academic work · adjuncts · change management · emotional labour · theory and praxis · Uncategorized

Making Small New Habits

I love New Year’s resolutions.

I do. I really love them. I love them so much I write about them in fall and winter and spring. Hurrah for semesters and Solstices!

In fact, I think I have come to appreciate New Years–Eve and all–as a moment of self-inventory, though admittedly New Year’s Eve was (and is) a marker in time I like less. As a younger me New Year’s Eve was a kind of letdown for all its rush and waiting. All outfits and lines and are-the-plans-happening-where-is-the-best-place-to-be-ness of it all. And then, poof, anticlimax. Even now as an adult I can count on one hand the “magic” NYEs I have had. My frustration, I think, is common: it is the pressure put on the moment to make it something other than it is. A moment. But I digress…

I am that person who, on New Year’s Eve will ask about resolutions and memories. What was your most memorable meal of the last year? (My go-to interview dinner conversation question, by the way) What are you hoping to do this year? Yup. That’s me: earnest right up to the chime of the clock.

But it occurs to me that resolutions might be the wrong word. Maybe there’s too much baggage with that word, and as someone who is shifting from a decade working in various degrees of precarity to, well, unprecedented stability, I’m working to shed some emotional baggage. When it comes to putting work and production demands on myself I want to move from this

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Image from PinArt.com

to this

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Image from steamlineluggage.com

I started thinking about shifting my language after reading one of those ubiquitous late-December articles about developing new habits.  The gist of the argument is this: western psychology has tended to frame life change as something that is best understood through willpower. The idea here is that we make a decision to change some aspect of ourselves and then, through sweat and grit and determination, we do it. There are all sorts of obvious problems with this approach, I realize now (what if, as is often the case, “willpower” isn’t enough or even the right thing, for example). Still, when I was reading this in the trough between holidays it struck a chord for me. Rather than building all life change on the necessity of willpower there is a movement gaining more popular traction that suggests willpower is kind of bullsh*t. Okay, that’s not exactly what the article says, but that’s what I gleaned from it. More effective that willpower is repetition. Building in habits. Doing the small daily work of repeating. And if you don’t do it one day, if you “fail,” then you do it again the next day.

Gosh, I needed to be reminded of this.

Some of the new habits I am aiming to form in this first month of 2018 are these:

I would like to write regularly again. For all sorts of reasons I have fallen off that wagon in the last year, moving again to droughts and downpours of writing that, while effective of anxiety-inducing, have not fed me in the ways I need to be fed. In order to write regularly (which for me means 100-300 words in a session, and one session a day is plenty unless there is an impending deadline) I need to build in a regular time to do that writing. So, I’ll be getting out of bed a little earlier this month. I’m looking forward to it.

I would like to continue reading for pleasure. After my PhD and in many cycles following that I found I couldn’t read for pleasure. For whatever reason what usually was my escape, my habit that nourished me had gone. My voracious desire to read is back. To facilitate this I have shifted my reading habits the same way I have had to shift my writing habits post-bébé: I carry a book with me most all the time, and reading one or two pages (or sentences) at a swoop is enough. Is worth it.

And finally, I would like to only work on academic writing and research that nourishes me and which I really care about. I say hah to the adage that all academic work is a labour of love. It isn’t, especially if you’re a graduate student or a precarious worker or a post doc. Then it is usually a mix of love and (in my limited personal experience) a huge amount of what-will-this-do-for-my-prospects???!!!???*&!

To that I say no more, or at least, I will work towards “no more.” And if I weren’t already convinced that writing (/doing/working on/researching) something that you care about might actually make more than you feel good  (aka “staying in your lane” as I read in a recent profile of the brilliant Vivek Shraya), well, seeing this tweet from poet and scholar Billy-Ray Belcourt certainly brought it home for me

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Here is to new habits that nurture networks of care in this complicated, compromising, and often alienating and restrictive space that is academia. One of the books I am reading right now is Donna Haraway’s Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. In the introduction Haraway writes,

We — all of us on Terra — live in disturbing times, mixed-up times, troubling and turbid times. The task is to become capable, with each other in all of our bumptious kinds, of response. Mixed-up times are overflowing with both pain and joy–with vastly unjust patterns of pain and joy, with unnecessary killings of ongoingness but also with necessary resurgence. The task is to make kin in lines of inventive connection as a practice of our learning to live and die well with each other in the thick present. Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle the troubled waters and rebuild quiet places.

Here’s to rebuilding quiet places in our days with and alongside and against. Here’s to onward and inward. Here is to January. Here is to what is and to what is next.

