#NSBudget2015 · academic work · broken heart

Tristesse in the Age of Austerity

I feel an agonizing sense of loss and regret when I walk out of the classroom for the last time.”

Co-founder and Editrix Emerita Heather Zwicker wrote this in April of 2011. In the full post, which you can read here, she pithily outlines the emotional connections teachers often feel when the term is over. Indeed, many of us here have written versions of our own post-term tristesse. Aimée’s  is the most recent. She writes,

Real learning is transformative–and all transformations are fraught with fear and excitement and loss and gain. The crucible of the new self is necessarily hot; it burns. Teaching, I find, is as emotionally and personally wrenching as learning is, and I need to find new ways to incorporate this reality into my work, even as I create some boundaries for myself and my students.


For all the frustrations–and there are many and they are legitimate–that come from teaching, I feel strongly that we here at Hook & Eye value the classroom-as-crucible-for-change more than just about any aspect of our jobs.

Except here’s the thing: since the blog founded in September of 2010 our demographic of regular bloggers has shifted radically. Back in 2010 it was Heather (tenured), Aimée (soon-to-be-and-now-tenured), and me (ten month contract). Now? One tenured professor, two PhD candidates, two partially-employed/-under-employed workers, and one alt-ac worker who is also completing her PhD. Yes, we have a semi-regular blogger who is tenured, but look at our guest posts: they are mostly coming from graduate students or members of the precariate. 

Why does this matter? It matters because teaching has changed in this age of austerity. Most of the precariously employed contract workers I know who are earning a living wage (& those are few) are teaching fifty percent more students than their tenured colleagues. And they are fighting to keep their research profiles alive and active so that they, in turn, may have a chance to keep their positions, or maybe, just maybe, apply for one of the jobs (the one job…) in their field this year. Indeed, I was one of those precariates earning a living wage, until June of last year when I moved into the severely-under-employed category. 

And the rest of us? We are either scrambling for work that pays less than Employment Insurance, but keeps us “in the game,” or we are stretched beyond the limit, shuttling across kilometres and campuses to make ends meet. 

Yet, we still care about teaching. We still care about students. Care can get warped when you’re put in the position of teaching 400+ students in a semester in order to make around $15,000 less than colleges who are tenured, yes. That care can get worn when you’re teaching classes that only fall outside your area of expertise because they are the only classes on the books for which a Dean or a VP will fund sessional labour, yes. That care can get taxed when you are barred by budgets from doing even the direct action work of the profession. 

In previous years my teaching load has been between three- and four- courses per semester. I have always taught in the spring to offset being laid off for two months. This year, I team taught one course that lasted a year but paid me only for one term of work. The class had a total for 400 students in it. It was a course I worked for two years to design with my co-teacher, whom I respect. And I will be honest, I felt detached when I wasn’t in class and with my students, because the structures that paid me for my labour made it clear my work mattered less than the work of the (wonderful) teaching assistants. 

And yet I am sad. The end of the term has come and I feel all those same feelings of loss, of concern that the students will forget, that I didn’t do a good enough job conveying vital information, that we will all forget what a privilege and what a responsibility it is to come into a classroom together to learn. 

And I am saddened even further, because when I turn on my computer I see that the fight for higher education is being taken up predominantly by students. This is amazing and inspiring, yes. I am in awe of the strength and will and solidarity that is happening in Quebec right now. But I am also acutely aware that just last week the Liberals of Nova Scotia deregulated tuition in this province, which means that my students–the savvy ones, the ones who aren’t yet aware, and the ones who don’t care–are likely going to be massively and adversely affected by this decision. As Rebecca Rose writes, the deregulation of tuition

This means that universities can increase these fees as high as they think “the market” (AKA students and their families) will bear without any government intervention. 

I would say it also means hiring sustainably at the professorial level will again be placed far on the back burner. That’s bad for the precariate. That’s bad for students. That’s bad for universities, provinces, the country. That’s bad for anything that might want, somehow, in the future, to look like sustainability. 

To be honest, this year, I am at an emotional as well as practical loss. I care about my students, I am feeling the post-term tristesse, and yet I am also feeling strange because I don’t have stacks of grading. I don’t have class prep for spring courses that start in a month. What I do have is a series of deficits. This is the first year in seven that I have no teaching lined up. I’m looking at the LSATs and thinking about what’s next not because I am disgusted so much as because I have to pay rent. My EI? It runs out in June. And I am just one person among many. One more would-be teacher. One more person who cares about students, even though they aren’t “mine” any more. One more person carrying the emotional weight of the economics of austerity.

So what do we do