This weekend, as I was scrolling through social media, I came across a post from a colleague at a university down the road. It was announcing a guest speaker — Harsha Walia, if you’re curious — and I found myself feeling that familiar sensation of vertigo. You know what I mean, the feeling that the floor is getting a bit further away and the room is darkening at the edges. This feeling had nothing whatsoever to do with the guest speaker or my friend who has posted about her arrival. Rather, that feeling of falling, or rather, of being dropped came from my archived emotions. Once more, the sharp realities of my own job precarity reared up and shook my foundations. If you’re wondering why the announcement of an activist coming to campus made me look, navel-gazingly, at my own conditions of labour you’re not alone. I, too, thought ‘what the hell is wrong with you, Erin? Why does this bother you so much?’
And it came to me, once again, my heartbreak on an eternal feedback loop: precarity means not having a place at the table. It means not being a part of the structural and institutional mechanisms that bring people to campus, that build curricular change, that afford you the luxury of teaching the same classes for several years (or more) in a row.
I hate writing about precarity. And yet I feel compelled. I haven’t written about it here for months (even though I am the Contract Academic Faculty representative for ACCUTE), and that’s been deliberate. I’m making something of an unofficial and unpaid career talking about underpaid and precarious work. While that is hilarious and kind of fun to say, the reality is that it is isolating, exhausting, and lonely. It puts strain on me and on my family. But as we creep towards the one year anniversary of National Adjunct Walk Out Day, I find myself here again, thinking publicly about some of the effects and affects of precarity.
Being a part of the precarious labour force means watching my brilliant and likewise precarious friends and colleagues try to innovate in their classrooms to make up for the fact that they can’t innovate in the long term on their campuses.
Being a part of the precarious labour force means watching at department meetings while the tenured faculty become more and more tired from shouldering the work that new hires would be able to help with, not to mention bring fresh energy to.
Being a part of the precarious labour force mean not being on the email lists that tell you when the guest speakers are coming, or when the grant deadlines are (if, of course, you happen to be eligible despite your precarity).
Being a part of the precarious labour force means pouring your energies into teaching the classes you get, rather than the classes you’re an expert in, and then watching your field advance while you struggle to make comma splices interesting to two hundred non-major undergrads.
Being a part of the precarious labour force also means you really do give a shit about those two hundred undergrads because, dammit, you’re trained as a Marxist and you understand how the material conditions of labour reverberate from you to them and back again.
Being a part of the precarious labour force means that if you’re in a contract position you’re trying to do that service work because a) it might be the only time you get to _________ (teach a grad class, mentor an honours student, do a directed reading, sit on a departmental committee, etc.) and b) because no matter how often you tell yourself differently, hope is a tenacious beast and maybe this service work will matter for reasons other than altruism.
Being a part of the precarious labour force means your colleague lose sight of your areas of expertise–if, indeed, they ever knew in the first place–because you become a ghost. In to teach your class, then elsewhere for office hours or to teach another class on another campus or to work your other job to make rent.
Being a part of the precarious labour force in Canada, where letters of reference are tailored to each job application, means worrying about the time your referees put in to writing these letters. It means wondering why the hell a job ad didn’t just say what it was looking for and save you and three to four letter writers the time and energy. And it means knowing that you’ll do it again next time; you’ll ask for the letters and imagine yourself into this different iteration of what you do, in hopes that someone on the committee sees you for who you are, for your potential, and for your commitment.
Being a part of the precarious labour force means you get really bloody tired of people asking you about how the job market is, but even more scared that they will stop asking you. No one asking means no one thinking about you. No one asking rings loud, thought not clear.
Being a part of the precarious labour force means nothing is clear. Not your career, not your plans, not your life choices, not your work.
Being a part of the precarious labour force means making life choices regardless of your precarity.
Being a part of the precarious labour force does not mean you’re not interested in/ aware of/ participating in/ and constantly thinking about the work in your field and your own place within it. But it does mean that the feeling of scholarly loneliness is compounded.
Being a part of the precarious labour force means the politics of childcare, of being a woman, of being a person of colour, of being queer, of being differently abled, of being ______ are compounded.
Being a part of the precarious labour force means you are quiet because talking about precarity is exhausting. It becomes what people think you are about, and then you become more exhausted, because honestly, aren’t we scholars trained to diagnose and close read systems?
Being a part of the precarious labour force means you’re a killjoy, because let’s not forget that killing the so-called joys of normativity is a world-making project. A necessary, if isolating and exhausting project.
Being a part of the precarious labour force means finding genuine pleasure in spite of the crummy conditions of your labour.