Friday, May 25, 2018

Shit Rolls Downhill

by Jean Roberta

This earthy saying means that those in positions of power often mistreat their underlings, which is no surprise. But the way the shit gets rolled is sometimes unexpected by the ones in its path.

This spring has been a bad time at work for members of my family. Let me introduce you to some of our bosses.

The Screaming Supervisor

First, my spouse Mirtha was harassed by a female supervisor who accused her of bullying her “consumers” (people with physical and mental disabilities who are helped to live independently by a government-funded organization) and demanded signs of “improvement.” I know how Mirtha treats her “consumers” because I’ve been welcome to go for lunch or go to the movies with them when I have time – and when Mirtha has to deal with two people in wheelchairs who need to travel by bus, it helps to have another able-bodied person on hand. I’ve come to know most of Mirtha’s “consumers,” and they greet me when they see me anywhere. I could testify that they love Mirtha. They laugh a lot when they’re with her, and they even like the way she refuses to do things for them that they can do for themselves because this enhances their self-respect.

The supervisor’s supervisor (director of the program) seemed completely taken in by the harassing supervisor’s story. Mirtha spoke to the chairman of the board, a man we know and used to like. Mirtha asked me to send him my version of the situation, so I did. The chairman didn’t do a thing, and he told us the situation was “resolved.” Mirtha resigned.

Obviously I’m biased, but I don’t think I’m blind. I think Mirtha’s absence is a loss for the organization. She even met with the mother of one of her more talented “consumers” to discuss ways that Mirtha can stay in this young woman’s life. (The mother is willing to hire Mirtha privately.) I think Mirtha should set up her own program and apply for government funding, and several of her friends agree with me. She’s been talking to a labour lawyer, and I hope something comes of this.

Why Can't Workers Be More Like Machines?

Meanwhile, Mirtha's hunky younger son has been working for Canada Post, delivering mail from house to house. I’ve always considered mail delivery people here in Canada to be unsung heroes because they’re the last of the workers who still provide house-to-house service in extreme weather: freezing cold, blazing hot, windy enough to tear big branches off trees. Younger Son (who is now 37, not young for someone doing hard physical work) does Mixed Martial Arts, and his arms and chest look sculpted. He is much stronger than the average man of his age, but he has suffered long-term symptoms from a terrible vehicle crash in the 1990s, when he was travelling with a young drama group and their car was rear-ended on an icy highway.

Younger Son was told by a doctor that he had to take time off to get physiotherapy because the heavy loads (mostly advertising material) he was carrying were aggravating his chronic back problems. At first, the management refused to accept Younger Son’s version of the situation because they said he waited too long to make a doctor’s appointment. (He provided evidence that he phoned for an appointment as soon as the problem became evident, but the doctor couldn’t see him immediately.) Luckily, postal workers in Canada have a strong union, and so Younger Son got support. Management backed down and gave him the time off, but apparently, they made it clear that they were not happy about this, and they will be watching him.

It's Just Not Enough

For years, I’ve bragged that in my teaching job, I don’t have to deal with hostile co-workers OR supervisors, all of whom have given me amazing compliments. I do get some flak from students who resent having to take mandatory English classes, but since I have power over them, I can afford to show some noblesse oblige, i.e.: I have an obligation to keep explaining things to them as calmly as possible. If they don’t get it, they’re the ones who suffer the consequences.

Every three years, I have to list my latest accomplishments on a form (with supplementary material as needed) which goes first to my immediate supervisor (current head of the English Department), then upstairs to the “fifth floor,” where the administrators do their thing. (And what is their thing, exactly? The main business of a university is teaching, and administrators don’t do that, yet they get large salaries. I find this mysterious.) For many years now, the Dean of Arts has simply confirmed the good things the department head has written on my Faculty Review form. I’ve been at the top of my salary range (for Instructors – read on) for years now, but the Dean usually states that I would deserve a raise if I were eligible.

I was expecting similar results from the Faculty Review material I submitted in January 2018. This is why I was shocked when word came down to me from the Dean that I was performing far below expectations because too many boxes on the standard form were marked “none.” This means that I have not applied for or received big grants from government or charitable organizations, I haven’t earned an additional degree, I haven’t published in scholarly journals, I haven’t done much committee work: all the things that tenured professors are expected to do.

The Dean wrote that I will now be reviewed every year, and he will be looking for improvements in my job performance.

When the “Instructor” category was created in 1999, seven of us “sessionals” (marginal academics, hired temporarily by the course) were given job security in exchange for the amount of teaching we were doing, which was and is much more than tenured faculty have ever been expected to do. The class limit for mandatory first-year English classes was then 35 students, and it was then bumped up to 40. Instructors were expected to teach six classes per year (May 1 to April 30) if we were also doing some type of “research.” (I think all 7 of us were freelance writers at the time.)

