academic work · contract work · disability · equity · job market

Guest post – Have they thought about what they’re asking?: the inequity of job applications

By Alana Cattapan
Dalhousie University

The highly saturated, incredibly challenging world of the academic job market is made easier, just a little bit, by the standardization of the documents requested by search committees. For the most part there are a few documents—the cover letter, the CV, the teaching dossier, the research statement, the writing sample (and increasingly, the diversity statement)—which are then tailored according to the job ad. It is not that this is a simple task. Writing each document in the first place is challenging and job applications are a genre of writing all their own. But once they are written, it is largely a matter of refining the documents for each application.

Some hiring departments, however, are going in the direction of less standardization, not more. I saw a job ad today that asked for two sample syllabi—not merely syllabi for courses previously taught—but rather syllabi for specific courses in the hiring department, and I was outraged. Asking applicants to write full syllabi for courses not only requires an incredible amount of time for applicants who don’t make the cut. It also perpetuates a cycle of privilege in which only candidates with enough time to carefully put together syllabi (again, above and beyond the norms of regular job applications) are considered for the position. (And this is not even considering cases where there have been accusations on the part of job applicants that their sample syllabi have been used, without permission or pay, to develop actual course content.)

Let’s consider the labour. I’m not sure how much time other people spend on a syllabus, but I spend at least a week. I think carefully about the pedagogical goals for the class, and how they might be achieved through an examination of certain concepts and themes. I think about how each selection of course material intersects with others. I reread texts for ideas about connections that might emerge when we read them in a specific order. I think about how the flow of the class might be interrupted by holidays, and how to time assignments so that students will have adequate feedback to improve. In short, there are many considerations and it takes a while to put a good syllabus together. If fifty applicants each put together one syllabus (and the train from Chicago was going sixty-five miles per hour), then for one specific syllabus request, the hiring committee will have wasted nearly a year of unpaid academic labour.

And beyond the work involved, I think about who it is that has the capacity to fulfil these kinds of requests. If contingent faculty members are applying for this job (a group that includes a disproportionate number of women and people of colour), they will write these syllabi after long days of driving between campuses. They will do so while sacrificing time that they could spend publishing their research, painstakingly crafting a syllabus they may not ever get the chance to teach. Disabled applicants, parents, and those tasked with eldercare are also placed at a disadvantage, for they might have sufficient resources to tailor a job application but not enough to develop two new syllabi. Or they might sacrifice self care, or everyday tasks, to get the application in. And sacrifice they will, because applicants have come to think that if we are to obtain the elusive tenure-track position, it will all be worth it in the end. If we don’t make the time in our lives to write the syllabi, another rare opportunity for a job will pass us by.

These requests are now not just part of tenure-track job ads, but applications for visiting assistant professorships, postdoctoral fellowships, and (gasp) sessional positions. When search committees ask for more documents—for more time-consuming, carefully constructed, well-proofread expressions of one’s commitment to the academy—they are asking for more unpaid, unseen academic labour that yet again falls more heavily on those already bearing the burden of disability, responsibility, and precarity.


Alana Cattapan is a CIHR postdoctoral fellow in the Faculty of Medicine at Dalhousie University and an incoming Assistant Professor at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan. Her research examines women’s participation in policy making, identifying links between the state, the commercialization of the body, biotechnologies, and reproductive labour.















