On Swimming in the Tenure-Track Teaching Stream

Students worked on defining a research concept

In a recent piece in University Affairs, Jessica Riddell argues that Canadian universities should resist the trend of creating tenure-track teaching positions. The alternative, she suggests, is to create postdoctoral teaching fellowships instead. Framed as a way of addressing increasing employment precarity in Canadian higher education, such an argument is highly misguided. As her starting point, Riddell describes the classrooms that tenure-track teaching faculty create as a “static space for knowledge transmission rather than a rich, engaging space for the creation of new modes of thinking.” I’m one of many tenure-track teaching faculty currently working in Canada. Her characterization of our work and of the potential of our positions is dead wrong.

Whereas Riddell doesn’t provide back up for her claim about static classrooms, my own experience is full of evidence to the contrary. I regularly have the chance to take teaching workshops run by tenure-track teaching faculty at my institution; I frequently visit the classrooms of other teaching-stream faculty to learn from their lesson design and course delivery; each week, I have helpful chats about pedagogy with some of my teaching-stream colleagues; I and my colleagues speak at symposia and conferences about our teaching innovations, our disciplinary research, as well as our scholarship on teaching and learning; each year, several of the teaching-stream faculty at my institution receive teaching awards and win grants for doing research on teaching and learning.

The oft-mentioned concern that the two streams dichotomize teaching and research can be countered by current best practices. There’s risk of this dichotomy — particularly if positions are designed to be teaching-only — but there are also good models that demonstrate how this dichotomy can be avoided. My institution, UBC, provides one such model. In the design of tenure-track teaching positions at my university, room is given for faculty to engage in pedagogical or disciplinary research. To that end, our positions are deliberately not called teaching positions, but positions of educational leadership. We are encouraged to produce scholarship on teaching and learning in its various forms, and we are rewarded for the impact that this scholarship has on a local, national, and international level. The focus on teaching here is not reduced to being loaded with as many courses as possible, but on developing better teaching approaches and implementing them not only in one’s own classroom, but also beyond. The risk of a teaching-research dichotomy is also countered when research-stream faculty benefit from teaching-stream faculty’s work in pedagogy, curriculum design, and scholarship of teaching and learning. Research-stream faculty should be encouraged to attend our workshops and presentations; listen to our insights in meetings and committees; read what we publish in scholarly, public, and social media forums.

It’s true that many university administrators seem to be eager to bargain for the creation of highly exploitative teaching positions, proposing that these instructors’ energy should be focused on teaching as many courses as possible and nothing else. At some institutions teaching-stream faculty carry double the load of research-stream faculty, have heavy service requirements, lack support for educational leadership, and are asked to work under those conditions on significantly lower salaries. Of course, we should not accept the creation of new ranks that carry such unsustainable and one-sided workloads. To me, the problem in this case is the unsustainable load, not the idea of a tenure-track teaching stream itself. This brings me to my most urgent point: one of the biggest benefits of swimming in the tenure-track teaching stream is that we have a seat at almost all the tables. Whereas postdoctoral fellows, sessional faculty, and part-time instructors don’t. For as many instructors as possible to have seats at decision-making tables is crucial in the fight against precarity. Being a tenure-track teaching faculty means being part of committees where decisions get made. It means having a vote in department and faculty meetings. It means being able to contribute to the work of faculty associations and to support bargaining for better working conditions. It means not having to worry as much about losing your job if you speak out about your working conditions.

Faculty governance matters. Its absence matters even more. Not being able to join university governance carries a deep sting among contingently employed faculty members. It makes a big difference whether people of the relevant rank are able to be part of debates and decisions about their employment status and work conditions, or whether these decisions are always made for them by others. Tenure-track research stream faculty might take it for granted that they can interject in administrators’ conversations, make requests for meetings, ask to join committees, participate in bargaining when their work conditions are being decided. In recognition of such privileges, we tenure-track faculty should work to extend rather than limit these possibilities for participating in governance among all faculty members.