English Matters

Report on the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labour 12th Biennial Conference

[Editor’s Note: In August 2016, ACCUTE Contract Academic Faculty Representative Ross Bullen (OCAD U) attended the 12th biennial international conference of the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labour in Edmonton, AB. Ross’ participation in the conference is part of ACCUTE’s ongoing efforts to participate in public discussions about precarious academic work in a meaningful way. Our representation at key professional meetings related to contingent academic labour began with Erin Wunker’s initiatives during her term as CAF Rep. Such conferences are an important opportunity for ACCUTE to strengthen networks with other associations, raise its profile, develop its advocacy efforts, and educate membership about issues pertaining to precarity. Ross live-Tweeted the event via @ACCUTE_CAF Twitter feed, and his report appears below.  Thanks, Ross! mj]

By Ross Daniel Bullen

ACCUTE Contract Academic Faculty Rep

The 12th Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL) conference was held at the University of Alberta over the first weekend of August. The conference happens every two years, and rotates between locations in Canada, Mexico, and the United States. As a first time COCAL attendee, I was surprised to discover how many people had been to eight, ten, or even all twelve biennial conferences. That’s twenty-four years of conferences, and more to the point, twenty-four years of ongoing contingency. Contingent, precarious, contract, part-time, adjunct, sessional: all of these job descriptions are supposed to designate temporary or supplemental positions, but instead they are the default job categories for an increasing percentage of workers in North American academia. This isn’t a new development – COCAL’s been doing its thing for over two decades – but it does seem to be reaching a point where it is impossible for anyone who works or studies within higher education to ignore the calamitous effects of mass casualization on cohort after cohort of new PhD graduates (despite, in some cases, decades of trying). As New Faculty Majority co-founder Jack Longmate pointed out in his talk during the first session at COCAL, little has been done to reverse the trend of contingency that has been taking hold over the past 45 years. When so little has been done by tenured faculty and university administrators to halt the wholesale destruction of the professoriate, how are we supposed to have any kind of hope for the future?

The panelists and speakers I listened to at COCAL offered a broad array of answers to that question, ranging from the intriguingly utopian to the eminently practical. Nuts-and-bolts stuff about using strategic language in collective agreements was presented alongside calls to topple the Ivory Tower and drastically overhaul the entire academic labour hierarchy. Both approaches were intriguing, although as is often the case with some of the more radical calls to action, the “yes, but how” questions were left unanswered. There were too many sessions for me to summarize, and because of concurrent panels it wasn’t possible for me to catch everything. But here are some personal highlights: Pam Palmater’s wonderful keynote wherein she connected precarity to colonialism, and highlighted the overlaps between academic/union activism and Idle No More; a panel titled “Living Well In A Precarious World” that asked hard questions about how precarity affects the mental and physical health of contingent faculty; and a series of presentations from COCAL’s Mexican delegates, who described in harrowing and passionate detail the violence being enacted against educators in Mexico’s schools and universities. Perhaps the best thing about COCAL is its international scope. It can be challenging to compare working conditions in different countries – or even different states or provinces – but this difficulty is offset by the real sense of solidarity and purpose that emerged over the course of the weekend. It is useful to remember that precarity – as a symptom of neoliberal capitalism and imperialism – is a global, as well as a local, phenomenon.

One thing this conference forced me to think about it is how we take the momentum from an event like this and keep it going in the real world, especially among the vast number of contingent faculty members who are not able to attend such meetings. I was somewhat surprised to find that, at 37, I was probably younger than the median age for all attendees, which is not a criticism per se, but an observation that the people who get to go to conferences like this are usually folks who’ve been doing the precarity thing for a little while now, and have been elected to a position on a union exec or a professional organization (like me). And in a way, this does make sense: the people who best know these issues are certainly the ones we should be listening too. But I spent the whole weekend thinking that the people who really needed to hear this stuff are the future contingent academic workers, i.e., the grad students. They are the ones who will enter the academic labour force in the next few years and find themselves in a brutal struggle to secure any kind of teaching work. They will do this because they like teaching, but also because they have been told that some (but definitely not too much!) teaching experience is required to be considered for a tenure-track job. Some of them will get those jobs. Most won’t. Some will stick it out as contingent faculty for a long time. Most, I suspect, won’t. If academic labour is a pyramid scheme (a facile, but not unhelpful, analogy), it is the university’s newest and most vulnerable workers who find themselves at the bottom of it, trying to not get crushed. And I believe it is these workers, and the soon-to-be grad students who will follow them, who can be the real agents of change in academia, because they control the one thing that university administrators can’t find anywhere else: a vast supply of talented, but cheap, academic labour. So I would suggest that groups like ACCUTE, or faculty unions across the country, should make an effort to send grad students and new sessionals to conferences like COCAL, in order help push for change at the bottom of the pyramid. After all, if the people at the bottom decide that they’ve had enough, the whole tower really does come crumbling down.

