Say No to Precarious Employment

On this bonus episode of Academic Aunties, we hear from Dr. Vannina Sztainbok, who after working at her department on year-to-year contracts for seven (!) years straight, was let go…right before she would be eligible for permanent employment. Her story is the story of a lot of academics.

Say NO to precarious employment in academia by signing the Scholar Strike petition here:

Thanks for listening! Get more information, support the show, and read all the transcripts at Get in touch with Academic Aunties on Twitter at @AcademicAuntie or by e-mail at [email protected].


Ethel Tungohan 0:00:00

I'm Dr. Ethel Tungohan, an Associate Professor of Politics at York University. This is Academic Aunties.

Ethel Tungohan 0:00:07

The issue of precarity within the academy is perhaps one of the most important things that we need to talk about. In 2016-2017. More than half of all faculty appointments in Canada were contract positions. In February 2020, an anonymous group published the Precarious Historical Instructors Manifesto.

Ethel Tungohan 0:00:27

The manifesto identifies the conditions under which precarious faculty work is carried out, including anxiety over constantly having to apply for jobs, courses canceled with no warning, having little to no prep time, experiencing an inability to collect employment insurance, having to work in contracts at multiple institutions to make ends meet working conditions that isolate one from a community of support, a lack of research funding support, including a lack of time to do research. And of course the broader mental and physical consequences of carrying the weight of precarity. Often for years.

Ethel Tungohan 0:01:05

We know too that engaging in extended contract work can have a distinct impact on racialized women. These are scholars who often have myriad caring commitments, meaning their trajectories within the academy can take longer. They also experience ill health from navigating years of misogyny and racism within the academy and precarious academic work can foreclose, their ability to reach any kind of academic security, particularly later in life.

Ethel Tungohan 0:01:34

In today's bonus episode, we turn our attention to labor justice and the need to support precarious academic workers, which include contract instructors, lecturers, and sessional instructors.

Ethel Tungohan 0:01:47

Joining us today is Dr. Sztainbok who is an exile from the academy, a researcher, a writer, and a really good friend. Hello, Tia Vannina.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:01:58

Hello, Ethel, Auntie Ethel. Thank you so much for inviting me today.

Ethel Tungohan 0:02:02

Thank you for coming. How's it going?

Vannina Sztainbok 0:02:04

It's going all right. I'm happy to be here talking with you and having a chance to talk about my experiences.

Ethel Tungohan 0:02:11

Absolutely. Well let's just jump right into it. So Tia Vannina and I have had like long conversations about her experiences in the academy and some of her thoughts regarding academic precarity, and this is why we think it's so important for listeners to listen to this episode, to understand some of the institutional inequities that are rampant in our world.

Ethel Tungohan 0:02:33

So Tia Vannina, how have you encountered academic precarity? What has been your experiences navigating this completely inhumane and unequal world?

Vannina Sztainbok 0:02:45

Thank you for starting out with that question. And while I'm speaking about my own experiences today, I'm always keeping in mind that this is a systemic thing and that this is just my personal experience within it. Since graduating in 2009 I followed the path of many academic workers who are employed as sessionals, as contract workers, lecturers, instructors.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:03:09

My own experience is that I was teaching at the University of Toronto in a department that teaches in areas of social justice. And I was employed there for seven years. So sessional workers have to reapply each term for their courses. And from year to year from term to term, they're not sure if they're going to get the same courses. With a limited term contract in my case, it was from year to year.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:03:37

So for the full year I knew which courses I would be teaching, but then I was never sure from one year to the next, if I would be renewed. But in the end I was renewed for six years. And at each point people would say to me, oh, you know, you give so much to the department. We really wish we could create a position for you or that you could stay here or that there was a way. And then finally there actually was a way.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:04:01

Because of the activism of people who are precariously employed, they did come up with a proposal, which was approved by the administration, which was after six years, if you are renewed and it's on a part-time basis they did have this option that if you re renewed one more time in the seventh year, you could apply for a continuing position.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:04:25

The idea was that this was a way for departments to be able to retain faculty who had been working with them and who they valued and who had, you know, been contributing for a long time.

