Monday, March 10, 2014
Let me try to explain.
In her post, Margrit writes:
Privilege can feel like a huge burden, like an unearned reward in a system that looks increasingly more like a lottery than a meritocracy. [....] What I'm getting at is how easy it can be for emerging scholars who are in TT positions to feel like they cannot discuss the excessive demands of academia, when so many of their peers struggle to make ends meet. They feel their privilege acutely, and sometimes as a silencing force.
Um, yes. While I am not in a TT position I can still relate to this statement. Over the past several years I have tried as clearly and honestly -- and subjectively -- as possible to think through what it has been like for me as a precariously employed worker on the job market. I try to acknowledge my own relatively privilege by consistently underscoring my working conditions, which are these: since 2008 when I finished my PhD I have worked one year as a sessional (2008-2009 at the University of Calgary and Mount Royal College--now Mount Royal University). I spent 2009-2010 on a 10-month contract at Dalhousie, spent June-July 2010 unemployed, and in August of 2010 I took up another 10-month contract at Dalhousie. The summer of 2011 was easier because someone pointed out that I had likely accrued enough hours to apply for Employment Insurance.* I had! Holy cats! So I spent June-July 2011 on EI. August 2011 saw me take up another contract, this time a 20+ month contract to account for the fact I was supervising graduate students (two MAs who finished on time! Hi Ainsley! Hi Amanda!) and directing the Canadian Studies Programme. That contract took me to June 2013. I began a new 12-month contract at Mount Allison, which is where I am now. This contract ends June 30.
Here is what I hope is clear from laying out part of my employment history to talk about relative privilege: for the better part of six years I have been in a series of precarious employment situations that have been salaried. That means I have been a member of the union (very useful when you go on strike, let me tell you. For instance, I got strike pay). It means that I have had an office with my name on the door. I have access to letterhead. I am on the Departmental website. I have benefits. I have been without salary or on EI in most summers, yes. I am consistently applying for tenure track jobs, yes. I have often taught overloads and taken on supervisory duties and service roles that are outside the parameters of my contract description, yes. And the reasons I have taken these extra roles on are a complex mix of wanting to make use of my privilege and time in a Department and, yes, that sense that when you are in a sessional, adjunct, or contract position you are in a long, long job interview, how ever much we might try to deny that fact.
Have I worked a lot? Sure. Have I worked from a position of relative privilege? You bet I have.
Let's turn back to Margrit's post, specifically that bit I quote above:
What I'm getting at is how easy it can be for emerging scholars who are in TT positions to feel like they cannot discuss the excessive demands of academia, when so many of their peers struggle to make ends meet.
I'm not in quite the position she describes, but I think that sense of relative privilege extends to those of us who have landed contracts. When I talk about my own experiences what I am trying to do is not only be frank about my own struggles and anxieties and hopes, I am trying to speak from just one of many many many different experiences of precarity. But there are some things I still can't talk about, and they may just be the very things we desperately need to discuss. For example: I wont talk about jobs I have applied for. I've never written about interviews I've done. I can't. It feels beyond risky.
That risk, that very real sense that you can't talk about the material conditions shaping your life--and let's be clear, we are talking about lives here, not "just" jobs--is the context out of which the ACCUTE Best Practices checklist arose. The checklist itself is a collaborative document that, in its present iteration, was initiated by the ACCUTE Executive led by Stephen Slemon. I had the privilege--and I mean that--to participate in a slew of emails and one lovely conference call with the folks whose names appear on the checklist: Michael Brisbois (MacEwan), Heidi Tiedemann Darroch (Victoria), Dorothy Hadfield (Waterloo), Jason Haslam (Dalhousie), Nat Hurley (Alberta), Luke Maynard (Huron), Laura Schechter (Alberta), Stephen Slemon (Alberta). Some of these people are former classmates (hi Michael!), some are former colleagues (hi Jason!), some are people I've never met in person yet. The process of developing this checklist was humane and really pleasurable. Stephen circulated a draft as a means of initiating conversation and then we all had many opportunities to edit, discuss, and revise. It is, we agreed, a place to start.
