Posts Tagged ‘Academia’

More on the whole Jesus-theme today. Over the past few months I’ve read a couple of books dealing with the Jesus thing – Slavoj Zizek’s The Puppet and the Dwarf and Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith and Revolution: two books coming out of radical secular political traditions that grapple with the meat and potatoes of faith in general and Christian faith in particular, and do so with insight and with respect, both of which are all too rare in leftist treatments of religion. I also picked up Eagleton’s critical annotation of the Gospels – his contributions being an introduction and notes of interpretation and commentary appended to the biblical text. And I’d highly recommend all of these, though for different folks and different reasons. (more…)


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Just a quick note today. The new book blog is up at http://requiredreadings.ca

Still in progress, of course, and I am welcoming suggestions.

For now it’s primarily just a list, but we’ll be trying to do short posts on a different entry every day.

Read. Debate. Read more.



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I’ve been getting back to readings in political theory and analysis lately, feeling a little need for brain-food. Some Terry Eagleton, some Slavoj Zizek, debates around “The Common Insurrection” (which will form a post of its own in the days or weeks to come). It’s a welcome change of pace, I’m finding, and jazzing me up to perhaps even get a little writing done one of these days. The most recent book is The Idea of Communism, a collection of essays based on conference proceedings from a 2009 gathering in London which brought together many of the bright lights of contemporary radical thought to talk about, well, the idea of communism. (more…)

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Like everyone of us stumbling across this earth, most days I just live. I do what needs to be done, I entertain odd little thoughts and wonders and fantasies that meander in and out of my brain, and I make it to the next day without any real conscious thought about how I am and where I am and what I am in the world.

Then are the stand-out days – not because anything happens, really, but because I feel strong and capable and smart and desirable and generally all-round confident in my life and my value.

And, of course, the days of struggle – the days I feel vulnerable and insecure, ugly and weak, andcertain that everything I think is good must be only a trick of the light.

Sometimes it is hard to trust in our own value. Sometimes it is hard to believe that anyone else sees any good in us. Sometimes it feels like we are tolerated, allowed, put-up-with, and that any moment now all that we have will crumble when the people around us realize there’s something better, someone better.

We all have these days, and for each of us there are different aspects of our lives that are more often confident and others that are more often insecure. I’ve often thought about this in the context of the University, where I work. I’m a Union rep here, representing faculty in their employment struggles, alternating many times a day between legal advisor, counselor, confidante, strategist, organizer. But I’m also an academic myself at heart, having subjected myself to far more formal education than is good for anyone. And I notice each and every day how the whole institution of the University is permeated with a tremendous imposter-syndrome.

Academics make their lives from the idea that they are smart, that their minds can come up with important ideas that can change the world. Academics make their lives on the generally-accepted premise that they are somehow brighter and more creative and more insightful that the rest of the population. It is the single most-important myth of the University, the foundation for everything that happens at this place, and the myth appealed to as much by faculty in their role as workers as in their role as scholars.

Now, when I was in school, reading my books and writing my papers and doing my presentations, I consistently felt like a fraud. And that wasn’t just me, but is a feature of most student life. We pretend we know more than we do, we try to put on an air of confidence, we find ways to turn questions and discussions around to subjects we know slightly more about, all in order to keep up the act, to prevent our teachers and other students from realizing what we ourselves know to be true – that we are confused and muddled and certain of very little, and that we are nowhere near as well-versed in literature and history and scientific principle as we pretend.

I realized that all students felt this when I was in grad school. And I realized through my job as faculty union guy that pretty much all profs feel the same way. It’s a collective myth sustained by a collective pretending to mask a collective insecurity and a collective fear of that inevitable day that someone will catch on, someone will realize that we’re not all that smart after all, that that book, that article, that argument, that turn of phrase, or even that Nobel Prize was a freak accident, a bluff that somehow hasn’t yet been found out. But it will be, one day, somehow. Every academic feels that. Every academic fears it.

But y’know, none of that really makes a difference. Sure, it matters for individuals, who it hangs over day after day, and occassionally torments to the point of incapacity. And, yes, the myth itself is a problem in that it sustains elitism and classism and is so often used as a hammer to silence other voices. But at the same time, the myth actually does serve a purpose, I suppose. I mean, if we all went around puddles of tears or knots of insecurity, not a hell of alot would get done, would it? In academia or in relationships or in parenting or in sports or in music – in absolutely every moment of our lives – if we ever dropped the myths, dropped the pretending, we would be a more honest planet but certainly not a sustainable one. So, I suppose at the end of the daythough an awareness of the illusion is helpful, and allows some self-reflection as well as a greater understanding of what others are dealing with, we can’t really afford to drop the illusion altogether, or stop pretending. Cause living is so much acting. Living is all about carrying on despite the fear and weakness, carrying on through it.