Ethel Tungohan 0:04:36


Vannina Sztainbok 0:04:37

Unfortunately after seven years, in my case, I was not renewed. And I received a notification April 28th, 2021. And the last date that I possibly could have received it was April 30th. So basically, yeah, so I was given two months notice, which was all that was required. That was what was negotiated was two months notice.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:05:01

But what this meant was I was actually teaching my last class without knowing it.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:05:06

So I guess that's my story in brief.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:05:10

I did .Express the unfairness of this to the department and when I did so, I was told to take this as a sabbatical because I have to say that the faculty association did negotiate a severance pay so that if faculty who were eligible for this continuing position were not renewed, they would get a severance pay, which was equal to seven months pay at a part-time rate.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:05:35

So, you know, it's not a very large severance, but it was something. And I want to highlight this is something that was not available, say to sessional workers who are discontinued and don't get at the course next term. But it kind of points to the ways that we are positioned precariously within the university to consider these things to be, oh, I'm so lucky.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:05:58

I got a, you know, I got severance, but in reality, in reality, my position was terminated at a point in time where it's really difficult to find another job and losing any hopes for security that I might have had. So this is the scenario. I was told that, that it to consider it a sabbatical, to actually focus on my publishing, focus on writing and several other options.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:06:22

Yeah. Several options were discussed, "oh, you might get this. Or you might get that when, when you come back." And so there was a certain kind of silencing effect that this had, because there were several possibilities dangled before me, which in a way were meant to ensure that I didn't really speak out about this. Also that like, you know, students or other others did not start to make a lot of noise about the unfairness of this.

Ethel Tungohan 0:06:51

Tia Vannina. If I can just interject here and offer my condolences, this is brutal, right? Because listening to your story it strikes me as being, especially cruel. The fact that you were not renewed on the seventh year when you could actually become a little bit more stable is to me just awful.

Ethel Tungohan 0:07:17

These are people who you've worked with. This is a department where you've been teaching for a number of years. And prior to that, you also know some of them because he did your graduate degree here and to have this kind of done to you at the very last possible date.

Ethel Tungohan 0:07:35

How do you even recover from that? Because these are colleagues, right? These are people who know you, who know your work and you know, who presumably value your teaching. Why else would you be renewed over six years or so. I'm just kind of shaking my head.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:07:50

I was shook. I was really shaken by this. I was angry. It was devastating to tell you the truth, because as you pointed out, this is a department where I had been working for seven years where my teaching was valued. Actually nobody said there was anything wrong with my teaching and when I asked for explanations as to why this happened, I was offered several different ones.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:08:14

There were ancillary thing, basically. It was, it didn't meet the needs of the department because the department needed a hundred percent person. Whereas I was only part-time, which doesn't really make any sense that you couldn't find a way to accommodate this with somebody who, as you said, has been teaching there for seven years and you wouldn't have someone, you wouldn't keep renewing their contract if you didn't value what they were doing. Right? I taught of work 12 courses there. I was the person that people called on when they had a committee and somebody needed a last minute replacement because somebody had left. I was the person who took, you know, who took their place because this was a graduate department where there's a lot of graduate teaching and you need committees for their graduate students.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:08:58

Economically, of course it was an economic hit to not be renewed and to not have the security. There's all kinds of economic reverberations that are still happening today. I found out that because I received the severance, I owe taxes. It's just one of those other ways. They, they fuck you up because you know, you get this one time payment and then you shelter it or whatever, but you still end up owing taxes.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:09:24

There's all of these ramifications that maybe the people who made this decision didn't know, but they should, because it's actually, you're dealing with people's lives. Right? Psychologically, it's really hard because you start feeling like there was something you did wrong and you blame yourself. And this is actually encouraged. Because one of the things I was told when I asked why I wasn't renewed, I was told, oh, you know, you really focus too much on teaching you... this is why the students love you. And I'm...