Image: unsplash

academic reorganization · classrooms · contract work · guest post

Guest Post: Corporate Education vs. Corporatized Universities

Those of us teaching in post-secondary settings have a tendency to vilify corporate education writ large. In my mind, I have always equated the ‘corporatized’ part of the university institution with the most insidious and inhumane aspects of teaching part-time at a public institution. For example, I believed that because the university has adopted a corporate model—i.e. piecemeal pay for part-time work, a valuing of “learning outcomes” without a sense of what preparation, delivery, and developing classroom empathy entails—I am not properly valued as an instructor.
Here is a more concrete example of what I mean. Earlier last week, I applied for a sessional teaching position at my home institution, where I would be teaching 180 students, supervising 8 TAs, lecturing for two hours, running office hours and offering a weekly one hour tutorial.  Because of our collective agreement, if I am hired, I will be paid about $4500 ($1125 per month) before taxes, regardless of how many hours it takes for me to prepare and deliver the course material.  Our agreement does not distinguish between half-credit courses with 30 students and half-credit courses with 180 students.  It also does not distinguish between brand new classes and established ones.  Finally, the newest courses—those requiring new teaching preparation and that have never been taught in my department previously—tend to be the largest courses in terms of enrollment. Why? Because in the corporatized university model, departments like mine can sometimes get money to hire sessionals if we offer a new, huge class. So, the fact that the university has requested that the part-time instructor develop new curriculum is not factored into pay, but is an assumed part of teaching duties that is not billable.  Neither is the additional time spent on administration, and educating and training TAs.  And, if I need supplies, like a new dongle to connect to the projector system, these are additional personal expenses that are not reimbursable.
I tell you all of this as if it is not a familiar story to all of you.  I narrate these expectations and pay arrangements because they are indicative of the neo-liberal, corporatized university model that is now the industry standard.  Though it is obvious that this hiring practice is exploitative, and certainly is in massive need of change, this is a model that I have accepted, and to some degree, encouraged, by continuing to accept these working conditions.
However, as a point of contrast, let me narrate another experience. I was recently hired to work part time as a corporate educator for a test preparation firm, and a lot of my strongly held beliefs were tested and realigned.  Let me, as a point of comparison, give you a sense of my experience with this corporation thus far.
In applying to work for a corporate educator I had to prove my abilities. I was required to pass the section of the test I was hired to help the students prepare for.  Begrudgingly, I took the test and felt anger that my teaching experience didn’t speak for itself.  When I passed that, I was then required to complete a teaching interview.  I received scads of paperwork detailing the expectations of the company for the interview, and was given a clear indication of what they were looking for in a sample lesson.  During the interview, my lesson was followed up by questions about scenario-specific situations about classroom management, and was assessed on my ability to handle underprepared, and aggressive students.  Once I was officially hired, I was flown to headquarters for an intensive training weekend.  I was expected to prepare extensively for the training, and would be teaching four different sections of the prescribed syllabus based on a standard set of materials.  It wasn’t training so much as it was further evaluation of my pedagogy, and my ability to follow their stringent model of instruction.  The expectations were very high, and very specific. They were also wholly different than any expectations, assessment, or application processes I’ve ever experienced teaching in the corporatized university. Further, to become a corporate educator, I was evaluated publicly in front of my peers, and was received criticism and feedback on content and style in front of my fellow trainees for at least ten minutes after each twenty-minute lesson.  After the training, I had to wait 48 hours to find out I was certified.
In some ways, my somewhat negative expectations of corporate education systems were met.  I had to adapt to a rigid model of instruction, and my creativity as a teacher was certainly hampered by the set schedule and learning objectives. Yet I would be remiss not to note that the high expectations and demanding hours were much like teaching for the corporatized university. Moreover, as I reflect back on this experience, I realize that in many ways, I found this initial foray into corporate education much more satisfying. 
It was certainly more humane.  The salary was hourly, and was negotiable based on my experience and education. 
When I teach for the corporate educators, I will be paid for every hour of prep and all student emails.  I was paid for training, which included being flown to a different province and put up in a hotel. I have access to my performance evaluations.  I have a mentor and a clearly established line of communication for both administrative and pedagogical questions and feedback. Also, get this: emailing my mentor is billable.  My teaching will be regularly evaluated; my positive teaching reviews equate to raises and further opportunities. I am able to train for other positions, and am encouraged to do so. I was hired permanent part time.  Though I am not guaranteed work, my contract is permanent, and I will never need to reapply.
I have been trained to believe that my lack of value is linked to the corporate direction universities have taken.  What I have learned in the last two weeks is to be far more careful about applications of labels and the way they translate into labour experiences.  It turns out, I want many of the things corporate education models can offer.  Maybe there is more room to maneuver and cause change from within this corporatized university structure than I ever thought possible. 

I can’t believe I am saying this, but: we can learn a lot from corporate education models.