Wrote mostly about academics here, cause it is something I have often thought about. But actually today’s writing began with something much more personal, much more difficult to speak and to share, and that kept me up worried much of the night – a personal insecurity of my own that arises more frequently than any other, and that many times a weak creeps up and takes over my brain.

But is there really any difference what the particular issue is for each of us? I’m successful at work when I can convince those I work with and for that I know what I’m doing, regardless of my own confidence. That act puts them at ease, gives them confidence, and builds the foundation for actual success. In academia, the writing and speaking and teaching does indeed throw ideas out there and open debate, regardless of whether the initiator has her or his own doubts. And in relationships, the act of security and strength and desirability and capacity inspires in one’s partner the confidence and faith that it takes to keep things growing stronger and closer, and makes those things true.

The long and short of it? I’m a fucking mess much of the time. Truth be told, I am pretending each and every day, as we all are. Truth be told, behind all this I am scared, and weak, and confused. But at the same time, and with no less truth, I am all the strength and confidence I can muster, too. Because there really isn’t any meaningful break between the act and reality. The act is reality. That’s the nature of my humanity, and the nature of all our humanity.

Days of muddling and survival. Days of strength and confidence. Days of fear and insecurity. Each, I suppose, is all bound up with the other. Perhaps the changes in general mood are no more than slight shifts in the balance , reactions to little things that either tip the scales to an act successful or tip the scales to stagefright. And if that’s the case….well, that’s something I can deal with.

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Yesterday was elections day. The various unions and faculty associations around the country decide who will represent them on the board of our national federation. And every speech from every candidate addressed the same issue – a deep divide in the membership that exploded last Fall. The fault line? Where should the line be drawn to define who is and is not eligible to join the organization.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers – for many years its member organizations were faculty associations at various universities across the country, primarily professional associations representing tenured and tenure-track faculty. But as always is the case with organizations, things shift over time. In this case, a few things happened.

Faculty Associations  very slowly began to make the move to become unions under the law. Not all are in the boat, but a significant number are, including my own. However, that in itself doesn’t say a great deal, cause many of those that are unions still represent huge numbers of members who either don’t want to be union or don’t realize they are union. That is, there are institutions in which most faculty think of themselves as workers, and there are institution in which most faculty don’t. And the political ideas and the organizational preferences that flow from those very different self-identifications tend to run up against one another pretty regularly.

But then something more develops. In the 1980s and 1990s, universities around the world respond to neoliberal austerity by hiring faculty into sessional or contract jobs rather than tenure-track positions. And a few things flow from that. One, the question of worker-identity moves front and centre, as universities become populated by two groups of instructors with very different relationships to the institution and very different working conditions. In a few cases, those on the tenure track recognize in sessionals the realities of their own status as workers. In many, however, the myth-making goes into overdrive, as the full-timers join the employer in justifying the exploitation of sessionals on the grounds that “they obviously aren’t good enough to get tenure-track jobs”. This goes on for years and years, and is with us still – though thankfully dropping.

And from all this comes a wave of unionization campaigns among sessional faculty. In the 90s, as sessionals become 25,35,45% of faculty in many places, and as these “short term” contract workers find themselves working over full-time for as many as 20 years at piece-work teaching jobs, they move to unionization, sometimes on their own, sometimes with teaching assistants, only very rarely with faculty on the tenure-track. Well, now, this poses a problem for faculty associations, and CAUT takes up the call for its members to organize these contract workers and get them into their own groups rather than see them join the CUPE locals that dominate the grad student worker landscape.

CAUT members respond in various ways. Some unionized associations make the move to incorporate sessionals, but many decide that the contract workers are a threat to tenure and higher salaries, and have no interest in trying to bring them together. In many places, like my own, the association becomes a union as a result of its decision to bring sessionals in and by extension keep out CUPE – essentially unionizing to prevent the growth of unions on campus. But no matter how hard an organization tries, it cannot in the long-term pretend that unionization has no impact – new legal responsibilities sink in after a while, relations with the employer become strained, and soon the faculty association is clearly a union in more than just name. But tensions between the contract and tenure track faculty don’t disappear overnight, and instead what happens not infrequently is a battle within the now-unionized faculty association over priorities, with substantial numbers of the old guard resisting the inclusion of contract staff who will “dilute” the identity or the organization, and who really have no place at the university anyway.

