Precarious Historical Instructors’ Manifesto

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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.

by Anonymous 


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.


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.

2. Departments

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.

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12 thoughts on “Precarious Historical Instructors’ Manifesto

  1. XP

    I believe this applies to many departments, not just history. When I read this critically it seems to forget that some student demographics come from positions of privilege – and many universities are actively trying to hire diversely as responses to other social policies and programs (ie for example, in response to the TRC recommendations). I’d be interested in the ‘collective’ thoughts on that – have they considered privilege and the desires to de-white the Academy, for example? And I find the statement ‘Don’t interview ABD candidates who do not have publications’ to be rather elitist and implying that just because someone has publications they are the best person for a position, when actually there can be any number of life experiences and situations in addition to, or aside from, publications, that makes candidates desirable for departments. Again, I can see some implied privilege creeping in here.

  2. Raymond Blake

    A great contribution and thanks for writing it. In 2017, I wrote an op-ed for the Regina-Leader Post on the Canada 150 Research Chairs, suggesting that the $120 million spent to fund that program should have been directed towards new PhDs. If it had 250 or so new scholars could have been hired for 7 years during which time many might have secured permanent positions. The article was carried in a number of newspapers across Canada and the response I received from young scholars was encouraging and supportive. The article is available at Minister then responsible, Kristy Duncan wrote in response that I was proposing to build walls that prevents others from joining our rich culture of research. I was suggesting that we remove the walls that exist for new scholars and allow them to enter Canadian academia. We could have taken one small step to solve the problem outlined here in 2017 but it is not too late for the Government of Canada to act now.

  3. Jamie Murton

    Thanks to the anonymous collective for this — and let’s all pause for a minute and reflect on what it says that the authors felt they had to remain anonymous. I think the key message here is that departments should think of contract workers as colleagues but with different needs and vulnerabilities that should be attended to. There are a lot of recommendations, but I notice things like finding ways for contract faculty to have access to research funds, tailoring course offerings to the capabilities of existing contract faculty, and reducing the almost comically long list of things we require job candidates to produce. These and other recommendations suggest a paradigm shift. I don’t mean to suggest that many departments and department chairs don’t try to support and protect contract faculty: they do. But the system as a whole still reflects the now dated assumption that contract faculty are temporary, on their way to a tenure-track job. This manifesto gives us a guide to changing that.

  4. Godefroy

    thanks so much for this. There should be some follow-up. (“Avez-vous été contactés?”)
    Is there some collective endeavour that I can join? Some committee or insurgent soviet in the works? Within Activehistory or anywhere else? We should call an informal meeting at next CHA, IHAF, whatever. I’m sure we could even get a last-minute spot on the official schedule.

  5. Jody

    Me too. Thanks for this. I’ve been on the merry-go-round for over ten years and I’m ready to give up.

  6. Ian McKay

    Much of the history-teaching in Canadian universities today is carried out by precariously-situated young historians expected to work long hours, often at a diversity of institutions, with little job security and few prospects of career advancement. This sensible Manifesto not only outlines their grievances but suggests constructive ways history departments and the tenured people who dominate them can express their support and solidarity.
    The Wilson Institute is committed to doing everything it can to helping upcoming Canadian historians as they engage with the realities of today’s neoliberal academy. In the coming months, we commit to talk to precariously employed academics and see how we can use the Institute, and its resources, for benefit them.

    Ian McKay, McMaster University

  7. David Calverley

    I think the article is very good. Like Jamie Murton, I also appreciate the authors’ desire to remain anonymous. I remember an article over 20 years ago by Michael Ignatieff about the how hard it was to express honest opinions in the academy, and this article strengthens his observation.

    Before I begin, I think the authors make a number of good suggestions for improving sessional work at universities. I think they should have stressed forming unions far more, and not relied on existing faculty associations to represent part-timers. Apart from that, a couple of things struck me.

    First, the authors somehow thing that those who have left university employment have somehow left the profession of being an historian (the authors refer to “Avoid commentary on precarious workers’ motivations for not leaving the profession”). What is a professional historian? I don’t work in a university (I do teach online courses for Nipissing University’s faculty of education, but my full-time employment is as a high school teacher). I have a Ph.D.. I’ve published a number of articles, a book, online resources, and I’m working on a second book. I consider myself a professional historian even though I don’t teach in a university history department. I think the authors need to think a bit more about what it means to “leave” the profession. They might want to read Don Wright’s book The Professionalization of History in English Canada.

    I also don’t think it is bad for the CHA or graduate history programs to advise and help students find jobs outside of university (what the authors call “Stop the practice of conflating support for alternative-academic careers with addressing the working conditions of precarious historians”). There is a lot of work for people who are willing to be a bit creative and move out of their comfort zone. When I finished my Ph.D. in 1999 ,I had the option of an 8-month contract at St. Mary’s, going into Carleton’s MPA program (with great funding), or starting my B.Ed. I chose the B.Ed., and it was a great choice. People facing precarious employment need to re-evaluate why they want to work at a university and why they are hanging on for so long. Taking a different path doesn’t mean you are looking for “alternative-academic careers” (that name implies that the only real career is in a university), it means you are looking for a job. A lot of people start in one career and switch into another. I think it would be irresponsible of graduate programs to not help their students find jobs elsewhere.

  8. Stephen Kenny PhD Prof.emeritus of history. Campion College/University of Regina

    I would be pleased to have my name added to this manifesto.

  9. Bridget Keating

    I would be pleased to add my name to this manifesto. If you would like me to deliver a brief presentation about my experiences with the History Department at the University of Regina, I would be willing to address how the workings of settler-colonialism, patriarchal power, and white supremacy undergird a culture of conservatism in this white, male-dominated faculty, which is long overdue for a tectonic shake-up.

    As a note: I have plenty of emails and documentation to back up my claims.

  10. Robert J. Talbot

    Re-reading this article, as another professional historian who works somewhere other than a university, I just wanted to give a “like” to the intervention made by David Calverley, above. Sums up my thoughts exactly.

    The CHA can and should be exploring ways to advise and help students find jobs outside of universities. Moreover, it should be working with employers *outside* of universities to help them understand why they should be giving greater consideration to applicants with a history background. This does not preclude the CHA from also helping those who are precariously employed in universities and who wish to continue working in those institutions. Indeed, it would probably help as part of the bigger picture. This problem does not exist in a vacuum.

    Il faudrait aussi noter l’importance d’encourager – d’insister même – sur l’apprentissage de sa deuxième langue officielle chez les étudiants, non seulement afin de favoriser un meilleur accès aux emplois à l’intérieur et à l’extérieur des universités, mais aussi tout simplement pour favoriser une meilleure connaissance de *toute* l’historiographie canadienne.

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