Back in the 1990s I was an angry man, a bitter man, in what at the time was a somewhat unusual relationship to the department. Many, if not most, tutorials were done by Ph.D students; few at that time were done by people like myself who already had Ph.Ds. There were some; but it was not anywhere close to the present situation where my university and department Wilfrid Laurier University rely upon academic casual labour for over one third of all their teaching. Some Canadian universities employ a higher percentage of “sessionals” than do others; but one third of all teaching is around the national average.
“Casual labour”, that is the concept that would mark the moment in Essex Sociology for which I might be remembered. I wrote and circulated to all faculty and grad students a departing epistle: “Casual Labour: a Few Farewell Remarks from the Department’s Nigger”. I complained about injustice; I attacked polemically members of the faculty; I named with the attempt to shame. I was, as said before, an angry man.
I am, of course, no longer angry; and I look back upon my time at Essex with very great fondness. In addition to teaching there for many years, I also did my Ph.D there. I was around for quite a long time. I learned an awful lot! I had a lot of fun! Many people were very good to me and I have many lasting friendships from the time.
I am now on the other side of the fence, as it were. I am tenured, well paid and secure. I get funded to travel, to buy books and computer equipment. I have a pension, health care and a dental plan. Currently I am on sabbatical, which I consider the very greatest perk in the world. I am lucky!
By that I don’t mean that my present good fortune is wholly undeserved. I have worked hard. I have taught well, and perhaps most of all, I have published. But I am still aware that I am lucky.
Many of my colleagues who teach “part-time” (a serious misnomer of there ever was one – many of them teach twice as many courses as I do; they just get paid a lot less for it) desperately want a full-time tenure track position at Laurier. And they too have worked hard and they have Ph.Ds and many of them have published much. But few of them stand any realistic chance of obtaining a ‘proper’ academic position at Laurier, at Essex . . . or anywhere.
Many of them are as bitter and angry as I was. An interesting point to note concerning this: more than the poor pay, the lack of an office or a dental plan, the absence of any job security, what these people repeatedly stress as what is the worst thing in their situation is the lack of respect they feel they are receiving. It is further interesting to note by comparison that this is a common theme among casual labourers of all kinds, from Walmart to the academy.
They exist in academia in such numbers because they are a part of the world’s neo-liberal transformation of the university, the MacDonaldization of higher education. The academy is not now, if it ever fully was, a meritocracy. There are meritocratic elements in it but unfairness is also built into it. I just had the misfotune to be among the first of a wave in this process and . . . of course, the good fortune, to personally get out of the situation. Many . . . most . . . will not be so lucky.
I’m going to finish this piece with a quotation by Aimée Morrison posting in a blog directed at contract academic faculty and those who support them.
The tenured, I am trying to say, can be allies in building a more equitable, more ethical academy. But we will have to detach from our neuroses and our over-identifications. The contingent and the others who didn’t “win” the game that the tenured did had to learn, however violent the impetus, to detach and think of themselves in new ways. Many of you, dear readers, have done this and I have learned so much from your writing and your thinking and your actions. It’s time that the tenured take on this process, not of examining the ways the institution has undermined us or let us down, but in the ways that by “succeeding” within it we have become blinded to our own privilege, and still struggle emotionally and psychologically to make ourselves feel like we deserve these privileges so many others don’t have. (Hook and Ery blog Tuesday, November 12, 2013 http://www.hookandeye.ca/2013/11/the-tenured-blogger-says-its-just-job.html)
* Note: With apologies to the ghost of Paulo Freire but it is in reference to a different situation of pedagogy and a different set of oppressed people that this piece is about than that which Freire was considering. The reference is to what are called in Canada “contract academic faculty” or “sessional lecturers”. I don’t know what their UK equivalents are called now and I didn’t know of any applicable label for my position back when I was one, in this particular ‘moment’ in Essex Sociology’s history.