Thursday, September 11, 2014

Silenced by Fear and Doubt: Blogging in the #Altac

The year is still new, but I’m already looking back. I didn’t post nearly as much as I wanted to last year. There were a few reasons. I was busy trying to figure out how to be a full time administrator and a PhD student and a friend and a partner and a homeowner and Moose's person at the same time. I was tired and anxious, because a year of doing everything for the first time and wanting to do it really well will do that to you. I had a hard time coming up with post ideas that pleased me, that I thought would please you, our readers. Those are all okay reasons. But the biggest reason I deleted so many of the posts I started was the thought of displeasing a very specific some of you, our readers. You see, my co-workers, including the Dean and people I report to, read this blog. Not all the time, I’m sure, but on occasion. Often enough that my posts have come up in conversation around the office. Often enough that it makes me very wary of talking openly about some of the biggest challenges and changes of being a flexible academic who has chosen to move into administration.

Talking about what it’s like to be a woman in the #altac is what I’m here for, for the most part. We have Boyda and Jana to talk about various stages of the graduate student experience, Erin and Margrit to speak to the contingent and in-transition perspective, and Aimee and Lily to be our tenured viewpoints. We’re also bringing on a whole host of fantastic guest bloggers this year to speak to a wider range of jobbed and lived perspectives than we've ever spoken to before. We all have our niches, and I’m the #altac girl. Sure, I like to write about my research on occasion, and I’ll be doing more of that this year than last because I feel like I’ve mostly got a grip on how to be a flexible academic who works and researches at the same time. Yes, I like to write about gender and sexism in literature and life and the media. Sometimes I want to talk about my haircut, or my cat. But more often than not, I want to talk about work, the work that I’ve discovered I love after worrying for years that finding fulfillment in non-professorial work would be impossible. My posts on #altac issues tend to be pretty popular around here, at least in part (I think) because many of you feel the same way, and want a view into what life is like on the other side. It's mostly good, but not always. And I feel like I can’t give you a clear view, at least not in the ways I want to.

When I started my job, all of this seemed much easier than it's proven to be. But something has changed since that first day in the office, and my identity as an #altac blogger has proven much less stable than my previous identity as a graduate student one. Given the negative experiences of others who have collided headlong with the limitations of free speech as non-tenured academic writers, there are still lots of questions to be answered about how to go about blogging in the #altac. How can flexible academics effectively talk about potential issues like workload, sexism in the workplace, possible career trajectories, or negotiating our commitments to work and family when the promise of safety and freedom that tenure brings doesn't exist in the same way in the #altac? How can we #alt-academics negotiate our sense of responsibility to the academic community--a responsibility that I argue strongly for, and one that demands the ability to speak openly and honestly about life as a flexible academic--and our responsibility to maintaining workplace protocols and collegiality? Is the university community able to read honest criticisms of its less admirable practices and attitudes from those who have seen it from all sides--as students, and teachers, and staff--as suggestions for improvement rather than attacks? These are questions that I don’t know how to answer--they’re questions that even feel risky to ask openly--and they’re keeping me silent.

I am very aware that there are many of us who have to negotiate the balance between self-expression and self-protection. With the majority of academic work being contingent and outside of the structures of tenure, that number is ever increasing. I know that I’m late to the game in my realization of how difficult this negotiation can be. Erin has written, and Margrit has spoken, about their belief that their openness on Hook & Eye has been to the detriment of their careers. As Aimee has noted, Heather's voice took on a perhaps uncomfortable weight when she became Vice Dean, and she stopped writing for us not long after. Lee has long been contract academic faculty and a blogger, and now has to negotiate her new status as an #alt-academic who writes in public. This is an issue for all of us who are untenured, who don’t have the protections to our freedom of speech that tenure provides, or who have the protections of tenure only for our lives as researchers and not for our lives as administrators (a sharp divide, as Robert Buckingham so memorably found out). That leaves just Aimee and Lily who can, ostensibly, say what they like and not feel constrained by signing their names to it. Aimee recognizes this, and she speaks out for us when we can't.

Not having that freedom for myself rankles, especially given the commitment of everyone who writes for H&E to sign our names to our writing. But I am junior. I am untenured, and will never have the protections of tenure. I rely on good relationships with the people I work with--relationships I do have, because the people I work with are great and they seem to think the same about me--to make my working life go smoothly, and to ensure that I’ll be able to move up and on when I’m ready. I could lose a promotion, as Anne Whisnant did when she criticized the way the academy integrates (or fails to integrate) doctorate-holding staff into its ranks. I could even lose my job. I don't want that to be me, and I’m in a genuine pickle about how to move forward without putting myself at risk.

Whatever the answer is, or even if there isn't one, it's a start to have the questions out in the open.


  1. Some universities ostensibly provide some tenure-ish protection of the freedom to speak out for staff members, or at least seem to be trying to appear to do so. The University of Waterloo includes this in its policy on Ethical Behaviour:

    "That the University supports academic freedom for all members of the University community. Academic freedom carries with it the duty to use that freedom in a manner consistent with the scholarly obligation to base teaching and research on an honest and ethical quest for knowledge. In the context of this policy, 'academic freedom' refers to academic activities, including teaching and scholarship, as is articulated in the principles set out in the Memorandum of Agreement between the FAUW and the University of Waterloo, 1998 (Article 6). The academic environment which fosters free debate may from time to time include the presentation or discussion of unpopular opinions or controversial material. Such material shall be dealt with as openly, respectfully and sensitively as possible."

    Article 6 of the M of A is explicit that one of the aspects of academic freedom is the right to (openly, publicly) criticize the university, or government officials, etc., without fear of reprisal. The wording, note, is pretty careful, and arguably only applies to "academic activities" of staff members which, ahem, might be a loophole. The policy provision was put in place, coincidentally, when the librarians at Waterloo were pushing for academic status---something they strangely have never had here---perhaps in a bid to defuse the key argument for their need for academic status as protection for their academic freedom. ("Look, all staff have it!") I don't know whether the right to criticize one's employer or the government has really been put to the test---for instance, by a Waterloo librarian being out front of the protest against what was happening at the National Library of Canada a couple of years back.

    1. If only we had such a thing! (I checked as soon as I saw your comment, and we don't.) But given the growing number of staff who are also active academics, I can see the push for something similar to become standard across Canada coming soon. Still, it only offers so much protection, for while I situate the work I do here as part of my academic work, blogging is by no means considered legitimate academic work across the board. Academic freedom might not apply here, depending on the people deciding what's academic.


Drop us a line! We're angling for vigorous commentary, but we will cut loose any vitriol dragged up from the depths.