Last call at the Ivory Tower

Photo: Rick Chung/Flickr

Between last year’s five-week college sector strike and the back-to-work legislation that looms over the current labour dispute at York University, arbitrator William Kaplan has twice recommended a task force to study precarious labour in higher education. 

If I were to make a submission to such a body, this is what I’d say.

I recently finished a PhD at York University. For my final two years of writing I decided I’d rather pay my bills by bartending than participate in contract teaching in the post-secondary sector. Why? Because I needed time and money to continue writing and bartending made better economic and emotional sense.   

Don’t get me wrong. I value teaching and learning in higher education very much. I’m also a feminist. Yet I chose the service industry over the noble profession of teaching, knowing full well the realities of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. I can no longer count the number of times I have explained this decision to people and seen one of two looks come across their face: either, penny drop! I had no idea, or, yes, I’ve heard a similar story before from my friend/relative/colleague who also did a PhD or teaches in the college sector….

When I got my offer of admission to the PhD program in political science at York I was ecstatic. I was on the road to a career that combined my favourite things: reading, writing, sharing knowledge with others inside and outside of the classroom. My offer of admission included a fairly standard offer of employment: for six years I would be categorized in “priority pool” and offered a minimum of one eight-month teaching assistant (TA) contract per year, valued at roughly $15,000.

At the time I took the symbiotic nature of this relationship more or less for granted: the university needs people to lead tutorials and grade essays and I needed teaching experience and money to supplement other sources of income in order to pay for rent, food and so forth, while pursuing my degree. I was lucky because my “other income” category was filled out by a four-year government scholarship (not provided by the university). But once the scholarship ran out, it was a combination of family support and that (roughly) $15,000/year TA position that kept me going for two more years.  

However, if one doesn’t finish their degree before the promise of an annual TA contract dries up after six years (and, according to this study, most don’t) then one must, at bare minimum, find a way to replace the value of the TA-ship, if one is to keep going. One option, which many people take, is to transition from “priority pool” to “seniority pool” and work on a contract-by-contract basis as a course director. Entering seniority pool is a bit of a catch 22 -- you don’t bring any seniority that you may have accumulated in the other pool with you. So with no seniority in a seniority-based system where supply exceeds demand to a significant degree, how does one get a job?

One common way is to propose a new course, based on your research. Since your research is uniquely your own, you are uniquely qualified to teach such a course, and this gives you an advantage relative to courses others have long been teaching. This is one way that the university gets to offer new courses based in emerging and leading-edge research. 

When I entered year five of my studies, suddenly professors whom I barely knew were stopping me in the halls to suggest ways that I might successfully transition to seniority pool. I have no doubt they had my best interests at heart -- all this learning gets expensive. But by year five I’d been in grad school too long to believe in symbiosis between contract teachers (TAs and course directors) and the university. I had heard whispers that contract teaching is a trap: people go in and never come out. They get branded as “teaching stream” or “contract stream” and not “researcher stream” and the hope of a permanent job eludes them… well, permanently. 

Describing the effects of what she calls “adjunctificaton” -- i.e. the massive shift away from full-time teaching and towards insecure contract work -- anthropology professor turned academic job market expert Karen Kelskey writes: 

“The cost of adjunctification for undergraduate students may still be hidden, but the costs for those earning PhDs are anything but. Adjunuctification has openly decimated the career prospects of new PhDs, particularly in the traditional humanities and social sciences, where non-academic uses of advanced degrees are still relatively unusual. Thousands of PhDs emerge onto the tenure-track job market each year expecting to find permanent and secure tenure line work at a university commensurate with their years of advanced training, only to discover there is almost no such work to be had” 

And, of course, due to rising tuition and escalating levels of student debt, after a decade or more of university education most of us are arriving onto that non-existent job market with huge amounts of debt. In a not so virtuous circle, people take what they can get because they have bills to pay and debt to finance, and adjunctification proceeds apace.

Perhaps the most disillusioning story, which I heard in only slightly different variations from different people, goes like this. You develop a course. You teach it for a few years, and it is successful: students like it, it gets good enrolment numbers, etc. Then, after having taught this course for a few years -- a course that you developed from your years of research, from your social, political and intellectual commitments -- you receive an email one day. And the email says: this year the course that you developed will be taught by tenured professor X. And poof! Just like that, your paid employment evaporates. 

Teaching contracts are for a set amount of money. You will get paid the same (more or less) amount the first time as you do the second, third etc. So, you pour your heart into developing and teaching a class that you love, putting in prep time and grading time for what likely amounts to something around minimum wage or less. Then, right when you are in a position to actually make a decent hourly wage by teaching your now successful course, it gets assigned to someone else, who just happens to have way more job security.   

But at least you’ve got a little seniority and “teaching experience” for the CV right? At least you can get back in the ring and wait for the next punch.

So, it was year five, I was at a decision point. I looked and listened to what was happening around me I thought: nah, maybe I’ll skip that part. 

And that is the story of why I decided to withdraw my labour from the adjunctification machine. But to be clear, it was not a decision to stop doing academic work all together. I finished my PhD a year ago and in the spaces of time outside of paid employment, I still pay out of pocket to attend conferences, and I’m still preparing my writing for publication. Why? Because I love it and because it is important work. So, in hindsight, with the bartending behind me, the PhD in hand, and a good, secure, non-academic job in my pocket, I do not regret my decision to say no to adjunctification. But what I do regret, and what makes me sad every day, is that the job I am trained to do is still so far out of reach, not only for me but for so many smart, talented people who got into this kind of work for similar reasons. 

So, I guess at the very least I hope that we members of the reserve army of teaching labour will get a chance to share our experiences with a task force. Some questions such a study might usefully ask: How did this reserve army of labour come to exist in the first place? Why do the best and brightest stick around to be underpaid and over worked for years if not decades? How many others have long since quietly and individually withdrawn their labour from the adjunctification machine for myriad personal and financial reasons? Where are they? What are they doing? How is their healthmental and otherwise?

I suspect that such an inquiry would find that we need to admit we have a problem. We need to stop deceiving ourselves that we value higher learning, and that all these degrees are inexorably adding up to a better and brighter future. If this were true then the simple fact is that we would find a way to treat the people doing a major portion of that work much, much better. And, finally, we need to stop feeding the adjuctification machine by propping up the false, financially and emotionally damaging myththat there is One True Path to a happy and successful post-PhD career.

Last call at the Ivory Tower? I wager that it is coming sooner than we think.  

Jessica Parish is a visiting scholar at the City Institute at York University.

Photo: Rick Chung/Flickr

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