Emily Ballantyne is a PhD student, part-time lecturer, and most recently, a corporate educator.
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

#alt-ac · academic reorganization · administration · contract work · enter the confessional · jobs · risky writing · solidarity · strike

Crossing the Lines

I’m taking a break from the #Alt-Ac 101 series this week to talk about the York University and University of Toronto strikes, a topic near and dear to my heart. Despite those strikes being weeks old by this point, I haven’t felt able to address them until now, in large part because I work for York University. More specifically, I work in the Faculty of Graduate Studies, for a Dean who is a key member of the employer-side bargaining team. It has felt distinctly unsafe, in and out of the office, to take any but the party line on the current “labour disruption,” as the university likes to call it. Indeed, any language I use about the strike in the office is prescribed by the university. But I will be a York University employee no longer after today–I’m moving over to the Hospital for Sick Children, where I’ll be running award and professional development programming for the students and postdocs in the hospital’s research division–and so I can now speak as I like.

I had been a PhD student for all of three months when we went on strike in 2008. York University’s CUPE 3903 represents graduate students and contract academic faculty, and it was largely for the benefit of the latter that we went out that year. We knew precarity when we saw it, we knew that the system could do better, and we knew that we were the ones who had to force it to. We struck for months, in the bitter cold, and while we did the university shut down almost entirely. The only cars coming onto campus were those of staff members, or delightful friends bearing sandwiches, thermoses of coffee, and scrap wood for burning. We continued bargaining, although when no agreement could be reached we were legislated back to work and into a new collective agreement. We did at least win some gains in the conversion program, which saw contract academic faculty positions converted to tenure lines. I ended the strike feeling exhausted and disoriented, although far savvier about what lay ahead of me if I ended up becoming CAF myself, and far closer to my program colleagues than I had been before the strike started. I had to trash my parka, because it was so deeply impregnated with smoke from the fire barrel that I couldn’t get the smell out. After months of eating them cold and soggy out of a mittened hand, I could never face the Grad Cafe’s channa masala wrap again. 
This time around, I’m crossing the picket lines daily, because I’m forced to. If I don’t, I lose my job. Students have been given the right to refuse to cross, and faculty can stay away as long as classes continue to be suspended (and are making a case that being forced to resume teaching without TAs compromises academic integrity, and so refusing to is a matter of academic freedom), but I have no choice. I walk quickly, with my hood up, my headphones in, and my hands in my pockets. I want to join my graduate colleagues, to wave and shout encouragement, but from my side of the sidewalk I worry it would look like mockery or a threat. At the office, I’m required to refer to the strike as a “labour disruption,” to point students to statements like “Regrettably, two units of CUPE 3903 representing Teaching Assistants and Graduate Assistants (Units 1 and 3), rejected the University’s offers and remain on strike,” when the only thing I think is regrettable is the lack of solidarity among units. I sit in my office and watch my colleagues be threatened with gun violence on the lines via YouTube, and follow along on Twitter as Senate, amidst strenuous opposition, decides to resume classes while the strike is ongoing. I watch the lines of cars get longer and longer as more people try to enter campus. I watch tempers flare. I watch administration decide that resuming classes is more important than resuming bargaining. I watch the employer-side bargaining team withhold, withhold, withhold until the night before the strike deadline, when miraculously something resembling a decent offer shows up on the table. I watch administration invite Unit 1 and 3 members to return to work despite the fact that they are on strike.

What neither university seems to understand is that this strike is not really about wages. Nor is it about seniority, or benefits, or childcare, not really. It is about the fact that graduate students and contract academic faculty, in Canada and elsewhere (see Boyda for a New York perspective) recognize that the academic employment (and teaching, and research) system is broken. It is about the fact that they feel as though they are the only ones who are going to attempt to change it. It won’t be tenured faculty. It won’t be undergraduate students. It will be graduate students and CAF, or no one, and their chance is now. This is their chance to say “you want to pretend that I only work 10 hours a week and prohibit me from taking any outside employment? Fine–pay me enough to live on.” This is their chance to insist that at least a few of their ranks–a minuscule number, considering that York employed nearly 1800 CAF last year (as compared to not quite 1400 t-t faculty)–have the chance to enjoy at least some measure of job security. This is their moment to seize what is a miraculous surge in positive public opinion and require our universities to be accountable, to step up, to do better. 

