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


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.

Anti-Choice Imagery


This is a response to a display of anti-choice materials at Trent University’s Otonabee College some months ago (as well as the long ago debate about the denial of club status to an anti-choice group, Trent Lifeline). It’s conclusions, I think, can be mobilized to address similar situations in other institutions.

I returned to Frances Ferguson’s Pornography, The Theory (2004) and found the book’s central argument compelling. It does not oppose itself to ideology – we’re stuck in some version of libertarianism for now – but takes up its terms, uses the language of the Master so to speak, to discuss literary pornography in the bulk of its chapters, but first works out a theory of pornography that can be applied to images. Her work is without a political pole, or better, is not oppositional to a particular pole (unless one was to naively think that any insistence upon women’s equality is a radical and leftist feminism).

Ferguson’s project is to analyze pornography from the majoritarian politico-ethical foundation: Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism. Bentham, through Ferguson, held fast to a framework of equality. His Panoptic model, when applied to social structures such as the workplace and school, was an effort to ensure that any individual, regardless of class, race, and/or gender, could be equally evaluated according to his or her abilities and performance in a common activity, and individuals want to participate in this ranking because it is life-enriching – in part because it is inclusion in a group. In different words, an individual is ensured his or her right to visibility since this model compared and ranked individuals according to their observable behaviour. For example, a young girl in a school structured on this evaluative model could be observed as being equal to or better than the boys in terms of her performance – there is no question, then, as to her abilities, and at least in the classroom, equality is attained. In Bentham’s model individual identity and individual beliefs are effectively replaced by the fostering of observable participation in an artificial environment, thus resulting in a heightened inclusion into a group which one does not already belong (the school is a social construction; gender identity is suppressed for evaluative and ranking purposes; a girl then becomes a member of the group of students who are ranked according to their individual abilities). Bentham’s model should sound, and look, quite familiar, both theoretically and when we consider the ways contemporary institutions operate. From here we move on to pornographic images.

Ferguson argues that Catharine A. MacKinnon’s only tenable claim against pornography is from the standpoint of sexual harassment. An image should be restricted not because of its content, but because of its use by one individual (or group) to deny an individual’s (or group’s) access to evaluative and life-affirming social structures (for ease of discussion, Ferguson names the workplace and school). Ferguson is worth quoting at length here:

Like a variation on irony, with its rehearsal of the same words with a different meaning from that which they have previously carried, the harassing image is harassing not so much because of its content, what it says, but rather because it uses an image as conspicuous expression of the difference between the parties who view it. A pornographic image need not be offensive in itself, need not even be sexually explicit, to be used in harassment. It need only be used as an ostensive definition of an individual’s difference from the other members of a group.

Pornography may be used for masturbatory purposes, may serve as fodder for the beliefs of sexist men and in some instances serve as material which promotes or instigates violence and rape, and it may require coerced performances from its actresses (MacKinnon’s arguments against pornography), but each claim is untenable given the complex and unsound premises necessary for their justification. Therefore pornography, given these impossible to complete arguments, does not warrant censorship – it is difficult to believe, either generally or rhetorically, that these claims are true without exception.

Ferguson is more interested in how pornography is used in a particular context and truly becomes actionable. Consider, within the context of a social structure, one individual forcing another individual to view pornographic images in an effort to assert difference (in the simplest case, a male employee showing a female employee an image which, in words or in gesture, suggests the woman is or should act “like this”), thereby bringing individual identity (gender) into a social structure which had previously guaranteed equal access to it (by objectively ranking and evaluating individuals who participated according to their legal right). When an image is used in this way, in Ferguson’s adopted terms set out by majoritarian politics, it is harassment and should be restricted in its use. That is, the image itself does not demand or command censorship, only its use by a particular individual or group to assert difference – we may want to call such a use, in MacKinnon’s language, subordination.

Given the recent controversy over the campaigning and distribution of anti-choice materials in schools and other public-access institutions (information and materials intended to persuade women, and men, to bring fetuses to term rather than abort – effectively an attempt to question the legitimacy of women’s and men’s past, present, and future decision-making regarding their personal reproductive rights, and further, limit the extent to which women can exert their free will and free choice over matters concerning their bodies), Ferguson’s analysis finds a useful application.

