2017, May 31: PANEL at ACCUTE 2017: Research & Precarity in the Humanities

Lai-Tze Fan edited this page Oct 12, 2017 · 1 revision

Research and Precarity

Co-organized and co-chaired by Dr. Emily Christina Murphy (Queen's University; U Victoria) and Professor Lai-Tze Fan (Lingnan University)

Opening Notes

  • Emily and Lai-Tze acknowledge this Indigenous land in Toronto, Canada, in which the seminar is taking place
  • we discuss our motivations: what does it mean to stay in academia, academic precarity, and still decide to do research? How do we do it?

Ross Bullen - "Research for Nothing and Alt-Ac for Free: The Neoliberal University and the Surplus Value of Alternative Academic Careers"

  • at OCAD, talks about his teaching load, 70% teaching, 30% service

  • everything that isn't teaching becomes that other thing; research suddenly put in the slot of service

  • will discuss:

    1. his own experience as a sessional, then as an LTA, and now as a full-time and theoretically permanent teaching intensive stream lecturer
    2. Alt-Ac careers for practicality but also in capacity as ACCUTE's contract faculty caucus representative
  • starting point for conversation

  • extract surplus value through research and alt-ac outcomes to maintain institutional structure

    • despite the fact that the jobs related to this kind of stuff are precarious

Publication towards Tenure-Track (TT)

  • associations of academic publications as if they are the trajectory towards a job

  • pressures to publish something, anything, for the job market, even thought the job market is far more complicated

  • home departments brag about grad student research as good promotion

    • reflects well on the institution and this is uncompensated research work
  • for precarious academics and in contract positions, continuing one's research becomes the only way to indicate that one's work is not yet stale

  • questioning of what one's book is "worth"

    • Bullen asks: in what sense and to whom?
    • not a money-making venture except that it's crucial to one's professional success
    • the book has no particular value for him--it doesn't change anything for him
    • one needs a book for tenure, so one writes a book--the motivation is a job first, not research
  • the tenure book is increasingly replaced by the job interview book

  • if someone doesn't get a job, what is that book now worth?

  • would the book be written in the same way if someone knew it wasn't going to get them a TT job?


  • largely positive, especially re: moral incumbency to help students get a job after grad school bc they're not getting academic jobs

    • "the good version of alt-ac"
    • see: McGill white paper on the future of the graduate student in the digital humanities
  • are we now explicitly training grad students for alt-ac specifically?

    • who is providing this training?
  • "horrible creep of credentialism"

  • PhD becomes incidental to the job the grad student will actually get

  • for grad students now, does training and teaching involve how to rebrand their degree?

  • alt-ac work will pretend that grad students will find a job on their own as if it was the grand plan, but it's a neoliberal push towards inflated precarity

  • see: How the University Works by Marc Bousquet

Felan Parker -- "Precarious Games in the Academy and Elsewhere"

  • talks about the trajectory of grad school to postdoc

  • has always been applying for stuff, has pushed from one thing to another

  • now LTA at St. Mike's at U of T

    • 60% teaching, 20% service, 20% research ("professional development," having to do with pedagogy)
    • so a paper doesn't count as professional development, but a teaching seminar would count
  • talks about his IG Development Grant on infrastructure and indie games

    • also looks at the cultural ecosystem of games
    • uncanny similarities to academia: people not working with a lot of capital
    • indie as a descriptor is very compromised at this time
  • indiepocalypse: over-saturated market for indie games

    • are we in an acapocalypse?
    • are we possibly in situations of self-exploitation?
  • Romantic seduction of academia, even as we have panels on precarity

  • in understanding early career researchers, put a lot of time and energy into projects that may or may not turn out

    • "venture labour"
  • opportunity costs and the constant hustle

    • "what other opportunities are you missing out on?"
  • idea of securing a post-doc as a feeling of safety, but ended up kept trying to go up the ladder and

    • all that time he spent on an IG application, if he wasn't successful, he could have published a paper and offered more "deliverables" required of his post-doc
  • emotional turmoil of the opportunity cost: the haunting of "what if that was the one" when you don't have time to do everything and have to choose