I also think it is fair to say that part of the impetus for developing the checklist came out of a series of complex and emotional conversations at the TransCanada Institute last spring. The people around that table included several senior colleagues--Stephen Slemon and Len Findlay were among them--and several early career colleagues whose employment statuses ranged from pre-tenure to sessional to post-doctoral to contract to underemployed. The aim of the talks was to develop concrete strategies for addressing the sustainability challenges of the study of Canadian literature in what I am coming to think of as the long Austerity Epoch. As I and the incomparable Jade Ferguson work to discuss last term, so many crucial and emotional issues emerged that we were not able to create the kinds of concrete documents we'd intended. Not then. It became clear immediately that talking about privileges--at the level of employment, from differing lived experiences of race, class, gender, and sexuality--was hard hard hard work. It felt risky. It was risky. It was risky at least because it was so personal. It was risky because it revealed the vulnerabilities we are so often required to mask. And to my mind the "we" in that last sentence refers to early career tenure track scholars and the rest of us under- and un-employed scholars. Writing and talking about the material conditions of the Academy means writing and talking about some of the visceral emotions that make us who we are. And if who "we" are is a group of people trying to find a foothold in a profession that has historically disavowed the relevance of lived experience well, that's pretty risky stuff, isn't it?
Let me close by returning to the experience of being on the ACCUTE task force. For me, the checklist has a larger, more personal narrative. It bears some--not all, not yet--marks of those excruciating and vital conversations I was a part of last spring. For me it bears unmistakable traces of conversations I have had with friends and colleagues who were or, in many cases, were not in the room. And it also is marked by the spirit of collaboration and responsibility that the ACCUTE executive modelled as the task force worked on it these past few months. And this is where I will end: what the ACCUTE Best Practice checklist represents for me is one example of recognizing privilege and attempting to be responsible with that privilege, how ever provisional that attempt may be. In initiating the checklist under the auspices of ACCUTE Stephen Slemon, Nat Hurley and the rest of the ACCUTE executive have used their privileged position of tenure as well as the structure of a national organization to make space for talking about risk and taking some first steps in making concrete change.
We can't stop here, this is only the beginning.
*Speaking of relative privilege I must say I find it galling, nay reprehensible that EI is structured in such a way as to lock out most sessionals and folks who have just come off post doctoral fellowships. If you're tempted to suggest that most post-docs make a lot of money I encourage you to demystify your assumptions and take a peep at not only SSHRC postdoc sizes, but also take a moment to understand how they are taxed. Break that down to account for any unpaid labour that might happen and then decide if you still feel comfortable saying postdocs have it made. Yes, there are some that are rather large, but most postdocs make less than folks teaching a 4/4 sessional load. And now there's a whole additional kettle of fish. I'll save it for another post.
Friday, March 7, 2014
Thursday, March 6, 2014
It's almost six years later, and we're still at it. Every three weeks we gather with wine, pounds of cheese, our laptops, a baby or a couple of cats for company, and we talk words. The prompt is usually simple: does this section make sense? is my tone consistent from the material you read last time? I need to cut this article down by half--help! By the end of the night, we've usually figured it out. The people whose writing we've critiqued feel heard, and talented, and like they know what to do next. But more importantly, we feel connected. We've caught up on all of the personal and departmental gossip. We've traded recipes. We've talked boyfriends and girlfriends and spouses and coming out stories and faculty crushes and teaching techniques and upcoming conferences and why today was a good day. We go home feeling a little glowy, a little giddy, and not all of it is from the wine.
Losing that connectedness was one of the things that I feared most about leaving the PhD, but it was also the thing I knew I didn't have to fear at all.
Creating more of those connections--a community of care, of support, of mentorship, of collegiality--is one of the best parts of my administrative job. It's also one of those that I'm most committed to. I was collaborating with one of our technology services people on a project today, and he asked me if my role was "student facing." It took me a minute to get what he meant. When I did, my answer was that in the past it really hadn't been, but that's something I've been working to change. In the past, the person in my role would most often act as a liaison, or as an enforcer of procedure, or as a conduit for feedback coming from on high. I do those things, but I question the effectiveness of the arms-length approach. I prefer to work with students one-on-one, to coach and to guide and to support. In my portfolio of graduate professional development and the cultivation of our graduate research culture, I rely on graduate students as sources of knowledge about important skills, knowledge that can be shared with other students, and as examples for the rest of the university community of how dynamic and cutting edge graduate research can be. I love talking to our students about their work. I love cultivating their involvement with the university. I love providing them with opportunities to do more, to do better. I love providing them with chances to create new communities. And I love when the barrier between me as an administrator, albeit one who is simultaneously a student, and them as a graduate student breaks down, and we talk to each other as people, as emergent scholars, as part of the community that shares a passion for ideas and discovery and knowledge.
