Why don’t PhD students teach courses at Trent? Part 1

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Published in Arthur, issue 7

It may be news to some undergraduates that very few Trent PhD students teach. Under CUPE 3908 Unit 2, incoming PhDs are offered Teaching Assistant positions for four years, but none are offered their own course. This is not the case at other universities; PhD teaching (course development, lectures, grading) is often part of the admission offer.

This lack of teaching is more than a minor inconvenience for Trent’s PhDs. It is not uncommon knowledge that before graduation, PhDs should teach at least one course in order to be a suitable candidate for tenure-track jobs. Recent research conducted by Vitae concluded that most tenure-track jobs are secured by PhDs within four years of their last year of study (in the U.S.).

Although their data does not track the hires’ teaching experience, many U.S institutions do offer PhDs teaching opportunities. If most jobs are going to upper year or recently graduated PhD students, surely having taught a course increases one’s chances on the market.

By creating a program without an offer to teach, Trent may well have crafted programs without comprehensive exams. By the end of their degree, students who did not secure a teaching position during their four+ years are therefore far behind their peers graduating from other universities.

Securing some PhD student teaching is on the shoulders of Trent faculty and CUPE 3908. Dr. Liam Mitchell (Assistant Professor, Cultural Studies) has broached the topic within his department. He bluntly stated that without his teaching opportunities at the University of Victoria, he would not have been hired as a professor here. Professors in other departments are now obligated to take similar steps and bring this up for debate at department meetings.

CUPE 3908 needs to widely announce article 5.10 in the Unit 1 collective agreement. Adjunct faculty comprise Unit 1, which may include successful PhD student applicants. The article states: “At its discretion, the Employer may offer Course Instructor positions to Trent postdoctoral Fellows, and Trent doctoral students in their last university-funded year of study, without competition.” I have yet to hear of this article being implemented.

This is perhaps due to confusion about the Units and their implications. Some graduate students have remained a Unit 2 employee when hired as an instructor. As a Unit 2 Instructor, the student does not get “right of first refusal” (job security) for future courses, but this is common at universities that offer PhD student teaching because teaching is part of the program, inseparable from students’ studies. Work and study, for graduate students, are linked components of PhD student life.

Article 5.10 states that the university may not exceed six doctoral or postdoctoral hires in any academic year. Alongside questions such as “Who are these six? What is the departmental breakdown? What courses can be taught?”, I find the inclusion of postdoctoral fellows alongside PhD students controversial. Postdoctoral fellows will have likely taught before. Postdocs are thus in direct competition for adjunct positions with Trent PhD students who have not taught. It doesn’t take a PhD to see who has the upper hand in the applications.

The Unit 2 agreement also contains an article stating how many hours a graduate student may work. Students can work ten hours a week, thus a position as a course instructor likely violates the Unit 2 agreement since teaching a course for the first time will require more than ten.

The Unit 2 agreement applies to scholarships as well. If a graduate student wins a scholarship from OGS, they sign a contract stating that they will not work more than ten hours a week. Students are essentially penalized for getting a scholarship at Trent. This is not true for all Canadian universities, such as York.

Corey Ponder (PhD candidate, Cultural Studies, Trent) was invited to apply to teach an English course. The process was transparent and he was hired. While grateful for the opportunity, he calls the experience like being thrown into the “pedagogical fire.” Designing a course, preparing lectures, and grading papers may take up to forty hours a week for the first-time instructor without a TA. This inhibits PhD students from completing their own dissertation work, but the rare chance at professionalization could not have been turned away.

As noted, Trent offers PhD candidates funding for four years, although, according to some studies, a PhD may take upwards of nine years. In light of this fact, universities in the U.S. have begun funding PhD students for five years.

The four-year funding structure and lack of teaching opportunities at Trent leaves PhD students in a bit of a conundrum: try to compete with Unit 1 members and outside applicants for courses and, if hired, likely spend an extra year (or two) working on PhD program requirements; or, try to complete the degree in four years but remain behind your peers in terms of professionalization. My interviewed PhD students were all in agreement about the importance of teaching for their success in the academic job market.

Any bargaining that takes place amongst students, union, administrators, and faculty must include not only teaching, but considerations of the academic job market, the high price of tuition, and union agreements.

An Ethics of Atonement

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A few years ago I presented a paper entitled “An Ethics of Revenge” (perhaps I’ll publish parts of it on the blog someday soon). In this paper I looked closely at Simone de Beauvoir’s essay “An Eye for an Eye,” published shortly after the Second World War. Beauvoir observed that victims of WWII atrocities felt little satisfaction from the judicial process of convicting war criminals. The punishment was so far removed from the crime, and at such a distance from those directly affected, that Beauvoir sought to develop an ethics that would fully do justice to/for the victims. Such a theoretical system would involve a more direct involvement on the part of the harmed, if not directly participating in, the sentencing and punishment.

