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Interview / Karen Foster

Interview / Karen Foster

Nick Pearce / Dalhousie University

Karen Foster is an associate professor of sociology at Dalhousie University and Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Rural Futures for Atlantic Canada. She is the co-author of Out of the Shadows: Experiences of Contract Academic Staff which reports on results of a nationwide survey studied in partnership with CAUT.

The results of the survey show that about half of CAS who responded would prefer to be in stable, full-time and tenure-track positions, while just one-quarter of respondents did not want that. Another quarter was unsure. What does this tell us about CAS?

The CAS “body” isn’t uniform. Some people do contract teaching as a side hustle and that’s what they want. It may be an outlet for their passion, and they like the flexibility. But for others, it’s very negative as they try to piece together several jobs to make ends meet. The most troubling story is about people who’ve been at it for a decade or more and are trying to get into the tenure-track labour market and just can’t get in. These people had at some point believed that contract teaching was a stepping-stone to a career. That’s the way it’s pitched to make people believe that what’s going on is acceptable, but it’s not. It can end up being a career death sentence.

What did you hear from those CAS who haven’t been able to move into full-time positions?

You get a sense of the long-term grind. Some people recounted a lifetime of working contract instructor jobs. Contract positions make sense for filling short-term gaps or for allowing a department to teach a course experimentally to see if they want to expand in that area, etc. But when you start seeing contract jobs that are packages of courses — more courses than a tenure-track or permanent faculty member would want to teach — and they go on for longer than a year, they are not stepping-stone jobs, they are not temporary gap fillers, but are ways to extract more labour out of one person for less money, usually under conditions that are unsustainable for the person doing the work.

What’s the impact on the mental health of people stuck in this cycle of unstable work?

The effects of job insecurity are far greater than most people appreciate until they’re in that situation. When we talk about improving work conditions, we tend to focus on wages and benefits, but this survey and another I conducted in Nova Scotia reveal that people are really most concerned about the stability of their income and their employment over time. Not being able to plan into the future has a debilitating effect: they feel isolated, that it’s their fault, and that they’re failing loved ones by not being able to provide for them.

Is there a solution that works for both the institutions and for CAS who aren’t happy with the “flexibility” of their positions?

The solution is a bit fuzzy, because the complete elimination of contract instructor positions is not the answer; there are times when a gap needs filling, and there is value in having PhD students or other professionals teach courses. Where the real injustice lies is when people are being exploited in these positions as they seek a foothold in academia, but they’ve got no choice but to take contract work. At the end, they are sort of spit out with nothing to show for it, and the university has managed to hang on to a lot of money. That’s where the conversation should be focused now: we can be fighting about wages and benefits but also be trying to ensure that there is a career ladder. An immediate fix would be to offer longer contracts and ones that can eventually be converted to full-time and permanent after a certain number of years. There needs to be a path to being inducted into the full-time workforce, or people lose hope.

Are there any limitations in the results of the survey?

This is the first national survey of CAS. I think it hadn’t been done because it would be almost impossible to get a completely representative sample. So ours is not a perfect methodology. We would get reliable scientific data if institutions made the numbers public: who are they hiring, how many CAS across what disciplines, at what hourly rate and how has it chang­ed over time? But we don’t have that, and that’s not necessarily what we need at this point.

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