I like to think that my work is fundamentally informed by an ethics of care. I worry that that's a feminized approach to my job, that I'm falling into the trap of mothering my students, that care is a bad polestar to guide a career. But I got into graduate admin because I cared about the mental, financial, emotional health of grad students like me, who struggle with negotiating between what the academy thinks it is, thinks is happening for its students, and what the reality of life after the PhD looks like. I opened my office doors to any student who wants to see me because I believe that the personal should take precedence over the procedural. I focus my attention on initiatives that build community among graduate students, primarily because I know first hand what a difference it can make to know that someone cares who you are, how you are, how your work is going. I mentor. I coach. I cheerlead. I give tough love. It's hard work, choosing the path toward the personal, the intimate, the connected. It takes more time, and energy (particularly emotional energy), and effort. It requires that more effort is focused on fewer people, that energy is concentrated rather than diffuse. It leaves you open to being disappointed, or frustrated, or angry.
But then I think back to the wine, and the cheese, and the babies, and the faces that have surrounded me since the day I stepped through the doors of my PhD orientation. I've been so very lucky, and I can't help but believe that I have a responsibility to help others cultivate the community I've been so fortunate to have, to be a part of that community and invite others in. I don't have to worry right now that my goals for my larger career and my goals for providing students with community, connection, care are in conflict; it might become an issue one day. But until then, I'm leaving my door open and letting care and community-building be my guide. I can't help but hope it'll do some good.
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Today I'm resisting that urge to push myself to the point of exhaustion, and instead reposting this article to emphasize my agreement with the sentiments expressed therein.
Let's not work ourselves to the ground, folks.
Take the time for self-care!
Monday, March 3, 2014
Yes, I think it is great that Cate Blanchett spoke about the importance of films that centre on women. Yes, I'm thrilled that Lupita Nyong'o won Best Supporting Actress. But I don't have anything smart and insightful to say about the Oscars. Not this year.
My mind is still with last week's news.
In case you haven't heard, last week the family, friends, and community members of Loretta Saunders learned that she had indeed been murdered. Loretta was an Inuk woman from Labrador. She was studying at St. Mary's University in Halifax. I have mostly learned about Loretta through the excruciating writing by her thesis supervisor, Dr. Darryl Leroux. After Loretta went missing on February 13th her family alerted police and community members in Halifax began postering. Leroux wrote a mediation on Loretta's thesis work specifically, and more generally on the incredible urgency of her work more generally. You can read it here.
Last week Loretta's body was found in the median of the TransCanada Highway in New Brunswick.
Leroux managed to write another incredible and excruciating post about Loretta and her work shortly after her body was found on February 26th. You can read it in full here. She was writing an honours thesis on the pernicious erasure of Indigenous women in Canada. She was writing about the murder of Aboriginal women in Canada. She was writing about the ways in which Canada is structured to not only marginalize Indigenous peoples, it is also structured to fundamentally teach non-Indigenous subjects to simply not see this day-to-day violence.
I am devastated and I am angry. You should be too. We all should be in Ottawa with Cheryl Maloney and the rest of the Native Women's Association demanding an immediate and full-scale inquiry into this country's repugnant treatment of Indigenous peoples.
Why has this not happened already? Leroux articulates his thoughts beautifully, so I'll cite him here:
What I do know is that our society has discarded indigenous women and girls in much the same manner for generations. These people were playing out a script that we all know intimately, but never acknowledge.
It's our doing, which Loretta articulated so clearly in her writing -- theft of land base, legalized segregation and racism, residential schools for several generations, continued dispossession = social chaos.
It is a recipe for disaster for indigenous peoples, and especially indigenous women. Who suffers most when access to land, to the ecological order at the basis of most indigenous societies, is limited, controlled, or outright eliminated? Is that not what’s at the basis of a settler society like our own, eliminating indigenous peoples' relationship to the land (and/or their actual bodies), so that can we plunder it for our gain?
All the while, through trickery and deceit, we convince our children that indigenous peoples are to blame for their condition, that through no fault of our own, they simply don’t understand how to live well in society.
When I discuss these issues with my non-indigenous students in an open, honest, and non-judgmental manner, I am continuously disappointed, though no longer surprised by their lack of knowledge.
Independent acts of activism are useless when they are not grounded in community and contextualized by a broader goal of dismantling colonial state power.