Let all this unfold for a few years, as growing populations, increased economic needs, and political demands come together to see an incrasing overlap between the territory covered by community colleges and universities, and whole new hybrid institutions being formed. What is more, contract faculty often move back and forth between the various institutions trying to cobble together a decent income. Well, now the CAUT and federations of college unions begin to recognize some shared interests, and not infrequently shared members. The logical step? College unions seek to affiliate with the CAUT, the CAUT starts to think that since its members are now mostly unions perhaps it should build stronger links with organized labour generally, and…Twenty-five years of rapid change and shifting academic identities come to a head at the council of the CAUT when some old guard associations from major universities try to stop to influx of college unions by insisting that universities are different, university culture is different, and real academics are in danger of being overcome in their own national organization.

That was last Fall, and that was a fight. The big research universities argued that college instructors are different, they are not real academics, they have different interests, and CAUT is no longer what it was – a body by, for and of “real” academics with “real” research. The CAUT executive and most unionized associations shout back accusations of elitism. The college educators are hurt, angry, and threaten to leave.

So this weekend it is all played out again in the speeches of the candidates for executive, and I spend a signficant portion of the conference talking with various people about the ongoing debate. Now, I work for one of the major research universities. A unionized one, yes, but one in which that unionization is by no means uniformly supported. Indeed, it’s fair to say that at least half my current executive opposed the association’s unionization 8 years ago. And all of my current executive is on the “keep the rabble out” side of the debate.

So, my employer joined the anti-college rant last year, and continues to scream long and loud about being swallowed up by these phony academics. I was outraged, I argued, I fought, I reminded them that similar arguments were made about sesssionals not being good enough, librarians not being good enough, and in earlier years and numerous contexts women and people of colour ‘diluting’ unions and brining wages down. I expressed my offense pretty damn clearly. Ultimately, though, I don’t get a vote, and it’s my job to implement the policy preferences expressed by the executive.

So all weekend I am hounded by “real” academics, who continue to imagine that I share their entirely reactionary position because of where I work and who I work for. And it’s been a delicate balance for me in those situations, as I try to express my own views while professionally doing my job – i.e. indicating when necessary what my association’s official position on the matter is. It’s not an easy place to be, and each time it happens reminds me quite clearly of the difference between being in a union and working for a union. I don’t get a vote. I, in fact, am often not expected to have even an opinion. I am here to advise, yes, but let that advice stray too far from the inclinations of those I serve and my own job security comes into question. That’s generally why people like me get fired, after all – for disagreeing openly with their elected masters, or for having political options and expressing them at all.

I like my job most of the time. Unions organizationally and politically drive me up the fucking wall, but I get to spend my time working with members, occassionally doing something useful, fighting employers and often collaborating with folks who are at least marginally left of centre. The union staffer job, though, is a hard one to negotiate at the best of times, and on occassions like this it can feel impossible to both maintain one’s integrity and perform one’s duties.

So far I think I’ve walked that line pretty well. I leave this weekend, though, anticipating that this dispute over organizational borders and who “counts” will only deepen in the next few years. And as that happens, my own position will become only more uncomfortable, only more tenuous. A strange place to be, as I wrap up the weekend and head back to Vancouver.

And only makes me that much happier that in one week I will be clearly within a union of my own.


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I’m a full-time union rep for a Faculty Association, handling grievances, advising on policy, organizing, and doing collective bargaining for profs and librarians at a big research university. And as I sit here at a national convention with people from other academic unions, and as I hear the debates and discussions about how we all do our work and the challenges our unions face, I am particularly aware of my love/hate relationship with academia. The love part is pretty easy – I like school, I like the intellectual environment, I like being around the energy that comes from people engaged in research and study. But there’s alot that profoundly disturbs me, too.

In particular I confess my discomfort with two concepts – concepts that I defend in my professional life every day – tenure and academic freedom. These are generally-accepted as the fundamental pillars of anything we call a university, the foundation of an open scholarly community, and at first blush they seem common-sensical, and morally unassailable. So what’s the problem? For, me that questions has less to do with what these pillars are trying to achieve,  with the ideas these concepts embody, and more with how they are set apart from more general social and workplace equivalents.