 

 

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.

academic reorganization · adjuncts · solidarity · Uncategorized

From the Archives: Contract Faculty, I see you

I wrote this in 2015. I am no longer precariously employed, but most of my loved ones are. I am marked by my decade of precarious employment, too. It takes a toll emotionally, financially, and physically.

We remain in precarious times.

I think this pieceremains relevant. In deep solidarity with all contract faculty, especially those at U of T who voted 91% in favour of a strike.

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Image via ThinkStock

_________________________________________

I see you.

No no, don’t worry, I’m precariously employed too, so my seeing you won’t change your employment.   I can’t do anything for you, though I would if I could. You don’t need to look like you’re working any harder than you already are just because I am looking in your direction. But know this: I see you. And you matter.

I see you, prepping for your classes every night until midnight (or later). I know you’re teaching more than regular faculty, because that’s how contracts work at your institution. I know you have six or more classes per year and that not a one of them is a repeat. And I know you’re working to make the lectures good, the material innovative and inspiring, and the discussions life-altering even though you’re struggling to get the reading done and the assignments graded.

I see you, teaching a class at this campus, and getting in your car or on public transit or in a carpool to make it across town/ across the city/ into the valley/ into another city/ to the next campus in time to teach the next group of students. And I see you try and smile when you do it. I see you, trying to jam research into the corners of your life that aren’t filled with prep for class.

I see you, not producing research, because there’s no time, or no money, or the very real understanding that maybe, just maybe, there’s no point.

I see you, taking on the book reviews, the peer reviews, the jury duties. And yes, I get it. I do it too, because it feels good to be asked. Because it feels good to participate in the profession. Because it can go on the CV. Because it means someone else sees you too. And yes, I know that you likely kick yourself for saying yes at least some of the time, because isn’t that feeding the imbalanced system? But I see you, because you care about the material. Because community. Because CV.

I see you, carrying your students’s assignments in your bag because you have no office/ share an office/ would rather meet in the library than try to schedule time at your shared desk.

I see your students call you “Miss” or by your first name even though you’ve asked to be called by your professional title.

I see those teaching evaluations — the quiet devastation they can bring — either by being better than the department average, or worse.

I see you, writing reference letters for students applying to for study abroad programs, to be residence dons, to get into graduate programs, for colleagues going up for tenure and promotion, and I know: it might be hard to figure out where to print the letters, because I know you don’t have access to photocopiers, scanners, printers, or, heck, hard copy letter head. Not all the time. Likely not after hours when you can do this work.

I see you, meeting with students on your own time or in office hours to talk about their plans for graduate school. I see you waffle, because you still care, because you believe in the work you do even though you’re being shut out, made provisional, living precariously. I see you do it anyway, and do it well.

I see you say no. I know what it costs you, that small action of agency, that protection of your time. I know that “no” is meant to be a proactive word for you, and I know the second-third-and-fourth guessing that accompanies every decision to use it.

I see you, applying for your own position. And I see you not get it, sometimes.

I see you, applying for postdoctoral fellowships, for grants, and asking for adjunct status if that grant is successful. I see you working extra, because the grant means you can do the work you love, and because the grant would mean that maybe, just maybe, you’ve got some leverage (but not a living wage). I see you wobble, because a successful grant may not end up meaning shit.

I see you, competing against your peers, your friends, your acquaintances for the one or two jobs in your area. I see you, writing those letters of application cringing at the lack of research, or, conversely, wondering if this time your well-rounded application will make it to the top. Or, if it matters, because maybe there is another contract academic faculty member who is the inside candidate, and it doesn’t matter. I see your frustration, and I want to say: it’s ok. We all want to be the inside candidate, even though we know that doesn’t always work out either.

I see the unfairness in the labyrinthine system in which we labour–or try to labour.

I see that you’re tired. I see that you’re trying. I see you, working so hard to be able to work.

You have more agency than you think, though its hard to think when you’re so busy or heartsick.

I see that these thoughts break your heart, and I see you wonder if it shows, if other people notice that you do still carry that little spark of hope that things will change.

Things will change, though they may not look they way you thought they would. We need to leave. And we need to stay, but under different working conditions. We need to organize ourselves, despite the extra work that requires. We can do it. We’re resourceful. We care. We can draw on the will and support of tenured colleagues and on organizations such as ACCUTE and CAUT and we can do something, though it won’t happen quickly. And, we can choose not to, we can choose to leave. And that is not a failure either.

But for now, dear CAF, know this: I see you. I care about you. I can’t fix anything for you by myself, but know that you’re not alone.

