Resist Definition

‘Self-portrait’ (Venice biennale, 2015). © Máire Noonan


As the woman is walking back and forth between the two poles, I try not to think about where I want to be in five years. I also try not to think about where I was five years ago. I try to remain in the here and now, though the here and now, right now, looks pretty shitty.

I’m one of the people who you sometimes read about in the papers. PhD, underemployed, underpaid, undervalued, etc.

I try not to define myself in that way.

The woman now stopped her back and forth, remaining suspended somewhere close to the middle of the two poles. The sun is bearing down. It is hot.

Most people around me seem to seek to define themselves. Actually, no, they seem to have succeeded in defining themselves a long time ago. I have always resisted defining myself as something.

In my case that was logical. I was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at the age of three, and everyone around me defined me as a sick person to worry about. I am now into my fifties, and as my health is failing me more often now, I still resist being defined by my illness. This resistance is what has saved my life. Although, recently I did request a disabled parking sticker – for those days that are tougher than others, so that my sweet man doesn’t have to be my chauffeur all the time. I’ve also started, recently, declaring myself as a person with a disability when I apply for a job. Very reluctantly so. But then, desperate times require desperate measures – and besides, it isn’t as if I’m not disabled and haven’t been disadvantaged in numerous ways over the years because of my disability.

A hell of a lot of good it did me for the last post I applied to. Let me explain this one a bit more – it bears explaining, a lot of it.

I graduated from a university in Montréal in the early nineties. After that I went to Dublin, then Boston, Los Angeles, then Toronto, from lectureship to research assistantship, to post-doc, to contractually limited assistant professor positions, following the path of many in the academic precariat. Of course, all of this instability did not make for the greatest research productivity, and so kept me employed but less and less employable. In the early 2000s, me and my man decided: to hell with it, let’s just go back and resettle in Montréal.

There was no job there for me. But I thought, oh well, I might be able to teach something at Cégep. But then I got “lucky.” My alma mater had work for me. Every year, year after year. Not always full-time, usually underpaid, and limited to the 9-month academic year, so that I had to sign up for EI for three months (or not, if I needed to travel to Europe in the summer – one of my “needs” – as that is where I am from). A few times I held a 12-month replacement position at the level of assistant professor (and thus paid more decently), and all was hunky-dory for a person like me, who lives in the present, from year to year, hand to mouth. I had no security, but as a feline character, I thought I’d always land on my feet. As for my health, it held up, and I never needed to be on sick leave. When I needed intravenous antibiotics (available luckily as home therapy), I’d hook myself up in secret in my office. Most of my colleagues probably weren’t aware I had a fairly serious condition.

Then things changed. Austerity happened; cuts to education; fewer funds for contract faculty, the “direction” of the department changed. My type of work was not appreciated, to say the least. And I can say this with conviction, because a colleague, who is much more of a genius than I am – in fact, to me he is a complete genius and is recognised as such by many – gave a job talk there that made me gasp and sit on the edge of my seat. (Though passionate about my field, I still do tend to reserve that state of mind to instances where I am exposed to music, or art, or film…) For me it was clear that he would snatch up the job; it seemed a no-brainer. And yet, oh no! – apparently his talk was not “liked.” (That’s the best I can do to make sense of their decision, since being convinced or not by facts and argumentation didn’t seem to play much of a role. He is now happily employed in a department with more sense.) Anyway, to cut short this detour, my work is in the same vein as his.

And yet, I managed to continue getting some work from them. A couple of courses, often only one per year. Topped up by some income from a research project I was involved in and the odd other task, I survived.

Then, recently, came the union. Hurray! Yes, course lecturers at all of Montréal’s universities now have a union! And along with it, seniority points. I was leading all other contenders in points by a landslide.

Then came last term. All of a sudden the department managed to wangle a 9-month sabbatical replacement post from the faculty, which it normally did not obtain. This position is called “faculty lectureship” and is – surprise! – not a unionised position. The department thus managed to get straight around the union and the rights I was supposed to have attained through it. How clever of you, department!

