English Matters

Scaling the Ivory Tower on the OUTside

by Ruth Bradley-St-Cyr

As a person who finished her PhD at the age of 52 and became a part-time prof, I’ve been trying to find ways to be useful and get paid at the university. There are so many reasons why this is not easy, from lack of status and respect to long-held academic beliefs about the proper path to tenure track. Before tenure track, there is another track that operates like a secret club, the handshake for which I can only guess at but never imitate. I would have had to be 27 when I finished in order to have been taught that secret handshake. But I know all this and choose to ignore it. Quite simply, I fell in love with the University of Ottawa at Congress in 1998, we moved from Toronto to the national capital region four years later, and I’ve been hanging around uOttawa ever since.

The first question to ask is WHO AM I WORKING FOR? Since the university is not paying me for very much at all, it would be foolish to consider myself just an employee of the university. If we are that and that alone, then we must come to terms with the fact that we are the poorest paid employees at the university for what we do — support staff and grad students included. This is certainly one reality, but it is not the only one.

In some senses, we are working for the students, as all teachers who care about teaching do, no matter what their pay. The fact that my 70 students each pay $730.85 to take my course —collectively paying the university $51,159.78 — while the university pays me $7,800 to teach them means that the math is far from fair. In fact, my salary is paid by eleven of my students, seven of them pay for my TA, while the other 52 are paying the university itself. One way to square this calculation is to allow for the fact that out of any class of 70, I will only really appreciate and remember about 11 students, and only those 11 will really appreciate and remember me. This would be one way to torture the numbers to fit reality. If only it weren’t for all that marking…

But perhaps I am only working for myself. Since I make my living as a freelance editor, I am certainly used to working for myself and managing my own time. I take on projects that I like and try to dissuade people who want me to edit something that will give me weeks of headaches. But according to my freelance editing rate, I am only being paid for 130 hours of teaching. Is that really how many hours go into teaching one course? Actually, it can’t be, since that’s how many my TA is paid for watching me teach and using my material to teach her discussion group… And I don’t know how to calculate for all that time I spend thinking how to teach it BETTER than last year. I think Joe Berry put it best in his book Reclaiming the Ivory Tower when he wrote “we are placed in a position of superexploiting ourselves in order to do our job” (28).

Because my first career was in Canadian book publishing and my second involves studying the history and public policy of that same industry, creative solutions to intransigent problems is my stock in trade. Like a hacker, I find it amusing to see where the cracks in the wall of the ivory tower are and see if I can root myself into them. For example, I was the first part-timer at my university to be awarded a blended learning grant in order to do curriculum development. Before this, the system was entirely rigged to full timers since the funds had to be paid out for services and could not be kept as salary.

In my application, though, I carefully explained that part-timers were perfectly positioned to do curriculum development since they taught the largest classes and had blocks of free time between teaching gigs. When I received my first curriculum grant, I imagined that my very sound logic had been appreciated. Later I found out that the person who approved my application hadn’t really read the part where I said I was going to keep the money, so I had to make my argument all over again. Since the granting department didn’t want to look foolish by rescinding the funding, they gave it to me anyway. In order to make sure that they didn’t change the rules BACK to favouring full-timers only, I applied again the following year, citing the precedent of the year before, and got a second grant. Now, part-timers can indeed apply for curriculum development funding, without being misread.

Time spent in professional development for contingent faculty is not paid for in our university, but the cost of the seminars is covered, so I have taken advantage of gaps in my schedule over the years to take enough courses to qualify for the Certificate in University Teaching. I just “graduated” on June 9th with over 20 hours of training.

I have served as departmental rep for our part-timer union (APTPUO) for three years now as well as on its new Equity committee. Our union is currently bargaining with the employer and their main benchmark is that whatever the full-time profs get, we should get in proportion. For example, we are paid $7,800 per course that we teach while the union’s math shows that a new full-time prof would get about $13,000 for teaching the same course. That $13,000 will grow, of course, over the years with promotion while ours will stay the same unless we can bargain it upwards in contract negotiations. So there is no recognition of years of service, as a PhD student teaching for the first time will get the same as a professor who has taught contingently for 30 years.

