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precarity

Lisa Visser, Untitled: By Grand Central Station Station I Sat Down And Wept, 2010. Image source: http://www.ocadu.ca/dev/student_gallery_old/past_exhibitions/hybrid.htm

Lisa Visser, Untitled: By Grand Central Station Station I Sat Down And Wept, 2010. Image source: http://www.ocadu.ca/dev/student_gallery_old/past_exhibitions/hybrid.htm

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.

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IMG_0128In 2014, one of my goals is to update this blog on a semi-regular basis (every week? Every two weeks? We’ll see how it goes). I’m starting here by outlining some topics that I hope to cover with the help of guest bloggers in the next few months.

Part of this effort will involve expanding our guest bloggers to include anonymous writers, so that we can try to cover some of these issues with greater honesty. Many people have approached me to say that they want to write something, but have said they are afraid to speak their truths online. I hope that this blog will provide these important voices with some writing space soon. (If you haven’t contacted me yet with an idea because you have been hesitating to put your name on something, I hope that you will take this as an open invitation!).

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20131216_163138By Jacob Remes
William Lyon Mackenzie King Research Fellow, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University Assistant Professor of Public Affairs and History, SUNY Empire State College

One
I have a friend who is a star.  At a conference panel recently, half of the people in the standing-room-only room left after she was done, and those who stayed directed all their questions to her at the end.  Her first book has become a textbook and a landmark on graduate student exam reading lists.  Not only that, but she and her partner are both tenured in at a research intensive university ranked in the top 60 national universities by US News.  In short she seems like she’s won the game.  She has the job most of us imagine, or are trained to imagine, that we want.  Her ideas are well known, recognized as important, and spreading.  Her book sells.

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IMG_1371By Sarah Hudson
Ph.D. candidate, Department of Biology, University of New Brunswick

“Have kids while you’re in grad school…I did it, it was great!” The advice came from a well-respected, friendly professor in my department. I was 23, single, and in the second year of a master’s degree in science.

In many ways, the advice was good. There are jolly reasons to have your kids while still in grad school. It can be tricky to envision jumping into parenthood at the beginning of a degree, when you likely have commitments to taking classes, teaching, delving into your own research, and possibly doing fieldwork. However, in many graduate programs you can at some point be flexible with your work schedule, and parenting-friendly arrangements can be made. I have fellow-grad student friends who found time to get their theses written between their kids’ naps, after they had gone to bed at night or with the help of a sitter to entertain their kids while they wrote from home. Others travelled as a family doing fieldwork in remote locations. These friends managed to juggle the responsibility of graduate school and parenting, in order to get both jobs done.

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baxterBy Andrea Terry
Department of Visual Arts, Lakehead
University

I’ve spent the last four years doing contract and sessional teaching gigs. When colleagues, friends or family ask me where I’m based, I self-identify as an itinerant academic and then explain that I’m currently at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Eyes light up at this response, and they lean forward intrigued, looking to hear more, and so I go on to explain where my teaching has taken me. I won’t lie – it’s not an easy career path, particularly at this stage. But then I look back and consider all the benefits I’ve reaped in the past four years, and I can honestly say I wouldn’t change a thing.

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428666_322502631130066_1033469884_nBy Alison Toron
PhD, English, University of New Brunswick
Co-owner and co-operator of Nashwaak Noodles, Currieburg, New Brunswick

Among my closest friends, I am affectionately known as Dr. Noodle. This nickname represents the complicated tension that exists between my academic credentials and my employment situation: I successfully defended my PhD in Canadian literature in 2011, and I am currently self-employed as the co-owner and operator of a small business making and distributing fresh pasta. (I am also a new mom and a combatant with the MCAT, but more on that later.) My absence from academia is equal parts personal choice and the product of a dismal job market that offers so few full-time permanent academic positions that it’s almost laughable. My personal narrative of earning an advanced degree and then making a living that has little to do with said degree has led me to consider what it means to “use” one’s PhD, and more broadly, what this discourse reveals about our attitudes toward the general value of a graduate education.

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“Happiness is consistently described as the object of human desire, as being what we aim for, as being what gives purpose, meaning and order to human life. … Do we consent to happiness? And what are we consenting to, if or when we consent to happiness?”

—Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness, p. 1

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In her book The Promise of Happiness, Sara Ahmed writes about happiness from a position of what she calls “skeptical disbelief in happiness as a technique for living well” (3). Her premise is to critically consider how happiness is imagined as “what follows a certain kind of being” and becomes associated with “some life choices and not others” (The Promise of Happiness, 3). She questions, in other words, how the wish for happiness is based on value-laden ideas and actually functions in a state of continual crisis as one experiences the constant disappointment of not accumulating enough of it. She helps us to question how we might uncouple happiness from such values as wealth, marriage, and social status. What if one chooses to pursue work that does not pay well, for example, because of the intellectual stimulation that it promises? If this choice produces financial difficulty, is one choosing not to be happy, as a result? The notion of choosing happiness is a problem, Ahmed argues, because “the demand for happiness is increasingly articulated as a demand for a return to social ideals, as if what explains the crisis of happiness is not the failure of the ideals but our failure to follow them” (The Promise of Happiness, 7).

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