contract work · scarcity · teaching

Fateful Assumptions

Five seems to be a fateful number for me. It keeps cropping up every time I move to a new place, and still operate on the assumptions of my previous location. When I moved to Canada, some ten years ago, I started my MA after a couple of months, and I took five of the nine courses required for my course-based MA, assuming that there are two semesters, as there had been in Romania and Germany, where I had studied before. Nobody told me otherwise. Nobody thought to inform me that there were both a spring *and* a summer term, in which MA students could finalize their coursework. It’s adult education, and I was in charge of my own studies, and I should have asked. You might think I learned my lesson ten years ago.

Here we are, ten years later, though, and I and my big humongous assumptions lead me astray once more. I am teaching–you guessed it–no less than five courses this term. Am I happy I moved to a new city *and* a new contract? You bet! Am I lucky to have landed that contract in the first place? Of course! Should I have accepted f-i-v-e courses I had not taught before right after a cross-country move? You bet your derrière not! But, you see, the assumptions interfered yet again: “they wouldn’t offer five courses if they thought it was an impossible workload, would they?” “they must have a system in place that ensures prep and marking are not quite as time-consuming as a brand spankin’ new course usually is, mustn’t they?” “I’ve been teaching continually for the past nine years, so, while not a breeze, it will be doable, no?” I will leave the answers to those questions up to your imagination.

It’s the second week of classes, and I’m no longer as lost in spaces of all kinds as last week: I know about 80% of my almost 150 students’ names. I got a grip on the course material–it’s not *that* much new material, as I’m teaching four sections of one course, and one of another; there is, indeed, a wealth of shared material which would otherwise take oodles of time to create from scratch; people are collaborative, and eager to respond to my questions, as well as volunteer information I had not asked for, because I didn’t really know to ask. I’m not very good at asking, as you might have already divined.

The first week’s mental hurdle passed, together with my constant questioning of my own sanity, I am now looking back and wondering why I had just said yes, instead of trying to determine the appropriateness of *my*–instead of a generic experienced post-secondary English instructor–teaching five courses two months after moving to a new city and province. Would I have any advice to give to my past self three months or so ago when I was made the contract offer?

20-20 hindsight  notwithstanding, I don’t think I could, given the academic culture of scarcity we inhabit, have done things any differently. Here were my other fateful assumptions:
– it’s a take-it-or-leave-it offer, as contract academics, as the underbelly of the system, do not get to negotiate

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– they must really think highly of me, if they offered me f-i-v-e courses (on the effect of being a contract academic on self-esteem, much virtual ink has been skillfully used)
– one must do all one can to secure “a foot in the door,” no matter the cost for one’s sanity, health, family, relationships, etc.
– institutional support structures must be in place to ensure seamlessness between the teaching and learning in these courses, and I’ll be able to make the most of it from the very beginning.

The flip side to this story is that I am adaptable, and have a wonderful personal support structure in my family, friends, the larger academic community, and my new city–think school and child care close by, friends willing to listen and commiserate. Also, the students: always to be found on the flip side of precarity.

And yet… I’m too fresh to this situation to have formulated any nuggets of wisdom–not that I’ve accustomed you, gentle reader, to such in the past–so I don’t have a conclusion for this post. But I do wonder what, if any, assumptions can we make in the context of today’s academia?