Ethel Tungohan 0:09:58


Vannina Sztainbok 0:09:59

Wow. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So apparently that had been part of my mistake was focusing too much on the thing that I was hired to do.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:10:10

And that was also an admission that there was nothing wrong with my teaching. Right. That was kind of a admission that actually, that wasn't a problem. So my scholarship was in a way questioned you know, that I hadn't published enough and done enough research. And as you probably know, precarious faculty don't have access to the same kinds of grants as tenured or tenure track faculty. We don't have access to course releases, which is what allows you to find the time and the space to actually develop your research. At the same time I actually didn't buy that explanation. I have, despite the barriers, I have carried out a research agenda to the best of my ability. So what these things to do is they make you feel that you've done something wrong, right.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:10:58

That's what neoliberalism does. It makes individuals blame themselves for their own precarity, as opposed to focusing on the systems and the institutional rules that really are set up to keep some of us precarious within the institution. And that's very convenient for them to have this large precarious workforce that you can always not renew or you just don't hire them the next year for that sessional contract.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:11:25

You know, Steve Salaita, who I love and who is a Palestinian activist and academic, he has said this very eloquently. He says, you know, administrators love these precarity rules because if there's somebody who says something, they don't like, okay, well, your contract is not renewed, or we don't have enough enrollments for your course or whatever it is.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:11:47

And this institution is set up to make it completely above the board to do this. So, you know, I couldn't go and, uh, grieve this because it wasn't grievable. It had actually been renegotiated by my faculty association.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:12:07

The other part I was going to add is that it also feels like an erasure because in my case, there was no official announcement that I was leaving. There was no acknowledgement or goodbye party. And I was one of the, because I was always part of the events committee.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:12:23

I was the person that organized them and I didn't actually want a goodbye party cuz I was actually pretty pissed off. Um, but what this points out is the way that there was, it's not important to recognize people like me. You don't have to recognize people who are contract. Even if they've been there for a long time. You know, they go away and you don't just don't see them again.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:12:46

And I actually asked my faculty association about this and they said, oh, I said, is this customary that this would happen this way? That it's not even announced? And they said yes, because you know, if a contract ends, there's nothing to announce.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:13:00

It may seem silly that I'm pointing that out but for months I would think about that. And I was like, oh my gosh, it, you know, I guess that's what happens. Like these little things start to really matter because you start to feel like, wow, like there have been people who work there for one or two years, but they were considered important enough to have it remarked

Ethel Tungohan 0:13:25


Vannina Sztainbok 0:13:26

That they were leaving.

Ethel Tungohan 0:13:27

First of all, I don't think it's, it's silly at all to talk about the fact that there was no goodbye party. I mean, this is a department to which you've given so much, you were part of this department for seven years. You weren't just teaching.

Ethel Tungohan 0:13:39

You did a lot of service. You were part of supervisory committees as well, right over and beyond, what people are expected to do, you're doing a lot for this department. Right. And I don't think it's petty at all to talk about the lack of a goodbye party, because this is presumably what you would expect, because you've been with you've been with these colleagues for a long time.

Ethel Tungohan 0:14:01

And what Steven Salaita said is completely correct. I mean, this is why these contracts exist because it enables treating faculty members, contract faculty members as being disposable.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:14:13

Yeah, the disposability is really that's, that's what it teaches. And that's something that I was thinking about is that I have to emphasize this is a department of social justice. And what is it that students are learning when they see that this is the way that you treat a valued faculty member? There was a message that went out that said that I might or might not be returning and made it sound as if it was my decision, whether or not to return.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:14:44

And I think that for students they really see how precarity is also in their future. You know that somebody could be treated in this way so callously and as well as they're living the precarity right now because they're also employed in, in different positions where they are subject to the whims of the institution and of supervisors and things like that.

Ethel Tungohan 0:15:06

One thing that you are saying that is becoming more and more clear to me as I think about what happened to you is how institutions are so good at gas lighting us. Right? Because on the one hand this department is social justice oriented. Sure. But the larger university as well, talks a lot about EDID, about intersectionality, about the need to decolonize the university. They have a lot of powerful statements and support of Black Lives Matter and support of Indigenous communities and support of racial racialized communities. So there's like that structure that's supposedly geared towards making sure that the university becomes more equitable and yet what we're seeing happen to a lot of contract faculty is that despite these kind of grand statements for diversity and for equality, when it comes to individual faculty members systemically, it is such that it, it becomes very difficult for contract faculty members to seek greater labor rights.