Academic freedom protects the speech and writing of academics. Tenure is a separate but related concept, combining general job security with a more particular commitment to academic freedom – i.e. no matter what you teach, no matter what you research, no matter how you criticize the state or your own employer, you cannot be terminated for it. OK, so far so good.

But somehow within the concepts of academic freedom and tenure is the premise that these “founding ethics” are somehow uniquely academic. That is, notions of academic freedom and tenure explicitly about clear and far-reaching civil liberities, totally free spech and press, and the unfettered right to criticize those who manage one’s conditions of work – but they are also implicitly restricted to the academic context. And, yes, it is true that universities in some environments have a history and culture of this in a way the rest of society does not, but…doesn’t the continued emphasis on these terms only further reinforce that line between the university and the society?

I mean, it is clearly the case that in most places and in most times universities have not been places of free thought. It is abundantly clear that nowhere are these pure states of existence, and faculty deal everyday with pressures from corporate, political and managerial forces to say a ittle less of this, a little more than that. Indeed, we are currently in the middle of a major assault on academic freedom that has seen black-listing and firings across North America, particularly from Zionist and pro-American forces and from pharamceutical companies. So tenure and academic freedom are aspirations, fought out daily in hallways and classrooms and research labs. And those are clearly worthy fights.

But I fear that something gets lost here, when we talk about “academic freedom” rather than “freedom of critique” more generally. The latter implies a broad social freedom, not limited to the university environment but across the spectrum. Likewise a commitment to job security rather than “tenure”. And here is where the problem sits for me.

I can appreciate that tenure and academic freedom have more subtle meanings than the general terms. I can appreciate that they are often more easily defended at universities, precisely because academia’s mythmaking has posited that it is “different” and somehow “above” the social order generally.  I can appreciate that defense of tenure and academic freedom might even be able to enhance defense of job security and civil liberties more broadly. But at the same time, intertwined with what these mean for universities is a far more sinister notion, a profoundly exclusive one, and one which to some extent undermines these most sacred pillars of the scholarly world. That is, before tenure and before academic freedom, there is “excellence” and “merit”. Ah, here’s where it all gets real messy.

Before one can get academic freedom, one must get tenure. Before one can get tenure, one must be deemed “of quality” by the institution and by one’s peers. So here’s the rub. Academic freedom and its related job-protection scheme, tenure, are quite explicitly rights that inhere only to academics and only to academics deemed “meritorious” by their peers and the institution they work for. These, then, are not so much rights as rewards, and rewards reserved for a pretty damn exclusive club. Now, progressive academics will most certainly object to having it characterized this way, and all the talk of academic freedom frames it as a universal virtue. But scratch the surface and that all vanishes pretty damn quick.

Work on a PhD and what you earn is the right to seek membership in the club of academics. Take your classes, write your tests, produce your research. You don’t just send it in for marking, get your degree and move on. No, to move from a degree to an “academic” you first go through “defense”. Interesting term – it’s a process in which you stand up to verbal and intellectual assault for several hours, and if you survive it you are deemed worthy of the mantle “academic”, the right to apply for academic jobs. Get an academic job and you start the process again, with a few years til the next stage when you are reviewed and scrutinized for something called “excellence” or “potential for excellence”. Pass this hurdle and only now do you have job security, only now do you have academic freedom, and now you officially join the club and take a seat on the inside, policing the borders, intellectually-assaulting those who try to get in after you, maintaining the myth of excellence.

It’s a pretty fucked up way of understanding protections of one’s job and one’s right to critique. It takes fifteen years or so to work through, and it’s a system in which protections are not broadly understood rights but rewards for a particular group that somehow has judged itself to be worthy of some greater rights and freedoms than the rest of the society.

And that, I guess, is where all my discomfort stems from. We defend these “rights” and talk endlessly of how fundamental they are to the free and open debate that makes a scholarly community. But the very fact that we frame it this way, the very fact that we use terms and concepts exclusive to the academic environment belies an underlying acceptance of the notion that universities are somehow different, somehow better, somehow more deserving simply because we all at some point went through the hazing process which is PhD defense and tenure review.  Academic freedom, we acknowledge, comes with tenure. Tenure, we insist, comes only after judgement of quality. Our rights are rewards, and we all know it.

Hmm. Merit. Quality. Reward.  It’s a profoundly exclusive way of understanding rights. But these are questions not to ask. If you dig too deep, you risk exposing the feudalism that lies behind this ostensibly most democratic of communities, the community of scholars.


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