Things I never thought I would do: today I went to my union meeting and voted in a strike vote. On a sunny afternoon in July, four hundred of my colleagues crowded into a lecture theatre (the kind of place we try to forget about in July) to learn about the state of contract negotiations between the faculty and the University. Things are not good. They want us to pay, through our pension plan and our salaries, for their bad financial planning and dumb construction projects. (For instance: they are building a tunnel from the business school to an underground parking lot, a distance of about one minute. Less in January.) I learned today that teaching expenses make up about 25% of universities budgets these days. What are they doing with their 75%?
I voted yes. Of course I care about my paycheque. Mine supports a child and a partner and, intermittently, other people and causes and mortgages. But worse still is what my university is trying to do to the profession of teaching. They want the green light to be able to hire people to teach and teach only. They don’t want to pay them to do research – like I am supposed to be doing this summer, instead of going to union meetings – or go to conferences or write books. They don’t even want to give them the opportunity to claw their way into the research stream, if they are so inclined. They just paid over one hundred thousand dollars to a Toronto PR firm to give them a branding slogan which celebrates our “spirit of initiative” (a slogan recycled from a car company) at the same time they are actively discouraging the ability of professors to follow their spirit to the archives or research labs or libraries in order to learn something new. Knowledge they could then, incidentally, pass on to students in their classrooms. That sounds like a great deal of initiative to me; why vote against that?
Could any of us look our graduate students in the eye if we accepted this? How can they be paying me – well, I concur – to train people to do research, write serious books, communicate what we have learned to other people, if at the same time we raise the drawbridge to those who come next and tell them all they can do is read books, (if they have time); never write them?
I would be the first one to say I have a great gig. I also know that most of the pleasure of my job has come not from those (many) solitary moments in the archives or at my desk, but in the classroom where I have been able to share my experiences with others. Graduate students, who actually read what we write, and are starting to think that this might be a cool way to live their lives, are our best, most appreciative audience. We owe them. And us.
Karen Dubinsky is a professor of history at Queen’s University. She has published Improper Advances: Rape and Heterosexual Conflict in Ontario, 1880-1929 (1993) and The Second Greatest Disappointment: Honeymooners, Heterosexuality and the Tourist Industry at Niagara Falls (1999). She is currently writing a book about trans racial/national adoption and the politics of childhood in Canada, Cuba and Guatemala. In 2007, she received the Queen’s University Award for Excellence in Graduate Supervision.