We were told that teaching was by far our most important job duty, and if we were doing anything else, that was a bonus. For awhile, it was debated whether we could get “merit increases” (usually given for outstanding research) or “career growth implements” because we weren’t expected to distinguish ourselves by our “research,” and supposedly, we had jobs rather than careers.

Traditionally, tenure-track or tenured academics are expected to do three things: 1) teach a few classes, 2) publish or perish, and 3) help run the Ivory Tower by spending hours in committee meetings, organizing conferences, setting rules for course content, maintaining communication within and between departments.

Duty #1 is much lighter for people in this category than for Instructors. In the English Department, those folks teach on a 5/4 schedule, meaning they teach 5 classes one year and 4 the next. Upper-level English classes are filled by keen students who are usually English majors. I was once a graduate student at the university where I now teach, and my classes were small, intimate discussion groups.

Since I’ve been allowed to teach Creative Writing as part of my courseload, I've had a chance to see how real professors get to live. Last semester, my Expository Prose class (non-fiction) started out with 12 students registered, but two had to drop out due to circumstances, so I was left with 10 delightful, compatible young people who liked to discuss writing. Teaching them was heavenly. Teaching my regular first-semester literature-and-composition courses is a sentence in purgatory.

(Too many students who are not fluent in English get shuffled into these classes even though they have no hope of passing. When they realize this, they become desperate or angry, and they blame the messenger. This is probably why I got two anonymous, threatening emails last year. The sender called me "bitch" and said I needed psychiatric "help." I reported this to the administration, the union, campus security, and the city police, but everyone told me that since the critic didn't sign his/her name, nothing could be done.)

I met with a representative from my academic union, the local faculty association. (She is a very nice but clear-headed prof who teaches Religious Studies. I've known her for years.) I showed her what the Dean wrote about me, and she told me frankly it is "bullshit." She spent some time researching the job description for Instructors (of whom there are only 2 left in the English Department due to promotions, retirements and resignations), and shared her findings with me. The description is fairly brief and vague, and it doesn’t claim that Instructors have to sit on committees, organize anything but our classes, or get the kind of grants that profs in the physical sciences get when they have discovered a new planet or a cure for cancer.

My union rep advised me to send the Dean a letter challenging his decision to put me on Faculty Review once a year. She said I should mention the generally-positive anonymous evaluations I get from students, the amount of teaching I do, the incredible length of time I've spent doing it, and the fact that older women faculty tend to get treated worse than male faculty by students in general. (Union Rep said that studies have shown this.)

She explained why the Dean suddenly (IMO) started shooting arrows at me: because the biggest expense for the university is senior faculty, those at the top of their pay-range who are close to retirement. She said it's no secret that the administration would like to make us uncomfortable enough to consider retiring sooner than later so that we can be replaced by younger and cheaper versions of ourselves: someone like myself as a sessional in 1999.

Thank the Goddess for unions, I say. Now I know that I'm not alone, and I don't have to take it.


  1. What a triptych, Jean!

    I know where you're coming from, as my university is becoming increasingly bureaucratic and demanding of me also. And yes, I'm near the top of my salary range (ridiculously low compared to the US or Canada, but fine for a developing country). They could hire two young PhDs for what they pay me.

    Sigh. I am glad you have a union, too. And I agree that Mirtha will probably thrive going independent.

  2. Thank you for commenting, Lisabet. Universities everywhere seem to be subject to the same trends.

  3. The real shame in my home state of Illinois is that the governor is such a rich-baby, that when he deigns to step out of one of his 9 mansions, he insists that even though the main function of a governor is to pass a budget, he doesn't wanna and he doesn't hafta. So we went almost 2 years without one. State universities all over had to fire first non-essential folks, like janitors...then they went for the non-tenured teachers. Of course not one administrator lost a job that I know of; they're not animals, for goodness sakes! (Heavy sarcasm.) So the university where my youngest went, and got an excellent teaching education, and lots of Pell Grants, has no more Pell Grants to dole out, and is damn near to losing accreditation.

    Universities are supposed to be places where you develop the intellectual skills that will guide you through your lifetime. They are NOT vocational training schools, which seems to be the trend these days. What a tragic situation!

    Good thing you have such support from your union. Hmmm, think that's why unions are being busted all over?

  4. Oh yes, unions are under attack. It scares me. University administrations have made it fairly clear that they don't like the concept of tenure for anyone. They would prefer to hire their teaching staff for one semester at a time & pay them minimum wage. The only reason this isn't the law of the land (yet) is because of unions. I am seriously thinking of using whatever spare time I have to get more involved in mine.

  5. Jean this is a harrowing story. The creep of expectations seems pretty sinister and inhumane to me, and I'm so glad you have a union backing you up.

  6. Me too, Annabeth! Actually, my union was instrumental in creating the Instructor category in the first place, in 1999. They negotiated this with the administration for FIVE YEARS before that, and finally won. The administration couldn't deny that important, foundational classes need to be taught by a group of permanent, reliable teachers rather than temporary workers who have no reason to be committed to a university that shows no commitment to them.


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