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The Neoliberal U and Me

By Deidre Rose, University of Guelph

Tendencies associated with the growing corporatization of the university have been well-documented. One of the associated consequences of these tendencies has been an increasing valuation of research over teaching and, at the same time, a growing reliance on contingent, non-tenured faculty. These precarious workers constitute a reserve of low-paid academic workers who are consistently marginalized and devalued. Unionization and pay equity legislation are remedies that have, in some cases, served to reduce pay differentials between tenured and non-tenured faculty. However, they have not tackled the marginalization and devaluation of teaching, and those associated primarily with this work. The internalization of neoliberal ideology has permeated the corridors of academia creating a divide between a “productive,” valued class of researchers and an “unproductive” devalued class of teachers. Remedy requires recognition of the value of teaching as part of the overall mission of the university. In this piece I am influenced by the work of Nancy Fraser (1995) and anthropologists such as Avis Mystik (2001), Leslie Jermyn (see Findlay, 2011), and David Thorsen-Cavers (Culture, Spring 2015).

For the most part, contingent faculty, as a collectivity, are confined to teaching and often prevented from even applying for many of the larger, more prestigious research grants. For scholars in disciplines like anthropology the lack of paid leave and the ineligibility for major research grants can stop a promising career in its tracks. Contingent faculty are also paid significantly less than their tenured counterparts for their teaching, and teaching is considered less important than research. Indeed, there is often an inverse relationship between teaching load, pay, and relative prestige. Scholars at the top of the hierarchy are often responsible for the delivery of one course per year and make significantly higher salaries than other tenured faculty who are required to teach between four and six courses per year. Non-tenured faculty need to teach at least six courses per year in order to earn a decent annual income. Contingent faculty are usually required to re-apply for their jobs every four months, a time-consuming and demoralising exercise. For most of us, the first steps into the trap begin while we are still graduate students seeking teaching experience. But teaching courses can be very time-consuming and teaching too many results in a longer time to completion and the need quickly becomes a financial one. And the cycle continues. For these reasons, sessional faculty tend to have less robust publication records, a fact that is used against them. Finally, this system disproportionately affects scholars from working-class backgrounds who lack the financial means to survive without a paycheque for any length of time. And this effect is amplified when applied research is also devalued. Thus, pay equity is only one part of the picture of inequality on university campuses. Non-tenured faculty constitute what Nancy Fraser (1995) has called a “bivalent collectivity”  and it would be a mistake to think that affirmative redistribution in the form of “equal pay” would alleviate the marginalization we experience.

Institutional stereotypes that portray a large number of academic workers as “failed academics” or “tenure risks” are an example of the internalization of a neoliberal ideology that blames individual without addressing structural economic and political conditions. These stereotypes effectively categorize a diverse group of scholars as unworthy or incapable and limit the career trajectories of these individuals early in their career. Hired on a contract basis that may be as short as four months or as long as three years, contingent faculty are often prevented from participating in departmental meetings, denied institutional support for grant applications, and generally excluded from any activity apart from teaching assigned courses. Indeed, while graduate students are often invited to participate in the hiring process for new faculty, sessional lecturers are not. Furthermore, when full-time hires are offered in the new teaching intensive full-time positions, long-term contingent faculty are seldom, if ever, hired. Contingent faculty who teach a large number of courses do so out of economic necessity or out of a mistaken idea that teaching experience and excellence is a path to full-time employment. The failure to hire contingent faculty when full-time work, including teaching only positions, becomes available cannot be explained by our apparent lack of publications. Indeed, jobs often go to junior scholars who do not have robust publication records and little, if any, teaching experience (Langan and Morton 2009). To understand that tendency, we need to address the overall devaluation of the role and the people who occupy that role for any length of time. The tendency to blame individuals rather than examine the structural conditions is an indication of the internalization of neoliberal ideology and leads to the creation of a bivalent collectivity who are exploited and marginalized within the discipline and the workplace.

Remedies that address the gross pay differentials between tenured and non-tenured faculty — while welcome and necessary — will probably result in an increase in “teaching only” tenure stream positions (as is already happening at some institutions in Ontario). These positions will likely go to recent graduates who have not yet been pigeon-holed as “sessionals.” While they will have better job security and benefits than the contingent faculty they replace, they will ultimately again occupy a marginal and second-class status within the university. Often these positions stipulate that research must be confined to pedagogical innovation and this again limits the ability for anthropologists to engage in ethnographic research outside of that narrow scope. The discipline will continue to lose a great deal of potential.

Redressing the issues facing non-tenured faculty, or the “Other” faculty as the title of a report by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario report aptly calls us, requires equitable pay, job security, and fair treatment. Pay increases alone, while welcome, will not remedy the marginalization of this group of academic workers. And pay increases will not remedy the more widespread devaluation of the teaching role within the halls of higher learning. The problems are systemic and institutional. We owe it to ourselves, our discipline, and our future graduates to reject the neoliberal model or at least to imagine different paths to success.

DSCN5297 (4)Deidre Rose obtained her doctorate in Social Anthropology from the University of Toronto in 2005. She is an author and educator who has taught at several universities in Southern Ontario, including the University of Guelph where she is currently employed as a Sessional Lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. She is currently working on a monograph, provisionally entitled “The Sessional Trap.”

References and Further Reading:

Field, C. C., Jones, G. A., Karram Stephenson, G., & Khoyetsyan, A. (2014). The “Other” University Teachers: Non-Full-Time Instructors at Ontario Universities. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

Findlay, Stephanie 2011. Whatever happened to tenure? McLeans On Campus.

Fraser, Nancy 1995. From Redistribution to Recognition? Dilemmas of Justice in a Post-Socialist Age. The New Left Review. I/212.

Langan, Deborah and Mavis Morton 2009. Through the eyes of farmers’ daughters: Academics working on marginal land. Women’s Studies International Forum 32 (2009) 395–405.

Mystyk, Avis 2001. The Sessional Lecturer as Migrant Labourer. The Canadian Journal of Higher Education. XXXI(2): 73-92.

Noble, DF 1998, February. Digital Diploma Mills: The automation of higher education. Monthly Review 49(9): 38-52. 

Thorson-Cavers, David 2015. Reflections on the Liminality of a Precarious Anthropologist. Culture, Spring 2015.

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