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Speculative Diction

Feeding the “crisis” beast: How The Walrus got it wrong on contract faculty

A new Walrus column fits into a narrative that’s not really in line with the usual critiques of contract faculty hiring


It’s that time again, by which I mean, I’m seeing the latest postsecondary-related piece from The Walrus circulating through my social feeds (just in time for “Back to School”!) and I’m irritated enough to write a response. It’s a type of commentary I’ve seen before, but since this one’s Canadian and in a relatively popular magazine, I decided to take it apart as an example. So beyond the weirdly uncomfortable figurative language (“like a piece of once-glistening pork left out on a counter”—?), I want to point out a few other things that are troubling about this piece.

Firstly, there’s a lot that we can’t know about this author because he writes using a pseudonym — even though nothing at all controversial is said in the article. But one thing that stands out right away is his lack of awareness of his own position within the context he describes, and the relative privilege he enjoys.

Many scholars have no choice but to try to build a career outside of academe

For example, in spite of the admission that “it could have been much worse”, there’s no examination of what makes it possible for him to do this work in temporary positions for such a long period without having to make a difficult decision about his career. I know you might be reacting to that with, “privilege? But he can’t even find a tenure track job!” But what this author isn’t mentioning (or noticing) is that many people who can’t find a job in their field in academe have no choice but to move on and try to build a career elsewhere, because they have obligations, responsibilities, or just a general lack of resources and no way to keep going at such a low level of income. If the author had children to support, for example, he might not be so willing to keep waiting for the right academic job to come along. If he had significant debts to pay, he might find himself needing a salary even if it isn’t an academic one. Many people working on contracts long-term admit they can only do so because of the support of a partner with a steady income.

Overall this gives the impression that the author’s point of view is almost completely disconnected from the rest of the discussion about contract faculty, which has been substantive and critical and has existed for some time (decades, even), and has been particularly visible in recent years. The column reads as if it’s written in a bubble. Black briefly mentions that “in all likelihood, most academics are able to tell similar stories” — and indeed they have, repeatedly, in many different publications and in academic research. But since this author clearly didn’t run a Google search, the piece is basically written as if he is the first person to have discovered this is an issue that might be worthy of discussion. There’s not even a mention of the widespread activism that has brought more attention to contract faculty in the first place. Alongside that gap, there’s no analysis of systemic issues at all; the problem is individualised as “my plight” even as Black mentions that it’s broader than his own experience.

Feeding the “crisis” beast

One reason I’m responding to this column is that there is the whole “crisis” framing that publications like The Walrus and The Globe and Mail feed with their coverage and commentary, and are in turn fed by the attention they generate from it. One problem with this is that it makes it sound as if the issue is new. I think this framing actually downplays the long-term systemic nature of the problems being discussed, which suggests the potential solutions are also superficial or short-term fixes. In reality the “over-production” of PhDs has been an issue since at least the late 1970s — and indeed as far back as the 1930s or earlier (with thanks to Inger Mewburn for that citation).

Another reason is that it’s very frustrating to see a serious issue being dealt with in this way. My expectations of The Walrus are, at this point, pretty low. But I still can’t help feeling disappointed when a national media source publishes weak coverage on issues I care about and/or have researched personally. It’s also just frustrating when a column or article points to relevant issues but completely fails to place them in context, flesh them out, reference any research or link to any other commentary, or provide critical analysis. I don’t expect a scholarly essay, but I do hope for some acknowledgement that there’s an existing conversation around these problems.

Enough with the “lost generation”

The article also feeds into the well-worn trope of the “lost generation.” That term, like “crisis”, isn’t helpful. We’ve had generations of “lost” scholars already, and I’m not just talking about anyone with a PhD who couldn’t get an academic job. I’m talking about (for example) the Indigenous scholars, disabled scholars, black scholars, queer scholars, long shut out of academe because their work wasn’t taken seriously or because academe could not embrace their difference. In this way, “crisis” is relative: those groups have been at a hiring disadvantage for a long time. If there is a “crisis” then it’s already affecting them the most, since their situation was more difficult to begin with; if hiring conditions are tough, marginalised scholars have always faced such tough conditions.

There’s another problem with the “lost generation” idea, a problem well-illustrated in Black’s column. It’s the assumption (yet again) that only a tenure track job is “success” and that every other option is somehow “less than”:

“until a tenure-track position arrives, we are academic waifs or the ‘unrealized’ who have failed somehow to live up to our potential.”

Anyone who can’t get one of those jobs is “lost”, but lost to what — to academe? There are talented and dedicated scholars who choose to leave academia for various reasons including the harassment and sexism that are still rampant (see this post by Sara Ahmed; or read this thread); the workload that can become untenable and is a dysfunction fuelled by an ever-present (peer) pressure to overload oneself; the intolerance of health issues or of the desire to have, or spend time with, a family — even to be able to build a life in one place instead of being “mobile” is something that might be regarded as showing a lack of commitment to academic work. If you’re not willing and able to hang in for as many years as it takes to get the “right” job, it’s assumed you didn’t want it enough.

