EducationHigher Education

Precarious Academic Employment and Material Goods Do Not Mix

This week is Fair Employment Week in Canada. It’s an annual event put on by the Canadian Association of University Teachers and their provincial counterparts to raise awareness of the precarious work conditions of adjunct employees. The week is usually marked by sad stories of the economic difficulties faced by temporary, part-time postsecondary faculty. I thought that I, a sessional instructor at a Canadian university, would take part in the tradition this year. Admittedly, the story I have to share is not all that horrible. It’s not like my loved ones lost their health insurance or anything like that. But it does involve the loss of my most prized possession: my book collection.

I say it’s my story, but in fact, many (probably most) other junior academics have had similar experiences. This past August, just when I had given up hope of finding a placement in academia for the fall, I managed to score a one-semester teaching gig out of province. It was great news. But it meant finding an apartment with a four-month lease, fast. Moving furniture would have been expensive and impractical, so it also had to be a furnished apartment. And, because the job was only part-time, it also had to be a small apartment. I quickly realized that I would not be able to take my books. I had painstakingly built up a book collection over the past decade, looking through second-hand stores and campus book fairs, receiving thoughtful gifts from family and colleagues, and indulging in the occasional splurge for a new book. Every time I looked at my collection sitting in its shelves, I was filled with a warm feeling thinking about all of the good reading that I would do over the next few years. However, I probably owned close to a hundred books and there was no way that I could take them on a plane or a train. Even if I rented a truck, the books would not fit in the new apartment, and at any rate, I would have to move them again in four months. (Move to where? I don’t know yet. Wherever I get the next academic contract—if I get one at all). I had room for a dozen books in my suitcases, so I kept my Penguin Classics. As for the rest, I managed to sell about half of them for a fraction of their worth and donated the remainder.

There may be some people who are reading this and thinking: “What about Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, the Life of the Mind, right? You shouldn’t care about material possessions anyway.” Yeah, that’s what I tell myself too. But, as is acknowledged by all religious and political factions (to say nothing of Madonna), we live in a materialist world, and it is hard to not feel attached to at least some possessions. I have forced myself to get over it, and even though my new neighborhood has charming little second-hand bookstores, I am determined not to buy a new book until I have somewhere permanent to put them.

Of course, there is the option of digital books. Pooh-poohing digital books is the fashion that does not die, but needing to get rid of my book collection has led me to see the advantage of shelf-less volumes. Still, precarious employment means less disposable income, and paying for a brand new book every time I finish a novel just does not strike me as a prudent move—and, obviously, the used-book option is a meatspace exclusive, at least for now. Increasingly, we will see that libraries have digital books to loan to readers, and that is great. But there is still the matter of the expensive devices necessary to read them. Pulling out my laptop every time I wait for the bus is just not practical, and my old cell phone does not have the battery life to last for long reading sessions (I could get a new phone, but what if the next contract takes me outside of the country? In that case, committing to a new phone would lead to another hassle). As for an e-reader or a tablet, that would be another hard-to-justify expense while I am still in career purgatory.

The solution should be obvious, and I am embarrassed that I did not give it enough credit before my move: good, old-fashioned library book borrowing. As a citizen, I can take books out of the public libraries, and as a university employee, I have access to what is arguably the best library in the province. I have used libraries for my research all along, of course, but I haven’t taken out a book just for pleasure since before grad school. And while I flattered myself that I had an exotic fiction collection, the university library has most of the things that I sold or donated. So I am over myself now.

Okay, so my little story may not be a headline-grabbing tragedy. Neither Parliament nor Congress is going to vote in the Matt’s Lost Books Act of 2016. Many university workers have it a lot worse than I or even other adjuncts do—just look at the striking Harvard dining hall workers. Nevertheless, the experience has left me with two thoughts relevant to Fair Employment Week. Firstly, and obviously, it’s hard to participate in the economy with no money. Local universities are supposed to be Institutions that Advance the Local Economy with well-paying jobs. Well, I have put in some money for rent and groceries since I have moved to my new town, and not much else. I would love to buy books, but cannot, and that problem is passed down to local small business owners and their employees, as well as to publishers and their authors. Secondly, university libraries are an enormously helpful and important resource, and one worth preserving. Just last week, the University of Ottawa announced that it is cutting subscriptions to 4584 journals. From the sound of it, they are discontinuing access to both digital and physical copies. Without being too alarmist, if libraries get rid of books, and employers get rid of jobs that pay enough to buy books, then we are back in the pre-twentieth-century situation where only a select few have access to new, high-quality tomes. And, although I had to sell my copy of The Great Transformation and The Marx-Engels Reader, I’m pretty sure that would be a bad thing. A little more income equality for academic workers would go a long way for education, in more ways than one.

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I have a Ph.D. in English, specializing in Medieval Literature. I teach critical thinking and literature here and there. I drink too much tea.

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