Ethel Tungohan 0:16:12

To seek permanence. Right?

Vannina Sztainbok 0:16:13

I think that there's a couple of myths about academic employment that help to sustain this culture. So the institution has rules that are, you know, they're very neoliberal.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:16:25

You know, there's the few select tenure track, tenured positions, which are the privileged positions. And the myth is that it's meritocracy that these are the, you know, the best and brightest, and that those are the people who get those positions, which implies that whoever doesn't get those positions is well it's because they didn't work hard enough, their scholarship isn't good enough. They didn't publish enough, which is kind of what was told to me without remarking on all the barriers that once you're in that precarious line, all the barriers to actually carrying out the kind of research agenda that would lead to that tenure track position.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:17:02

The institution sets up the rules, you know. I was at the University of Toronto. The University of Toronto is excellent at creating the most precarious conditions. They make sure that for example, each contract position is written and the termination is written right into the offer.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:17:21

And so then what this does, it creates a climate where contract faculty have very little room to, to say no when you're asked to do service, when you're asked to do all these extra things, you quite likely will say yes. So it's a, it's a system of exploitation that is set up by, by the institution, right?

Vannina Sztainbok 0:17:44

You have very flexible mallable exploitable workers. When you keep somebody on this, well, you might be renewed you might not be, you get a lot out of them, right? You get a lot more out of them than, than if they were in a secure position. And it sets up a culture of competition. It pits workers against each other and makes it seem as though some of us are special and some of us are not and some are more deserving of whatever rights and privileges that come with having that title and some just simply aren't because they just, for whatever reason, we're not good enough.

Ethel Tungohan 0:18:25

What I still can't understand, and perhaps we can have a little bit of a dialogue about this is this happened presumably within a social justice oriented institution. Right? So, I guess what I'm kind of trying to say is that if this is happening in a department that's invested in social justice, then there's no more hope for other departments because isn't it the case that you teach your students to look at inequality, you teach your students to question structures, your colleagues presumably, are also teaching about the systemic nature of discrimination and oppression.

Ethel Tungohan 0:19:01

So in other words, is this just lip service then what we teach our students?

Vannina Sztainbok 0:19:05 That is also something that perplexes me to tell you the truth. I must admit it's, I'm not the first faculty to be treated in this way from that department. So there is a history of this. I guess, one way that I can think about this is that there are ways that people hang on to institutional rules as if, and take them as if they were a given and that you have to act within these neoliberal parameters and you have to respect them.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:19:35

And there's another way to work, which is no, you actually can say no to that and say, we're gonna do the best to oppose this and do our best to actually honor the principles of social justice, however you envision it and that labor justice would be an aspect of that vision. I wrote a letter to my department, and I said, no rules were broken in severing a seven year employee but at the same time a choice was made, right.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:20:01

They chose not to renew me. When I did write a letter to the department, as well as to the Dean the Dean did reply. I didn't receive an official response from the department, but the Dean did reply and told me that decisions regarding staffing are made by using different criteria, including teaching needs, research and service, performance of academic staff.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:20:25

I know that my performance was not an issue. I know that teaching needs were not an issue. I know that as well as students themselves told me, we, you know, we need the courses that you were teaching to be taught.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:20:37

But these criteria, what I noticed is it doesn't include labor justice or, you know, fair labor practices is not one of the criteria. So I ask myself, why is labor justice not, or labor fairness, not one of the criteria for making decisions about whether or not you renew faculty. Why would that not be a criteria in a department of social justice education as you, as you have mentioned.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:21:09

Why would a department that educates in this area not take into consideration the fair treatments of its workers? Why would that not be a criteria? And what does this teach students? When you can just so easily discard a worker, an employee, a valued faculty member.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:21:27

I have to say, because I think it would be unfair to not to mention, that I did receive support from some of the faculty members in the department who did fight for me. Unfortunately, they were not successful.

