Q&A with Dwayne Meisner, URFA member

What began as a term with URFA’s Ses­sion­al Advo­ca­cy Com­mit­tee in 2018 piqued addi­tion­al inter­est in URFA com­mit­tee con­tri­bu­tions for Dr. Dwayne Meis­ner, ses­sion­al mem­ber of clas­sics at Cam­pi­on Col­lege. In this Q&A, he describes his inter­est in serv­ing with URFA, explains how COVID-19 improved (yes, improved!) his teach­ing, and shared how he gam­i­fied a Latin course he teaches.

What inter­est­ed you in join­ing the Ses­sion­al Advo­ca­cy Com­mit­tee (SAC)?

What inter­est­ed me in join­ing was actu­al­ly the pre­car­i­ty of my own sit­u­a­tion as a ses­sion­al at Cam­pi­on Col­lege. I was teach­ing one course and over a tech­ni­cal­i­ty I came real­ly close to even los­ing that and miss­ing out on an entire semes­ter of teach­ing. I went to the dean of Cam­pi­on to talk it over and they sug­gest­ed that if I want to improve my job sit­u­a­tion, I should get involved in union activ­i­ties and col­lec­tive bargaining.

About a week after that con­ver­sa­tion, I saw an URFA brochure about the SAC and I joined the SAC that May. Since then, it’s evolved from the per­son­al desire to improve my own job sit­u­a­tion to a greater aware­ness of the issues and chal­lenges fac­ing ses­sion­als every­where and some of the strate­gies for improv­ing those. I’ve become ded­i­cat­ed to it as a gen­er­al cause, even though in the end I’ve been able to see cer­tain improve­ments to my job sit­u­a­tion. I am a lot hap­pi­er with my job sit­u­a­tion now, but I still think it’s impor­tant to be involved in sol­i­dar­i­ty with oth­er sessionals.

Headshot of Dwayne Meisner standing in front of a bookshelf.

Pho­to pro­vid­ed by Dwayne Meisner

How did join­ing SAC spark your inter­est in addi­tion­al involve­ment with URFA?

Short­ly after [join­ing SAC], I found out about the Coun­cil of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives (COR) and that there was an oppor­tu­ni­ty for ses­sion­als to be rep­re­sent­ed there. It became clear to me that ses­sion­als should be involved in as many com­mit­tees as pos­si­ble, so our voic­es are heard at as many tables as pos­si­ble. I joined COR, large­ly just want­i­ng to learn more about how the union works, and that’s been a valu­able experience.

The real goal I was after was to be on the col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing com­mit­tee for Cam­pi­on. Along with a full-time pro­fes­sor, there was me and anoth­er ses­sion­al on the com­mit­tee, and we worked at fix­ing some of the weak­ness­es of the ses­sion­al employ­ment sit­u­a­tion at Cam­pi­on. It was a real­ly pos­i­tive round of bar­gain­ing, in which the employ­er was agree­able to many of these changes, and that was wonderful. 

After that, I end­ed up being involved in the let­ter of under­stand­ing com­mit­tee when the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic first hit between the union and the uni­ver­si­ty over what the para­me­ters and pro­tec­tions dur­ing the pan­dem­ic would be. The whole point of what real­ly inter­ests me in becom­ing involved in all of these URFA com­mit­tees is the need to enhance the extent to which ses­sion­als are rep­re­sent­ed when deci­sions are made. 

Are there pieces that you’ve par­tic­u­lar­ly enjoyed about your increas­ing involve­ment with URFA?

Well, get­ting to know real­ly good peo­ple that I work with in com­mit­tees and also URFA office staff. Also, hav­ing a bet­ter sense of what’s going on in gen­er­al is ben­e­fi­cial. But being able to see cer­tain things changed for the bet­ter — that is always the best thing about it. The fact that the SAC chair is a mem­ber of exec­u­tive com­mit­tee, and the cre­ation of the SAC chair email address and the ses­sion­al Face­book group, are recent changes. See­ing lit­tle things like that, even though they’re just lit­tle things, they always make it seem worth it.

Shift­ing to your work as a Ses­sion­al Mem­ber of Clas­sics at Cam­pi­on Col­lege, what inter­est­ed you in study­ing and teach­ing classics?

My inter­est in mythol­o­gy and pagan rit­u­al in gen­er­al is what inter­est­ed me in clas­sics. When I was in uni­ver­si­ty, I took some of the intro­duc­to­ry cours­es to the clas­sics pro­gram at Cam­pi­on as an under­grad and imme­di­ate­ly found a very deep inter­est in the his­to­ry and cul­ture of Greek and Roman peo­ple. I chose to do a clas­sics minor that had a lan­guage require­ment, so when I start­ed learn­ing Latin in the same Latin course that I’m now teach­ing, I found it sur­pris­ing how easy it was for me to learn a new lan­guage. My first degree was in his­to­ry, but I focused on ancient his­to­ry and then went on to an MA and a PhD in clas­sics from there.

