Love and Sadness for the Post-Secondary Educational System

Mary-Ann Shantz

A recent episode of CBC radio’s Sunday Edition highlighted the exodus of PhD graduates from academia and enumerated some of the many reasons for this phenomenon. The story prompted a flood of responses from other former graduate students and junior academics (“Life After Academia: Your Stories”). Recent blogposts such as, “Why So Many Academics Quit and Tell,” are increasingly common and widely circulated among my peers on social media. On many levels I relate to the sentiments shared in these posts. I particularly related to PhD graduate Elise Thorburn’s response to the Sunday Edition documentary: “As an academic, a lot of your identity is wrapped up in your work and the successes you obtain. Realizing that despite a lengthy CV of academic success there just might not be a place for you, can really shatter your whole sense of who you are and your self-worth.”

The academic life is psychologically demanding. I think this is why I feel a strong affinity to both writers and Olympic athletes, who spend so much of their time toiling day in and day out with little recognition or tangible reward. Life as a precarious academic takes this to another level (“The Neurotic Academic: How Anxiety Fuels Casualized Academic Work”). I understand and respect scholars who decide that this life is not for them.

And yet, I do not want to give up on academia. Thorburn’s suggestion that, “universities are doing a huge disservice to people by accepting so many into doctoral programs when the jobs just aren’t there,” is only partially true. The jobs are there, but increasingly they are not tenure-track jobs. For the past three years I have been teaching five to six half-courses per year at MacEwan University, and many of my sessional colleagues teach six to eight courses per year. At my institution, where a standard annual course load for permanent faculty is six courses, this is full-time employment, just not at full-time salaries. Our experience is replicated across the country. Katrina Ackerman rightly noted in her recent post that “[a]s tenure-track positions dwindle, there is greater need for mentors to adapt to the changing labour market and begin preparing their students for careers beyond academia.” This call is reflected in efforts of the AHA and CHA to do just that, and people like Maren Wood and Jennifer Polk (Beyond the Professoriate) are also doing valuable work on this front. But I would add to Ackerman’s appeal that those of us who want to continue to work within academia need our mentors and colleagues to stand alongside us and advocate for reforms to a system that is not working as well as it could for faculty or students. I fear that if we do not seek reform and increased funding for post-secondary education, it will be to the detriment of our institutions and our society.

I am torn by my love for the academic life and my frustration-alternating-with-sadness that there is no permanent work for me and many of my peers. I love the autonomy of working as an academic, I love the sense of meaning and purpose that comes from teaching, and from seeing students encounter ideas and texts that open up their worldview. I love the counter-balance of solitude that research and writing bring, and the mandate to read and reflect. Even in tenuous employment I do not lose sight of the deep privilege I have to work with ideas, and I cherish the hope that in some small way my teaching or writing might enable someone to think in a more thoughtful and informed way, as other scholars have done for me over the years.

And yet, as I approach the end of my fifth year as a contract employee, more than five years after defending my doctoral dissertation, I increasingly question how long I can and should remain within this system. Despite a collegial departmental environment, at an institution where sessional instructors do not experience the same degree of second-class status that they can elsewhere, I am not a full member of my department: sessionals are not invited to department meetings, do not serve on committees, and cannot participate in conversations of importance to our department. Despite enjoying rewarding interactions with students, sessional instructors like me are typically limited to teaching 100 and 200-level courses. This allocation denies us the opportunity to create upper-level courses in our areas of specialization, courses which would allow students to take greatest advantage of our research expertise. The tension of this situation is acute where there is little in either teaching or publication records to differentiate many permanent from contract faculty. This problem is not created by tenured faculty, some of whom have acknowledged to me that they were “lucky”, “in the right place at the right time”, or something along those lines. The problem is institutional. I cannot think of another professional career with a similar two-tier model, where fifty percent of the labour is performed by often-times equally qualified workers at a fraction of the price.

I am not suggesting that all sessional instructors are entitled to a tenure-track job, but I fear that we are witnessing an exodus of talented scholars from the university even as I consider joining this migration. My love for my work co-exists with an increasing sense of injustice and reluctance to continue to play a part in this broken post-secondary system.

Well-meaning family members, clearly biased in their belief in my abilities, try to encourage me that “it will work out.” Observation tells me that this is far from a certainty. I take solace in the knowledge that I am in good company, while also worrying about my chances of securing permanent employment if so many intelligent and highly qualified scholars are under-employed and remain outside the tenure-track. Mostly, however, I am sad for all of us, and for this system that treats dedicated academics as disposable labour. And so in between marking final exams, working on an online course development project, and thinking about revisions to my book manuscript, I shed some tears over my grilled cheese lunch while the dog looks mournfully on. I haven’t yet figured out if this is a run-of-the-mill existential crisis that I should know by now to expect in the spring, as I wait to find out what courses I will be offered for the upcoming academic year and psych myself up for another year of tenuous employment, or whether I am reaching my breaking point and readying myself to walk away. What I do know is that if I do, it will not be because I want to break up with academia; it will be because academia can’t commit to me.

Mary-Ann Shantz has a PhD in history from Carleton University, and teaches in the Humanities Department at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta. She has published on the history of nudism in postwar Canada, and her new research projects explore the history of Canadian children in urban public space, and the history of child runaways on the Canadian prairies.

2 thoughts on “Love and Sadness for the Post-Secondary Educational System

  1. Sean Kheraj

    Mary-Ann:

    Thanks for writing this post. I’m sure this was not an easy thing to share. As you know, too many other scholars face similar circumstances with difficult choices. Thanks also for sharing links to several other articles on these issues. This is important reading for all scholars.

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