Reinforcing the wrong message

Even as that internal logic justifies the loss of promising scholars, academe’s “loss” is a gain somewhere else; the university is not the only place where intellectual work happens. Far from it. We’re taught to crave the legitimacy and relative security of a tenured faculty position as validation for our scholarship, our research, our contributions to intellectual life. But it’s not a necessary condition for our practice, only (possibly) the ideal one. Unfortunately, articles like Black’s matter because they reinforce a message about what we should be doing and how we should feel when we aren’t doing it. They frame and re-frame our experience as that of unfortunate individuals, rather than participants in long-term systemic phenomena.

The fallacy of individual responsibility goes hand in hand with the assumption that academia is a functioning meritocracy. But an understanding of the university as a realm of the mind wherein you get to “do what you love” with total freedom to pursue “truth”, can only be sustained if you’ve never come into contact with the constraints that universities place on bodies and minds that are seen as inherently biased or less valuable due to their difference. By extension, the author makes it sound as if we all have the same expectations that a tenure-track job will come along just for us. This is the sort of commentary that reinforces stereotypes about academics’ sense of privilege, while downplaying the structural issues at play.

Media outlets love anecdotal evidence, because it feels more real than numbers; they love personal stories that trigger emotional responses, because that’s what generates attention, particularly online. Crisis discourse fits perfectly with this, and The Walrus has a track record of publishing articles that frame university education as a “scam” — including those by Ken Coates and Bill Morrison, and Ron Srigley. When considered in that context, this latest column fits into a narrative that’s not really in line with the usual critiques of contract faculty hiring. But that’s the narrative that people are buying, and it’s one that I hear echoed in too many spaces. While the university has plenty of problems, these narrow articulations of its “broken”-ness — which are still being produced by mainstream media sources — shouldn’t be allowed to dominate the conversation, given all that they erase and ignore.

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. Kathleen Hughes / July 29, 2016 at 11:21

    I think you are correct in articulating various shortcomings of the Walrus piece from an academic and sociological perspective. But I still found the article deeply cathartic and validating of what I have been experiencing for the past 5 years. Perhaps we’ve have too many PhDs since the 1970s, but no one told me that when I applied for grad school. Reading about people going through and discovering this experience the same as I have contains meaning and insight and value to me.

  2. Andrew Gow / August 3, 2016 at 13:26

    Well said! I urge scholars in all kinds of positions to advocate for fairness and equity rather than spinning tales of woe and crisis that suggest that academia is “broken” rather than what it REALLY is: powerful, effective, life-changing — AND deeply, structurally and systematically unfair! I also urge other supervisors of Ph.D. students not to accept anyone new without briefing them thoroughly about the risks and hurdles they will face.

  3. Ted McCormick / August 5, 2016 at 14:03

    It seems that the only substantive thing the Walrus piece “got wrong” was being written from a first-person perspective. If this perspective led to any falsehoods, they go unmentioned here. Even the ostensible focus on Walrus author’s purported discovery of a “crisis”, and his purported critique of faculty hiring, is nonsense. The Walrus author never mentions a “crisis”, nor does he talk at any point about whether academic hiring has changed, or when. His explicit subject is his experience of “contingency”. Is that subject somehow illegitimate? True, he writes pseudonymously. But since he writes about current professional relationships, and future ones may be at stake, is that remotely surprising? Accusations of privilege apparently come more easily than engagement with what an author actually wrote.

    Fullick writes as if personal perspectives exist only as clickbait. Having advised graduate students for years, and having been an adjunct myself, I’d strongly disagree. But I’d disagree anyway, because the criticism is facile. Yes, of course, we are all “participants in long-term systemic phenomena”; but we experience these things personally. Both perspectives matter. No pep talk to a prospective PhD student will prepare him or her for the experience and highly personal ramifications of sudden unemployment after years of working at a university. Nor will reading statistics. Hearing about someone’s personal experience may. I imagine this is why even experts in the field — I’ll cite Maren Wood as my example — in practice intersperse personal anecdotes and data when actually talking to graduate students. I have no idea how, as Andrew Gow asserts, sharing personal experiences is “spinning tales”, or why it should inhibit advocacy for “fairness and equity”. Historically, these have managed to coexist.

    If anything, the spectacle of a UA column “taking apart” an avowedly personal perspective on academic precarity for being what it says it is — and the further spectacle of genuinely privileged, tenured academic readers piling on — suggests that more personal perspectives might be needed.

  4. SC / August 9, 2016 at 16:06

    Me think Fullick complained too much. The Walrus piece was a fine one, not perfect (but who/what is?) and I personally liked it immensely.