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In my opinion

Contract faculty should agitate for representation

How and why one professor created a contract faculty committee.

BY KANE X. FAUCHER | APR 02 2012

In mid-February, I and a group of dedicated contract instructors saw our committee voted into existence as part of the governance structure of our faculty. After several months of meetings that involved itemizing our concerns, and the drafting of our terms of reference aligned with the academic unit’s constitution, we finally attained meaningful representation within our unit. This marks a somewhat unprecedented move in faculty politics, recognizing the heavy debt owed to our most vulnerable and precarious members: the part-time instructors who, in some units, teach a majority of undergraduate courses.

This is not a process that other faculties and departments can easily duplicate, unless there is political will among administrators to enfranchise their part-time instructors to combat institutionalized inequities. The first hurdle many part-time instructors face is fear – that any action they take may be perceived as insubordination and thus limit their employment opportunities. As well, they may suffer a certain degree of learned helplessness, feeling that it is impossible to alter the current structures to allow for meaningful dialogue between contingent faculty and the established members of academia.

In some ways, we can consider such agitation for fair representation according to Pascal’s wager. If one’s labour is contingent and precarious in doing nothing, then pushing for representation at the risk of not being given a contract for the following year may result in the same scenario. Among contingent faculty, there are no guarantees of future employment, and so this group has the least to lose in improving their conditions.

The cynic will be quick to state that being en-franchised within one’s academic governance structure is far from the ideals of attaining job security and benefits. In addition, this service component would most likely not be remunerated.

But, rather than viewing this as a divisive stance, part-time faculty should recognize that forming their own committee and seeking to establish a participatory role in the life of an academic program is good service experience. It also makes the contract teacher more visible in the unit and allows him to become a stakeholder in curriculum development. Moreover, it may bring together part-time members who otherwise don’t have occasion to interact. Organizational health and efficiency is improved by consulting with relevant stakeholders – which would include perspectives from “the trenches.”

What does visibility mean? It means being a welcome participant in the decision-making process, being acknowledged for professional and research contributions outside of one’s contract, having a collegial “hallway rapport” with full-time colleagues and a collective will to end classist labour divisions in academic culture. A collective stance may end instances of arrogance, condescension, outright hostility and any other marginalizing attitude from some faculty members who engage in a practice of discrimination.

A blueprint for change in the working environment may answer the office space question, the academic visibility question and a host of others that are not directly addressed in a collective agreement. At bottom, a committee of this nature is built upon the premise that if there is considerable reliance on contingent labour in teaching a large share, if not a majority, of courses for a program, said faculty members ought to play a significant role in the decision-making processes of the academic unit’s programming. Although such a claim might meet considerable resistance from a portion of the tenured faculty, there are some who are simply not aware of the labour conditions of contingent faculty and who might take more of a sympathetic interest in their plight in the current neo-liberalizing climate of Canadian universities.

Those who would viciously oppose such enfranchisement rely too heavily on an archaic notion of hegemony that is ultimately divisive and demoralizing both for contingent faculty and the health of the academic unit as a whole. Arguments against such a move might take the form of the tenured faculty simply “knowing better” or having more experience – a claim that does not always hold up, as Douglas Mann’s recent article points out (“Yes, Canadian universities do discriminate against their own graduates”). There are certain privileges tenured faculty enjoy that the welter of contingent faculty do not, but these privileges should not come at the expense of the latter. Forming a committee will not satisfactorily resolve all these issues, but it at least gives a voice to the voiceless and visibility to the invisible. Defendit numerus, junctaeque umbone phalanges!

Kane Faucher teaches in the faculty of information and media studies at Western University.

 

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