At its limits this is an anarchic system whereby individuals are responsible for their own retribution. No fool however, Beauvoir leads us to aporia, stating that this would likely result in an indefinite cycle of violence. Yet, this violence would be the risk of persons involved, and most do not have the courage or fortitude to enact or endure harms anyway, says Beauvoir. I contend that if the parties involved mutually recognize the crimes and pains, and grant the victim his or her own means of punishment, the cycle would close itself after the first crime is reconciled. For the rape victim who punishes her rapist, the possibility of revenge from friends or family seems to close itself due to the historically, physically, and mentally harmful act of rape. In other words, would we really want to take our revenge on a victim who took her revenge on her rapist? While more pacifist or judicially-minded individuals would like to continue the cycle of violence, punishing the rape victim for her own crime without taking into account what brought it about, I am inclined to see the dormant possibilities in retributive violence (a controversial statement to be sure, a statement which needs further development and clarification).

Beauvoir’s point: this firsthand distribution of justice would satisfy one’s thirst for vengeance, although, she notes, no punishment will resurrect the dead, and so full satisfaction seems impossible. With this ethics of revenge nevertheless, the victim at least feels they have done everything in their power to make right, on their own terms, and in their own way.

One of the many difficulties inherent in an ethics of revenge would be the timeframe in which a vengeful act would be allowed or prohibited. Many films play with this idea of time and history, as the most interesting in the revenge genre depict characters who were harmed years or decades prior, and then develop a complicated plan to take their vengeance. These extreme cases aside, prior to an ethics of revenge, given the time between crime and its punishment – in judicial or personal forms – an ethics of atonement warrants some consideration. A chance for atonement precedes vengeance.

From the Middle English at-onen, to become reconciled (“at one” with someone), atonement is a bringing into accord or harmony relations between individuals. Harmony can be restored in two ways. The first is via what I have called revenge. A victim asks, or forces, their victimizer to make amends. But in this version of atonement we see a definite lack of authenticity that would perhaps grant the victim their satisfaction. The victimizer maintains his sovereignty because his hand was forced, so to speak, to make right. This individual did not see the harms caused, did not recognize the person(s) as harmed, and did not use his own will power to atone.

The second, and perhaps more personally satisfying for the victim, is an atonement that appears spontaneously, from the mind and will and body of the victimizer. In this fashion the victimizer destroys part of his sovereignty, sacrificing himself for the crimes committed (and we should see the Biblical Atonement here). The victimizer need not unwillingly put himself into the hands of his victim but does so for their satisfaction in order to become reconciled.

I would suggest that the first is the more often employed – as Georges Bataille has shown us with countless examples, to lose a part of our ego, even for a moment, leads to great anguish. It is frequently the case, and the easier one to be sure, to simply and unwillingly do lip service to our victim, thereby retaining our personally justified harmful actions.

The authentic sense of atonement, on the other hand, dispenses with our own sense of whether we were justified in harming another. In this account the harms done are on the side of the victim, regardless of victimizer’s intention or victim’s possible misreading of an intention. A spontaneous atonement (hopefully) reconciles. But the bigger question might be how to interpret whether a harm has been done. I believe the “I didn’t know” excuse to be conniving rather than genuine however. The emotional affect on the victim’s face, in gestures, in postures, in language, can be pre-cognitively interpreted many have argued (“Just as we may extend the circle of touched and touching hands (in shaking or holding hands with another), so our body can ‘annex’ or ‘incorporate’ the emotional body of another” [Sue Cataldi, Emotion, Depth, and Flesh]) – whether we choose to answer the other’s call is the important issue for an ethics of atonement.

An ethics of revenge is practiced more than an ethics of atonement. The latter is the more difficult, so we resort to the former; or, the former would be unfortunately descriptive while the latter prescriptive. I claimed our sovereignty is at stake in atonement in a way it is not in waiting for revenge to happen to us – this could also be called fear. Sara Ahmed writes, “fear responds to what is approaching rather than already here. It is the futurity of fear which makes it possible that the object of fear, rather than arriving, might pass us by” (The Cultural Politics of Emotion). Thus an act of revenge may happen to/against us in the future, but it also might pass us by. We do not answer to the harms we’ve done immediately because there is no fear in the present; we will not answer the call of our victims, out of our own volition, because it would deny our sovereignty, and because we impatiently await them to confront us about it instead (a further injury certainly). Fear has already prepared us to fight their claims of wrong-doing or to flee the scene before such a confrontation occurs.