Precarious professors on a precarious planet

Fostering relationships with the earth: this has long been the goal of environmentalists trying to create change. When we do not have a relationship with the earth – air, water, trees, land and other creatures – we are likely to allow their degradation; indeed, their despoilment and death may very well happen without us being aware that anything is going on.

However, when we have a relationship with a connection to the earth, we can feel the degradation and want to foster a diverse, robust, environment. Unfortunately, market-driven understandings of the environment (grab everything you can from the earth to make more stuff and grow the economy) have created a precarious planet.

Precarious labour does to people what we have long done to the planet. Precarious labour turns people into resources, commodities that are used without connection and commitment. There is no ongoing relationship. People are not given time to put roots down. People are used and discarded because that is the market-driven smart thing to do.

The ill-treatment of people by the market-driven, endless growth economy is not new. But perhaps the best testament to precarious labour’s appeal and seductiveness is its increasing use by post-secondary institutions.

Historically academics have, at least implicitly, understood that ideas, questions, creativity and critical analysis flourish where there is security, collegiality, collaboration and trust. But the business of the university has made rootless precarity tempting. Too tempting.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers states that over a third of professors at Canadian universities are temporary or part-time. The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) offers that closer to two-thirds of professors are temporary/part-time in the United States and highlights that adjunct faculty are paid significantly less than tenure-track/tenured faculty, have few benefits and little job security.

According to HEQCO, “These faculty members often receive little advance notice of teaching assignments, have little time to devote to course preparation and out-of-class student contact, and have little opportunity to participate in the academic life of the university”. In his recent Academic Matters editorial “The reality of precarious academic work around the world,” Graeme Stewart highlights that this is a global phenomenon.

The same economic system that environmentalists have struggled against because of degradation, habitat loss, species extinction and climate change (amongst other environmental challenges), is increasingly turning professors – mentors, colleagues – into commodities. People and their labour as commodities is not new, but the challenge has arguably never been closer to our academic home.

We are grappling with increasingly harsh and acute environmental realities; there is urgent need to change our relationship with the planet.

We must consume less, share more, create energy differently. And we would be wise to recognize the ideals that led to this precarious planet are similarly crafting the relationships we have with one another. Environmental issues are everywhere we look. We now know that we need connections to and relationships with the earth. We similarly need connections to and relationships with our colleagues and professors.

-Jennifer Good

*** Jennifer Good is an associate professor in the department of Communication, Popular Culture and Film. She is also a founding member and board member of the International Environmental Communication Association.

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