Our universities, the people they are made up of, can do better. 
But not by forcing their graduate students to choose between their education and their jobs. Not by using rhetoric that suggests that the only students who matter are the undergraduates, when graduate students are students too. Not by putting them in danger on the picket lines by inviting thousands of people to cross them daily. But by recognizing that once, they as administrators were the graduate students they’re vilifying, the CAF they exploit while hiring ever-increasing numbers of questionably necessary administrators (me included). They can do better by recognizing their own privilege, and their responsibility as those with power to enact change. They can do better by attempting to understand, rather than dismissing. They can do better by getting back to the bargaining table and bargaining in good faith. 
I’m not going to miss crossing the picket lines. But at least now I can speak about it, instead of just watching. 
best laid plans · contract work · good things · january blues · positive thoughts as I fill out grant applications · women

Generous Thinking

If you ask me, Mondays sort of beg for some kind of genuine inspiration. Especially Mondays in January. Mondays are, in a micro-manner, a day to ever so slightly return to and reset your larger best laid plans. Sure, it is very easy to slip into Blue Monday mode, but let’s not today.

Why the optimism? Well, this weekend I have found myself thinking time and again about generosity. I thought about it on Friday evening when my partner and I went out for dinner with colleagues. Amidst the genuine anguish about what is happening on our campus here was such an undercurrent of real, palpable care for the spaces in which we work and especially for the students we teach in our classes. We talked about what’s wrong, got angry–righteously so!–about the many systemic injustices, and throughout it all I kept thinking ‘what luck, to be engaged in such generous thinking.’ Generosity was the electric current of the conversation. It kept us coming back from rage or frustration to a refrain of how much we care.

And then, on Saturday morning at oh-my-lord-o’clock I met a former student for coffee before she joined her badminton team for 8:30am game preparations. She took a bus from where the team was staying on the outskirts of the city to meet me. (I’ll admit, all I did was clean off the truck and drive, but it was c-o-l-d!!! and e-a-r-l-y!). There we sat, the only people in the coffee shop, and talked about her classes, my research, her plans for grad school, my intention to shake off fretfulness, the Taylor Swift channel on Songza, strategies for self-care in Canadian winter, how badminton differs from tennis (a lot!), and books we wanted to read.

Later that day, as I worked on a SSHRC application, I was grateful for my colleague’s generosity. As a contract academic faculty member I am not on the research services email list, yet she has continually made sure I get the information and support I need. I thought again with gratitude of the people who have read and edited the proposal on their own time. And I thought about my colleagues across the country who are joining the application. These people are completing the Canadian Common CV for me. How unspeakably generous! Seriously.

Some basic definitions of generosity include “a liberalness in sharing or giving,” and “willingness to give value to others.” In addition to some of the lovely conversations I have had this weekend, I have also come across that liberalness in sharing or giving on the web. Specifically, I have had the pleasure of coming across Ayelet Tsabari’s blog post outlining her reading intentions for last year. Tsabari writes that in 2014 she intended to read only writers of colour. In her post outlining her intent she is candid about her reasons and her reservations:

I thought of VIDA and CWILA and their yearly counts, which often spring an offshoot discussion about the lack of writers of colour in reviews and magazines. And I remembered that the brilliant Madeleine Thien recently spoke about the underrepresentation of writers of colour in literary awards. And then, I thought I should dedicate 2014 to only reading writers of colour. And immediately dismissed it as a silly idea and went to bed.