Love,

Erin

 

PS. Thanks to Lily for the love letter inspiration.

academic reorganization · adjuncts · classrooms · guest post · mental health · workload

Guest Post: When too much is still not enough; Academic workloads and campus exhaustion

Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, Suzette Mayr’s recent satiric novel about a harried English professor, dramatizes the anxious thrum of academic work. Edith teaches, grades, and answers “pounds” of email. Her phone therapist advises her to excel in new areas, to increase her pace of publications while exercising regularly, revamping her wardrobe, and networking more extensively. Edith protests, “there’s never any time.” While swimming laps, she worries she “should be catching up on her critical theory, not frolicking in pools.”

Over the past decade, faculty have become increasingly willing to protest that academic workloads are overwhelming, stressful, and conducive to ill health. In last year’s The Slow Professor, Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber called for a shift to a more deliberative, less frenetic approach to research and teaching. Cultural theorist Rosalind Gill contends, “A punishing intensification of work has become an endemic feature of academic life.”[1][1]  The contributors to a special issue of The Canadian Geographer on academic workload and health describe “academic cultures and practices that valorize overwork, including expressions of martyrdom, talking about not sleeping or eating and about working all of the time, [and] an expectation of always being available for work purposes . . . .”

Faculty complaints about workload and stress may “appear self-indulgent,” as Berg and Seeber acknowledge. Mark Kingwell, for example, has little patience: “I am sure that people feel rushed to produce journal articles and positive teaching evaluations, to sit on this committee or that. But can you seriously compare this to actual work? Surely, there is a better term for such high-end special pleading. Ultra-first-world problem? Point-one-per-cent lament?” This is an invitation to shame and guilt. How can you be working too hard if what you are doing is not even work?

And the culture of shaming starts early. A mid-August tweet from the University of Cambridge praises novelist and alumna Zadie Smith for spurning barbecues in favour of long hours in the library and asks students, “Are you #teambbq or #teamlibrary”? The fierce competition for admission suggests entering students are unlikely to need an additional nudge. But the comment is perfectly characteristic of the anxiety that if we are not working all of the time, we are not doing enough to pursue the world-class status demanded by a growing number of institutions, with all members pressed to achieve more with declining resources. It reflects the anxiety of a neoliberal higher education sector beset with measurements and rankings of excellence. Graduate students are urged to publish while completing doctoral studies as rapidly as possible, even while new (and not-so-new)  proposals advocate that they also commit extensive time  preparing for non-academic careers. Institutions increase class sizes for introductory courses taught by teaching-stream faculty and sessional instructors and then mandate the time-consuming development of online resources to support struggling students. Research universities require qualifications for new Assistant Professors that were once sufficient to achieve tenure.

Contract faculty cobbling together enough courses to pay rent, staff members who have experienced surges in expectations without salary increases, and hourly-waged service workers on campus laid off every summer are all experiencing time crunches of various kinds, exacerbated by financial strains. Rather than isolating one kind of faculty work for analysis, we might assess how various campus groups—including students who are juggling onerous work obligations with school—are participating in a culture of academic exhaustion. We need to know more about each other’s work conditions. A student who fell asleep in one of my classes explained that she clerked at a convenience store until two a.m., when public transit had stopped running, and then walked several kilometers home. She had no family financial support and, as a first-generation university student, feared acquiring a heavy debt load. A member of the custodial staff described how her work duties had been revised to increase the amount of heavy lifting while reducing the social contact with faculty and students that she enjoyed. Knowing these stories, and translating that knowledge into advocacy for better student aid and more equitable and safe working conditions across campus, is crucial.

But we also need to resist the notion that academic work is such a privilege and a pleasure that there can never be too much of it—only too little capacity to carry it out. This approach stigmatizes people who bring up workload concerns and equates endless work with competence, pushing out those who, in Berg and Seeber’s terms, fear they are “not suited” to academia, who judge themselves as inadequate to (unreasonable) demands. It also creates trickle-down impacts, as burnt out faculty members’ responsibilities shift to their colleagues.

And we need to watch out for the unequal workloads that are imposed. Alison Mountz is among those who have pointed out that female faculty members perform a disproportionate amount of emotional labour; persuasive evidence suggests they do more service work, particularly in lower-status roles,  and that this has a negative impact on promotion. Racialized and Indigenous faculty are called upon by their institutions as diversity workers and as mentors to students from traditionally underrepresented groups, sharply increasing service responsibilities that are less valued than research.[2]

Universities and colleges have increased their attention to student mental health, but most are doing far less to support faculty and staff members (even while adding to their work the support and monitoring of student well-being).

