For the Good or the Guild? Scholars Respond to Kate Daley-Bailey: Helen Ramirez

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In this series, a number of scholars respond to Kate Daley-Bailey’s provocative essay, “For  the Good or the ‘Guild’: An Open Letter to the American Academy of Religion,” which appears in the most recent issue of the Bulletin journal, Vol 44, No. 4 (2015). The essay can be found here, with an abstract reading as follows: This letter/essay addresses some of the critiques and recommendations I have for the American Academic of Religion regarding its treatment of adjunct concerns. I recommend the American Academy of Religion reassess its values and priorities and ask that the organization decide if it is a nonprofit organization or a guild. Subsequently, I recommend the American Academy of Religion discontinue its obfuscation of data on adjunct existence in the field, readjust its membership dues and conferences fees with the monetary plight of its underemployed or unemployed members in mind, and avoid marginalizing or patronizing those members who find themselves within the cycle of contingent employment.

The Snakes and Ladders of Academia

by Helen Ramirez

Kate Daley-Bailey argues in her article on contingency that the AAR’s policies on membership demonstrate that it remains an old time guild presenting a cover of inclusivity when in fact the association keeps its elitist status secure by limiting entryway into its inner court by asserting a membership cost from the most disenfranchised within Academia. The AAR’s scaled membership and conference costs don’t make it easier for contract faculty. Many of us are struggling with book and technology acquisition to keep us current in our fields against health care, shelter, and food necessities with incomes that position us on the brink of poverty. So a membership and a conference are out of reach and yet we’re told we need to keep ourselves visible and active by presenting at conferences and building relationships with people on the inside of these associations to gain admittance into the hallowed halls of academia. It’s a game of Snakes and Ladders.

The interlocking layers of precarity in the university these days, force us to climb over each other at every level of power. Those of us in the Arts spend lots of time defending our right to exist in an economic climate designed to control education. Departments and programs are mandated by administrations to develop a “brand” to sell their wares to the customer base who happen to be potential students by enticing them with claims of a secure, edgy and well paying job awaiting them on graduation should they register as majors. Departments in their branding efforts search for the research production areas that read “innovative” in a bid to convince purchasers that they have more than knowledge to offer, they have the knowledge base that will place students in the highest income bracket on graduation. Once the new direction is identified, curriculums are refashioned by eliminating the old and inventing new ones to sell the department as the most “progressive” and advanced in the current market place. The courses that Contract Faculty once relied on for their own economic survival disappear. The result of this economic mess is that departments and programs compete against one another, each clawing against the other for administrative anointment. The Faculty of Arts gazes both longingly and disdainfully at the Faculty of Business and Economics, yearning to experience what seems to be the unending flow of monies in that direction but resenting it at the same time.

In the midst of all of this image manufacturing, Contract Faculty are forced to join the marketing game. As Contract Faculty we know we have to sell ourselves to the university, to our former professors, to our students, to our associations and to our departments. The approval we work hard at earning is done in the hope that it will land us a secure job. But the approval game is fraught with conflicting messages and false promises.

The game of course begins with the requisite school processes. We get the degrees at the right school, we prove we have the skills to research, to publish and to serve on committees. We dedicate ourselves to the world of networking. From the start of our graduate schooling, we forge relationships with our advisory committees hoping that we’ll be blessed as a star in the department to land us the requisite funding and references to move to the next level of competition. Upon graduation, we’re aware we must gleefully accept any job and then move to ingratiate ourselves by agreeing to take on more tasks in departments without pay. We believe erroneously that if we make ourselves indispensable to departments that have allotted us a one course contract that once they see how much we’re wiling to do that we’re securely in place for the next permanent job when the department is finally given one by administrations. We’re wrong. Collegiality is falsely developed. Departments are better able to survive off our volunteer work and new tenure track positions are used to up their selling status to a new customer base.

From every direction we’ve been given the message that if we comply to these unwritten codes of cultural production, we’ll be admitted into the sanctity of the ivory tower. Of course if we aren’t, we’re handed all kinds of subtle stings that the blame for this exclusion rests with us as failed producers of knowledge. Neoliberalism, greedy administrators and politicians are referred to but because some of the guilt for our subordinate status sits with regular faculty who haven’t used their privilege effectively, the blame is directed at us as failed students and substandard “wanna be” academics. Regular faculty will not collectively assume any guilt for what they preserve for themselves regardless of the cost to us. This is strange considering that our degrees are the result of having done the work well enough for those who are at some level critiquing our failed production and having had their own status upped because of our performance as their students.

As we gather our wares to get the job we sign on to our associations. We present our research, we network and we sell ourselves in the hopes that we’ll be the star performer who gains the coveted but rare tenure track job. We position ourselves against each other. With each move we make to be noticed our debt load deepens.

We network inside keeping up contacts with former teachers and introducing ourselves to those doing work similar to our own. We want our names known. And while we’re told repeatedly how appalling the status of contract workers is those same people aren’t raising their fists in defence of us as a collective unit. There are no movements within associations holding members accountable for their silence and no associations using their influence to force universities to halt our labour exploitation.

Dishonesty rests at the base of this entire process. False tales of spending and debts control how discussions are framed in the university as a whole and within associations, faculties and departments as well. Students are spoken about often and their needs are addressed, but rarely is there a pause by administrations or regular faculty to commit to a different economic and political ideology that reconfigures the landscape so that Contract Faculty in the thousands are no longer foraging the grasslands for food and shelter. And yet we as Contract Faculty have made it possible for universities to prosper. We have done the marketing for them. Our presence as undergraduates and then as graduates has secured the status of those who taught us and the institutions that can use us as examples of their achievement. We are the reason that many argue for expansion of their graduate programs. On their behalf we sell the university to our students who are hoping that that piece of paper at the end of their stay will give them the life they have been sold.

Too often the accountability question is levelled solely in the direction of governments and administrations saving the rest of us from having to see our part in the maintenance of this economic mess. Rather than fight for a more democratic system, we mostly choose to climb over each other modelling a long history in Academia to sacrifice the other for personal victory.

Helen Ramirez holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Toronto, and teaches in a field that is deeply threatened with extinction, Women and Gender Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. As a feminist academic she examines the workings of gendered labour exploitation and violence, which means she not fighting off multiple offers for employment in Academia.

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