Monday, March 10, 2014

Future U: The Future of Academic Labour

Kate Lawson (English Language & Literature), OCUFA President

On 27-28 February, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) sponsored a conference entitled “Future U: Creating the Universities We Want.” I was part of a panel addressing the topic “Faculty in Future U: Current challenges to ‘traditional’ faculty work and re-imagining this work in the future.” I was asked to share my notes from that event for this post.

Like the other speakers on this panel I was asked to consider the challenges facing traditional academic labour today and ways in which we can re-imagine that labour for the future.

Associate Professor Kate Lawson, University of Waterloo
Kate Lawson
As I planned this talk, I confess that the “challenges” part of the topic seemed overwhelming.  The pervasive and continuing underfunding of higher education in Ontario and shifts in academic policy over the last decade have worked together to create deleterious effects on academic labour. We may think of ourselves as scholars engaged in the pursuit and transmission of knowledge—in the classroom, the laboratory, and the library—but increasingly we are viewed as knowledge workers to be “managed,” our labour measured in “metrics,” our “efficiency” and “productivity” quantified.

Efficiency and productivity are not, of course, dirty words. All faculty members and librarians whom I know work not only hard, but work diligently. They work to balance excellence in the classroom and in helping students with research productivity, grant writing, service to the profession, and so on. But in the managerial institution, this kind of efficiency and productivity is not enough.

The challenges to academic labour arising out of context are numerous, but I will list only two.

First is the casualisation of academic labour, a devastating and unwarranted devaluing of the highly trained individuals who work, almost literally, for pennies; it is a devaluing of the students who are taught by professors who often have no offices, no permanent email addresses, and only the loosest affiliation to the institutions where they teach; and it is a devaluing of the eager and talented graduate students whom we teach, many of whom are being set up for these underpaid and undervalued jobs.

Second, I would name on-line education as a challenge to academic labour, not because such education is second rate, but because—done well—it costs as much or more than classroom education. But for government, for those who want to “manage” our labour, “on-line” is frequently taken to be the quick-fix, the cheap alternative, to face-to-face instruction.

I could go on.

However, rather than dwelling on “challenges” I would like to address possible futures for academic labour that rest more in our hands, in our choices, than in the hands of government and academic managers.

First, can we as faculty members re-imagine our relationship with the community?

A brief story. My first tenure-track job was at the University of Northern BC in Prince George, a small city 800 km north of Vancouver.  Prince George had relentlessly lobbied the provincial government for a university for many years. When the university opened in 1994, the community felt that it was their university. They felt that the existence of a real university with teaching and research at its heart was their accomplishment. When I arrived, people would stop me and my family in restaurants and on the street and tell us how welcome we were in their community. And the university, as universities do, made Prince George its community as well. My colleagues worked with First Nations, with doctors, with social workers, with forestry companies—and of course, with students—and made it clear how a university could transform that small city.

Universities in Ontario are generally of an older vintage and I think are frequently taken for granted. But equally we may take our communities for granted. Do we undervalue community-based research in tenure and promotion? Do we participate in our communities as specialists in our fields, as informed observers, or simply as good citizens? Can we find ways to make the community feel more connected to us? Can we advocate for our fellow citizens and perhaps make them our advocates in return?

Second, can we as faculty members re-imagine our relationship with our students?

Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own describes walking on the grass at “Oxbridge,” only to be told by a beadle that she must get off the lawn since only Fellows and Scholars are allowed to walk there. Ditto when she tries to enter the library. The great democratisation of university education in Ontario and the wider world would leave Woolf, I think, breathless. My classroom at the University of Waterloo is as diverse as Canada itself—and that can only be a good thing.

Yet some of us bemoan the ways and degrees to which students “these days” are not like students in the “good old days.” I would argue that we should embrace our integral role in the democratization of higher education. We must teach the students who are in front of us and not yearn for a different cohort of students whom we might prefer.

One of the challenges of this more diverse participation is that none of us can take for granted anymore that we know what “a university education” means.
One of the challenges of this more diverse participation is that none of us can take for granted anymore that we know what “a university education” means. Are we here to confer professional credentials or skills training? Should we inculcate specialised kinds of knowledge or confer cultural capital? It’s useful to ask these questions and to debate the answers. It reminds us of our purpose, and how much that purpose matters to all of us.

Third, can we as faculty members re-imagine our relationship with each other?

I would like to suggest that faculty members should embrace collegiality on a small and on a large scale.
On a small scale, I can say that my notes today are in fact dotted with mental footnotes to my colleagues in the English department at UW whom I asked: how do you imagine the future of academic labour? In writing these notes, I borrowed liberally from them; on occasion, I’ve disagreed with them.

What is true on this very small scale is a self-evident truth for all academic work; we rely on the hypotheses, the arguments, the evidence put forward by those who work in our fields. We also participate with colleagues in interdisciplinary research, joint research projects, etc.

On a large scale, universities are built on a system of collegial self-governance, the belief that academic decisions are best made collectively by those with academic experience and knowledge. This means Senates, of course, but it also means the myriad committees that make universities work. “Committee work” may sometimes be tiresome, but it is vitally important that we play our role in governance. And if we refuse that role, we cannot object when managers take over the running of our institutions.

But I also want to stress that collegiality can and must mean being good “colleagues.” Etymologically, a colleague is “one chosen along with another, a partner in office.” We don’t necessarily choose our colleagues, then, but they are chosen along with us and become partners. We may disagree with our colleagues—that is built in to the academic venture—but as colleagues we should do our best to keep these disagreements as respectful as possible. I am as guilty as any in saying something hasty that I later regretted, but the more time I spend in the university the more grateful I am to my colleagues who are both gracious and thoughtful.

Being colleagues must also mean that workers in the professoriate see adjunct and sessional workers as scholars engaged in the same pursuit of knowledge and its transmission. But there is a key difference: tenure gives the professoriate the freedom to speak out on difficult issues. Part of our academic work then must be to speak out for fairness for those who lack tenure, lack academic freedom, and lack fair salaries.

In closing, I would like to take inspiration from my students and colleagues who are interested in “sustainability” as a model for decision-making on both the global and the local level. How, I want to ask, can sustainability help us in making decisions, be they related to budgets, pedagogy, programs, or governance?

In ecology, sustainability is defined as that which allows biological systems to endure and to remain diverse and productive. Sustainability thus embraces the idea of diversity, now being promulgated in Ontario under the rubric of “differentiation”; and it embraces the idea of productivity. But underlying diversity and productivity is the requirement that a system endure.

Can a high-quality university system endure if it is built on exploitation, low-cost labour, or cheap on-line delivery? Can a high-quality university system endure if scholarship—as research, teaching, or learning—is undervalued or devalued? I’m not sure what a sustainable university system will look like, but I do think we need to think seriously about this if we are to imagine a bright future for academic labor.

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