However, there is one major flaw in the logic that we should get whatever the full-time profs get, and that is in the haphazard way that we are hired. While those landing on the tenure track have done an application of dozens of pages, including a teaching dossier and letters of reference; they’ve done a job talk, and met the whole department… except for the grad students, contingent faculty in our department are hired sight unseen. No one meets us, interviews us, or ever comes to see us teach. What’s up with that? Is it because the hiring process is so different that we get no respect, no matter how good a job we do?

I also volunteer on the Ageism Working Group of the university-wide Diversity and Inclusion Committee and just volunteered to copy edit its report to the university. The fact that I have so many middle-aged female colleagues as part time professors leads me to believe that ageism and sexism are still at work in the academy, so serving on the ageism committee is particularly satisfying.

I know that the community service that my full-time colleagues do is paid for by their salary and that mine is true volunteerism, but I reconcile myself to the fact that I get to give back to my alma matter — even while I am still giving back to the bank to pay for my PhD — and that it gives me interesting and useful ways to spend my volunteer time. Is it fair? No, of course not. Especially when those paid to do community service complain so much about it. Do I see my expertise and opinions as useful to the institution? Absolutely. Does anyone else? Doubtful.

My biggest beef though is that my research suffers through not being on salary since I must trade off 4 weeks of paid editing in order to do 4 weeks of unpaid research. I have been very lucky though to find little bits of research money to keep me going. Since I feel invisible in my university, I very much appreciate the outside organizations who have thought what I am researching is important enough to grant me a few thousand dollars here and there — the Access Copyright Foundation, the Tremaine Fellowship of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, the McWatters Fellowship at the Queen’s Archives, and now the Frances E. Russell Grant from IBBY. These all keep me going far more than their monetary value would suggest, since the real value is the external validation that fuels academia.

My most recent university hacker experiment was to see if I could become a visiting researcher in our Institute of Canadian and Aboriginal Studies. I may be visiting from just across the walkway, but my goal to have an office space of my own, with a computer, and not shared with eight other part-timers — somewhere I can spread out the hundreds of pages of research materials and not have the cats skid all over them — was actually approved, and I very much look forward to becoming a part of this research community.

I’ve worked in the area that I research, I’ve co-authored a textbook in the area in which I teach (essay writing), I’ve got all sorts of grants, I’ve volunteered for many things, and have — up until this (unpaid) visiting researcher approval— felt entirely invisible to the institution at which I work. What’s up with that? All I can say is that it is not contingent faculty who are the cause of the erosion of tenure in our universities. Quite the contrary — we are the canaries in the mine-shaft. As Joe Berry points out, “all the examples of petty disrespect” (28) that we face make us “more likely to be psychologically and physically damaged” (27) by being contingent faculty. And I realize that the only reason it doesn’t feel that way to me now is that the psychological and physical damage that I faced as a grad student was far worse than what I experience now. Or maybe I’m just tougher. But that doesn’t make it normal, and it doesn’t make it okay.

For contingent professors, finding ways to be useful and get paid at the university is a challenge. Lack of status and respect begins with the way we are hired and perpetuates the glass wall between us and our full-time colleagues. So with the persistence of ivy, I find every fertile chink in the stone walls — teaching, union activity, professional development, committees, small grants, visitorships — and climb my way up the ivory tower, my own way — on the outside, in the sunshine.


Works Cited

Berry, Joe. Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education. Monthly Review Press, 2005.

Ruth Bradley St Cyr

Dr. Bradley-St-Cyr is a writer, editor, and publisher, a part-time professor at University of Ottawa, and an independent researcher of Canadian publishing history. She has been the Director of University of Ottawa Press, Managing Editor of the United Church Publishing House, Publisher of Winding Trail Press, Production Manager of Stewart House Publishing, Associate Editor of McGraw-Hill Ryerson, and Marketing Assistant for Stoddard Kids. Her research has been funded by the Access Copyright Foundation, the Tremaine Fellowship (Bibliographical Society of Canada), the McWatters Visiting Fellowship (Queen’s University Archives), and the Frances E. Russell Grant (Canadian section of the International Board on Books for Young People).

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