I’m glad I went to COCAL XII. I’d never heard of the organization before attending the conference, but I’m convinced that they – along with groups like the New Faculty Majority – are doing the crucial work of keeping contingent faculty issues in the spotlight. We need more conferences like this. Crucially, though, we need more people to be able to go to them. It’s standard for academic conferences to appeal to a narrow group of scholars, which has its advantages, but can also lead to a lot of preaching to the choir. But this is a conversation that everybody needs to participate in. Nothing less than the future of the profession – and, indeed, the university itself – is at stake.

1 reply »

  1. It is great to see that precarious employment continues to get the attention it deserves on ACCUTE’s blog. In that regard, I’d like to make a few points in support of Ross Bullen’s report and in support of my fellow part-time instructors in Canadian universities and colleges more generally.

    We must first remember that precarious employment defines the 21st century job market. Labour unions have been broken by the ideological shift from a powerful and vocal “labour force” to a commodities-based concept “human resources” in which surplus human resources creates a buyers’ market for corporate employers who wish to maximize profit while minimizing costs. As University instructors, both part-time and full-time, we are complicit in this shift because, in our desire to increase our numbers, we graduate more and more students in degrees that, due to their massive enrollments, have lesser value. A degree was once unique because few people had them. Employers desired the rare and rarity has been usurped by surplus, diminishing the value of the educations we offer our students. That this shift has occurred by not surprising. The very corporations building our new buildings and investing in so-called “career-based” degrees, want surplus labour because it diminishes the graduate’s negotiating power and makes it more likely that they will accept precarious employment. In other words, the vicious circle that is diminishing the value of a Ph.D. harms not only us, but the students we are teaching as well.

    My other concern is that faculty reticence towards precariously employed colleagues has only one terrible solution in the long run: fire the part-time faculty. It’s not that full time faculty will have to take the work on, the work will simply be eliminated and significantly shrink the size of our programs in every field across the university. Once that happens, and I think we all need to start thinking about it as an inevitability instead of as a possibility, what happens to all those formerly precarious part-time faculty members? The reality is that we will exit one form of precariousness and enter an even more uncertain job market competing with people outside of our skill sets for an ever-shrinking job market. My suspicion is that administrators and full time faculty members forget about the larger consequences of this discussion on their precarious colleagues. Getting rid of your precarious jobs does not solve the problem, it just makes it someone else’s problem. Instead of competing for short term contracts in various educational institutions, I’ll be competing with people for contracts at banks, call centres, and marketing companies who are no more interested in supporting my retirement than the university.

    The trick then is to find alternative employment models for Ph.D.’s to transition into beyond the academy. At the same time, such a shift should not limit or silence our valuable scholarly contributions to research and publishing. The academy must begin to openly encourage and promote research by scholars who do not have academic affiliations. I do what I do to support my research. My research means everything to me so, despite getting absolutely no funding from the institutions I work for, I publish because the subjects I study matter to me and I think they should matter to my fellow scholars. I continue to hunt down precarious teaching jobs at Universities to protect my scholarship. I know that in the current environment, the second I leave the academy my research will be dismissed as some sort of hobby, and the work of tenured and tenure-track scholars who have their research paid for by their institutions will continue to be privileged and published while mine is not. A possible solution would be to better support public scholars with valid qualifications but no university affiliations in order to build a more diverse and publicly accessible academy. Such a move would encourage your precarious human resources to think of themselves instead as an academic labour force with the power to effect positive change and advance scholarship no matter where they teach or how they pay their monthly bills.

    Do I like living with uncertainty every four months? Absolutely not. I don’t think the answer though, is conferences by and for precariously employed scholars. Such an event is limited by the precedent it sets for creating segregated echo chambers where we will complain about ours jobs to each other having no real effect. Instead, I think Ross’s report shows us that we need to start showing up at department meetings and actively engaging in the university’s affairs. We need to start asking for funding and support for our research in exchange for allowing our precarious affiliations space in our bi-lines. We need to start supporting independent scholars who submit works to journals and publishers so that they do not have to remain dependent on employers whose support and loan of an affiliation costs them nothing but us everything. We need to take action that takes the power of scholarly advancement out of the hands of tenured faculty and University administrators in order to remind them that scholarship only depends upon a university-centred institution because we allow it to have that central role. The best scholarship comes from new scholars and most new scholars are precariously employed. As an academic labour force, that gives us power despite the label of precarity imposed on us by people with full time jobs.

    So here’s my idea for an ACCUTE-based conference topic for the precariously employed: how can we assert our central role in innovative research in English Studies and what influence do we have to shift the conversation of precarity away from our jobs and onto institutional authority over scholarly discourse. It will only be after the authority figures we speak to feel as precarious in their power as we do in our employment prospects that any real change in our circumstances will emerge. Ross is absolutely right that solutions need plans and no one has a plan yet. So, let’s come up with one.

    Frederick D. King
    A precariously-employed instructor and a member of ACCUTE.

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