UWOFA Voices: 'It feels right to work toward better stewardship'

Ben Rubin

In a new series, UWOFA members share how they came to be active supporters of their union.

In his graduate course, Forest Decline Concepts, Dr. Manion asked us “How much tree mortality is normal in a forest and how can you know when and where that baseline level is exceeded?” I took the question to heart and started as his graduate student to trek through the woods, measure thousands of trees, read papers, and sweat through analyzing data. At forest pathology conferences I took pride in knowing that our lab dealt with big picture questions and the health of the forest, while most presentations I heard were about maladies of individual trees.  Predictably, when I reflect on my past mindset now, I am most struck by my own myopia. I wanted a professorial career based solely on a love of science and was naïve to the workings of the precarious academy that houses science.  It never occurred to me that, as a professor, I’d want to work to support my labour union.

In some respects, I was naïve by choice. My father works as an adjunct English professor and on occasion has described his career as “furshlugginer” (Yiddish for junky), but he continues to sign up for course after course as he moves deep into his 80s and is past the point of financial necessity.  He always evinced some discomfort at discussing his path to contract teaching but framed the narrative as a tale of the fish that got away. Nonetheless, I saw the row of dissertations that lined a shelf in Dr. Manion’s office and understood that each represented a student he had supervised. All those intellectual “offspring” meant a tendency toward exponential growth that biologically must be reined in by limited resources – they could not possibly all be academics.  Even accounting for those that went on to take non-academic jobs in science, the surplus of academic labour was within my field of view if I had cared to look for it.

I started working for UWOFA selfishly. An email came from the Faculty of Science representative on the Board saying that she was stepping down from the position and asking if there were any volunteers. I was in the midst of worrying about the renewal of one of my early limited-term contracts and said yes. I was asked to write a short statement of background and platform for an election between two of us who had let our names stand. As soon as the electronic ballot came out, I read the other person’s statement and knew that I would win. She had mentioned that she was a contract faculty member and I had not.

My experience at Western and UWOFA and a little bit at OCUFA has shown me that contract faculty is not just a category of job title. It’s a caste system. People don’t become career contract academics because at some critical instant they didn’t jerk the line hard enough to set the fishhook. The academic system is designed to require contract academics, just as it requires tenure stream professors. It allows both groups some academic pursuits and feeds us but, like a zookeeper, seeks to maintain top-down control. The challenges of workload, corporatization, fair recognition, and precarity that face faculty at Western are sector-wide problems playing out on campuses across North America.  

More importantly, our current battles can be ephemeral. Nothing inherent in quality research and teaching necessitates that faculty members must be segregated by job title, that some must face career-long precarity, or others be stifled by ever-growing administrative duties.  Now that I can see more of the context in which individual research projects and university courses grow, the forest is not as healthy as it could be. It feels right to work toward better stewardship.

Ben Rubin is an assistant professor in the Department of Biology and co-chair of UWOFA's Committee for Contract Faculty