    • esp for free labour like sample syllabi in job applications
  • "beer with friends" effect: in trying to network, a lot of indie developers

  • cultural intermediaries and relational labour: making a connection with people who can connect you to the right people

    • journalists, curators, platform-holders
    • academics: editors, conference organizers, supervisors, etc.
    • sounds like something that happens to you, but it is something you do: it is labour
  • see: Emma Vossen -- "Publish or Perish" essay

Heather Murray - "Stabilizing Precariate Research"

  • has been talking about precarity since 1986

  • has seen that members of precariate and their supporters are approaching situation of incredible energy, creativity, info sharing, theorization, personal support networks

  • wants to focus on a small study of 40 English departments across Canada

    • whether, how, and in what ways they fund precariat research
    • questionniare to chairs of English: spells out different categories of employment
    • "by sessional, I mean this," and didn't include grad instructors (bc had research funding by virtue of being grad students)
  • what entitlements to research funding simply by virtue of teaching in a dept?


  1. are LTAs or stipendiary instructors eligible for research and travel funds?
  2. does dept/uni have conference travel funding for instructors on course-by-course basis?
  3. are you aware of conference travel funding to which course-by-course teachers can apply? Maybe by the union?
  4. are you aware of situations where LTA or stipendiary instructors are involved with or supported in projects coordinated largely by full-time faculty?
  5. are there other initiatives that dept has taken to encourage research by LTA or stipendiary instructors?


  • some were simple: no, no, no
  • some offered a lot of context

Lai-Tze's note: While extensive notes were taken, out of respect for Heather's wishes to keep her research for future publication, these notes will not be shared publicly on Lai-Tze's research Wiki.

Final Thoughts

  • while LTAs seem to enjoy more support in larger unis, stipendary hires seem to do better in mid-sized universities

Q & A

  • Q. Leif: collaborative work in aligning different types of labour with precarity

    • makes reference to Foucault's identification of 1970 switch in relationship with government (gov takes care of you) to physiocrats (governmentality; entrepreneur story)
    • imposes understanding that we should look at multiple forms of labour
    • question is about expenditure of energy from precarius site
    • without an institutional home, he has to apply to the government
    • the values, not just research in career but also politically, has a specific kind of valence
      • certain political work could be detrimental: no one would want to see the kinds of things you would say in a research paper
    • why are we not talking about how research is political and how it affects other job-attainment?
  • A. Felan: Emma Vossen decided to become a critic of this situation, highly politicized

    • ended up being trotted out as a SSHRC storyteller
    • SSHRC denied her a post-doc while promoting this kind of work from her
    • his work is politicized but can be spun to be palletable
  • A. Ross: right, these political disagreements don't really exist in other places

    • especially union work
  • Q. Ann Gagne: for Ross: on stale research and publishing, at what point does stale overcome the publishing?

    • has a friend with very prolific publishing history, but doesn't have a job, does this count as stale?
  • A. there's no path to follow in terms of not being stale

    • escaping staleness question is a bit misleading
  • Q. Hannah McGregor: artists are also working on training, doing work for free, actors going to auditions that may result in nothing

    • is there a difference: is one way in which model of academic publishing and labour is diff is that there's no sense that you can be a moderately successful academic?
    • either inside or outside and your critique is helpful, or you're outside and your critique is powerless
  • A. Felan: might apply to people who aren't depending on academia, maybe have a side job

    • with one foot in academia but without research pressure
    • a lot of people who do really well and don't burn out are the ones who have a day job treat academia almost as if it's a side-job
  • A. Heather: regularized teaching-stream jobs, so that colleges are a target and changing enormously

    • so a lot of students are taking this route, they want to stay in big cities, so they go to Humber and Sheridan (in Toronto)
    • emergence of "ac-alt-ac": not a lot of mobility of universities at the level of teaching staff; the mobility is in the administrative level
      • the people who loop out into alt-ac or out of academy into gov policy work, or loop into academic administration, are then by virtue of being around academy brought back into it to teach
      • looping back around into teaching positions as she didn't expect
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