I leapt at the chance to participate in the Open Learning Digital Fluency Fellowship when I saw it. As a new instructor, I’m still finding my footing in terms of ‘who’ I am, but the idea of humanizing learning spoke to many of my core values. I learned so much from the facilitators and other colleagues, but this has stuck with me: the shared experience of vulnerability, and the importance of exploring it through building solidarity with students and colleagues.
Embracing vulnerability is something that I have struggled with, as I’m sure many academics have – I have high expectations for myself and I do not like to ‘show my hand’ with regard to any imperfections or potential weaknesses. Being more vulnerable is something that I have been working on, and something I encourage my students to practice as well. However, as Amanda Paxton wrote in an earlier blog post, it is very difficult to embrace vulnerability from a place of precarity. I’m acutely aware that I am a contract course instructor, with no guarantees of continued employment. It feels difficult to think about pushing for change in the ways we treat students with no security. Little things like course evaluations end up eating away at me. Evaluations from students should be a great experience; I’d love to read about how I could improve, and how my teaching is viewed through student eyes. Instead, I hope they are positive enough that I might be able to continue working. As permanent positions become increasingly far and few between, I wonder if I will ever be able to reach a place of happily receiving feedback without worrying about what it means for my future.
As the ‘gigification’ of academia marches on, perhaps we should look to explore solidarity in precarity with students. Many students, particularly in caring professions like education, nursing and social work, share the experience of precarity and are outright exploited through unpaid practicums. Instead of developing professional communication and collaboration skills, many students are punished with inflexible deadlines in preparation for ‘the real world’. When once we were told a university degree was an asset, and that we should study what we feel called to, hiring rates and employment projections crowd our thoughts. What would it look like if these conversations were brought to the forefront by all of us, instead of hidden for fear of embarrassment or retribution? As I learned throughout the #OLDFF experience, many of my colleagues feel the same way. A surprising lesson for me was that the feeling of precarity does not necessarily go away when the actual precarity does. I met permanent staff, tenured professors and other folks who I always thought of as ‘secure’ who shared the enduring nature of vulnerability. The opportunity to speak with Fellows from many different institutions, departments, generations, and employment statuses really opened my eyes both to the ways in which the academy profits off of precarity, and to the importance of getting to know colleagues of all backgrounds and hearing their stories.
It feels like this is a point in time where we have a choice: responses to COVID-19 have shown us that huge institutions like universities and governments are capable of acting nimbly in the right circumstances, with the right amount of pressure. On the other hand, issues such as the expansion of the gig economy, widespread employment precarity, and the corporatization of public services could become permanent features of society if we do not act. We could choose to watch this happen, or we could choose to embrace solidarity in precarity, and prefigure a future that is co-constructed and secure.
Sara Deris Crouthers,