But I kept thinking about it. When I woke up that night to feed my baby, I thought of books by writers of colour I can’t wait to read and got excited. In 2011, when I only read short story collectionsI discovered many incredible writers I’d never heard of because I was always on the hunt for new collections, and I read more, simply because I made a public pledge to do so. It wasn’t a burden, but a blessing. I imagined this would be a similar experience; by imposing ‘restrictions’ on my reading list I would be reading more widely, not narrowly, the same way that writing under constraints may sometimes result in better writing. And I knew I’d have many great writers to choose from. Last year, Roxane Gay of The Rumpus had conveniently compiled a long list of writers of colour (a list in which I’m proud to be mentioned) in response to the argument that there are simply not enough writers of colour. That list would be a good place to start.
But the idea made me nervous.  Unlike reading books of short stories, this choice felt political. And coming from Israel, politics tend to scare the shit out of me. I shouldn’t be choosing books by authors’ ethnicity, should I? It’s so arbitrary, so random. But then again, what’s wrong with that? People choose to read books because they’re on the Giller list, or on Canada Reads, or on the staff picks at their local bookstore. People choose books based on covers and blurbs and titles and gut feelings. So why not this?
But I was still hesitant. Ethnicity is a complicated thing, and identities can be layered and shifting and blurry. Where do I draw the line? What about writers of mixed heritage? Or writers of colour who write about white people, or choose (stubbornly!) not to write about their heritage? (I loved this article which speaks about the expectation from writers of colour to write about their heritage and their heritage only, or to write novels that—as a dear friend of mine, an Indian-Canadian writer, has put it—“have mango trees.”)  And what about other minorities? LGBT writers? Writers from other cultures who aren’t ‘of colour’? And really, should we be even talking about race? It makes people so uncomfortable. (Read Tsabari’s whole post here)
How generous is this thinking? This willingness to be public, vulnerable, adamant, dedicated, and nervous? Tsabari, it seems to me, gives her readers something of value, and she does it for free. And then, just recently, she returns to give again by returning to her original intent and telling us about her experiences, about her thinking. You can read her post, “My Year of Reading Only Writers of Colour” here
Tsabari isn’t the only person out there thinking meaningful, challenging thoughts in public forums, but as I came across her writing this weekend I was grateful for her. For her generosity and for the generosity of others, like this blogger, who share their thinking, work, and resources. 
What kind of generosity have you come across in the academy or its vicinity,  readers? I’d love to have some more examples to buoy me through this January Monday and maybe, just maybe, right through until spring. 
community · contract work · faster feminism

Solitary or Solidarity?

I don’t know about you, but many of the events over the last few months have left me thinking about feeling solitary. Not loneliness, per se, but a sense of separateness, of needing to take time to think and process while feeling a little isolated in the process. I am talking about disparate events—stories like Emma Healey’s piece in Hairpin, of course the on going revelations of Jian Ghomeshi’s actions and the complicity (is that what we call and open secret in this case?) of so many, but also the Dalhousie Dentistry “Gentlemen’s Club,” not to mention the ways in which the administration has missed an incredible opportunity to take a swift and proactive stand on misogyny and gendered violence on this campus and across the city. I don’t want to rehearse these events, even though I feel compelled to write about the one unfolding on my own campus right now. What I want to think through are the ways in which events like these open up space for solidarity. Events such as these are also isolating. They create the need for reflection, self-care, and, if you’re anything like me, they elicit an almost inarticulable need for solitude.
And yet.
And yet, these events alsoelicit an urgent sense that I need to act. Now! Five minutes ago! All the time! These kinds of events also remind me of the need for solidarity, organization, and collective action. That word needalso reminds me that so often the collective action and solidarity require grassroots and ground-up work. People need to be rallied, priorities need to be identified and articulated, and actions need to be delegated. This kind of work is hard and only possible with a dedicated group of people. Those people are out there, certainly, but they are usually over extended. Take a moment and jot down the names of people you wanted to talk with when you heard about the Ghomeshi scandal. Or, jot down the names of people and organizations you think of when you want to address job scarcity and precarity in academia. How many do you come up with? Why do you gravitate to those names? And how many of the names appear on both lists?
Strangely, I found myself thinking about solitariness and solidarity this past weekend. I was at the MLA in Vancouver where I was representing ACCUTE as their Contract Academic Faculty member on the executive. The paper I gave was entitled “Making ‘Solidarity’ Real: Campus Labour Movements and the Precarious Worker,” which, with some theorizing and discussion of the Canadian context versus the American one, was a narrativization of my own experience of being on strike while precariously employed. The panel was about contingent labour and campus labour movements; I was the only Canadian. Indeed, 80% of the audience was American. So, while everyone in the room was concerned with the same issues, the means for addressing them were radically different. We spent the bulk of the question and answer session trying to hammer out the possibilities of cross-border collaboration on issues of precarity. Practiacally speaking, there aren’t very many.
It was an empowering panel, most especially because it was the first time I have publicly presented on my own experiences. My experience on the panel also reminded me of the sometimes-tense poles of solitariness. On the one hand, I need solitude to process. On the other hand, solitude can be incredibly isolating. It can, I think, at times compound the issues that evoke the feeling in the first place.

