In February 2020, an anonymous group of people published what they called the “Precarious Historical Instructor’s Manifesto.” This document was intended to drive discussions on precarity forward, reflect on the experiences of precarious faculty and provide recommendations for change at every level. While the manifesto received an initially tepid response from the Canadian Historical Association (CHA), it was subsequently endorsed at the association’s AGM, largely in the wake of an open letter by tenure-track and tenured faculty in support of the manifesto.
As part of its commitment to supporting the manifesto, the CHA organized a series of three online panels, highlighting different issues and bringing together speakers from a wide variety of backgrounds. I was invited to participate in the third and final session, which was intended to address what the CHA could specifically do to address the problem of precarity. But I had a problem – I couldn’t decide what to say.
I was speaking to someone I know about this, and she asked me a question that provided a great deal of insight. She said, “If you could imagine academia as a glass of water, what colour would it be?” I responded by saying it was black sludge. She then looked me in the eye and said: “Well, then why are you drinking it?” I thought for a moment and said: “The people are awesome, but the system is awful.” And she asked me: “What is this system? Who decides how things are going to be?” The answer, of course, is us.
I thought a lot about this discussion when I was deciding what to speak about at the CHA panel. The original goal of the series was quite clear: to engage in honest discussions in the wake of the “Precarious Historical Instructor’s Manifesto.” The response to the manifesto had given me a small measure of hope, but the way in which the two panels before mine unfolded quickly dashed what little hope there was. They both featured speakers who have either disputed the relevance of discussions of precarity, have straight-up said there is no real problem, or blamed sessional instructors for the situation. These panels were themed around issues of equity and unionization, which seemed to have been shoehorned in. And, most importantly, the discussions were dominated by tenure-track and tenured faculty, rather than the often long-term sessional instructors whose voices we were supposed to be centering.
I know that I’m not alone in having these impressions. Behind the scenes, I’ve been speaking to other long-term sessional instructors who have expressed similar frustration, and even anger, at these discussions. The general feeling is that we are still not being heard. There has been frustration over the insistence from some of the speakers that they were not aware of what was really happening or what it was like to be a sessional instructor. And there has been a lot of real anger and bitterness over whether or not tenure-track or tenured professors are actually invested in change, or whether this is merely an attempt to pat themselves on the back for doing the absolute minimum or to distract from the actual issues at hand.
Because the reality is, we’ve talked this issue to death. There have been countless news articles, academic articles, official reports and blog posts examining precarity from every angle. I’ve even written several of them. To say nothing of the fact that the “Precarious Historical Instructor’s Manifesto” has clearly laid out actionable items that can be done at every single level, explained in plain language. But from these discussions, I question how many tenure-track or tenured faculty can say they have done any of these things? Because if talking was going to solve this problem, then it would have been fixed by now. We need to stop talking and start actually making changes. But I’m honestly very pessimistic about whether anything is going to change.
So in the end, here is what I have to say:
To my fellow sessional instructors: I love you all. None of this is your fault. You’ve done nothing wrong and you are not alone. This profession would like to tell you that you are failures, but the truth is that you are our salvation and our best hope for the future. Your strength and resilience are what will save us, if we can be saved. I see you, and I see your struggle.
To the graduate students out there: you deserve better. There is no honour in suffering for your profession. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You deserve to have a fair wage and to be able to pay your rent and afford food at the same time. You do not exist to be exploited by a university system and professors that benefit from your grant money and cheap labour. Being a sessional is not a career path and will not lead to a tenure-track position. You deserve better, and life does not need to be this hard.
To the tenure-track and tenured professors who signed the open letter that was published: thank you. You will never know just how much that was appreciated.
To all tenure-track and tenured professors who have and have not yet signed the letter: step up to the plate and take action. You benefit from a system that systematically exploits the labour of both precarious instructors and graduate students. You might think this has nothing to do with you, but it does. You might wring your hands and say it’s the department, but you are the department. You might say it’s the administration, but you are the administration. You have power and job security, and the ability to make real changes in the lives of so many people. It’s on you to use it.
This text is based on a talk given by the author at a panel organized in the wake of the publication of the “Precarious Historians Manifesto.” Special thanks to the Canadian Historical Association (CHA) and Steven High for organizing this session.