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Invisible hands: Making academic labour visible

These days, a large portion of the academic labour on university campuses is done not by tenured professors, but by contract faculty or teaching assistants. Contract faculty now represent a large percentage of university teachers in Canada. At the University of Ottawa, for instance, there are 1200 regular (tenure-track) and 850-900 contract faculty. These individuals make substantially less than their tenured and tenure-track colleagues: while the average salary for a full professor in 2010-11 was $138,853, contract instructors make $4000-8000 per course and have no benefits or job security and little academic freedom. Teaching assistants also do much of the marking, lecturing and teaching that occurs on campuses, but their appointments are piecemeal and often limited to terms pre-set according to the time their universities think it will take them to finish their degrees. Furthermore, most graduate students pay their tuition out of their TA wages, which means that when wages are frozen but tuition increases (as occured at UBC in 2012), students take a pay cut.

This labour is often invisible. To undergraduate students, the distinction between a contract and tenured professor is a difficult one to make, and while a first-year student might have several TAs, the differences between those individuals, their expertise and the nature of their working conditions might not be obvious. This is because so much of the labour that is part and parcel of working in the academy – from marking to preparing for lectures – happens behind closed doors. Furthermore, the Oxfordian legacy of the classroom as a space of pure learning makes it difficult for some professors or TAs to bring up questions of labour with their students.

Thanks to a handful of initiatives on campuses across North America, the current climate is beginning to change. Adjunct faculty are beginning to make their voices heard among both their students and the ever-shrinking pool of tenure-track faculty. Joseph Fruscione, a contract instructor at George Washington University, advises all faculty (regardless of rank) to simply ask their students what the term "adjunct professor" means to them. Unions in Canada have also started taking steps to make TA labour more visible on campuses. In November, CUPE 4600, the union representing contract faculty, teaching and research assistants at Carleton University, started handing out "Marked by CUPE" stickers to its members. TAs and contract instructors could then put the stickers on the assignments they marked, drawing their students' attention to who was grading their essays and exams. Dan Sawyer, mobilizer for 4600, thinks that this will help to highlight the often-hidden work of the local’s members. "Students [at Carleton] are often not aware who marks their papers, for example, or who exactly is standing at the front of the room," Sawyer says, "there's a whole variety of people that are involved in academic work here at Carleton. So we hope the stickers will be a small step towards making the work of our members more visible." The union handed out 6000 stickers last November.

Sawyer sees this move as a crucial step toward higher visibility as negotiations with the university administration drag on. 4600’s teaching assistants are asking for some movement on tuition and wages, whether in the form of a tuition freeze or pay raise. Carleton’s contract instructors, meanwhile, were promised health and dental benefits during negotiations three years ago, but the university has yet to deliver. They also make 12 percent less than the Ontario average for contract instructors.

TSSU, the union representing TAs and instructors at Simon Fraser University, has also run a similar sticker campaign in the past. CUPE 2278 at the University of British Columbia will be entering a period of bargaining again this coming spring, and local president Trish Everett says that their executive has discussed a similar initiative.

Unions representing teaching assistants and sessional faculty have also contemplated other creative ways to make their labour visible. Sawyer says that his local is planning a "grade-in" where undergraduate students "will have an actual paper that they have to read over, offer substantial commentary on, and grade, all within a very tight timeline, to simulate what it's like to be a TA and the actual limited amount of time we have to devote to each paper." Everett also has several ideas about how to playfully highlight the unique contributions and working conditions of teaching assistants. One is to have TAs from different departments trade places to show that they are "not just cookie cutter employees and that we bring particular skills and training" to the classes they teach.

Highlighting the frequency of precarious labour on university campuses is crucial today, when provincial net-zero mandates make universities resistant to wage increases and the number of contract faculty grows higher every year. As Miya Tokumitsu wrote in Slate last week, the perniciousness of "Do What You Love" culture in academia often makes it difficult for people to announce their marginalized working conditions. "Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output," Tokumitsu writes, "Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all." Luckily, the gradual shift that these initiatives represent is making it possible to reveal and (eventually) change the hidden contingency of much academic labour.

Note: While it is estimated that contract faculty represent up to 50% of instructional positions at Canadian universities, there is very little hard data on this phenomenon, mostly because Statistics Canada has stopped collecting it. See the CAUT Almanac of Postsecondary Education. The above figures were provided by Rob Johnson, research officer with CAUT, who also estimates that 40-50% of courses taught at Canadian universities today are delivered by contract faculty. 

Image: fairemploymentweek.ca

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