Workload is a labour issue; workload is a feminist issue; workload is a disability issue; workload is a mental and physical health issue, a collegiality issue, and a sustainability issue. It is also one that academia avoids tackling. Ramped-up expectations in all areas of faculty performance have come to seem inevitable, and they cannot be resisted without collective will.

[1] More recently, Gill reflects on the ubiquity of a discourse of academic pain among tenured faculty: “Academics’ talk about our own lives has become suffused with extraordinarily violent metaphors: people speak of going under, of coming up for air, of drowning or suffocating. This shocking imagery should surely give cause for concern.” Rosalind Gill, “What Would Les Back Do?: If Generosity Could Save Us.” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society. Pre-print. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10767-017-9263-9

[2] The essays in The Equity Myth expose a much broader set of issues and reach depressing conclusions about the ways in which symbolic forms of inclusion and diversity are overriding more substantive equity efforts. Frances Henry, Enakshi Dua, Carl E. James, Audrey Kobayashi, Peter Li, Howard Ramos, and Malinda K. Smith, The Equity Myth: Racialization and Indigeneity at Canadian Universities (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017). The essays by Henry and Kobayashi and by James pay particular attention to the workload consequences.

 

Heidi TD

Heidi Tiedemann Darrock holds a PhD from U of T and taught as a contract faculty member at universities and colleges in Ontario and BC for more than a decade before accepting a position as an Assistant Teaching Professor. For four years she was a member of the MLA’s Committee on Contingent Labor, serving for two years as Chair. Heidi publishes on Canadian literature.

adjuncts · inequality · pedagogy · student engagement · teaching

Students Respond to the Adjunct Crisis

Adjunct professors have been described as part of the “working poor”: the highest educated and lowest paid workers in the United States. They are group of contingent labourers who work at poverty-level rates, shuttle between multiple campuses, have little to no job security, and struggle to climb themselves out once they enter the sessional circuit. Critiques of the increasing “adjunctification” of universities usually focus on the plight of the adjuncts themselves, collecting stories of overwork, despair, and uncertainty. But the undergraduate students for whose education these adjuncts are responsible are often left completely ignorant of the hierarchical system, assuming all professors are paid relatively the same amount, a sustainable and permanent salary. Why keep them out of the loop when the crisis has such an indelible affect on them, their education, and their futures? 
My two current Composition II classes read and discussed this Atlantic article about the issue, and most were shocked. Here are some of the tweets that emerged from that discussion (remember, my class tweets). 
(Siiiiighhhhh to that last one…)

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsIn addition to tweeting, some students compiled this collective statement including a few personal anecdotes: 

As undergraduate students, we are very concerned with how the increasing reliance on temporary workers, who are paid per course and granted no financial security, is affecting our education, especially since we pay an exorbitant amount in tuition dollars.
Professors and adjuncts are the backbone of secondary education, but full-time professors should not be treated better than adjuncts. University students pay an incredible amount to attend private schools such as Fordham and adjuncts should be earning more out of that tuition. 
Adrianna Kezar, head of the University of Southern California’s Delphi Project, stated that “institutions that have large numbers of adjuncts or students that take lots of classes with adjuncts have lower graduation rates.” This is a one way that the adjunct crisis is affecting us as students, and how it could potentially affect our futures. What could be the possible reason for this? 
In addition, as a student paying a considerable amount for my education, it pains me to see that the school I chose and attend treats its employees with such unfairness. How can some faculty make a six-figure income, while some adjuncts are earning a salary of $20,000? Ultimately, I’m supporting an institution that is capable of fixing this crisis, yet chooses not to.
“One of my favorite professors this semester revealed to us that he is an adjunct.  He always goes out of his way to keep class interesting and even planned a class trip to the New York Philharmonic.  When describing being an adjunct, it was evident that he was discouraged with his current situation, for he has an Ivy League education and it seems that he is/was hoping for more permanency in his occupation.”
“I was recently talking to one of my friends about the adjunct crisis. As a chemistry major, she told me she was interested in doing research with her chemistry professor this year. However, when she asked her professor if there were any opportunities available, he told her since he is an adjunct professor, he does not have a lab to work in and therefore cannot allow students to conduct research under him. This situation shows that hiring professors as adjuncts ultimately leaves students at a disadvantage, as students are deprived of opportunities to learn and research due to the lack of resources given to adjuncts.” 
According to BBC, Uber drivers in the United Kingdom are entitled to holiday pay, rest breaks, and the National Living Wage. Uber drivers are entitled to benefits, but the professors and educators teaching the next generation are not? 
As students at a University it can often seem like the adjunct crisis is out of our control. The grand structure and distribution of jobs and wealth come from the control of a higher power. But these are our professors, and this is our education. As a student body we should stand in solidarity with adjuncts and work together to make our voices heard.