Thursday, February 27, 2014
Some things, however, remain much the same:
1) Impostor syndrome doesn't just go away when you change jobs (file this under "things I knew but chose not to believe"), and it has cropped up in all sorts of weird places. Like at our monthly Research Officers meeting where my predecessor, now in a different Faculty, commented that my pay band was totally out of line. I was just about to chime in with "I know! I can't believe what I make!" when she continued "they SO don't pay you enough. That job is hard." Oh. Or when I presented at a big provincial conference for higher education professionals earlier this month and worried that I would reveal that I was doing my job totally wrong, and then found out that I was doing it pretty much like everyone else, and pretty damn well for someone who is learning everything as she goes. Or when I was invited to give a talk at another university and realized that I get to take a train (my favourite thing!) and be away from the office for the day and get paid for it (rather than, as with conferences, end up in the hole).
2) My academic credibility hasn't vanished overnight; if anything, it's increasing in some areas. I'm getting asked to do more invited talks than ever before. I have a major new publication on the books, and I'm working out a collaboration with one of the country's major advocates for doctoral reform. My academic network is expanding across the border in useful and interesting ways. And perhaps best, I get to do the work, to build the reputation, to do the research, to share the knowledge, without having to reenter the structure of the professoriate. At the same time, I'm realizing that finishing my PhD remains necessary to achieving my #alt-ac goals, which is a good question to have answered.
3) And speaking of vanishing, neither (I'm both pleased and disconcerted to find) has my wariness of academic administration, despite my being firmly ensconced within it. I'm admittedly not very far into the beast--I'm only one step away from our graduate programs on the organizational chart, and when I'm not liaising with the government or other granting agencies, I work directly with graduate students, faculty, and student services. A fair part of my job is teaching, mostly in the realm of professional skills and grant writing. Critiques of administrative bloat, outsize salaries, and blatant self-interest are, for me, in sharp contrast to the leanness of our Faculty's operations--we have a reputation for being the busiest and toughest Faculty to work in--and just how deeply the folks I work with care about grad student success. Those critiques don't seem to apply to us.
But then I attempt to mentally picture the structure of the university that sits over my head, in all of its many many layers, and realize that I can't completely wrap my head around a structure of its size and complexity. I realize just how newly created the positions are of some people I work with (even my position has only existed in its current form since the year I started my PhD), how many of those new administrative positions there are, and how desperately we fought during our last adjunct strike to get two tenure-stream conversions. I hear from Aimée that her office has curtains from 1972 while the administration building at her university is doubling in size. I try to explain to our President's manager of communications, who started not long before I did, how polarizing a figure he (and his salary, and his car, and his housing allowance) was during our last labour dispute, which was centred on fair compensation and job security for contingent faculty. I see efforts duplicated, resources misdirected, politics getting in the way of getting things done. I work to bring to the table the perspective of graduate students, the people we're serving, a perspective that sometimes gets lost with a group of people who never were grad students, or who haven't been one for a long time. And I try to reconcile my long years of being a graduate student, at a university where grads tend to have a critical and indeed antagonistic relationship with administration, with my few months as just one of those administrators. That reconciliation hasn't happened yet.
But maybe, as tiring as the internal contradiction can sometimes be, that's a good thing. I don't want to become an administrator who forgets what it's like to be a student. I don't want to accept the structures and the processes of the university as the status quo if there's a better way we could do things. I don't want to feel entitled to my job, or indispensable, when most of my academic friends are still vying for an infinitesimally small number of stable faculty positions. I don't want to identify as an administrator to the point that legitimate critiques of the structure I'm in make me defensive, or challenge my sense of identity, rather than inspire me to work on the problems they identify. So I'm going to hang on to that questioning, that suspicion, that critical distance, that impostor syndrome for as long as I can. I took this job because I passionately believe in the value of graduate education, and because I want to be somewhere that lets me make a real and tangible difference in the lives of graduate students and in the ways that the academy supports and trains them. And if I can keep on asking those questions, I'll do those things better.
But remind me to read this in ten years.
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
But that said, as most of us know, the term "impact" carries a lot of baggage in the context of the modern, corporatizing, increasingly neoliberal institution; academics in the United Kingdom have been plagued with this word "impact," often meeting with funding refusals if the impact of the research project is gauged to be minimal or, worse, politically threatening. The New York Times's Nicholas Kristof's inflammatory article from last week on why academics have become "irrelevant" and "marginalized" calls upon this very language of impact as part of its attack: "A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience." Much of the problem, he claims, is based on academic publishing's composition standards, which to him promote "turgid prose," and one should also note his embedded snub at leftism in universities, and his defense of Republican-dominated economics. He cites a Harvard historian who, as an exception to his rule, writes for The New Yorker: academic institutions produce “a great, heaping mountain of exquisite knowledge surrounded by a vast moat of dreadful prose.”