Ethel Tungohan 0:21:39

Tia Vannina one question I did have, though, as you were kind of talking about your experience was where could people have acted otherwise in your situation? I mean, yes, of course it's structural. Yes, of course. It's its systemic but at the end of the day it was individual actions that led to your situation.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:21:58

I think there's several places where they could have acted differently. First of all, okay, say the non-renewal happened. And then I pointed out that this was unfair. That was my first step was to say, okay, maybe you didn't realize that I actually was eligible for a continuing position.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:22:17

So that was the first place where somebody could have acted differently. But instead there was a doubling down. There was a doubling down in like, Nope, we don't need you. This is totally above board it's, according to the rules, according to the institutional rules. And you know, this recourse to like, oh, it doesn't meet our needs.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:22:38

Fred Moton and Stefano Harney, that you probably are very familiar with the Undercommons where they have said that in order to refuse the injustices perpetuated by the university, it's possible to be in, but not of the university.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:22:54

And I think this is somewhere where things could have been done, done differently. Even if the rules said, oh, we only have to give you 60 days notice. Well, it might have been helpful to give somebody a bit more of a heads up. But the rules actually said I could have been renewed. So this is the part that's puzzling to me.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:23:08

There's a student campaign speaking out on my behalf, that would've been another opportunity to engage in a conversation about precarity in the university and to kind of rethink, because I think a lot of times people make decisions, institutions make decisions that are unfair and individuals making decisions that are unfair.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:23:27

But I think there is always an opportunity to redress to rethink and to reconsider decisions based on, okay, now maybe we didn't have all the information, but now we have more of the information and it's possible to revisit a decision. So I think that's something that could have been done differently.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:23:46

I have to say I have written a couple of letters to my department. I have received no response. There have been a couple of individuals who reached out to me, but no official response from my department.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:23:58

And in fact, I have to say I received one reply, which actually pointed to me as someone who is entitled, who has a sense of entitlement because expecting to actually be renewed after working somewhere for seven years speaks of my sense of entitlement. But that's that's part of the culture of the university, right?

Vannina Sztainbok 0:24:20

That myth of meritocracy that like what you shouldn't expect, anything really , unless you're kind of best and the brightest, who, who have secured the scarce positions that are available.

Ethel Tungohan 0:24:32

That's appalling by the way. That's so appalling. I'm so like to accuse someone of being entitled, expecting to be renewed, expecting to get some foothold and stability on the one on, on the very year, uh, that that entitlement was available. That's the opposite of entitlement. That's actually patience, right?

Ethel Tungohan 0:24:51

Like, you know, I'm so sorry, Tia. That's, I'm just kind of shaking my head.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:24:56

To tell you the truth, this is part of the reason why a lot of people don't speak out about this is because you will be attacked. Right. If you speak out at the unfairness of these rules, then it's somehow again, it's individualized rather than looking at the institutional ways that this unfairness is supported it's oh, no. Well now you're just bitter. You are entitled. Why do you know, why do you think you deserve this? As opposed to thinking more about, no, this is, this is a labor issue in most workplaces, unfortunately, less so I understand precarity is not limited, of course, to academia. It's not limited to faculty.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:25:36

There's so many workers at the university itself who are precarious, right? People who are working in cafeterias, who are cleaning the offices, who are working in all kinds of places. But it is really telling that somebody expecting some kind of security after seven years, is now considered entitled.

Ethel Tungohan 0:25:56

I suppose my question to you now is why are you speaking out? I mean, knowing that there's gonna be a backlash, well, there's already been a backlash. Why speak up now? Why, why give voice to your story and give voice to the systemic issues that occur in the academy?