—–

Let’s keep talking with our students, listening to our students, and as they themselves have said, building broader solidarity with each other and with staff and faculty at all levels of higher education–across Canada and the US alike. 

adjuncts · blacklivesmatter · gradschool · phdchat · solidarity · structural solutions · unions

On the Recent NLRB Ruling in Favour of Grad Student Unions

Definitions matter. It’s a lesson I teach my Composition students every year: define your terms. Redefine old terms. Assert your intimate understanding of the topic and sculpt out the contours of your study at the outset. Writing a paper on gentrification? Identify and describe what that term means right away, so you can prove you’re in control and the reader can trust you as guide her through the paper.

In Canada, graduate students employed by the university have been allowed to unionize since a 1975 decision by the Ontario Labour Relations Board in the case of a graduate association at York University. Most major Canadian universities contain at least one student union, though it is important to note these unions are not the same as legally recognized collective bargaining units (*thanks for this important correction by the anonymous commenter below). These are not all affiliated with a larger national union, but as often funded and subsidized by the government, they retain autonomous power over their working conditions and ability to speak and act as a collective. The Canadian Federation of Students exists in order to represent the graduate employee needs of publicly funded universities. I’m not always on-board with the idealization of Canada that happens down here in the States, but this is one issue where I’m like – omg, yes.

In the US, public universities function under state law, and most of the major ones were unionized by the end of the twentieth century. Prior to 2000, and between 2004 and 2016, graduate students at American private universities were defined primarily as students rather than employees, blocking their ability to unionize on the basis that any labour conducted for the university serves as mere apprenticeship, training students for our future jobs. But, in this precarious academic climate, students are no longer satisfied with treating graduate school as a holding period for a future that may never come. In 2015, the super awesome graduate workers at New York University (many of whom I’m proud to count as friends) set the precedent for altering the NLRB’s ruling, and Columbia’s appeal for official recognition for private universities has just, in late August, been approved, reversing the Brown University ruling from 2004, and dispensing of an Amicus Brief submitted by a number of leading Ivy League universities voicing their opposition to the proposed ruling (using the dubious reasoning that collective bargaining would detract from the educational experience).

The Board Decision, found here, states in no uncertain terms that “student assistants who have a common-law employment relationship with their university are statutory employees under the Act,” countering the Brown University Board claim that graduate assistants are “primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.” This is a victory of definitions–of better defining who is and isn’t an employee, who is and isn’t an employer, and what it means to be both a student studying to enhance the mind and a labourer working to enhance the university. It is both/and, not either/or. Already, in response to this decision, universities like Columbia have crafted subtly anti-union websites to try to dissuade students from acting on this decision (not linking, for obvious reasons). The campaign against graduate student workers has moved from a national to a local level.

Many grad students, especially those in the first years of the program, are beset by an innate sense of gratitude and obsequiousness toward their superiors; I remember this. Just the other day an anxious facebook status popped up in my Timehop wherein I bewailed the accidental sending of an email about graduate student business to a number of faculty members as well. I remember being afraid to speak up about conditions that seemed latently unfair, because hey – I’m tough, we’re all in this together, that person seems worse off than I am, I can handle being asked to work a few extra hours a week beyond my contract, right? Wouldn’t want to stir the pot and risk creating enemies.

But unions can give collective voice to these individual grievances, rendering instances of injustice both less personal and more urgent. And faculty should be on our side too–happier working conditions for us means happier working conditions for faculty.

Some believe that we should be grateful for the luxury of engaging in ideas of the mind, that this work is inherently fulfilling, and besides: we are not coal miners, whose working conditions are objectively worse than ours. According to such positions, by barely making above minimum wage, we are participating in a centuries-old tradition of the suffering monk, bent over his poorly lit desk and scratching away at parchment until the wee hours of the morning. There is a beauty and a nobility in that. But as a medievalist, I know that even these monks sometimes scribbled exasperated comments in the margins; they probably deserved and desired better working conditions, too! And as for the coal miner: true, we don’t experience the physical and mental duress and possible health risks of working long hours in a dingy mine. But we do face rampant mental health issues that we can’t even talk about for fear of demonstrating unfitness for the very conditions that have made us this way, and some of us confuse self care with actual care, neglecting to look after our basic needs. The presence of extreme suffering in the world does not negate the hardship we might also face, but on a relatively smaller scale.

