On May 5 and 6 of this year, I attended a conference on “Precarious Academic Labour in the Age of Neoliberalism” at Okanagan College in Kelowna, BC. I had initially put in a proposal to talk about precarity and academic librarianship with a fairly broad view of what precarity entails. It turned out that the focus on the conference was contract academic staff/sessional instructors (the terminology varies). I was initially a little surprised, given that “neoliberalism” was in the title, at the level of political sophistication among the attendees and presenters; it seemed that few, if any, had a clear understanding of the characteristics, history, and causes of neoliberalism, even individually, never mind a shared understanding with anyone else. Part of the problem, I think, is the notion of “good capitalism”, generally equated with the long boom/trente glorieuses of the post-war consensus and the welfare state. Neoliberalism is seen as an aberration, a (very new) retreat from what capitalism is supposed to be. At first, I was a little concerned that my paper might be too political; then I thought that perhaps it was good that an explicitly Marxist perspective be brought to the conference. In the end, my paper went over well, and I think provided a complementary, not antagonistic or competing, viewpoint to the other presentations.
However, I realized something else. This was perhaps the first time that these people (mainly from BC and Alberta) had managed to get together, to self-organize, and to at least begin the process of self-identification, which is a first step towards a) being able to struggle for their own needs and b) achieving solidarity with other groups who might identify differently, but who are after the same thing. Due to the lack of funding and support, there are very few opportunities for contract faculty to meet and formulate/discuss issues important to them. So, even though I felt that the group as a whole was a little naive (“aren’t universities supposed to be meritocratic institutions of enlightenment!?”) and unaware (or resistant to the idea of) their own privilege, I thought this was a valuable and beneficial event. I was very happy to be part of it, not only to talk about library labour issues, but to represented librarianship in another sector of academia. Part of the issue around all of these things is the isolation of various constituencies from each other, especially between the permanent, tenured faculty and the rest of us (who said class - or the labour aristocracy - was dead?).
Here’s the text of the talk I gave.
The Learning Factory, or, the Reserve Army of Academic Librarianship (pdf)