The Sessional-Class Citizen
UBC, ALS, Grief & Steven Galloway's Attempt to Close the Sessional/Tenure Gap
Dear Readers, it is my honour to present another perspective on UBC Creative Writing by someone who worked under Steven Galloway, as well as the people who replaced him as Chair of their Department after he was falsely accused of sexual assault.
Please welcome Truth and Consequences’ second commissioned writer, Alison Acheson who recently left UBC Creative Writing and now runs the wonderful Substack The Unschool for Writers, which I hope you will check out after reading her insightful and heart-wrenching piece below.
Crazy Ideas: The Sessional-Class Citizen
by Alison Acheson
I worked full-time in the Creative Writing Program at the University of British Columbia 2002-2008, teaching the Writing for Children workshops. As a sessional employee, I always shared office space and did so for several years with Steven Galloway. He was a good office-mate, respectful when we were both focused on reading and needed quiet, and always up for a joke and some shared teaching-notes at other times. He knew I was active on the Sessional Faculty Committee that worked with the Faculty Association, and we often discussed issues of workplace fairness and the suffocating hierarchy that is academia.
I left UBC when they cut one of my courses, and my debt-load had surpassed my annual salary. Six years later, I returned; I missed the work and the students. In those years, Galloway had moved from being a sessional to being program Chair—a series of vertical steps indeed—and he hired a small number of contract teachers, including myself, and we came on board with lecturer status, a step up from sessional. (Which is a step up from lowest status, adjunct.)
Galloway had this crazy idea with the new set of lecturers: he wanted us to be part of the faculty. Really be part. He wanted for us to take our places at the meeting table every month and feel like equals. He knew that he couldn’t just dole out professorships, but he wanted for us to feel that the mixed nature of our workload was similar to that of the tenured; as working artists, he wanted our writing to be recognized for what it was and is—the foci of what we do, who we are, why we work in a writing program.
Everywhere across North America—not just UBC—contract instructors are treated poorly. Heavy teaching loads and, more often than not, teaching at multiple institutions to have some butter-substitute to spread on their bread. Universities have hundreds of such employees. True, contract folks do not have the administrative tasks that tenured and tenure-track employees do, but teaching loads are heavier, without the respite of sabbatical and other perks of tenure.
And personal and career damage is real and hard to quantify; in those first six years of teaching, I easily put in close to sixty hours a week as I built my teaching skills, created new courses and direction, and renewed approaches in order to strengthen the then not-so-popular genre I taught. With heavy teaching load, research—or in the case of writing, writing itself—becomes difficult to do. Contract teachers in writing programs—or any art program—make a choice to sacrifice art career for teaching in overdrive.
Galloway had this idea, crazy-mad in the land of hierarchy, to give the lecturers a teaching load similar to the tenured folks’, and also make use of our skills as working and producing writers so we could do thesis supervision—always one of my favourite pieces of the job—as well as committee work. Sounds a lot like tenured work… and the job was, even if it wasn’t the title. The work involved felt like an artistic “fit,” the money was commensurate with the tasks. And I had time to write—precious time.
When I returned to teaching in the Creative Writing program in September of 2014, I walked down the long hallway of Buchanan E, top floor, with a light step. The atmosphere felt the same, and as if all the best of previous years, all the thoughtful imaginative leadership of past Chair, George McWhirter (Galloway always said of McWhirter’s Irish rambling that he only understood one-tenth, but oh, what a tenth it was), and others who filled the post, had all come together, and the vibe was one of creativity and openness.
My workshops that year were even more diverse than any other year in terms of students’ background and identities, as well as the insidious creepings of mental health that have been becoming more and more of our reality of teaching and community. But we worked with all our layers, pulled from them, even. We were humans, writing.
My grad workshop was late Friday afternoons, and each class became a regenerative party with shared food and written word; the year logs into my mind as one of my best in Buchanan E.
Galloway had installed a “thesis bell”—a great brass thing that hung in the hall, which was pealed with celebratory news of thesis completion every so often. In that same hallway, there was laughter and talk about writing. Writing felt to be central to all we did in that place. When I wasn’t teaching, I was excited to be in my own writing. This gave life balance. Working life felt to be respectful and more equitable and I was happy to be back teaching.
So it was an ugly day in June 2015 when I emailed Steve to let him know that my spouse had been given a preliminary diagnosis of ALS, and I wasn’t yet certain what this would mean for my working life.
He sent me a quick reply, to say he was very sorry to hear this news, and that he would do whatever it took to support me and my family. I let him know that I expected to still be teaching in the fall, but would keep him posted.
