No One is Talking Precarious Labour. Why Not?

When it comes to labour on university campuses, a divide has emerged between tenure-track professors, and sessional (temporary) instructors.[1] Sessional workers are precarious workers. And they are far from the only precarious workers. In fact, precarity exists across the labour market, and it’s growing. Despite these facts, few Canadians outside of universities even know what “precarious labour” is, let alone identify themselves as precarious workers. So what’s the deal?

Let’s start with a definition. In essence, a member of the precariat is one is who is involuntarily, insecurely employed and/or underemployed. That definition can include a lot of people, Continue reading


Jesus Was An Entrepreneur

Okay, so that was a cheap attention grab. Jesus was not an entrepreneur. Or perhaps he was some sort of “social entrepreneur.” But he certainly wasn’t running around trying to figure out how to reinvigorate capitalism. If he was here today, that would be what it would take for him to be considered a Saviour.

I’ve been considering whether “Entrepreneurship Saves,” because of this seems to me an emerging zeitgeist (kind of a social mood) that ought to attract our scrutiny. In my home digs of Alberta, the “entrepreneurial spirit” has been touted as a provincial virtue. In 2011, our public education system, in keeping with this message, launched a curriculum framework that aspires to “Competencies for Engaged Thinkers and Ethical Citizens with an Entrepreneurial Spirit.”

So if our education systems are supposed to produce an “entrepreneurial spirit,” what is it? Continue reading

Who is Teaching Your University Classes?

Cliche image of a professor. Why are they always dudes with beards writing on chalkboards? And why is it always math?

Cliche image of a professor. Why are they always dudes with beards writing on chalkboards? And why is it always math?

I’ve spent much of my summer researching university recruitment literature. I want to see how the rhetoric of university life compares to the reality, particularly for “first generation” students — those whose parents didn’t attend post-secondary education.

Through this exercise, I’ve had to sit down hard on my own cynicism at times, particularly when it comes to the portrayal of teaching, and of university professors. There’s some over-the-top material here. Take this institution, which promises, “Our award-winning professors are brilliant minds who will engage, motivate and inspire you.” Or this one, which echoes, “You will learn from nationally and internationally renowned teachers and researchers.”

This is, frankly, bald rhetoric. And there are a number of reasons why parents and students alike should be sitting up, and taking notice.

Reason Number One: Research is Over-rated. Seriously.

First, we should be cautious about buying in to the “academic rockstar” discourse. Continue reading

The Maclean’s University Rankings: Celebrating 20 Years of Pointless Competition

The 2015 edition of the Maclean’s University Rankings marks the 20th anniversary of the publication. Although it is subject to derision by the institutions it features, most of these protests have subsided into occasional whimpers. Really, there’s not much the universities can do. As Maclean’s states in the methodology for the study, the data they pull is publicly available, or generated through their own research; they don’t rely on the universities to get it.

The Maclean’s University Rankings drive me crazy — in part because they are so very, very badly done, and more deeply because they play a significant part in generating and legitimizing a toxic culture of pointless competition in our higher education system. Yet the damn things continue to fly off the shelves. Why do we buy in? Continue reading

Girls, School Dress-Codes and Slut-Shaming

In America, we see Islamic women all covered up and think, “That poor woman, made to be ashamed of her body!” But is it any less oppressive to convince a woman that her uncovered body is never beautiful enough? Is covering enslavement… or freedom? I want to find out.

Tagline from Lauren Jayne’s blog “The Modesty Experiment

I was just a kid the first time someone wolf-whistled at me. And I’m not gonna lie: it was great. The thing is, I’d been picked on in school my whole childhood, and enough kids had called me “ugly” over time that by junior high, I had come to believe it to be true. So at the tender age of thirteen, already with more to fill out a bra than anything like self-esteem, I discovered in the instance of one catcall that I had sexual power. By 15, I was one of those girls who people thought was older than I was, so my teen years were characterized by fairly regular sexual attention, usually from men rather than boys my own age.

It was flattering at the time. It made me feel special. But when I think back on this period of my life, I feel sad for the young woman who believed she didn’t matter without male attention. Maybe that’s why I get my back up when debates arise about how young women dress, and whether or not they deserve to be subject to the “male gaze” when they show bra straps, or wear short shorts, or what have you.

The topic came up on this recent episode of The Current, on which junior high student Tallie Doyle and her mum were interviewed about Tallie’s efforts to protest her school’s dress code. The story came on the heels of a similar case in which a Quebec student was over a similar challenge. It is remarkable how quickly debates become heated when it comes to the sexualization of girls and young women. Continue reading

Want Excellent Teachers? Let Them Work Together More

A couple of things tweaked me to write this follow-up post on the report from Alberta Education’s Task Force on Teacher Excellence. First was this response to my last blog. The reader commented,

Just a quick question: You say that there a few ( very few) teachers who should be put out to pasture. I agree. But how do we know who that is? What measure should we use? How can the system be changed so those bad apples are weeded out?

Second was yesterday’s episode of The Current on CBC. Alberta blogger and teacher Joe Bower mentioned teacher collaboration as an alternative to “top down” practice assessment, and host Anna Maria Tremonti had no idea what he meant. So I figured she’s probably not the only one who isn’t aware that this possibility for improved teaching exists.

So. Here goes:

Collaborative Professional Development to Promote Teaching Excellence

I was actually mildly frustrated when, in the Current interview I just mentioned, Bower went straight to class sizes as an issue. In the case of evaluating teachers’ practices, class sizes aren’t that relevant. But Bower’s brief reference to collaboration is very relevant indeed. Here then, I want to elaborate on what teacher collaboration is, and why it is under-utilized in schools even though it can be very effective route to improved teaching. Continue reading

Peer Pressure and Overwork: The Case of Public School Teachers


“Oh man… report cards next week too.”

When I was a kid I did what many kids did and worked at McDonald’s.[1] And there was this one other kid – I can’t even remember his name, but he had really white teeth, and he worked like a dog. He never stopped smiling, he never screwed up, and when our shift supervisors had us competing for speediest sales over the rush periods, he always won the “contest.” (He got a free burger or a t-shirt or something.) I kinda hated the little jerk. He made the rest of us look bad. I on the other hand, at 15, had already mastered the cynicism of the seasoned line worker.

It wasn’t until some years later I understood that my resentment slotted neatly into a long and venerable tradition of detesting keeners and brownnosers. Because they make everyone else look bad. In old-school labour parlance, workers who disregarded group norms by working flat out and producing more than others were called “rate busters.”[2] This took place under a piece-work incentive system where theoretically, every worker would be motivated to produce as much as possible to earn the most money possible. So what’s interesting here is that despite this incentive system, the majority of workers adhered to a norm of producing at less than full throttle.[3] Rate busters, because they breeched this norm, were ostracized. Continue reading