My question for you, readers, is this: how do you balance the need for solitary reflection with your own need for urgent and sustainable solidarity? Really?
contract work · scarcity · teaching

Fateful Assumptions

Five seems to be a fateful number for me. It keeps cropping up every time I move to a new place, and still operate on the assumptions of my previous location. When I moved to Canada, some ten years ago, I started my MA after a couple of months, and I took five of the nine courses required for my course-based MA, assuming that there are two semesters, as there had been in Romania and Germany, where I had studied before. Nobody told me otherwise. Nobody thought to inform me that there were both a spring *and* a summer term, in which MA students could finalize their coursework. It’s adult education, and I was in charge of my own studies, and I should have asked. You might think I learned my lesson ten years ago.

Here we are, ten years later, though, and I and my big humongous assumptions lead me astray once more. I am teaching–you guessed it–no less than five courses this term. Am I happy I moved to a new city *and* a new contract? You bet! Am I lucky to have landed that contract in the first place? Of course! Should I have accepted f-i-v-e courses I had not taught before right after a cross-country move? You bet your derrière not! But, you see, the assumptions interfered yet again: “they wouldn’t offer five courses if they thought it was an impossible workload, would they?” “they must have a system in place that ensures prep and marking are not quite as time-consuming as a brand spankin’ new course usually is, mustn’t they?” “I’ve been teaching continually for the past nine years, so, while not a breeze, it will be doable, no?” I will leave the answers to those questions up to your imagination.

It’s the second week of classes, and I’m no longer as lost in spaces of all kinds as last week: I know about 80% of my almost 150 students’ names. I got a grip on the course material–it’s not *that* much new material, as I’m teaching four sections of one course, and one of another; there is, indeed, a wealth of shared material which would otherwise take oodles of time to create from scratch; people are collaborative, and eager to respond to my questions, as well as volunteer information I had not asked for, because I didn’t really know to ask. I’m not very good at asking, as you might have already divined.

The first week’s mental hurdle passed, together with my constant questioning of my own sanity, I am now looking back and wondering why I had just said yes, instead of trying to determine the appropriateness of *my*–instead of a generic experienced post-secondary English instructor–teaching five courses two months after moving to a new city and province. Would I have any advice to give to my past self three months or so ago when I was made the contract offer?

20-20 hindsight  notwithstanding, I don’t think I could, given the academic culture of scarcity we inhabit, have done things any differently. Here were my other fateful assumptions:
– it’s a take-it-or-leave-it offer, as contract academics, as the underbelly of the system, do not get to negotiate

Image source

– they must really think highly of me, if they offered me f-i-v-e courses (on the effect of being a contract academic on self-esteem, much virtual ink has been skillfully used)
– one must do all one can to secure “a foot in the door,” no matter the cost for one’s sanity, health, family, relationships, etc.
– institutional support structures must be in place to ensure seamlessness between the teaching and learning in these courses, and I’ll be able to make the most of it from the very beginning.

The flip side to this story is that I am adaptable, and have a wonderful personal support structure in my family, friends, the larger academic community, and my new city–think school and child care close by, friends willing to listen and commiserate. Also, the students: always to be found on the flip side of precarity.

And yet… I’m too fresh to this situation to have formulated any nuggets of wisdom–not that I’ve accustomed you, gentle reader, to such in the past–so I don’t have a conclusion for this post. But I do wonder what, if any, assumptions can we make in the context of today’s academia?