Thursday, March 31, 2011

Guest Post: Academic hierarchies

Here is a guest post from Linda Warley, associate professor of English at the University of Waterloo, about her experiences abroad this term.

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Academic hierarchies: women and status in different contexts

I am currently a visiting professor at the University of Zagreb, Croatia. A year before I came here, soon after the initial contact was made and I expressed interest in this position, a member of the English department—let’s call her Natasha—was “assigned” to be my contact person. I assumed that she was an Assistant Professor (I knew that she had recently defended her PhD), but it turns out that she is what we call a CLA. (Big shout out to all CLAs who read this blog!) I was somewhat surprised that a sessional instructor would be given the responsibility of looking after me—answering my million questions, arranging for the flat I live in, scheduling my course, getting me set up with a mobile phone, a transit pass, keys to my office, access to the internet, and so on. Natasha has been there for me at every moment. She picked me up at the airport; she showed me where and how to get around; she’s sitting in on my course and is invaluable if I have questions about how things are done at their university, what students need to know or what they can expect. Heck, her husband even fixed a broken cupboard door in my flat. I asked her why she had been “assigned” to me (one would have thought this was a chair’s job, or at least another member of the regular faculty’s job). The answer: because she teaches a course in my area. Ohhhhkay…? It had nothing—and everything—to do with her status.

At the University of Zagreb the department promises recent PhDs three years of sessional teaching, after which their contracts may or may not be renewed. Since there are so few faculty jobs available in a small country like Croatia, this is a lifeline for the newly PhD’d academic. However, unlike at our Canadian universities (at least those that I know), here sessional instructors do not seem to be considered peers. I don’t want to overstate the case at Canadian universities but I would say that we treat sessionals as professional, independent academics. But here it seems that the sessional instructor’s labour is still available to her former PhD supervisor. My colleague refers to her former supervisor as her “boss” (perhaps jokingly) and she tells me that the boss can get her to do all sorts of things, through assumed loyalty and through asserted power. Teach a class while the boss is away. Look up references in the library that the boss was too lazy to track down herself. Proofread the boss’s article. Set and mark an exam for the boss’s course—a course that the sessional herself has not taught. Now, we might get our graduate students to do this kind of thing (except the exam setting bit) BUT WE WOULD PAY THEM FOR THEIR WORK. Moreover, CLAs are not only expected to do administrative work it is often dumped on them. Wow. I would say no full time job means no responsibility for administration—unless I chose to involve myself, which some CLAs in Canada do.

The academic hierarchy here is very Austro-Hungarian. Formal, trenchant. The older members of the department do not have much to do with the younger ones, certainly not socially. And even professionally there is a boundary that is not easily crossed. Most troublingly, the older women professors do not seem to support the younger women in the department. Any male—professor, CLA, visiting professor—is held in higher esteem than their own female colleagues. I have been treated with respect (after all, I am a tenured professor) but also with a certain aloofness. So I’ve been hanging out with the younger women in the department. They are my kind. They are also fun. Being here has taught me a lot about my own context. It makes me realize how much status I do have. I hope that I am using that status partly to foster the careers of my younger colleagues. I was certainly lucky to have been mentored by my senior colleagues, especially the women. After all, isn’t that what women do?

Linda Warley
University of Waterloo

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