I did begin to work through that fall, teaching two courses, but my spouse’s version of ALS was rapid, and the nature of ALS is to set its pace for each individual who has it, and then move on that trajectory; live with it long enough, and you get a feel for how it’s going to proceed. By the third class in October, I asked Steve to please find a replacement for the last three weeks of my grad workshop, someone who would be able to continue to teach after the New Year. Two weeks later, he’d found someone.
He also took steps to set up a full leave of absence for me—not easy, mid-year. All I knew was that I could stay home to take care of my spouse, and I had full pay without mind-boggling paperwork. Later, that seemed like a miracle to me. But by then I was living day to day, thinking minute to minute.
Right about that time, Steve’s life imploded.
A sizeable part of my own life ended a few months later, April 10, 2016, when my spouse passed. I’d missed the drama and the toxic divisiveness at UBC. For months I hadn’t slept longer than two consecutive hours, and my arms were full of muscle from toileting my spouse, and I was an expert at administering morphine and fentanyl. The night before the memorial service, April 29, I opened my personal email to see a notice from a program related to creative writing, announcing the posting of a position in “Writing for Young People,” the position I’d been waiting for for more than a decade.
Now they’d posted the position. When I was not around. But my mind did not register that fact quite yet.
Caregiving does something to one’s sense of time; it stretches and collapses. So, as embarrassing as it is to admit, on the strangest level I actually thought that the opened position was a real opportunity for me to move up. While a professorship seemed a far cry from being or having a beloved spouse, as a newly single parent, and as a person who had striven for the role, and was passionate about writing for children… well, that’s how I read that posting. My spouse would have wanted me to challenge myself with an application.
I put together one together over the next month, and sent off to the search committee. I was called by a co-Chair and reassured that my application would be treated just as everyone else’s, and that I would still have my lecturer position no matter what came of the process. An added note in the conversation was how surprised everyone was when ALS took my spouse so quickly. If there was any significance to be read into that comment, it did not come to me until months later.
It still didn’t even come to me when, in October, I received the copy/paste-type rejection email that let me know I had not gotten the position. The interview had been an eleven hour process, typical in the academic world. But it was October by then, two months later, and I was mid-term. I was back to teaching because I thought that given I had applied for the position it would not be acceptable to ask for a grief leave. And no one had suggested I take one.
How could I go on leave and apply? So I was teaching my annual 12 credits, working through grief, trying to ease my sons through theirs. I did not take on any committee work, and I did not apologize for this either; I just taught and found some joy in working with students. There were parts of life that almost felt normal to me, but I was dealing with both the loss of my spouse and the loss of my teaching dreams. I went out to hear a lot of live music, and I played my dad’s old saxophone every day. In January I had a beer with Steve. He wanted to know why I wasn’t on leave.
Then one February day came. It was the week of our annual “check-in” times with the co-Chairs, to discuss workloads for the coming year.
Somehow the value in Galloway’s informal equalization plan had never been recognized or validated by the Dean’s office.
Instead the Chairs shared the news that the Dean wanted all lecturers in our program to step it up: in the following year, we would be teaching more credits, though with our current pay. My face fell, and one of the co-Chairs seemed to notice, because she said, “You do realize we haven’t asked anything extra of you this year.” I couldn’t think of a response; it was a physical sensation, the exhaustion that came over me then.
A few weeks later, I sought out the possibility of a partial leave through the office of “workplace health,” and did not teach a full load the next fall.
I do believe that stories like this are numerous among contract teachers everywhere; does it matter in the large scheme of things? Does one person trying to make some change in this system make a difference? When someone sees hierarchy in a different way, what happens?
My energy never has returned. I moved from my 75% position to a 50% position, in which I’ve taught 3 courses or 9 credits. This has allowed me time to write on my own nickel.
Three weeks ago, I gave notice that I will not return in the coming fall.
Early this week, the UBC School of Creative Writing posted for a full-time lecturer to teach in the area of writing for children and young people. The job is listed with a teaching load of 24 credits/8 courses, plus work in an “administrative capacity.”
I suggest any candidate excise words like writer, parent, and lover from their identity.
Oh man, let’s bring on some crazy ideas.
Alison Acheson’s memoir of caregiving her spouse through ALS, Dance Me to the End, was released by Brindle & Glass in 2019. Her YA novel, Mud Girl, was a CLA finalist for YA Book of the Year, and Grandpa’s Music is on the IBBY List of Books for Children Living With Disabilities. Check out her Substack, The Unschool for Writers.