Kristoff's editorial has produced a medley of variously excoriating, thoughtful, and defiant rebuttals--including Corey Robin's, which remarks upon Kristof's complete disregard of the material conditions that prevent untenured scholars from fully engaging in the public sphere ("It’s the job market. It’s the rise of adjuncts. It’s neoliberalism"), and Laura Tanenbaum's, which manages to say almost as much as Robin does in 2% of the word count (The very form of her brief address, in intelligible and concise prose, launches a challenge to Kristof's assumptions). The New Yorker also chimed in with the rather defeatest claim that it is not professors who are "marginalizing themselves," as Kristof suggests, but "the system that produces and consumes academic knowledge is changing, and, in the process, making academic work more marginal." Kristof's comment that academics are "slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook" has inspired its own string of disgruntled pearls in the form of the hashtag #engagedacademics. A month ago, I tried to plea for more engaged and reckless politics on Facebook. And additionally, Mr. Kristof, may I hold up for your scrutiny the existence of Hook & Eye (which, though powered by women writing within the academic institution, is certainly not confined to that institution in terms of readership or concerns, as I think each contributor has demonstrated at various points).
I have one more cry to add to the anti-Kristof chorus, in particular against his attack on what he deems turgid prose. Is academic writing so turgid? And if it sometimes attains a level of obscurity, is that always a bad thing? Of course, we all want to be heard and understood, and our prose should never be obscure for the sake of obscurity--only the worst kind of writers opt for flowery writing in order to doll up a weak argument. But sometimes, I submit, obscurity can serve a political purpose. Faced with a governing institution that demands we translate the value of our research into economic and marketable terms, it may be a political and ethical act to resist the urge to simplify and make our research legible to the vocabulary of merit and progress. This idea is not mine, of course--I'm drawing it from none other than Judith Butler in her excellent essay "Ordinary, Incredulous," in the brand new book, The Humanities and Public Life, published by Fordham University Press (omg, an academic press engaged in the public sphere! Shocking!). As she defiantly puts it, "[i]f obscurity is sometimes the necessary corrective to what has become obvious, so be it" (33). Her essay addresses the problem of speaking out in favor of the humanities without falling into the very language of instrumentality that is used by its detractors:
Socially and politically, we are in a bind because the imperative to 'save' the humanities often propels us into states of urgency in which we imagine that the only future left to us will be one secured precisely through those metrics of value that are most in need of critical re-evaluation. Oddly, our very capacity for critically re-evaluating is what cannot be measured by the metrics by which the humanities are increasingly judged. This means that the resource we need to save the humanities is precisely one that has been abandoned by the metrics that promise to save the humanities if only we comply. (32-33)This is the double bind: we want to prove to funding organizations and the government that the work of the humanities is valuable. But in order to do that, we need to fulfill their criteria for what constitutes value and what doesn't--we need to speak the language that the neoliberal institution demands of us, and that language is often coded in instrumental terms of tangibility and productivity that are antithetical to the very nature of the humanities. What we do must have concrete use value that is recognizable to the broader world. But as Butler describes, much of the value of the humanities lies in their ability foster critical re-evaluation, to learn to read and reread the world and texts around us--to question and challenge the pervasive "climate of the obvious" (25) that assumes that profitable "impact" is something to be desired. So we resist "use value" and tangibility through our practices of reading and critiquing, and these critical capacities are antithetical, indeed actually dangerous, to the metrics that are offered to the humanities as saving resources. So, in short, if we want to save the humanities we have to abandon the humanities.
Butler asks, "[i]s instrumentality the only way we have of thinking about what it means to make a difference?" (29). She challenges us to think about the notion of impact in different ways, to redefine what it means to speak to the "public" and to reclaim the humanities as a valuable--I hesitate to say profitable--resource for society (and if anyone is a public intellectual, it's J.B.!). Sometimes our careful and deliberate critical re-evaluations of society may result in prose that is viewed by some, like Kristof, as "turgid." But through this putatively obscure (but actually just nuanced, evaluative, and sensitive) prose, we may learn to challenge and perhaps redefine the metrics of of the obvious that are forcing us, in this current difficult academic climate, to give an account of ourselves as academics working within the discipline of the humanities.