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Getting caught up on higher-ed issues

By MELONIE FULLICK | September 16, 2016

This week’s post is a sort of “happy new academic year!” greeting, and I thought I’d ring in September (even though half the month is gone already) with a bit of a round-up of recommended higher-ed-related reading.

At Worthwhile Canadian Initiative, which still gets points for its title alone, check out “The economics of SSHRC grants” by Stephen Gordon, a four-part series. Gordon analyses how awards have changed since the switch from Standard Research Grant program to the Insight Grant program. One thing I’d mention is that there’s nothing new about the way the government has been funneling funding towards specific “strategic” areas of research — the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, for which the latest winners were recently announced, is only the latest example of that. The “buzzwords” Gordon describes signal areas of research that are perceived to be connected more or less directly to economic outcomes, and for which Canada has capacity to be “world class”; the Canada Excellence Research Chairs are part of the same strategy (apparently the word “Excellence” has to be in the program name, lest we misunderstand the goal).

Last month a new report on sessional faculty was released, A Survey of Sessional Faculty in Ontario Publicly-Funded Universities, from OISE’s Cynthia Field and Glen Jones. Since available research on contract academic faculty (CAF) in Canada is so limited, this study, which “reports on findings from a survey of instructors at 12 universities” in Ontario, is a welcome contribution.

And speaking of data about contract faculty, yesterday Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan announced that Statistics Canada’s University and College Academic Staff System will be reinstated. However, the issue that immediately arose was whether CAF would be included in the survey, given the significant lack of information about them. StatsCan’s press release says nothing, but a Globe and Mail article published yesterday pronounced in its headline — “Statistics Canada to tally number of contract, part-time professors.” Apparently StatsCan predicts “consultations with universities on how to define ‘contract’ professor are expected to take up to four years”; this would be a requirement so that universities could produce comparable data. Given the context, I wouldn’t bet on it happening at all.

In August in the United States, graduate student teaching assistants at private universities gained the right to be recognised as “employees” and form labour unions, after a case at Columbia University. You can catch up with this piece by Michael Meranze at Remaking the University: “The [National Labor Relations Board] thereby acknowledged the current structure of university labor — that Teaching Assistants […] provide important economic value to universities above and beyond the educational benefit they may receive”.

Also in August, the University of Chicago distributed a letter to incoming undergraduate students in which it proclaimed that they should expect no safe spaces, trigger warnings, or intellectual coddling of any kind. Kevin Gannon wrote a post in response, and as well as being funny (“Did they sit around and ask themselves what Milton Friedman would have done?”) it’s an impassioned primer on the “other side” of this ongoing (primarily U.S.) debate. Gannon argues that tactics like trigger warnings are misrepresented and positioned against the “freedom” to express and debate uncomfortable ideas. You can also read a letter from 150+ faculty at the University of Chicago, who disagreed with the university’s approach.

In the U.K., feminist scholar Sara Ahmed resigned from Goldsmiths at the end of May due to the university’s non-response to systemically-entrenched sexual harassment experienced by students, and its ongoing silencing of discussion about the issue: “The absence of any discussion of the problem was a reenactment of the problem.” You can read her full discussion of the context in “Resignation is a feminist issue.” Later on (in August), this article appeared on the Guardian website, exploring the use of non-disclosure agreements in shutting down victims who might want to bring things to light, and in allowing abusers to move from one institution to another. On a related note, I also recommend you take a look at “I’m concerned for your academic career if you talk about this publicly,” by Erica V. Lee at Moontime Warrior. Lee’s piece highlights what the culture of silence and individualised “risk” looks like for early career academics.

If you’re interested in open access issues, check out “Academic discourses have been shaped by the material forms of dissemination”, an interview with Open Library of the Humanities co-founder Martin Eve. In the interview, Eve explains the OLH model wherein all publications are open access and do not charge authors to publish. What this looks like is a model that’s “open” at both ends: authors don’t face prohibitive fees, and readers don’t need to pay subscription fees to read the work. I think OLH is a huge achievement and also a great model for the future of scholarly publishing; it’s been amazing to watch it grow and expand and I hope it continues to do so. (And the rest of the interview is good, too.)

To return to Canadian research, this summer saw the release of a significant report from NEADS: Understanding Accessibility in Graduate Education for Students with Disabilities in Canada: Final Report of the National Graduate Experience Taskforce. This is an important report particularly in light of the federal government’s current goal of creating accessibility legislation. I also recommend Episodic Disabilities and Post-Secondary Education in Canada, a literature review by Elisabeth Harrison.

For doctoral students, I have to mention a post by Inger Mewburn (the Thesis Whisperer), that’s about the “Valley of Sh*t” — a phase of the doctoral process where you lose all perspective on the quality of your own work. If that’s where you find yourself at the beginning of this academic year, check out this post for a reminder that you’re not the only one (and yes — it’s a phase). Then check out this post from Rachael Cayley on how to talk about “productivity” in a way that isn’t completely obnoxious. Cayley emphasizes that developing a writing process shifts the focus away from ourselves as being perpetually “unproductive.”

I hope some of those articles are of interest to you — and I wish good luck to everyone starting a new academic year this September.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Sheri O / September 20, 2016 at 3:22 pm

    Well this is a comprehensive brief. Thanks. One big ongoing issue sweeping the States and Canada as in diffusion of innovations is the development of proactive policies to stop rape culture and campus sexual assault.

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