A quick read through any of the extant graduate union contracts shows that graduate student unions empower the graduate community, giving them some control and autonomy over the precarious working conditions that enable institutional exploitation of cheap labour. But they also do more than this. Grad student unions can help us reach outside the bounds of the academy and partner with existing social movements in order to advocate for broader social change, examples of which are the grad union votes around the BDS movement, or actions against police unions inspired by #blacklivesmatter. Hillary Clinton, to her credit, praised the NLRB decision on Twitter, but elsewhere condemned BDS. The conversation is becoming more heated and more urgent, and as the new school year rolls into full swing, and election day draws (looms?) ever closer, I’m eager to see how the conversations will shift.

Definitions matter. I speak the voice of “we” and of “us” here, but technically I’m not part of the student body anymore – definitionally speaking. Like now Doctor Melissa (yay!!!!), it has been 25 consecutive years since I’ve entered the Fall semester not as a student, having successfully defended my dissertation in late August. But I still care about students’ rights, and I care about social movements that can mutually thrive and grow together, like the fight for graduate employee representation at private universities, the fight for more fair and equitable treatment of adjunct workers and other contingent faculty, and even the fight for just treatment of permanent faculty, who at Long Island University in Brooklyn have recently been locked out alongside their sessional brethren (ousted from their positions the day before the semester, deprived access to their university emails and health insurance, and replaced by temporary workers of dubious origin). Graduate employee, adjunct professor, and tenure-track professor alike, we’re all in this together.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js Other works cited: 
Zinni, Deborah M., Parbudyal Singh, and Anne F. MacLennan. “An Exploratory Study of Graduate Student Unions in Canada.” Relations Industrielles / Industrial Relations 60.1 (2005): 145-176. JSTOR.  

academic work · adjuncts · affect · change · classrooms · emotional labour

Returns, Rituals, & the Road Ahead

September makes me both nostalgic and thrilled. It never fails: whatever my working conditions, when Labour Day weekend rolls around I feel a tug at my memory. My heart starts racing just a little bit. I make more lists that I do in the summer.

My first memory of going to school is hazy. I remember lunchtime which, for me, meant opening an orange plastic lunchbox with the Muppets on the front. The edge of the decal was worn because the lunchbox was a hand-me-down from my babysitter’s older children. I remember the sound of the front snaps and the smell of my sandwich. I remember my thermos filled with water or juice. I remember being excited on the days I got a juice box.

I remember the first day of grade six more clearly because it was the first day in a new school in a new country. My mom drove me. I was nervous. I wore purple overalls because they were my favourite and they made me feel brave and cool. Until this year I had never had a long commute to school. I’d either walked or taken the city school bus.

Yesterday, I texted my mom and asked her if she remembered dropping me off at university for the first time. She did. Of course she did. We had driven nearly twenty hours from Ontario back to North Carolina. We’d made the geographic shift from the cool mornings of August in Halliburton County to the oppressive humidity of Chapel Hill where walking through the early morning air feels a bit more like swimming slowly than anything I’ve ever experienced (except swimming slowly). I remember the yellow painted concrete of my dormitory walls, the surprise at how small the room was and how close my new roommate’s (a stranger) bed was to my own. And I remember struggling with the campus map trying to find my 8:30am Philosophy class.

I remember the first day of graduate school–how excited and nervous I felt to be in Montreal. How fancy everyone looked to me, how polished, how prepared. How unlike me. I remember the first day of my PhD, walking for a full hour around campus confused by the sign for the Art Building and not thinking to look in the Social Sciences tower for my orientation room.

I remember the first day of not starting classes. Or rather, I remember the first day of being the instructor fresh out of graduate school and trying very hard to sound as professional and in-charge as I wanted to feel. I remember driving between the campuses where I taught and thinking, after the first week of introductory lectures and syllabus questions, that perhaps teaching four new classes was going to be too much.

I remember my first “real” job–the excitement of an office with my name on the door, a schedule of department meetings (I know, I am one of those people who loves department meetings…), and a fresh agenda waiting to be filled with lists. I remember my second “real” job. I remember the years, most recently, of going back to sessional work, and how, despite the difficulty of shifting into underpaid labour, I still felt excited at the start of a new year. The first day of school matters, for so many reasons.

This year, as I sit at my new desk having just completed my new hour-long commute, I find myself so eager to take this moment and reflect on what it means to be able to begin a new year on campus. Sure, I am obviously nostalgic. My memories are grounded in my own experiences and affects. And I am also aware–so aware–of the ways in which university and college campuses and classrooms are challenging, restricted, and often inaccessible spaces for so many.