The materials and groups that have promoted and continue to promote “Glad you were born” masquerade as anti-choice activism. The materials with the text and imagery on the theme of “Glad you were born” will, for the person acquainted with anti-choice activism, be synonymous with texts and imagery on sexual freedom, fetuses, and reproductive rights. These materials serve, in Ferguson’s argument, to reflect a difference between the individuals who compose the anti-choice group and the respective targets of their activism (mostly women, but certainly if a man is persuaded by anti-choice materials he too can question, if not be an authority, on a woman’s free choice to bring a fetus to term – certainly anti-choice activists would not target any institution on directly economic issues, individual’s and couple’s financial status of course being the neglected factor in anti-choice campaigns).

My contentious claim: Anti-choice materials are pornographic under a utilitarian politico-ethical structure when they are brought into an institution where differences of belief have been suspended for the purposes of evaluating and ranking individuals in an effort to establish equality through individuals’ respective abilities. By allowing the anti-choice activists access to a school space in which they can uncover and identify (interpellate?) individuals who disagree with the anti-choice position, individuals who have had an abortion, or individuals who want to leave the question of abortion open, Otonabee College has allowed one group to display and assert differences between individuals based on their beliefs and/or their prior exertion of their free will and free choice (to bring a fetus to term or not) and, in no small way, via the images and texts on display, visibly or invisibly harass them about their respective political views and/or prior behaviours.

I am claiming an equivalence between “Glad you were born” materials with anti-choice materials. When either type of material is forced upon an individual within the institution of the school, it attains the status of a harassing image, for certain rights to evaluation without presupposing one’s identity, gender, beliefs, etc., had been guaranteed. If an individual is barred access to the institution by other individuals confronting him or her with such an image, in the utilitarian view, it requires restriction. Consider the person whom is incapable of attending class lest their prior decision to abort be questioned by the anti-choice activists campaigning out front their classroom. In this instance, the school has therefore violated the rights that they had previously established, unanimously and univocally (all individuals have access to the school, access to an evaluative and ranking system whereby their religion, beliefs, gender, etc., do not reflect the evaluation and ranking they are able to receive based on their individual capacities).

Text and imagery are actionable, are part of speech. It is not up to the individual to secure his or her own rights and freedoms at an institution; that institution had promised an access free of prejudice and Otonabee has violated this access to a building free from an assertion of difference through the allowance, and worse, the promotion of harassing text and images.

I have hopefully hinted at how a politically right-wing problem (anti-choice activism) necessitates its own restriction based on right-wing terms (the institutional agreement to a utilitarian foundation).[1] I have also shown the complications involved when individuals resort to the position of free speech to remain politically neutral or indifferent to the harassing image (until it harasses them). Together, these three issues – anti-choice activism, Benthamite utilitarianism, and free speech – reveal inherent contradictions when they are simultaneously produced, promoted, and accepted without critical thinking. Indeed, the latter political issue (free speech) is frequently restricted at universities for the very reasons presented above. Why the anti-choice campaign was allowed, despite the utilitarian principles Trent University operates upon, needs to be addressed by the administration.



[1] Of course we may not agree that all politically right-wing foundations are anti-choice. I generalize here.

Sexuality, Psychology, Heteronormativity


I recently participated in a psychological questionnaire on attachment and the sexual encounter (researcher’s title). I then showed the graduate student researcher’s abstract/area of interest to a friend who laughed and said this kind of work is like something out of the Toronto Star (newspaper). What is significant about this statement is not that my university funds pop psychology research, but that a parallel can be made between psychological research and a major news publication (a newspaper which publishes pop psychology findings as news/fact). Both psychological research and the newspaper, in my view, are producers of normative discourse – in this case, around and about sexuality.

This is not a new or original claim for Foucauldians, but sharing my experiences and problems with the questionnaire might shed some light on how the discourse on sexuality operates within the sphere of psychological study, and in turn, affects everyday behaviour and morality. My researcher mentioned, upon my disapproving comments about the questionnaire, that these questions were quite standard for her field (she provided a bibliography, and yes, attachment and sex is a whole field of study for the discipline).

The questionnaire was to be answered by a couple, in separate rooms. For logistical purposes my survey partner was therefore defined as “current partner” by the survey. The survey did not require, ask, or make apparent the necessity – if it seriously intended to be faithful to my actual intimate and sexual experiences – for other romantic and sexual partners to be present and fill in the survey too. We will see how this assumption of monogamy disrupts the research.

