academic reorganization · adjuncts · affect · after the LTA · personal narrative · Uncategorized

Repetition with a Difference: Teaching on the tenure-track is different

I’ve just finished my first term of teaching.

No, wait. That’s not quite right. I’ve just finished my first term teaching in a tenure-track position. I’ve been teaching in contract, LTA, adjunct, and sessional posts since 2008. But this term? This was my first on the tenure-track. Here is what I can tell you: it is different. It is very very different.

I have been keeping track of the clear and less-clear ways teaching in a tenure-track position differs from precarious labour, in part because I have spent a near-decade in precarity and wanted to attend to the ways in which this shift affected my heart and mind. In part I have kept track as a kind of watchfulness: what is and is not possible on the other side of the looking glass? A single semester does hardly a quantitative data set make, but nonetheless here is what I can say thus far”

  1. I know how to write lectures efficiently. See aforementioned almost-decade of precarious labour, which often meant teaching 50% more than my tenured colleagues, which in turn meant learning how to write lectures in a timely (read break-neck-fast) manner. This term I’ve had a teaching release and so I taught two classes. One was a third-year Canadian literature course, and the other was a graduate class in… Canadian poetry. Guess what my area of specialty happens to be? Yup: Canadian literature (especially poetry). This is the first time I have ever taught ,my entire course load in my area of expertise. Which brings me to…

2.      Teaching in my area of expertise makes me feel confident and competent.    Seems obvious, right? Well, I can tell you from a whopping single semester of experience that teaching material I know inside and out, which I have taught before as well as written about, presented upon, and am currently researching is *cough* transformative. I did not dread going to class for fear of being read as somehow lacking. I did not have imposter syndrome. I was constantly excited to teach not only because I genuinely like being in classrooms, but also because this was material I knew! Imagine!

3. I am not scared all the time. Do I have to unpack this? Here’s what I mean: I never thought I was going to get a tenure-track position. Not because I wasn’t “good enough” (though I felt that more than I care to admit, and far more than I have ever written about here). Not because I wasn’t “smart enough” (again, not that I didn’t feel that, often). Nope. I didn’t think I would get a tenure-track job because there are almost none out there. Thus far this fall there has been one job in my field advertised in Canada. One. And let me tell you some of the effects of knowing that you are effectively shut out of the job market in the industry you’ve spent 10-15 years training in: alienation. Exhaustion. Hyper-self-surveillance. Self-doubt. A shutting down of generosity. The fear that anything–anything–you do (or don’t do) is cause for not getting a look on that long list, that short list. Any list. That you can’t report injustice against yourself. That you can’t support or report for others, and if you do you’re bound to be written off, and lord, let’s not even get started on how-will-I-pay-rent-how-can-I-be-X-age-and-so-precarious and on and on down the rabbit hole. I am not scared all the time. I know that tenure-track does not mean impermeable. I know, as the inimitable Roy Miki has said, that the university will never love us back. But I am not scared all the time, and that helps me help my students, too.

See how quickly my list moved from practical to affective? I think the largest shift in having a tenure-track position has been psychological. Of course the paycheque helps. Of course the structure and ability to plan long-term is quite literally life-changing. But what I think about most is how, even though I feel more grounded in my own training, more able to imagine and invent and (dare I say it?) be curious more often than I am strategic, it is going to take me a long time to process the emotional and material trauma that was precarity.

In her stunning essay on precarity and survivance T.L. Cowan writes,

What I hope is that the revolution of adjunct faculty is coming and that it will create a new turn in our disciplines.  The ‘Adjunct Turn’ which, as a method from below, will be aligned with what Chela Sandoval calls “differential oppositional consciousness” (2000), coalitional techniques for affinity-based disciplinary and institutional transformations. An orientation away from individualism and the life of a solitary specialized genius, and an orientation towards critical intimacy, towards collaborative, process- and practice-centred distributed epistemologies and an aesthetics of multiplicity and shared resources. A method aligned with what Audre Lorde called in the power of the erotic, “the yes within ourselves” (1984, 57); the yes work of making the intellectual-cultural worlds we desire.

As I become more grounded in my institutional legibility — with all the enormous violences these institutions bring — I am dreaming, planning, and scheming about how to  help build those intellectual-cultural worlds we desire.

What I know is this: when I see CVs that bespeak years of precarious labour I will be looking for what T.L. calls the fabulous in our disciplines:

The fabular is the practice of creating and holding what is necessarily generative for ourselves and those who listen to our stories in the face of obvious disaster (Cowan & Rault 2016); it is “a good enough analytic” for these times and I propose that this is the analytic from which we are all working, adjunct and otherwise; to operate securely is to disavow the situation that produces these massive inequities in our places of education.

To be continued. But for now, know this: I see you.