As we begin the new year let’s take a moment to think of our own first days. As we ready ourselves and our classrooms or offices or cubicles or cars or library spots for the labour of teaching and learning in vastly different material conditions let’s try to see one another’s work and support it. Let’s imagine that in spite of inequities (among students, among teachers, among academic workers) we can in our own ways contribute to making the project of higher learning more equitable, more just, and more exciting.

Happy September, dear Readers. Take care of yourselves as we begin.

academic reorganization · academic work · adjuncts · guest post

Guest Spotlight: The Crisis Goes Deeper Than We Think, part 2

This is the second of a two-part spotlight on the crisis in higher education written by Sarah Waurechen. The first part, originally published at rabble.ca, was posted Friday and can be read here. 
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Teachers who work in Continuing Education in Quebec CEGEPs, like adjuncts who work in the universities across North America, continually face a dilemma: how do you strike a balance between the need to protect yourself and the need to protect your students? The short answer is, you don’t. Most of us perform significant amounts of free labour in order to provide the extra support that will help our students succeed, sacrificing our personal time and private lives at the altar of higher education in the process.
I’m not sure that this would be healthy even if it did work, but the issue is that it clearly doesn’t work. The number of vulnerable students is on the rise, and students who need extra guidance and protection from the realities of budget cuts and restructuring are legion. Teachers simply cannot help them all. There are no more compromises to be made, and every attempt to protect one student seems to end up hurting another.
I work at a Cegep where the size of the Continuing Education program has doubled in the last decade. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 30% of the overall student body is now registered in Continuing Education classes, which means studying in the evening or on weekends. These classes attract mature students, immigrants who are trying to integrate into Quebec society, and a growing number of working-class individuals who just can’t afford to study full time or during the day.
The demographics of Continuing Education therefore mean that these students tend to need more help, not less. Continuing Education students are tired because they work all day and then go to school for 3-4 hours at night. They eat on route or during break, and sometimes have difficulty staying awake through class. Some of them have small children or sick family members to care for at home; others are sick themselves, or are members of the LGBT community and navigating the troubled waters of identity politics.
Despite this, I am not paid to answer their emails or meet with them during office hours. Continuing Education students are, instead, left to fend for themselves. And while my colleagues and I do our best to help them via informal consultation, there are simply more students who need help than there are hours in a day. 
More troubling still, students who are suffering from emotional distress, or those in need of serious career advice, need more specialized help than a teacher can provide.  But Continuing Education students don’t have reliable access to the services that could help them with these problems. This is because Counseling Services and Academic Advising both close before night school begins.
As the provincial government has reduced funding and imposed austerity measures on Quebec CEGEPs, teachers and professionals have made compromises. The availability of support services has failed to keep up with demand, but the services themselves do remain available. And although positions aren’t replaced as people retire, everyone else has tried to pick up the slack.
But these compromises have not been enough to protect everyone, and they have been made with an eye to regular day-division programs. Facing a very real lack of resources, colleges like my own have therefore been forced to rely on the funds generated by Continuing Education to make ends meet.
Once you understand this reality, the expansion of Continuing Education makes sense because Continuing Education is very profitable. Students in night or weekend classes still pay student fees that help fund things like Counseling Services and Academic Advising, even if they can’t get to school while those services are open. They also pay a certain amount of money per course, if they’re not full-time. And don’t forget, the teachers who work in Continuing Education are paid only half the salary of their counterparts who teach during the day.
In sum, we’ve created a context wherein colleges are encouraged to turn to exploitative systems like Continuing Education in order to keep everything else running the way it should. We’ve reached the point where the only way I have left to protect my students is to advocate for them, and for myself. Making more compromises would make me even more complicit in the system than I already am – and I cannot allow that to happen. For me at least, it’s time stand up, raise my voice, and fight.
Sarah Waurechen has a PhD in early modern British history from Queen’s University, Kingston. She has taught courses on a contract basis at the University of Alberta, Queen’s University, and McGill University, and currently works as a Continuing Education instructor at Dawson College in Montreal.
academic reorganization · academic work · adjuncts · guest post

Guest Spotlight: The Crisis Goes Deeper Than We Think, part 1

This is a two-part guest post from Sarah Waurechen. This first part appeared at rabble.ca in April and is republished with permission from both rabble.ca and, of course, from Sarah. Her second part will be published on Monday.