The key issues for this research are as follows:

The purpose of this research study was to examine how specific behaviours to obtain closeness with a partner [NB not pluralized] could be related to the behaviours during a sexual encounter (foreplay, intercourse, afterplay). There is an increasing amount of research that suggests that one’s predisposition for specific strategies to be intimate with their partner can influence his or her sexual well-being and behaviours…. [I have omitted the normative statements which we are all perhaps familiar with: trusting, emotional individuals have better sexual relationships; individuals with emotional or psychological problems tend to have “impulsive sexual relations such as one-night stands” and have a less satisfying sexual life.]

The responses you have provided in this study will be used to assess if one’s behavioural patterns in intimate relationships are indeed related to behaviours during foreplay, intercourse, and afterplay. Thus, we are interested in whether these relationship behavioural patterns are predictive of particular sexual behaviours. The knowledge [gained?] from this study will provide empirical support to suggest that sexual behaviours can be influenced by individual differences in intimacy-related strategies or behaviours and contribute to a better understanding of sexual intimacy in adult relationships. (From the researcher’s abstract/research interest sheet, italics mine)

To begin:

An early question asked about my relationship status. None of the answers available fit with my actual status. I explained this to the researcher; she was slightly confused and suggested I opt for “open relationship.” I have described elsewhere why I do not like this term. I then chose to answer this question by marking two possibilities and providing a lengthy note (despite there being no space to make such a note). For this survey it is impossible to be both “open” and “committed.”

I was then asked to mark how many sexual partners I have had. The question was not clear as to what constitutes a sexual partner. This is significant for my actual romantic and sexual experience, most importantly because I have had more meaningful sessions of hand-holding than some scenes of penile-vaginal intercourse (researcher’s term). Does the former “count”? I was unable to answer as to the exact number of sexual partners and the researcher said to guess. Thus, whatever data or pattern she discovers is invalidated by my answer in this category. In asking this question, additionally, I am worried that the researcher will attempt to find a pattern of promiscuity and bad attachment (as outlined in the research interest sheet), or something to that effect. Requiring participants to inform the researcher on his or her number of sexual partners is, I felt, like bringing up a rape victim’s sexual history in order to determine the truthfulness of her claim of rape.

The questions which followed were about my definitions of foreplay and afterplay (but not intercourse itself). With these definitions I was able to fill in a blank, writing as much or as little as I saw fit. Yet, as the questionnaire continued, I discovered that the researcher had already defined what all three terms constituted. For instance, the questionnaire considered masturbation and oral sex as foreplay, which I then had to disagree with, and then write on the paper to return to my definition of these terms. I hope this reflects poorly on the data eventually collected.

In this research sexual intercourse was limited to penile-vaginal intercourse and anal intercourse, which I took to be heterosexual. If not heterosexual, it forced the male same-sex couple to the latter act alone, and further, disregarded lesbian sexuality entirely (even if I were generous and defined penile as phallic, sex toy activity still constituted foreplay in this research). I asked about this heteronormativity and the researcher seemed to dance around the question; in other words, as theorists have noted about contemporary views on sexuality, a reinforcement of “compulsory heterosexuality” and “the heterosexual contract.”

Questions about my emotional and intimate attachments followed. The survey posed questions about how I felt toward or about my partner, then asked those same questions reversed (how I thought my partner felt toward or about me). There were then questions that seemed to conflate my feelings towards or about my current partner and questions regarding my feelings towards or about my romantic partners generally (even projecting myself and my feelings into the future). I asked about this conflation; the researcher said it didn’t matter.

These basic questions about my feelings generally (trust, independence, anxiety) failed to take into account the unique experience of individual partners. Whether I feel anxious with one partner may be untrue about my feelings towards another. The questions were not precise enough to make this distinction. What it seemed to be most interested in was whether I am locked into a particular kind of identity or character (anxiety-ridden or emotionally healthy). It presupposed emotions as some kind of stable element across romances, which is simply untrue.

