I am feeling very honoured to have received the Hessian Award for Excellence in Teaching at the UPEI banquet last night. It was very moving to be honoured in such a way, before my friends and colleagues and with five other faculty members set apart for outstanding teaching or research.
I have been teaching sessionally (as an adjunct) at the University of Prince Edward Island since January 2006, missing only one academic year. Since that time, I have taught 45 courses at UPEI–very close to a full-time load. I designed the vast majority of those courses, by myself or in a team of great colleagues. UPEI was where I tested my academic mettle, discovering my own mind for integrating life and research into the classroom experience. It was also at UPEI where I first developed my work on C.S. Lewis and the Inklings as I discovered that they gave me tools for a more capacious conversation for discussions of faith, culture, and literature.
Though non-permanent academic staff are not given time for research and service, during the last decade I have also given 14 conference presentation, written 12 academic book reviews, read 3 honours theses, supervised one masters thesis, led four UPEI directed studies, written 645 blog posts, published 7 academic papers with 2 more in process, and taught more than 40 courses at undergraduate and graduate level at great schools like Maritime Christian College, Regent College, The King’s College, and Signum University. If anyone thinks that the life of an adjunct professor is one of well-supported leisure or part-time fancy, I would encourage you to take a non-permanent prof to lunch and find out about their experience. You probably should pay.
Last night, I got treated to lunch, as well as to a second helping of encouragement. As a good friend and teaching teammate gave a short introduction to the award, I found myself embarrassed in an intriguing way. I still feel like an imposter, even though I am now a veteran in this world. I have done my time and created a rigorous research and teaching portfolio. I have taught thousands of students who are all out in the wide, wide world. I have even walked the picket line, just a week after reading Marx with my students in my first semester on the job in 2006.
Though I have all this history, I still feel like I don’t belong. Part of that is the structural reality that I don’t truly belong at UPEI. As a sessional prof, I am the first to have classes reduced when budgets get tight or when tenured faculty are first in line. I am rarely able to teach in my research discipline and I have developed classes from top to toe that I only got to teach once (or sometimes not at all). I share an office, but am largely a squatter on campus as real university needs shuffle and shuffle again. I do not have a budget for research or travel; I don’t have health insurance. I am 41 and have never received a dime in retirement income or pension. I don’t even have adjunct status on campus–a higher category of non-permanent faculty that I have never achieved.
But this is the life of an adjunct/sessional/non-permanent prof. Many of you know this story. I don’t have a PhD or position, and am not entitled to these things. Yet, it is not for these reasons that I felt like an imposter as my 2 minutes of “This is Your Life” played before my eyes last night. Even if the university itself uses me for the cheap labour that I am–which I agree to–I have felt great support from those I teach with. My religious studies colleagues–one of who got the research award–have always been in my corner, as have the entire Arts and Humanities teaching team. They are genuinely interested in my work and would lend a hand if they could. This award, we should note, is from our faculty association, not the university proper. The award came from other teachers, supported by my students.
No, the imposter feeling does not come from the outside but from the heart, and I cannot shake it. Most days I still feel like a kid pretending at adult life, playing house and leveraging our finances against our dreams in an elaborate and incredibly detailed game of Life. And though I could post my “Statement of Teaching Philosophy” where I lay out my understanding of the possibilities of the classroom, it comes down to pretty simple things: creativity, imagination, strong organizational skills, an openness to new ideas, an absurd sense of hope and an incontrovertible sense of humour. Perhaps above all these things is the fact that I care. I care about my work, yes, and the material. But I care about the students–these storied lives in the most transformational and radical points of their time on earth. I suspect that’s why students like me as a teacher.
For reasons of part-mortification, part-honouring the honourers, and part-encouragement to the thousands of contract academic staff who may not have the supports that I have, I am posting the little speech that prefaced my award. Despite my imposter syndrome, I am a little pleased to have been honoured. Thank you to all–to my colleagues who put their oar in, and to Kerry, who for the first time ever missed her Kindergarten Spring Concert to be there for me. That says a lot.
Engaging. Challenging. Fair. Questioning. Insightful. Passionate. Approachable. Caring. Impactful. These words capture the essence of Breton Dickieson’s teaching. It is no wonder, then, that a former student describes Brenton as “the type of professor every student dreams of having.”
Brenton Dickieson has been a “trusted and cherished sessional instructor” in UPEI’s Religious Studies Department for over a decade. His versatility is evident from the breadth of courses he has taught over this period. Most recently, Brenton has been an integral contributor to the newly designed UPEI 102 Inquiry Studies.
It is clear that Brenton creates a classroom atmosphere that leaves students yearning for more. As one student reflects, “He is the only professor I have had in my seven years of study that I would like his classes to run longer.”
In his teaching philosophy, Brenton states that he sees “education as creating an environment for transformational experiences.” Feedback suggests he is doing just that. As one alumna wrote, “the lectures he gave are still impacting my world today. Brenton’s teaching had an immeasurable impact on my university experience.”
In recognition of your outstanding contribution to teaching at UPEI, the Faculty Association is delighted to award you with a Hessian Merit Award for Excellence in Teaching by a Sessional Instructor.