What We Can and Can’t Talk About

Last week Margrit wrote about privileges in things big and small. Specifically, she situated herself as someone who has a certain amount of privilege, especially when it comes to feeling that the space of the university is a space she has access to on a regular basis. She also wrote about the ways in which writing in public on a site like Hook & Eye is a privilege. In both cases, as Margrit notes, privilege comes with commensurate responsibilities. Some of these are readily apparent: taking up space means thinking about how and why you feel that space is yours to take up. Speaking in public means drawing attention to people and issues that are marginalized or not in a certain public eye. Writing in public as someone who feels that the space of the university is a space that, on the whole is a welcoming space: this is a constant and, for me, sobering challenge. It is also a challenge I can’t always adequately meet.

Let me try to explain.

In her post, Margrit writes:

Privilege can feel like a huge burden, like an unearned reward in a system that looks increasingly more like a lottery than a meritocracy. [….] What I’m getting at is how easy it can be for emerging scholars who are in TT positions to feel like they cannot discuss the excessive demands of academia, when so many of their peers struggle to make ends meet. They feel their privilege acutely, and sometimes as a silencing force.

Um, yes. While I am not in a TT position I can still relate to this statement. Over the past several years I have tried as clearly and honestly — and subjectively — as possible to think through what it has been like for me as a precariously employed worker on the job market. I try to acknowledge my own relatively privilege by consistently underscoring my working conditions, which are these: since 2008 when I finished my PhD I have worked one year as a sessional (2008-2009 at the University of Calgary and Mount Royal College–now Mount Royal University). I spent 2009-2010 on a 10-month contract at Dalhousie, spent June-July 2010 unemployed, and in August of 2010 I took up another 10-month contract at Dalhousie. The summer of 2011 was easier because someone pointed out that I had likely accrued enough hours to apply for Employment Insurance.* I had! Holy cats! So I spent June-July 2011 on EI. August 2011 saw me take up another contract, this time a 20+ month contract to account for the fact I was supervising graduate students (two MAs who finished on time! Hi Ainsley! Hi Amanda!) and directing the Canadian Studies Programme. That contract took me to June 2013. I began a new 12-month contract at Mount Allison, which is where I am now. This contract ends June 30. 

Here is what I hope is clear from laying out part of my employment history to talk about relative privilege: for the better part of six years I have been in a series of precarious employment situations that have been salaried. That means I have been a member of the union (very useful when you go on strike, let me tell you. For instance, I got strike pay). It means that I have had an office with my name on the door. I have access to letterhead. I am on the Departmental website. I have benefits. I have been without salary or on EI in most summers, yes. I am consistently applying for tenure track jobs, yes. I have often taught overloads and taken on supervisory duties and service roles that are outside the parameters of my contract description, yes. And the reasons I have taken these extra roles on are a complex mix of wanting to make use of my privilege and time in a Department and, yes, that sense that when you are in a sessional, adjunct, or contract position you are in a long, long job interview, how ever much we might try to deny that fact. 

Have I worked a lot? Sure. Have I worked from a position of relative privilege? You bet I have. 

Let’s turn back to Margrit’s post, specifically that bit I quote above:

What I’m getting at is how easy it can be for emerging scholars who are in TT positions to feel like they cannot discuss the excessive demands of academia, when so many of their peers struggle to make ends meet. 

I’m not in quite the position she describes, but I think that sense of relative privilege extends to those of us who have landed contracts. When I talk about my own experiences what I am trying to do is not only be frank about my own struggles and anxieties and hopes, I am trying to speak from just one of many many many different experiences of precarity. But there are some things I still can’t talk about, and they may just be the very things we desperately need to discuss. For example: I wont talk about jobs I have applied for. I’ve never written about interviews I’ve done. I can’t. It feels beyond risky.

That risk, that very real sense that you can’t talk about the material conditions shaping your life–and let’s be clear, we are talking about lives here, not “just” jobs–is the context out of which the ACCUTE Best Practices checklist arose. The checklist itself is a collaborative document that, in its present iteration, was initiated by the ACCUTE Executive led by Stephen Slemon. I had the privilege–and I mean that–to participate in a slew of emails and one lovely conference call with the folks whose names appear on the checklist: Michael Brisbois (MacEwan), Heidi Tiedemann Darroch (Victoria), Dorothy Hadfield (Waterloo), Jason Haslam (Dalhousie), Nat Hurley (Alberta), Luke Maynard (Huron), Laura Schechter (Alberta), Stephen Slemon (Alberta). Some of these people are former classmates (hi Michael!), some are former colleagues (hi Jason!), some are people I’ve never met in person yet. The process of developing this checklist was humane and really pleasurable. Stephen circulated a draft as a means of initiating conversation and then we all had many opportunities to edit, discuss, and revise. It is, we agreed, a place to start.

I also think it is fair to say that part of the impetus for developing the checklist came out of a series of complex and emotional conversations at the TransCanada Institute last spring. The people around that table included several senior colleagues–Stephen Slemon and Len Findlay were among them–and several early career colleagues whose employment statuses ranged from pre-tenure to sessional to post-doctoral to contract to underemployed. The aim of the talks was to develop concrete strategies for addressing the sustainability challenges of the study of Canadian literature in what I am coming to think of as the long Austerity Epoch. As I and the incomparable Jade Ferguson work to discuss last term, so many crucial and emotional issues emerged that we were not able to create the kinds of concrete documents we’d intended. Not then. It became clear immediately that talking about privileges–at the level of employment, from differing lived experiences of race, class, gender, and sexuality–was hard hard hard work. It felt risky. It was risky. It was risky at least because it was so personal. It was risky because it revealed the vulnerabilities we are so often required to mask. And to my mind the “we” in that last sentence refers to early career tenure track scholars and the rest of us under- and un-employed scholars. Writing and talking about the material conditions of the Academy means writing and talking about some of the visceral emotions that make us who we are. And if who “we” are is a group of people trying to find a foothold in a profession that has historically disavowed the relevance of lived experience well, that’s pretty risky stuff, isn’t it?

Let me close by returning to the experience of being on the ACCUTE task force. For me, the checklist has a larger, more personal narrative. It bears some–not all, not yet–marks of those excruciating and vital conversations I was a part of last spring. For me it bears unmistakable traces of conversations I have had with friends and colleagues who were or, in many cases, were not in the room. And it also is marked by the spirit of collaboration and responsibility that the ACCUTE executive modelled as the task force worked on it these past few months. And this is where I will end: what the ACCUTE Best Practice checklist represents for me is one example of recognizing privilege and attempting to be responsible with that privilege, how ever provisional that attempt may be. In initiating the checklist under the auspices of ACCUTE Stephen Slemon, Nat Hurley and the rest of the ACCUTE executive have used their privileged position of tenure as well as the structure of a national organization to make space for talking about risk and taking some first steps in making concrete change. 

We can’t stop here, this is only the beginning.      
*Speaking of relative privilege I must say I find it galling, nay reprehensible that EI is structured in such a way as to lock out most sessionals and folks who have just come off post doctoral fellowships. If you’re tempted to suggest that most post-docs make a lot of money I encourage you to demystify your assumptions and take a peep at not only SSHRC postdoc sizes, but also take a moment to understand how they are taxed. Break that down to account for any unpaid labour that might happen and then decide if you still feel comfortable saying postdocs have it made. Yes, there are some that are rather large, but most postdocs make less than folks teaching a 4/4 sessional load. And now there’s a whole additional kettle of fish. I’ll save it for another post.