, car insurance, bus tickets or passes) and all other life expenses like food. In some cases, we end up teaching more subjects per term than the average full-time professor who has no more than fifteen hours a week, a limit on the number of students per section, and two months off in the summer, sometimes four if a professional development training or upgrading is taken. When summer arrives for the contract professor, some of us aren’t even teaching as “there are not enough hours” as we are told but then we see our fellow contract professors with an overload of work between two colleges, maybe even three. There is no fair process in the way the selection of contract professors are chosen. If one is liked, then there is a likelihood that there will be continued work. If not, then he or she is expelled by the lack of a contract.
Teaching full-time in higher education has its perks, and I will admit that it is a lot of hard work to teach approximately 180 students per term. Plus, the department I teach, there is a lot of marking, particularly essays. But even when the full-time professors decide to retire, as four did this past Winter term, a wonderful gathering was planned with presents purchased with contributions from their colleagues, including some contract faculty. Their worth is much appreciated as shown by the speeches and anecdotes, and perhaps a cameo by the President of the college or some other high official if He is not at hand. Finally, a memorable souvenir of their time in the field of education goes on with them. But, will I have a retirement party?
The idea of a retirement party comes along when a person, in this case a full-time employee, makes the decision to cease working and collect their pension plan through the government as well as the pension plan managed by whatever union mutual fund, or corporate plan in which they have decided to place their additional money. The employee makes the choice to retire, not the employer. However, with the increasing practice of contract employees in many fields (not just education but in hospitals, municipalities, provincial and federal government), the free-will of determining one’s time has, as Elizabeth Gilbert would say, attraversiamo; it has crossed over.
It’s not that I have not tried to be a full-time employee. I have gone through at least eight or nine interviews (apparently not an abnormality) for various positions, some of which I had little interest to teach even though I possessed the qualifications. However, my full-time colleagues, particularly those with power – otherwise known as coordinators – encouraged me to keep applying “just to get in” and once in, I would be able in a few years to direct my way back to my current position. Recently, I did apply to two positions in which I had been interviewed in the past, except in this case the degree requirements of the position differed and I was not called for an interview. It was a heartbreaking moment and as I told my boss, I feel like an Enron employee .
In my contract career, I dedicated to continuously upgrade my teaching skills by enrolling in professional development courses, even those enrolled by new employees, learned how to teach and convert subjects into online courses. In addition to what I have learned, I have shared my knowledge by leading workshops and presenting at faculty start of semester meetings. I have developed two subjects, and a third one is in the works (but is it worth it?). I have been consulted by full-time employees to review exam and assignments, provide guidance and mentorship to new contract faculty, and even my Chair has forwarded my name to faculty to acquire information on how to develop course packages. I keep wondering, why am I constantly being hired back as a professor on contract? If I am not the candidate who cannot make it into the “community of future retirees”, why hire me back in the first place? Hence, will I have a retirement party? Will accolades of my contributions to students and my community be spoken? Will it be my decision to have a retirement party?
The answer to the above question is if this pattern continues, none of us who are contract employees in any field will know what it feels like to be the retiree at his or her own retirement party. The melancholy of this dying ritual is this: the one who is no longer needed, decided by the powers that be (the administration) or even by our own free will, will simply disappear. In the shared faculty contract rooms where three to four contract professors share a desk, one will simply ask the other, “What happened to Z?” to which the reply “I don’t know. I think Z stopped teaching.” We stopped and we are no longer present and working. Already, there is language in these rooms like “Remember A? and do you recall when G had this type of class,” and “do you know where U is teaching now?” Contract professors are becoming non-corporeal entities called up by the wigi board of Chairs, Associate Deans and other powers that be only to be cast back into a realm where we wait and wonder about our usefulness.