English Matters

Guest Post: Report from the OCUFA 2016 conference

[Ed. note: The post below, by Ross Bullen (OCAD), is offered as part of our ongoing series of opinion pieces, and is being simultaneously published in our Spring Newsletter.   The ACCUTE executive approached Ross about attending the OCUFA conference on our behalf, and to provide this report to the membership.  This and other such opinion pieces do not necessarily represent the opinion of ACCUTE or its membership; they are offered in hopes of generating discussion among our members. ACCUTE members may propose opinion pieces for the blog, provided they engage issues of interest to the broader ACCUTE membership; if accepted, they are subject to editing for length and other matters.]

I arrived at this year’s OCUFA conference two hours late. I work just down the street at OCAD University, but I also teach a Thursday morning class, and my only option – other than cancelling – would have been to ask one of my TAs to cover for me. I’m not comfortable asking somebody who is more precariously employed than I am to do that, particularly if I need them to do it because I want to attend a conference called “Confronting Precarious Academic Work.” And so, regrettably, I missed the first keynote presentation by André Turcotte (Carleton) and Heather Scott-Marshall (Mission Research). I mention this not simply to castigate myself for skipping what I’m sure was a fascinating talk, but because it is a good example of how precarity affects everything we do as employees within the contemporary academy. Like all power structures, precarity functions as a hierarchy, where contingent employees experience unequal access to resources, benefits, and job security. I have more of these things than my TAs do. Tenure-line employees have far more than me. The one thing that is consistent across the board is that precarity is creeping further into every aspect of academic life. This fact alone made this OCUFA conference vital and very, very necessary.

If I learned one thing in grad school, it was to always accept free food. The food situation at this conference was very good, and so with an armful of free croissants and a steaming mug of hotel-quality coffee, I settled in for the first of four panel discussions. In many ways, this panel’s presentations were emblematic of the themes that would come up over and over again during this two-day conference. From Robyn May (University of Melbourne) we learned that the culture of precarity and contingency in Canadian universities matches trends in Australian higher education (later that day Jonathan White would present scarily similar information about the UK). From Jamie Brownlee (Carleton) we learned how university administrators are reluctant to disclose information about the number of precarious workers they employ, and – based on an angry comment from an administrator in the audience – how much they dislike being called out for this kind of deliberate obfuscation. And from Cynthia Field (OISE, University of Toronto) and Louise Birdsell Bauer (University of Toronto) we learned about some terrifying statistics, gathered in both cases from interviews and surveys with sessional faculty members. Each talk was fascinating and informative, even if they largely served to confirm what everyone in the room already knew: that universities are increasingly relying on sessional faculty, that sessional faculty have limited opportunities for professional advancement (as everyone knows, the more time you spend working as a sessional the less likely you are to land a tenure-track job, because – for some reason – in academia practical work experience counts against you), and that sessional faculty are stressed out and exploited.

If one thing was clear over the course of this conference it was that the problems associated with precarious academic work are well known. Many presenters qualified their comments by pointing out that earlier speakers had already covered the same material. So we all know about the nature of the problem. How about some solutions? Here, understandably, there was far less confidence or consensus. A particularly divisive topic was the role of faculty unions, with some attendees claiming that unions were the only way to “fight back” against the neoliberal university, with others claiming that the rigidity of unions was one of the causes of the corporatization of universities in the first place. There was a general agreement that faculty unions are useful and necessary (it was an OCUFA conference, after all), but given the spread of precarity and contingency in Canadian higher education over the past two decades, there was also a healthy dose of skepticism about what traditional organized labour can accomplish. A more productive topic, to my mind, was an ongoing discussion about how full-time, tenure-track and tenured faculty can be good allies to their precariously employed coworkers. Readers of this newsletter will be please to know that several speakers mentioned ACCUTE’s Best-Practices Checklist as a positive example of this kind of thing.

Perhaps the most exciting proposal, though, was a call, shared by the second and third keynote speakers, for Basic Income equality. The first speaker to bring this up was Guy Standing (University of London), who is well known internationally for his writing on “the precariat” and his work with the Basic Income Earth Network. Standing’s talk was interesting, even if it did deal in broad strokes that weren’t always obviously applicable to the problem of contract labour in Canadian universities. It’s also worth noting that when one audience member asked Standing a very good question about the dangers of reading precarity through the lens of class rather than race, Standing’s answer was, shall I say, inadequate (a paraphrase: “racism is the province of the old white working class, but educated progressives aren’t racist”). On the whole, though, Standing’s talk provided a powerful spark for conversations about the global struggle against a corporate shift toward permanent contingency and vulnerability. Building on some of these ideas, but reframing them within the context of Canadian higher education, was Karen Foster’s (Dalhousie) excellent talk on “A World without Precarity.” Foster shared her research on Contract Academic Staff in Nova Scotia, conveying several powerful messages, including the need for tenure-line faculty to acknowledge that their relative privilege is only made possible through the exploitation of other workers, and the impact of universities’ over-reliance on precarious labour on the next generation of university students. After all, what are undergraduate students supposed to learn from schools that mostly employ contingent faculty who “embody and perpetuate” the neoliberal political economy of the modern university? Foster didn’t claim to have any firm solutions, but she did raise the important question of how Basic Income equality for everybody would change, for the better, the culture of Canadian universities for both faculty and students. It was an exciting and inspiring thought to dwell on at the end of the conference.

On the whole, OCUFA’s “Confronting Precarious Academic Work” conference was a great opportunity for people who already know far too much about how universities exploit contract faculty to meet, share their stories, and begin to think about possible solutions. My only real complaint is that it required a hefty registration fee, which obviously served as a barrier for many precarious faculty members who would have liked to attend (I wouldn’t have gone if ACCUTE didn’t foot the bill). As much as I loved the free food (croissants! a catered lunch!), I would have gladly given it up if it meant that everybody who wanted to attend this meeting would have been able to do so for free. It is ironic that a conference on academic precarity would replicate the exclusionary logic of a typical academic conference by charging fees that most tenure-track faculty (and some grad students) will be reimbursed for, but which virtually all part-time faculty members will have to pay out of pocket. The culture of contingency truly does run deep in Canadian higher education.

—Ross Bullen

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