Moreover, the cause of anxiety or emotional stability was not addressed. It goes without saying that an individual’s past experiences, even as far back as childhood, play a significant (for psychoanalysts, the most important) role in their current sexual behaviour. Despite answering pages of questions in intimacy and intimate encounters, I feel no concrete evidence was gathered as to my particular or general emotional experiences and behaviours. What it did satisfy was the extent to which my current partner and I have a healthy emotional relationship. How does the effect my relationship with my other partner(s)? I was never asked.

The research did ask about my “last” penile-vaginal sexual encounter and to answer many questions about it in some detail. Two things are worth mentioning. First, this “last” was not with the “current partner” discussed in my questionnaire. To be fair, the “last” sexual encounter section did ask who the person was, but there was no “Current partner #2” answer, or whatever we want to call it. When I asked about this, the researcher was quite confused again, so I answered Other. It was impossible to have, according to this survey, two current partners. As mentioned, prior to this section I spent pages and pages answering questions about my intimate and emotional relationship with “current partner,” the one surveyed alongside me, and therefore, my answers on my intimate and emotional relationship with “current partner” are rendered useless because I was unable to (appropriately?) answer the question as to my last penile-vaginal sexual encounter with said current partner. Furthermore, even if I were able to answer this question in the manner the researcher had desired, how could one sexual encounter be significant enough to develop the pattern the researcher would like to prove (the researcher had already established what pattern is sought for, as above). One sexual encounter may not be representative of the gamut of sexual practices we engage in.

Following the “last” sexual encounter section, the questionnaire went on to ask the same detailed questions about my sex with “current partner” generally, our habits, practices, and possible satisfaction. Both “last” and general feelings on my sexual encounters posed the same questions. Some are worth considering because, as I am trying to suggest, it presupposes a normative take on sex.

For some reason the time of day when we engage in sex was presupposed. There were several questions as to whether I or my sexual partner “cuddles then falls asleep,” “rolls over and falls asleep” (without cuddling I assume), “leaves the room/asks you to leave the room,” or “stays awake”. I answered all in the affirmative, to some degree, for sex takes place at different times of the day, not just at night. There were no questions about the space in which the sex takes place. One could assume, I think, that a healthy sex life would not limit itself to the shared bedroom just before the couple goes to sleep.

I realized after the questionnaire that it did not ask about BDSM practices. It occurred to my partner that the one question about the degree of “role-playing” we engage in was in fact a question about BDSM. I do not consider acts of dominance/submission to be playing a particular role, but just part of sex (perhaps my mistake). Again, the lack of clarity in the questionnaire resulted in an inaccurate answer. Further, one poorly phrased question about role-playing speaks to the questionnaire’s normative discourse (normal sex has little to do with BDSM practices apparently). Had there been more questions about these practices I could have perhaps answered in more detail or not made the mistake.

One more normative problem to conclude my entry: A question asked the degree in which my partner and I remain in penetration after orgasm (the time we do so, I would guess). Without specifying which partner gets to experience the orgasm, and given the heteronormative approach to the questionnaire, I assumed male orgasm. There were no questions about the frequency of orgasms, which partner gets to experience them, and its varying intensities. Neither was I asked how I or my partner prefers to orgasm; it was assumed that penile-vaginal or anal intercourse is the only route to orgasm. Given that some women do not orgasm by vaginal penetration alone, and do not orgasm through anal intercourse alone, the orgasm, for the purposes of this study, must be on the side of the male. Similar concerns were raised for me as to the degree of oral sex my partners and I engage in – oral sex performed on whom was never specified. I assume the worst.

One final note, a general comment on the questionnaire and proposed research: given that this was a study about the sexual encounter, there was not much emphasis on the kinds of sex, its frequency, its variances and varieties, couples’ experimentation and patterns internal to the individuals surveyed. We had about six or so sexual positions to choose from when answering about our detailed sexual practices. There was not adequate opportunity to reveal or indulge the researcher in our sexual habits. This lack of detail could make one thing stand out: sex is boring.

I have hopefully related how this questionnaire and its results will contribute to the continued dominance of romantic and sexual norms and the discourse surrounding intimacy and sexuality. I am certainly glad I participated as I had hoped to skew the data. Through my insistent questions, concerns, and writing on just about every page that I do not understand or that I have a problem with a question, I aimed to disrupt the work of the psychological study and ideally, aid in disrupting the flow of discourse between scientific research and its shortened and digestible reception.

My conclusion on the study: my prior skepticism about the methods and conclusions of popular psychology were reinforced.