Vannina Sztainbok 0:26:12

Well, I'm speaking out to disrupt the silence and the shame around precarity. As I just mentioned, there is this idea that you, in a way it's shameful, because it just means that you didn't publish enough. You didn't, you, you weren't brilliant enough, your research isn't relevant enough. And somehow that's why you didn't land the, you know, big, shiny tenure track position.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:26:36

So there's a certain degree of shame that you actually internalize and that you have to fight in order to be able to speak out. So this is one aspect of it.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:26:45

And this is linked to the silence, right? It helps to maintain the silence. There will be people that will attack you and again, call you entitled or bitter. And there is the very real chance that you will miss out on opportunities. When I wrote my letter to the department, I said, you know, I, I don't mean to burn any bridges by doing this, but I know that I probably have, you know. If tomorrow I get an offer, I, I will bite my tongue.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:27:15

But you know, probably have burnt some bridges by speaking out because yeah, who you, you know, you are someone who's now like a, a rabble rouser and who, who isn't respecting the authority of the institution.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:27:32

So the second part is to disrupt the myth of meritocracy.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:27:36

It's very, it's a very political workplace. And to pretend that this is not the case, and to pretend that, you know, and as you know, there is. There is racism. There's gender based inequity. There's a it's ableist it. We know that people, Black, Indigenous, racialized people are face barriers in the, in gaining gainful employment in the university, uh, racialized women.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:28:04

I want to actually speak about two comrades who are at, uh, the University of Ottawa, um, Dr. Safaa El-Bialy and Dr. Nermine Youssef, and they are fighting because of the ways that they have been maintained in a more precarious position than their colleagues and prevented from receiving tenure, even though they've been doing the same jobs as their colleagues.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:28:29

I want to shift the conversation from merit to labor. I want to remind myself and others that this is a labor issue, that it's not about some of us not being bright enough or not publishing enough. The fact is the academy needs us. Without our labor half the courses would not be taught. A lot of students would not be mentored and there have been some studies that have shown that precarious faculty, because we live contract to contract. We actually put so much into our teaching and students really value our teaching. We actually end up having, you know, closer relationships.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:29:10

So I just want to finish here I guess reminding faculty everywhere that we are not special we're workers and we need to learn how to be in solidarity with each other,

Ethel Tungohan 0:29:20

I do wanna ask you about scholar strike and why these types of organizing is so important. Can you speak a little bit about that and why it's important for faculty members and for university workers to act as a collective?

Vannina Sztainbok 0:29:39

So scholar strike was organized in 2021 to address issues of anti-black racism and to address issues of colonialism in the academy.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:29:50

And since then Scholar Strike has been really instrumental in educating and in being activists around a set of issues at the university. And so some students from my former department organized a letter that that they put up on Scholar Strike and they're calling it the no precarity campaign.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:30:12

They are actually calling on the University of Toronto, on the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and on my former department to act on precarity and to say no to precarious work. It's been really life giving to see this activism coming from students who come to a department expecting to be schooled in certain areas in anti-racism, in anti capitalism and in all of these areas.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:30:42

And now they're schooling us. They really insist that theory must be connected to practice. And they are saying no to precarity. They have this letter, they have actually done several actions.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:30:56

So some of your listeners might see that letter and might be asked to sign it. But I think it's really important the way that the Scholar strike No precarity campaign has unfolded is that it's really focusing on precarity at all levels in the university.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:31:13

A lot of times when I talk to people about my situation, some of the responses were like, well, that's just the way these contracts are. And it's interesting that we come to accept that. That's just the way things are that people who have been working somewhere for a really long time, contributing for a long time can just easily be discarded.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:31:34

And the students are saying, no, that's not the way things are.

Ethel Tungohan 0:31:38

Absolutely. For listeners who are tenured, tenure track, who are part of that community who are like, well, I, it's not really my situation. It doesn't really affect me. What would you say to them? And a lot of our listeners are actually also early career scholars who, you know, have emailed me worried about the job market. Worried about precarity. What would you say to them?