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Six months ago, almost no one outside academia knew what an adjunct was. Now, after National Adjunct Walkout Day, and strikes at two of Ontario’s largest universities, we know that poorly paid and precarious workers called adjuncts (also known as sessionals) are responsible for more than half of the teaching done at universities and colleges throughout North America. On average, adjuncts are paid just $2,500 for teaching a university-level course in the U.S. and $7,500 in Canada. Their contracts expire at the end of every semester, and they have no benefits or sick days. 

While precarious employment among our intellectual elite might seem like an isolated issue — a crisis tied specifically to university and college campuses — this is not the case. In fact, there is an even less well-known group of highly educated and grossly underpaid teachers hidden within the CEGEP system. CEGEPs are institutions, unique to Quebec, that offer both technical programs and pre-university diplomas at the post-secondary level. They are publicly funded and staffed by unionized employees. Most people therefore assume that CEGEP instructors have cushy, public-sector jobs. But this is not the case, and the CEGEPs have evolved a class of precarious workers that look an awful lot like adjuncts.
This is because larger CEGEPs offer something called Continuing Education: evening and weekend courses designed to accommodate students who are working during the day or who need to retake a course. Continuing Education teachers are paid significantly less than those who teach in regular daytime programs, even though they offer the same courses for the same credit. Additionally, teachers working in Continuing Education have no benefits or sick leave. What does this look like in practice? A science teacher with a master’s degree and five years of teaching experience would make just over $52,000 per year if working full time; the same teacher giving the same courses in Continuing Education would only make about $29,000.  If the teacher in question has a PhD, the difference between salaries would be wider still.  
Like adjuncts, teachers working in Continuing Education are therefore constantly worried about their ability to pay the bills. The inequality of the situation is striking in and of itself, especially since it involves public-sector employees, but there are bigger concerns here as well. Teachers working in Continuing Education are only paid for “contract hours,” meaning that they are not remunerated for anything other than course preparation, teaching time, and grading. At some point, suffering from exhaustion and struggling with limited resources, something has to give. That something is likely to be office hours, email time, and arranging accommodations for students who are ill or in crisis, all of which can take hours of a teacher’s time. When Continuing Education teachers can no longer provide these services, we will see the emergence of second-class students toiling alongside these second-class instructors, and the best education will be reserved for the elite. 
The growth of Continuing Education in the CEGEPs, like the increasing number of adjuncts at the universities, is linked to the corporatization of higher education and to government austerity measures. Continuing Education is a cash cow, providing a substantial budget surplus, which can be used to make up shortfalls elsewhere. It’s therefore in the interest of schools to expand these programs in order to balance their budgets, whether or not it’s in the best interest of their teachers or students. Still, individual CEGEPs are not the real culprits. They are merely attempting to make up for repeated funding cuts that have been imposed by the provincial government. These cuts show no sign of relenting any time soon, and on March 26, the Quebec government announced a further $21 million in cuts to the CEGEPs and $103 million to Quebec universities.
The underfunding of higher education is dangerous and amounts to gambling with our future. Young people absolutely must continue to have access to an education that challenges them. They need guidance developing their critical thinking skills and practice in the creative application of abstract ideas. These are skills they will use as business people, politicians, professionals, and the everyday men and women that keep society functioning at a more practical level. And the only way they are going to get these skills is if we pay teachers a living wage so that they can do their jobs effectively.
Right now, a growing number of the people teaching in higher education are distracted by worries about whether or not they’ll need to go on employment insurance next semester, or how many groceries they can buy this week. They come into work with serious injuries or high fevers because they cannot afford to take a night off. The current system is abusive of teachers and students alike. It fixes short-term monetary problems at the expense of long-term societal success by perpetuating inequality on a grand scale. This is why university educators were on strike in Ontario, and this is why students are on the streets in Quebec. And we can, quite simply, do better. 

Sarah Waurechen has a PhD in early modern British history from Queen’s University, Kingston. She has taught courses on a contract basis at the University of Alberta, Queen’s University, and McGill University, and currently works as a Continuing Education instructor at Dawson College in Montreal.
adjuncts · after the LTA · contract work · ideas for change · media · reform

CAF Bits & Bobs

In lieu of an essay-style post today, I have a request. If you’re a contingent academic faculty member and you haven’t yet taken the HEQCO survey, please head over to their site and fill it out. It’s a little thing, but policy makers are looking to find out what needs fixing, and you’re the ones to tell them. The survey can be found at http://www.nonfulltimefacultysurvey.ca/

And if you’ve missed them, Erin now has four articles in her series on CAF over at Rabble. Check ’em out here: http://rabble.ca/category/bios/erin-wunker