Pragmatic Precarity: Some Qualitative Reflections

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By Andrea Terry

Strikes at post-secondary institutions across Canada have drawn considerable attention to issues affecting Contract Academic Staff (CAS).[1] Seemingly, in line with these developments, scholarly associations have commissioned research studies to explore the effects of institutions’ ever-growing reliance on this particular demographic.

Kasia Piech, Untitled, ceramics, 2013. Reproduced with permission.

On September 4, 2018, the Canadian Association of University Teachers/Association Canadienne des professeures et professeurs d’université (CAUT) released the results and the final research report – written by Dr. Karen Foster of Dalhousie University and Dr. Louise Birdsell Bauer, CAUT’s Research Officer – of its national survey of over 2,600 CAS workers at universities across Canada. In an interview with the CAUT Bulletin issued the same month as the report, Foster states,

[W]hen you start seeing contract jobs that are packages of courses – more courses than a tenure-track or permanent faculty member would want to teach – and they go on for longer than a year, they are not stepping-stone jobs, they are not temporary gap fillers, but are ways to extract more labour out of one person for less money, usually under conditions that are unsustainable for the person doing the work….The effects of job insecurity are far greater than most people appreciate until they’re in that situation….Not being able to plan into the future has a debilitating effect [on Contract Academic Staff]: they feel isolated, that it’s their fault, and that they’re failing loved ones by not being able to provide for them.

In this post, at the beginning of CAUT’s Fair Employment Week, I’d like to share my own CAS narrative, to personalize the facts, a practical strategy recommended by Erin Wunker so that CAS workers might support their peers.

In the Spring 2018 issue of RACAR: Revue d’art canadienne/Canadian Art Review, Wunker identifies concrete, no-nonsense actions for CAS staff, tenured faculty, students, as well as parents, caregivers, and alumni, underscoring how precarity affects far more people than one might initially suspect.[2] To CAS workers, Wunker writes,

Talk about your working conditions in a clear and factual way. Building support means building diverse communities of people from different working conditions. It is hard. It takes time and energy. Anger only gets us so far, so keep your anger, but refine it. Make it clear, cogent, and compelling. The facts, if you will, and the narrative are needed to understand what it is to live those facts.

It does take a vast amount of energy, contemplation, deliberation, and motivation to write about these issues. For my part, I collaborated with Dr. Jayne Wark of Nova Scotia College of Arts and Design University, co-editing a “Polemics” section on precarious labour in post-secondary institutions for the Universities Art Association of Canada’s journal RACAR. Together, we brought a number of voices to bear on the experiences, issues, and thoughts surrounding CAS, from the points of view of faculty, administrators, as well as former and current CAS.

But in that project I left certain points aside that I’d like to bring to the forefront here, specifically those related to what I call pragmatic precarity and its advantages for teaching. While this writing is geared towards my CAS peers, my hope is it speaks to all those affected by post-secondary institutions’ increasing reliance on precarity, such as: those responsible for staffing decisions and budgets; students taking courses taught by CAS staff, as well as individuals (and those helping them) deliberating what programs to pursue at what institutions.

Since I began teaching full-time six years ago, I’ve been able to find – for the most part – steady employment teaching cultural studies, public history, Canadian studies, and art history courses (not gainful, not with benefits) at universities across Canada. For the past five years, I’ve been intermittently employed at the same university, and just last year, students who I taught in the first-year art history class graduated, a first for me. This significant event led me to mull over the effects of not only the passage of time and precarious employment but what it means to teach regularly under these circumstances. How do the effects of sustained (yet still precarious) employment affect how I interact with undergraduate students?

I find it helps enhance a certain dynamic in which I learn from students about their own approach to learning and what is important to them in more practical terms verses what might be significant in terms of disciplinarity and scholarship.

I teach art history courses in a studio-based program, so all the courses I teach are required. This can be challenging and so I’ve asked myself, why do I teach what I do? What do/can students get out of my courses? How/why is my teaching, my expertise, my research, my experience relevant for them? Having mulled these questions over for some time now, I’ve become much more pragmatic in my teaching. Gone are the days when I might encourage students to learn material because the discipline (aka me) requires that of them. Now I ask them, what do they hope to get out of my course or of any course they’re (thinking of) taking? This is clearly a form of active learning in that it encourages students to reflect on their own objectives.

I have also become mindful of student anxiety. We’ve all witnessed a marked increase in students’ anxiety level – be it at the elementary, high school or post-secondary levels.  I’ve found that a common concern among students in my classroom is that they believe they must meet my expectations. I respond by emphasizing that their primary concern should be their realization of their own abilities.  I have found this to be the most important message I can convey, and it is one I’ve gleaned from my own studies and experiences. Throughout my post-secondary and graduate studies, I experienced moderate to severe episodes of anxiety and depression. I was never sure of what I was doing … or for whom. It took me years to realize that I had to do what I was doing for myself – not for my supervisor’s approval, not for the acknowledgement or acceptance of my peers, or parents, but for me. I refrained from asking myself the hard questions, which, in the midst of a myriad of other compounding factors, some trauma-related, led to prolonged periods of self-imposed isolation sprinkled with waves of profound helplessness and desperation. It took me some time to come out of those period(s – because there were multiple), to move beyond the compulsion to please, to seek external validation, to prove myself to others. And it has only been in being somewhat steadily employed at the same institution for the past five years that I’ve learned how to pass those lessons on to my students.

