Comforting IN and complaining OUT in higher ed?

Lisa Visser, Untitled: By Grand Central Station Station I Sat Down And Wept, 2010. Image source:

Lisa Visser, Untitled: By Grand Central Station Station I Sat Down And Wept, 2010. Image source:

There have been some interesting conversations going on in the Twittersphere over the weekend, that’s for sure. It’s MLA weekend in Chicago, and the tweets on precarious labour and big conferencing have been particularly fascinating, because they question how much the tenured professoriate really cares to know about the struggles of the precariously employed. Here in New Brunswick, Canada, we are in countdown mode as we await a strike deadline at my home university (it expires at midnight tonight). I have felt particularly precarious in these negotiations, because even though I am in a full-time tenure-track position, I am on maternity leave this year and the effects of a labour action on that status have not been made entirely clear. In the midst of all of this, I have been catching up on old tweets about Faculty Orientations articles, and I found some feedback on Jacob Remes’s recent guest blog contribution “For Complaining: Three Anecdotes, and an Argument.” One tweeter (@imposterism) used the analogy of kvetching Ring Theory (see this article in the LA Times for a explanation of Ring Theory and for a useful graphic, which @imposterism references) to discuss the politics of tenure-track employees complaining. To quote @imposterism: “while relative privilege doesn’t erase value of complaints, it should perhaps determine their direction and aims.” Yes.


The strange thing is that I had a conversation with a friend of mine about this LA Times article this summer, when a mutual friend of ours was dying. (Her name is Lisa Visser and she was an amazing artist, yogi, teacher, friend, and dear readers, you should know about her. I wish I could direct you to her artist website, but I think it’s no longer online, so I’ll direct you to some of her own words about her work and life. This is her blog, if you’re so inclined to learn more about her, which I think you should.) Lisa was a huge part of my life when I was a graduate student in Kingston, Ontario, and losing her this summer was a trauma on our entire social circle. Grieving for her sickness and for her death brought me back to a very happy time in my life, and it helped me to reconnect with some friendships that had lagged over the past few years. Lisa’s death hit us all hard. I have been trying to figure out what it means ever since, and I can’t. But my friend and I discussed the concept of Ring Theory and grieving because I felt that she was in a much smaller ring in our circle of grief than I was. I wanted to comfort her, by acknowledging that she was closer to the source of the trauma than I was, and while doing so I tried to dump my own emotions out, to those who were potentially further away from the source than me. (For the record, she told me that this was unnecessary and she kept reiterating that it was not a grief contest — that we were both hurting.) This summer was a sad time and Lisa’s life and death continue to affect me. I couldn’t refer to that particular LA Times article here and not think about this conversation, or about Lisa, so this is why I write this. I wish I could find an articulate way to write about Lisa herself rather than my experience of knowing her, but I’m not there right now. Jan Allen’s words here do this better than I could ever hope to; all of these thoughts on Lisa’s life are worth reading.


I want to resist making a dangerous analogy here between the trauma of this kind of grief and the academic complaining that Jacob wrote so eloquently about. The two are not comparable, so I’m not even going to imply that they are (and I don’t think that @imposterism was implying that, either). That being said, I did appreciate the notion of Ring Theory being applied to the complaining that happens in academic circles, so this is where I want to go next. I think it’s important because other feedback on this article has indicated that academia is already a culture of complaint (for example, instructors often complain about teaching only then to complain about grading at the end of the term only then to complain about teaching again at the beginning of a new term).

My question is, what does the idea of comforting IN and complaining OUT in higher ed mean for the ongoing discussions about precarious labour? In my position, as a tenure-track employee, I know that I have the privilege of writing about the desire for happiness in academic life because I can pay my bills. That is not a small privilege, it is a large one. At the same time, I agree with Jacob when he writes: “If tenure-track faculty just take whatever is given to them—on the basis that there are always more, less lucky people happy to take the job, because it is better than adjuncting—then all academic jobs will just keep getting worse and worse.” So @imposterism is correct, I think, to suggest that we tenure-track faculty need to determine the direction of our complaints. In the face of a labour action that requires me to decide whether or not I want to remain on maternity leave or go on strike in solidarity with my colleagues, I find it impossible to just take what is given to me.

When it comes to comforting in, there are some small things that I am trying to do in my own academic circles to use my privilege. One that I can discuss here is my attempt to participate in an ongoing effort to solicit advice from adjunct/part-time/alt-academic/post-academic colleagues as to how my national scholarly association (the Universities Art Association of Canada) can do a better job at addressing their concerns, since I am on the organization’s executive. I have also co-organized professional development sessions at UAAC on topics that I think need to be covered in this regard — with the help of a dynamo colleague who is amongst the precariously employed and is a prime example of why tenure-track employment is no longer a meritocracy. The sessions were full when we organized them (my guess would be 50+ per session in two back-to-back sessions in 2012), but in large part because we pounded the ground to get the word out. We sent emails to every art and art history department and graduate student association in Canada about the sessions. We asked that people send in their questions in advance for the panelists. We tried to moderate the discussions heavily so that they were on point, and didn’t run off the rails (although the sessions were certainly imperfect and generated some great feedback for future improvement). Most importantly, I think, we tried to engage people in a conversation that they wanted to have, not in a conversation that we thought they should participate in. I’m not saying this to make us sound noble or to suggest that we handled everything perfectly. And I am certainly not comparing it to the MLA situation (for the record, UAAC is a teeny, tiny scholarly association when compared to such US American juggernauts, where such direct organizing is probably less possible). And to be sure, the audience members at the UAAC sessions were primarily drawn from the academic part-time/unemployed/graduate student precariat, with some tenure-track and tenured faculty present as well. UAAC represents a relatively small academic community on the scale of things, but it is nevertheless the national voice for university and college faculty in art, art history, and visual culture in Canada, and hierarchies exist amongst its membership as they do with any scholarly organization.

I think that the tenure-track and tenured folks (myself included) need to do a much better job at navigating these issues. We have positions of privilege in this academic system, even if our power is often checked at higher levels and even if we are reprimanded or punished when we speak out against it. We are imperfect, and our privilege is limited, but it is there none the less. I hope that this is an ongoing conversation that Faculty Orientations can be a part of, and I am grateful for the feedback we have received so far. (For the record, I would like to have someone write about the impossible tenure situations that I know exist, which set up tenure-track employees for failure. This tends to be understand as a primarily US-system problem, but I wonder about that in the post-2008 academic economy. If there is someone out there in our readership who wishes to tackle this, please get in touch with me.)

I am grateful that I found a way to write about Lisa here, even if only briefly and surely imperfectly. Lisa used to say that “everyone is doing their best” when I would complain about people’s very human imperfections. I try to remember that. I use an image of her work here with love and respect for all that she was and for what she continues to be.

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