When we refer to clas­sics, what does that mean?

Clas­sics refers to the clas­si­cal peri­od — after the Bronze Age peri­od, dur­ing the Iron Age there was the clas­si­cal peri­od in Greece and Rome, fol­lowed by the Mid­dle Ages. In a more spe­cif­ic sense, in Greek his­to­ry, there’s the archa­ic peri­od from about 900 to about 500 BCE and then the clas­si­cal peri­od from 508 BCE to the death of Alexan­der in 323 BCE. So, it has a more spe­cif­ic mean­ing, but also a more gen­er­al one, mean­ing the clas­si­cal civ­i­liza­tions of Greece and Rome because Greece and Rome kind of set the tone for West­ern his­to­ry and cul­ture and pol­i­tics since then.

Cover of Dwayne Meisner's book "Orphic Tradition and the Birth of the Gods".

Cov­er of Dwayne Meis­ner’s book, Orphic Tra­di­tion and the Birth of the Gods”. Pho­to pro­vid­ed by Dwayne Meisner.

Is there some­thing that you’ve noticed sur­pris­es stu­dents or oth­ers that you speak with about the areas that you teach in?

Many things because Greek and Roman soci­ety were so dif­fer­ent and so far away in time and in cul­ture from ours — like gen­der roles, the rights of, or bet­ter yet, lack of rights of women in Greece and Rome is always sur­pris­ing to stu­dents. Just the extent to which women were mis­un­der­stood too in the ancient world and the impor­tance of rit­u­al and myth and the gods in soci­ety, is some­thing that’s always sur­pris­ing to students.

My favorite way to sur­prise stu­dents of clas­sics is for them to come to the Latin course and after a few weeks learn that they actu­al­ly can do this. At first, a stu­dent comes in, is uncer­tain, and then does real­ly well at a lan­guage course. They nev­er thought that they could read anoth­er lan­guage and they walk away feel­ing bet­ter about them­selves, so that’s the best sur­prise. Also, some­times it just sur­pris­es stu­dents how much fun it is to read an ancient epic — it’s great lit­er­a­ture for a reason.

Any unique or inter­est­ing ways that you have adapt­ed some of your teach­ing as a result of COVID?

COVID has impact­ed my teach­ing in almost all good ways. Obvi­ous­ly, I miss the per­son­al con­nec­tion of speak­ing face-to-face with my stu­dents. But for my lit­er­a­ture cours­es, I’ve put every­thing I have to say onto YouTube videos and if they don’t want to watch the YouTube videos, they can read the notes which are video tran­scripts. I’ve become so much bet­ter at lead­ing class dis­cus­sions when we meet once a week in Zoom than I ever was when we were meet­ing three days a week in class. I’ve become a bet­ter teacher. 

For the Latin class, it is extreme­ly dif­fi­cult to teach a lan­guage course remote­ly, which heav­i­ly involves mem­o­riza­tion. How do you test for that? But I took that as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to be cre­ative. I found ways of test­ing where, even if it was open book, it would still be chal­leng­ing if you did­n’t real­ly know what was going on.

I’ve always based my mark­ing sys­tem in my Latin course like a role-play­ing game. As in Dun­geons and Drag­ons or Final Fan­ta­sy, for exam­ple, where for every word that they trans­late, there’s a cer­tain num­ber of Latin points, like expe­ri­ence points. After you earn a num­ber of points, you lev­el up and each lev­el con­sists of one per cent of your final grade, so the more you lev­el up, the high­er grades you get. Stu­dents love this because a lot of them are gamers, and also because it’s pos­i­tive — you’re reward­ing them for right answers instead of tak­ing marks off for wrong answers. Hav­ing to do it remote­ly means I’ve been able to lit­er­al­ly turn it into a video game. The whole course becomes a mat­ter of Latin points for the main quests, and then the midterms become boss fights. Stu­dents love it. They love the struc­ture of it.

The con­tent of it has been dif­fi­cult — com­ing up with ques­tions that are still chal­leng­ing, even if it’s open book, where­as in class you have no resources in front of you. So, I’ve had to make ques­tions sig­nif­i­cant­ly hard­er and it’s always a bit tough try­ing to find the right bal­ance between still chal­leng­ing the top stu­dents with­out fail­ing stu­dents at the bot­tom of the class, right? That’s always the strug­gle with ques­tions where it’s all right and wrong answers.

Is there any­thing else you’d like read­ers to know about?

If you’re a ses­sion­al, check out the list of FAQs for ses­sion­als on the URFA web­site and con­tact the Ses­sion­al Advo­ca­cy Com­mit­tee to learn more about your rights as an employ­ee of the uni­ver­si­ty and fed­er­at­ed col­leges. You can also con­tribute to our upcom­ing newslet­ter and join our Face­book group.

This inter­view has been con­densed and edited.

Enjoy read­ing Q&As with URFA members?

Read our pre­vi­ous one with Michael Shires, chair of URFA’s Mem­ber Mobi­liza­tion Committee.