Vannina Sztainbok 0:32:05

I guess to tenure and tenure track faculty, even when you're tenured you experience a level of precarity, again, I wanna refer to Steve Salaita, I'm not sure if he calls it beholden ness or something like that, but it's that culture where you're always beholden to someone. And that's something about the structure of academia that encourages that. You're always beholden to whoever is your referee, for the next promotion, whoever is going to be your referee for getting that research grant, there's always someone who has to vouch for you.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:32:37

But of course, I think that if you have some degree of power within the institution, then you just use it to the best of your ability. I mean, for me, I'm using mine right now, not having a job, I can say whatever I want. So that's what I'm using right now.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:32:53

It's not like the preferred, I guess type of power to have, but it is right. It's actually very powerful, and I want to emphasize that. I want to emphasize that this was a pretty, as I said, upsetting process. And that once I started speaking out publicly, that was actually very therapeutic for me.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:33:18

And I don't wanna focus on the personal aspect but I just wanna emphasize that because for other people who might be in this position, there's something about speaking up about injustice that is actually very empowering

Ethel Tungohan 0:33:31


Vannina Sztainbok 0:33:32

You also ask me about people who maybe are just starting out. I actually wrote a letter to other precarious faculty. So I said

Vannina Sztainbok 0:33:39

Dear contract faculty,

Vannina Sztainbok 0:33:41

I'm writing to share a few things I've learned. So, you know, you are not alone. You may feel that you have failed, that there is something else you should have done to steer your career onto the right path.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:33:51

Higher ups will encourage the view that your lack of security is your personal failure and refuse to acknowledge their implication in constructing your precarity. This is called gaslighting. You are an excellent teacher.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:34:07

Since you are living contract to contract, you are one evaluation away from non-renewal. You will give your all to teaching, not only for the sake of the contract, but because you honestly care about students and scholarship. At the same time, excellent evaluations will not save you. As I was told, I focus too much on teaching and not enough on publishing.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:34:30

You are an excellent researcher. Your research agenda is impressive, considering it is done outside of your contracted hours. You are not eligible for grants and you are not provided with mentorship, course releases and a team of grad assistance. Believe it or not this is a threat to some of your colleagues who receive large grants and course releases, and some who may even exploit student labor to carry out their research.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:34:57

You are a collegial colleague. You're a professional who does not engage in manipulation, games or blackmail. You will be asked to do service that everyone else refuses to do. While phrased as a request, you will have little option to refuse, since again, you are living contract to contract. But again, I want to end by saying that you do have power.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:35:20

And that speaking out is the power that you do have, and seeing yourself as a comrade to your fellow workers is part of the power that you have.

Ethel Tungohan 0:35:29

Those are such powerful and beautiful words to end on. Thank you so much Tia Vannina for taking the time to talk to us about your experience. I really appreciate this conversation and I think the way that you've punctured the myth of academic merit is something that we all need to think about and assess.

Vannina Sztainbok 0:35:54

Well, thank you very much. Tita Ethel for having me on the show. It's been, you know, it's actually really, um, I don't wanna say fun, but it has been fun to talk to you. It has been really important to, this is an important space that you have opened up here.

Ethel Tungohan 0:36:11

Through sharing her experience, Tia Vannina has shared precisely how the institution relies and thieves on precarity, shifting blame onto precarious faculty through myths around meritocracy. The neoliberal academy is set up in a way that normalizes extraordinary forms of cruelty.

Ethel Tungohan 0:36:32

And I use the word cruelty intentionally because contract academic workers like Tia Vannina are building communities, mentoring students, engaging in service work, enriching the institution. And in fact, quite literally keeping it running. This cruelty teaches students that some people in some forms of labor are simply without value. That they are disposable.

Ethel Tungohan 0:36:57

The sting is all the more intense when we see how those of us who engage in critical scholarship, who work in critical or progressive departments are still very much implicated in the system. There is something systemic happening here. But there are opportunities to act and do otherwise. In fact, we must act because we are losing people.

Ethel Tungohan 0:37:18

So let's join Tia Vannina in shifting the conversation from merit to labor.

Ethel Tungohan 0:37:23

As mentioned in our conversation, Scholar Strike Canada has organized a campaign in support of Tia Vannina. We'll include a link in the show notes, where you can send a letter of support and keep track of the campaign. Also, Scholar Strike Canada has a number of events that we should all support.

Ethel Tungohan 0:37:40

And this is Academic Aunties. Follow us, wherever you get your podcasts. We're also on Twitter at @AcademicAuntie. We'll see you for the start of season three at the end of August.

Ethel Tungohan 0:37:51

As always take care, be kind to yourself and don't be an asshole.