Moreover, the post comprised five courses (not the usual full-time course load of four courses), for a salary that was less than the one they would have had to pay had they advertised each course individually. And – they could slap on some supervision duties for free. So clever, department. Clever, university!

And here comes the clincher. The five courses (actually three, but two of them were to be taught twice, in Fall and Winter) were courses I had taught several times. One of them more than 10 times, the other two at least three times – and two of them I was even teaching at the very time the decision was made. The supervision duties were also well within my area of qualification – I’ve been involved in supervision at all levels in my field.

(Note that the replacement post is not a tenure-track position – I know enough of how things work that I wouldn’t have wasted my or anyone else’s time to apply for that one at this department. It is really more of a replacement teaching position.)

So while I knew that all this was boding ill, I still thought it impossible that they would fail to offer that scrappy little low-paid piece of exploitative labour to me.

But – they didn’t offer it to me!  I received the polite and anonymised form letter – not a personal note, like I might have expected as an inside candidate. A committee made up of three women, all who knew me to differing degrees and for varying lengths of time, decided to offer the post to a young candidate (a brilliant one, no doubt!) who: i) is male; ii) has not yet defended his PhD; iii) appears to have no experience in teaching a course under his sole responsibility; iv) clearly cannot have supervisory experience, being himself only a PhD candidate; v) has no disability, I assume; and vi) as far as I can tell, is not a Canadian citizen. (Some enterprising young lawyer out there might want to explore whether employment laws have been broken.)

Myself, a woman in her fifties, 25 years of teaching experience, 25 years of off-and-on experience supervising undergraduates and graduates, co-editor of and contributor to a recent (very distinguished) academic press volume, publications in a vast range of topics and language families within my field (though not in those journals that count), declared as a person with a disability, a Canadian citizen with close to 15 years of loyalty to that department: no job. And all the courses they might have dealt out to external faculty (which would have been mine by seniority) now taken up.

Clever clever, university! (For your contribution to the precariat, I think you should take a bow. You’ve earned it!) Impressive sense of fairness. (I am impressed!) As for my colleagues: I could have done with a bit more sister solidarity.

Do I sound bitter? If so, it’s because I am. But mainly I’m royally pissed off. I will keep my readers in suspense about how I’ll proceed from here in a way that does not have me lying on my back and getting fucked over. I am still pondering this issue.

But for now, I am sitting in the sun, enjoying the sounds, the smells, and the food; and mainly I am resisting the call to define myself by all this. I do not want to know “where I’ll be in five years.” (I only know I want to be somewhere, and be respected more than I have been.)

I am sitting here, in northern Italy, preparing for a conference talk I will soon deliver in Padova. All conference travel paid for by myself, out of my lowly income. And yet precarious life can be beautiful. I met a lovely donkey yesterday and stayed in a place where the hens and cocks were left to range free on a vast land. The eggs tasted heavenly. I am looking forward to going to Rome after the conference. There is something of a sense of racist divide: northern Italians (not all of them!) have traditionally felt superior to the southerners. Racialisation is everywhere, and it is always relative. Dog shits on dog. But I love dogs, and cats, and donkeys, and often I detect glimmers of humanity and love even among humans. Italy is a generous country, full of generous people.

Now the woman has decided to leave her range of activity between the two poles. She has disappeared without my noticing.


Acknowledgment: Many thanks to Benjamin Shaer and the Montréal Serai editors for helpful input and comments. All errors remain mine.


  • Mary Ellen Davis

    Concordia Univ. administration casts us away (the part-time faculty, with levels of seniority) using the LTA arrangement (limited term appointment), similar to what you’re describing. Austerity allows everything, and we have not effectively, as people, rised up against it collectively. Let’s not give up.
    I love dogs, cats and donkeys too!