academic reorganization · academic work · solidarity

Reflections On Talking #CAF Crisis to Mainstream Media

In the last few weeks there has been a shift in the attention paid to Contract Academic Faculty. It hasn’t been a sea change per se, but with #NAWD and the on going strikes at the University of Toronto and York University the mainstream media has been paying some attention to what we who work in the academy have known for some time: things need to change.

But as a teacher who is trained in literature and language I rankle at my own use of the nebulous term “things.” What, exactly, are those “things” that need changing? As I tell my students over and again defining your terms is crucial because it allows you to situate yourself. You know not only precisely what you’re talking about, you also know the history and context of the term you’re using. So what are we talking about when we say “things” need to change?

This isn’t just a navel gazing question. When I was interviewed by Simona Chiose of the Globe & Mail two weeks I found myself faced with this very question. The article was mostly about the strikes happening in Toronto. Chiose was working to situate the immediacy of the strikes, which, let’s not forget, are happening at two very different institutions, in the larger question of what needs fixing in post-secondary education in Canada? A tough task indeed, especially when writing for that necessary readership of people who care, but, as most work outside academia, need to be told exactly why they must care and why their care needs to be actioned. Put differently, this was one of the first Canadian mass media pieces on the crisis in higher education that attempted to spell out some of the material issues facing workers and students.

When  Chiose called me to ask if I would participate in an interview I was happy to do so. I was prepared to talk about my past and on going experience as a CAF and, because I have also had experience sitting on a Faculty-wide Council of Chairs, working with academic development committees, and have been a member of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, I felt that I was uniquely positioned to speak to CAF work and, to an extent, about how administrative processes work (or don’t) at the faculty and university level.

The questions Chiose posed in our thirty-five minute phone interview were insightful and demonstrated her research and knowledge of higher education in Canada. She knew acronyms like ACCUTE and CAUT, she was more than familiar with the shifting structures of SSHRC, and she was even familiar with some people (CAUT executives who I cited as allies for CAFs) I mentioned. I felt comfortable, I felt heard, and though I knew our interview would be edited down to the best sound bite that popped out of my mouth, I felt unusually prepared.

Then she asked me a question I couldn’t answer.

After discussing my own personal career trajectory on the job market–graduated in 2008 (auspicious…), sessionaled for a year in Calgary, moved to Nova Scotia to hold a 10-month limited term contract as Assistant Professor, had that contract renewed for three more sequential years, and, after the budgets had been cut drastically in the faculty where I worked and my department chair had to raise my class size enormously in order to manage to keep my position, I landed a 12-month contract at a smaller school. I was encouraged to take it, and I did. You likely know this story. That 12-month contract did not get renewed, and I am still not ready or able to tell that story in full in print. I’m still on the job market. I still feel like being frank can be risky–anyhow. After all of this, after noting that I was indeed SSHRC-funded, that I did my PhD in just under four years, that I have kept up a record of publication, Chiose said, “It sounds like you did everything right. So what do you think happened? Is there no longer a formula?”

Huh.

I remember when I was finishing my degree that there were two trajectories I was encouraged to explore: the post doctoral fellowship or the limited term contract. I think, if I had finished a year or two prior, I would only have been really encouraged to pursue a postdoc, but again let me remind you: 2008. I also recall that when I finished my PhD having an article or two and a few book reviews under your belt was really quite good. Many of my peers were encouraged not to publish, to save their energies until they finished their degrees, and to hold back that material for The Book. I went to a lot of conferences, many of my peers didn’t due not only to funding issues, but to suggestions that they focus their energies elsewhere. I’ve talked to colleagues who finished around the same time as I did at different institutions and they describe similar experiences.

But as we know, much has changed. And yet, looking at my friends and colleagues who have landed tenure track positions, I can’t say with confidence that there is a formula any more, if there ever really was one in the first place. Having The Book, having teaching experience, having grants, having scads of publications, no discernible combination of these things leads to stability and employment.

As austerity in higher education tightens its grip the one common denominator I have observed in my job-seeking peers is paranoia and exhaustion. Nothing is good enough, so you have to do everything. Or maybe not, because sometimes the candidate who appears to have the least experience is the most financially attractive to the hiring administration. So what do you do? Most of the time, you hedge your bets and work yourself and your emotions into the ground. Oh yeah, and you’re scared. Scared to speak up, scared to say no, scared to talk publicly about the material realities of your working conditions because hey, you might not get rehired. Believe me, you really might not.

Did I say all this to the journalist? Yes, I did, or at least I tried. What I have found myself thinking about in the weeks since that interview, as several things I have written have–miraculously!–reached a wider audience than usual, is this: we contract academic faculty need to be better at clearly articulating our own experiences. And yet, there is risk. And so you, tenured faculty, need to be more attentive in your listening, in your solidarity, in your ability via tenure to navigate the incredibly labyrinthine and shifting space of the institution. I don’t know if grassroots organizing will change “things” for contract academic faculty, but I do know we cannot do it in isolation. We need to articulate our terms and those terms differ from one department and faculty and institution to another.

So I’ll leave you with a question, readers, and it is the same one that the journalist asked me: is there a formula anymore? Was there ever? And should there be–can there be?–again?

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