We are caught in a cycle where a large chunk of historians in the field are precariously employed. Tenured faculty and university administrators often ask about solutions to precarity from the people who are facing it during faculty meetings or when our professional associations meet, but they rarely act on suggestions. Precarity and those who face it are ignored as a problem of their own doing or, simply, as the state of the field in 2020.
Last year, a group of historians who, in some way, have or continue to experience precarity in the field organized themselves to pull together shared concerns and possible solutions. Speaking about precarity publicly can, and has, put careers at risk. Releasing this document on Active History anonymously is an attempt to move the conversation about precarity forward and push the field at large towards some concrete solutions.
There is a crisis in working conditions for precariously employed history professors in Canadian universities. It is a crisis decades in the making; it has taken a profound personal and collective toll on generations of historians. As real as this situation is to the workers themselves, it is largely invisible at both department and association levels where precarious workers are often held responsible for their own working conditions. At the same time, departments, perhaps unconsciously, benefit from a historically unprecedented multi-decade internship system. This needs to stop.
A review of the past few years of the Canadian Historical Association’s (CHA) Bulletin (now called Intersections) reveals a near-total conflation between the enrolment crisis, alternative-academic career preparation, and the struggles of precariously employed historians. The first two have prompted real structural analysis backed by a political will for change; nothing has been done about the latter.
Too many of us have experienced the anxiety of being forced to reapply for jobs every four months, of having courses cancelled with no warning after weeks of preparation, of being offered courses with as little as a few days’ notice. All of us are denied access to research funding shortly after we achieve our PhDs. Many of us have found ourselves unable to collect unemployment insurance because adjunct and sessional labour contracts do not meet the minimum hour requirements. Many of us have travelled to multiple institutions, often hours away from home, to cobble together enough contracts to pay our rent. Our working conditions isolate us from our families, relationships, and communities. The ripples of our losses and suffering extend beyond the university.
For many of us, this life of precarity, marginalization, and struggle begins in graduate school. As the underemployment and unemployment of trained historians has become normalized, the role of graduate student supervisors in championing and supporting their students in their job search has largely been abandoned. This has further divorced the profession from the lived conditions of its members. Declining faculty cohorts have decreased the capacity of graduate student supervisors’ to give their students the time they need to address this. As a result, more and more graduate students must advocate for themselves in asymmetrical relationships within their departments and their universities, often to the disadvantage of their professional status.
We submit this issue must be addressed immediately and persistently. The severity of the crisis facing contract academic workers, the centrality of their work to the modern university project in Canada, and the extent to which relying on contract labour has benefited history departments places a burden of duty on the historian community to make improving working conditions for contract academic staff an agenda item at any and all collective fora.
With respect and without acrimony, we submit that history departments have benefitted to an unseemly degree from universities’ use of contract academic labour as a cost-cutting mechanism. The function of contract work is to externalize risk from institutions and onto individuals. History departments have adopted this practice, however reluctantly, to their benefit. But there are multiple policies that, if departments adopted, would upload some of the personal risk to a department level where it could be absorbed with less catastrophic consequences than it currently does with individual historians.
For decades now, departments have had the capacity to track sessional careers for years across North America. When the money comes in for a new hire, they are under no obligation to offer fuller employment to contract workers and are free to advertise an open hire, massively reducing their risk.
In off-season and online offerings, departments could limit course offerings to their precariously employed workers rather than using such offerings to supplement the income of people with full employment. This may require the department to assume a small measure of risk, yet contract faculty may gain income security.
It is common practice to consider programme needs and aspirations over obligations to employees. Indeed, there are some departments where the names of contract workers and their welfare are not even spoken aloud when their livelihoods are most capriciously imperiled.
Consider contract workers and their employment in the process of drafting job advertisements and in building course masters. Identify them to incoming chairs.
Decisions to distribute resources according to a protocol that maximizes flexibility are liability-limiting and profit-maximizing stratagems. They are not a meaningful iteration of academic meritocracy.
Acknowledge, as a first principle, that the university is not a functioning meritocracy. Such an acknowledgement would counter the tendency to blame contract academic workers for their own poor working conditions, reducing the concomitant reputational damage they currently suffer.
There is a gap between the principles of decency and collegiality, broadly held in the Canadian historical community, and our current realities. That many departments do not routinely consider the interests of contract faculty in planning does not mean that it would be difficult to do so. Even granting that the dignity and working conditions of contract workers are a low priority to the history profession in Canada today, we submit that, with minimal effort, in many ways, and on many fronts, their working conditions can be improved without compromising higher-priority goals such as increasing enrollment and humanities funding.
CALLS TO ACTION:
1. Professional Associations
Collect data on the labour conditions of its members.
Proactively search for opportunities to advocate for precariously employed historians.
Stop the practice of conflating support for alternative-academic careers with addressing the working conditions of precarious historians.
End the practice of identifying conference attendees by their institutional affiliation.
Refer to contract academic workers by their titles in public.
Create a protocol to report, and limit, the plagiarism of precarious historians’ work.
Change the way we talk about precariously employed historians:
Avoid scapegoating the people most affected.
Avoid commentary on precarious workers’ motivations for not leaving the profession.
Seek to learn about the material conditions of precariously employed historians.
Make policies that create transparency around course offerings known to sessionals, including the right of first refusal and seniority more generally.
Create a “Contract Faculty” agenda item at departmental meetings to identify opportunities to improve working conditions for contract workers, employment or research projects at the university, or grants in-process.
Write contract workers’ research into your grant applications.
Consider employment conditions of contract faculty as a factor in your planning surrounding hires, course offerings, and branding.
Pay contract academic staff a professional wage to attend meetings and carry out committee work; be creative about including them in leadership and decision making.
Reform job advertisement protocols.
Limit initial application packages for tenure-track jobs to a CV, job letter, and reference list.
Do not ask job candidates to produce new materials.
Do not interview ABD candidates with no publications.
Collect data on completion rates and the post-PhD employment conditions of their students.
Develop a data-based ethical strategy to determine the numbers of admissions to PhD programmes.
Actively raise the profile of contract academic staff research to colleagues, local decision makers, and students.
Create a department travel fund for contract academic workers for their research and conference travel.
Advocate on behalf of your precariously employed historians with the administration.
Create space for contract academic workers to meet as a closed group.
Reduce contract academic workers workload by giving guest lectures and creating a departmental roster of syllabi, lectures, and slide decks to share with them.
Pay students and sessionals for giving guest lectures in your class.
Use available levers to increase the likelihood of running sessionals’ courses.
Educate administrators and staff about the working hours required for course preparation.
Educate students about the working conditions of contract instructors, specifically the difference between full time and contract instructors’ resources.
3. Faculty Associations
Bargain research funding for contract academic staff.
Hold firm on ratios.
Bargain for non-tenure-track permanent positions.
Devote significant resources to organizing for meaningful provincial and federal job actions to improve working conditions for contract academic workers.
Lobby hard for re-funding of Universities at the provincial and federal level.
4. Funding agencies
End the practice of setting time limits on who can and cannot receive grants and fellowships.
Identify a percentage of funding earmarked exclusively for contract academic workers; peg that percentage to the percentage of university courses taught by contract workers. Recalculate it annually.
Build specific criteria for contract academic worker applications.