“Hang in there,” she says, taking one last gulp of her coffee.
Staring at me through her crooked, black glasses, she could be any administrator who has given me the same, scripted advice following a positive – but unsuccessful – job application.
I think about each time that I’ve heard those three words. I suppose I should be immune to their cutting effects by now, but no matter how numb I am to their sound, they continue to pain me.
For several years, I have been working, across many educational institutions, limited-term, short-term, contract, casual, part-time, occasional, sessional, and partial-load instructional gigs in hopes of, one day, landing a teaching-track or tenure-track position at a postsecondary school. Each of these stints has, undoubtedly, offered a tremendous amount of rewarding, classroom experience, but none has afforded me the financial security, health benefits, and peace of mind which I seek.
“Your chance will come. Be patient. Just keep putting in your time. Hopefully, there’ll be another opening in the future. People have to retire eventually, right? Trust me: just hang in there, okay?”
After a few years, these bland, cookie-cutter statements of consolation become, for the aspiring academic, the white noise of a standard – but no less uncomfortable – debriefing session. Many times, I have been told by my interview panelists, colleagues, and administrators that I was, on paper, “the best candidate” for the position, but was not offered the job because I have too little “full-time experience” teaching courses and developing curriculum at the postsecondary level.
When one cannot secure a full-time, permanent job because they have not worked enough full-time, permanent hours to qualify for said job, I question whether academe is, indeed, a legitimate, meritocratic field, or whether it is, like its careers, an illusory ideal. I lament the palpable, bitter irony – the impossibility of experience – which plagues this professorial paradox, and wonder, truly, how other young professors are navigating this cyclic and seemingly constant Catch-22.
I know that I have chosen a challenging, uncertain career path that, in a field continuously facing funding cuts, is marked by lack of stable, full-time opportunities. However, I am worried that, as universities and colleges across Canada become increasingly corporatized and reflective of the business model of education, its frontline educators will suffer ever more the ongoing effects of a commodification of labor. Most at risk, I think, is the next generation of aspiring professors: the millennials who, like me, are so desperate for relevant work experience and seniority that they’ll agree, often begrudgingly, to take on any kind of teaching contract, regardless of its conditions.
Such a process, I have noticed, creates a large, competitive pool of young, eager candidates, who can easily and quickly replace those educators that, a few semesters or years into their so-called vocation, begin to feel the effects of emotional exhaustion and burnout and, in turn, call it quits. I devote my life to education because I believe, honestly, in helping students succeed. I knew, from an early age, that I wanted to be a teacher and follow in the footsteps of all those wonderful educators who inspired – and continue to inspire – me. This passion, however, can be blinding.
Readers, I imagine, will argue that I am not alone on this front and that most educators working in precarious situations are doing exactly what I am doing – if not much, much more. And that is precisely my point: we, particularly as young professors, try to remind ourselves that, “this, too, shall pass.” Even when our employers inform us that, despite our exemplary work ethic, strong curricula, and impeccable teaching evaluations, “it is what it is,” we nod and, instinctively, think of different ways that we can do more and work better for our students – and for our workplaces.
In The Slow Professor, Dr. Berg and Dr. Seeber call on scholars to address and resist the culture of speed that, in today’s academic institutions, places increased demands for productivity and efficiency on faculty. Though I admire their push for a “slow movement,” I doubt the possibility of being able to adopt it, and cannot help but wish that I could feel what it is like to be overworked as a tenured faculty member. I worry that, as a part-timer, I may not have my contracts renewed and lose the positions into which I invest so much time and effort. I realize that many careers offer no permanence but, faced with low-paying, dispensable, precarious labour, I often jest that it may be best for me to work at a Wendy’s. I do not expect a pot of gold or handout for having five degrees but, after 24 successive years of education – 11 at a university – something’s gotta give, right?
With fewer than two percent of jobs requiring a PhD in Canada, I would be a liar if I were to admit that I am not scared of underemployment or, worse, none at all. Perhaps I’m just being melodramatic. Hyperbolic. Real. I remind myself, always, of my privilege, and that I should be grateful for my opportunities and achievements. But something seems to be missing. As another term gets underway, I question, seriously, whether academia is, indeed, the right fit for me. I hate myself for regretting my choices, but know that I would be even more upset for believing, blindly, that it’ll all work out in the end if I continue to be patient. Is there hope for a brighter, more optimistic future in higher education? Will the precarious, professional landscape shift to allow for deserving, fully qualified, part-timers to share their passion and diverse, innovative skills? Or are we, the young professors of an up-and-coming generation, really just Ph.uckeD?
Gianluca Agostinelli is an English and communications professor at Niagara College Canada, as well as an education instructor and practicum advisor at Brock University.