Historically speaking, it would seem that November is a time of reflection and rumination for me. For the past three Novembers I have written posts about what it is like to be on a limited term contract. In 2010 I wrote a post about having a Plan B. In 2011 I wrote two posts in November, one about the hinterland of contractual work, and one thinking about when I would actually make the shift into Plan B. Last year I went for a slightly humorous approach and embraced eating pie for breakfast and just getting through another day of teaching three classes and directing a program.
This is my fourth November writing for Hook and Eye. It seems fitting that I should check in, stick with the cycle, consider the effects of contractual work from my own position. But you know what? I don’t want to. I’m tired of it. I am tired of walking a careful line between healthy cynicism (‘Oh next year? I don’t know! If I don’t get work maybe I’ll become a llama farmer!’) and tenacious optimism (‘You work so hard! Of course you’ll get a job! Hang in, when I was a contract worker I thought it would never end too!’) In short, I am tired of the rhetorical self-fashioning that I have crafted in order to maintain a level of sanity and, frankly, of approachability over the last several years.
Yes, I could quit. I am confident that I could make the transition from academic to non-academic work, though it would take time and planning. But I am currently getting paid well. I have managed to get a well-paying academic job* for the past four years, and it has kept me busy enough to not have time or inclination to move into the labour of planning a transition.
This November I find that things are different. I feel differently.
On the one hand, I’m happier than I have been in memory, for real. This has little to do with my job — and I want to be very clear that I am differentiating job from work here. More on that in a moment. Yes, I still love teaching. In some ways I love it more than I did a year ago, even though I desperately miss the students I had developed years-long connections with while I was at Dalhousie. I love teaching because it turns out it is a portable skill. You can move, meet radically different student populations, have to shift your own habits to fit with a new environment…and it still works. There is still a sense of rawness and direction: learning happens. But honestly my happiness is coming less from my job than it ever has. In part this is because I am still so new — and very very — contingent and temporary where I am. In large part it is because I have made decisions that are based on a happiness and fulfillment that are located in an identity that isn’t tied to my identity as an academic.
On the other hand, there is a certain detachment that is setting in, that has set in, and that I see sedimenting into my peers who are in positions similar to mine. For one thing, I find that I spend 95% of my day (if not more) doing the job, not doing my work. After all, I am on a contract. My job is to teach, to grade, to plan lectures, to be a participating member of the department in whatever capacity I am invited, and to do that within the temporal limits of my contract. I am having immense trouble finding time and, honestly, energy to do the work of the profession. My research? That is work. Critical pedagogy? Work. Committee involvement? Work. Networking/conferencing/writing/thinking/pedagogical development/writing? Work. Work. Work.
The differentiation for me between job and work is that I get paid to do a job. Work I take on because I believe in it, because it matters, because it is the stuff that makes my heart race, my idealism take flight, and my fighting spirit put on its boxing gloves. And you know what? After five years on the job market — five years that I know have been easier and more financially compensatory for me than for so many others — I am tired. I am tired of watching myself grind away in front of the computer to try and steal time to conjure enough creative energy to start a new project or to keep projects that are mid-way through aloft. I am afraid that I wont have enough energy to develop the pedagogical strategies and philosophies that make me a good teacher. And I am oh so tired of watching my peers take on more and more unpaid work — be it gruelling grant applications that, if won, will afford them the ability to live only if they move into a hotel and pay themselves a per diem, or more volunteer work in the hopes that it will get them something. I know, I know. If this post was in the Globe and Mail or some other venue the comments section would be a maelstrom of snide and ill-informed statements about professoriate privilege. And I am tired of that too — that failure that we as a profession have somehow been complicit in: the failure of making it clear that work in the Humanities is the vital and urgent work of the human.
This isn’t my I Quit letter, not by a long shot (though Melissa has written one of the best and most emotionally and pragmatically astute ones I have ever read). No, what I am thinking about this November is what gets lost in this latest iteration of the atrophying of fair and equitable and sustainable employment in academia. It seems to me what gets lost, at least for a while, is the creative energy to fight, to invent, and to be generatively insurgent. What gets lost is the spontaneous discussion of work rather than jobs. What gets lost, at least for a while, is the spark.
But then, it is November in Canada. It is cold. Time to relight those fires, right? Onward.
*The big ahem! here is that my work has been as a limited term appointment at the Assistant Prof level, which has been a salaried position (though prorated when I am on 10-month contracts). That means I get paid more reasonably that my friends and colleagues who are sessional workers getting paid between $1,600-$6,000 per course. Yep, you read those number right. The difference in per-course payment varies radically from institution to institution, and it varies that much. And so just in this little footnote you can begin to see the great inequities and all their incredible complications spool out.