Ultimately, my approach to teaching encourages students to own their education.  I prefer to design both essay guidelines and exams that allow students to express their personal ideas, opinions and arguments, validating their views based on course material and research.

In one class late last winter term, I found myself saying to my students, “I know what I think, I’m interested in learning what you think!” I take great pleasure in witnessing students practice articulating their thoughts, in either oral or written form. I want them to leave my classroom with skills honed that they can take with them. I think we’ve moved beyond the times where we teach them what we were taught because that’s the nature of the discipline. Moreover, scholars tracing the developments of disciplines locally, nationally, and globally, need to be cognizant of the contributions of CAS workers and acknowledge (if not compensate) them accordingly.

Case in point – the data-driven online project Art History in Canada 1933-present, developed to chart “the growth of the modern discipline of art history in Canadian universities, tenure-stream position by tenure-stream position.” [3]  As a result, my compulsion to write about my teaching experiences, to put my name and my work out there, to identify and describe my contributions, superseded my fear(s) of any possible consequences of doing so. My determination intensified with two recent publications: the first came out mid-October 2018, an artist’s book by Terra Poirier, Non-Regular: Precarious academic labour at Emily Carr University of Art + Design, published by Vancouver-based UNIT/PITT Projects, that brings together contributions by 28 instructors and artists; the second is the Canadian Art Magazine’s online-feature article written by Leah Sandals, entitled, “Precarity a Major Concern for Canadian Art-School Faculty,” which reports:

According to faculty associations and related research, the numbers are as follows: OCAD University has the highest ratio of contract and sessional faculty in Ontario, with temporary instructors representing more than 65 per cent of the university’s faculty. At Alberta College of Art and Design, a little more than 50 per cent of courses have been taught by contract workers this school year. At Emily Carr University of Art and Design, 56 per cent of all undergraduate course sections in 2016–17 were taught by non-regular faculty (mainly comprising sessionals and lecturers). And at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in summer, fall and winter of 2017–18, approximately 55 per cent of courses were taught by contract academic staff (CAS).

I believe we must be more goal-oriented in our teaching. That’s not to say many of you aren’t. In adopting a more pragmatic approach to precarity, we can:

  • Increase the caliber/quality of class content, learning outcomes, and student success and course completion rates
  • Cut down on unpaid course prep time by teaching – if possible – the same course repeatedly, or try to incorporate previous taught material in open-ended or special topics courses. I’ve found these strategies honed over the last five years can cut down stress levels, as well as persistent physical, mental, and emotional depletion (of course, a permanent job with benefits would do that more effectively so I don’t have to wonder about the trajectory of – or even the likelihood of – my employment every 8-10 months, but in the meantime…)
  • Curtail upper-level courses to fall in line with our current body of research
  • Use our classrooms as litmus tests for our research by trying out our theories, our hypotheses on our students. After all, they’ll be among the first to tell you if your ideas make any kind of sense or not
  • Develop critical pedagogies and explore the benefits to our respective disciplinary or, better yet, interdisciplinary work
  • When forced to find employment outside of the post-secondary education system in order to live, consider how what you’re doing outside of the classroom might be incorporated inside. Merge your experiences, maximize your efficiency, make use of all your skills and knowledge in the most effective and pragmatic ways possible.

I firmly believe – I’d even go so far as to say, I know – I’m great in the classroom, and I suspect a large number of you out there reading this are great also. I just wish we could be rewarded/compensated appropriately and fairly so we could continue doing it, rather than working in, and for, a system that contributes to the prolonged exploitation of colleagues, students, and graduates.

Andrea Terry is currently the Acting Curator at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery and a Contract Instructor in the Department of Visual Arts at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. She is also the inaugurally elected Contract Academic Staff Representative on the board of the Universities Art Association of Canada / L’Association d’art des universités due Canada. She completed her PhD in the Department of Art at Queen’s University, Kingston, ON, in 2010.

[1] Strikes protesting the working conditions for CAS have happened at York University (1997, 2008-2009, 2015, and 2018), Mount Allison University (2014), the University of New Brunswick (2014), Nipissing University (2015), the University of Toronto (2015), and at twenty-four Ontario colleges represented by the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (2017).

[2] This essay was originally published as “With Toil and Solidarity We Can Solve Canada’s Academic Labour Crisis” on, March 12, 2015,

[3] Under the section, entitled, “The Parameters of the Study,” the explanation reads as follows: “We limited our data collecting to tenure-stream positions as the moment of strong institutional investment and commitment to the discipline. We hope that the important contributions of sessional faculty will be brought out in the individual departments’ narrative accounts.”

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