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.

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