Serious Male Authors and Contract Status

Like many members of the UofT community, I was dismayed at the pair of interviews given by David Gilmour and then buoyed by the immediacy and humor of many of the responses that were unfolding on Facebook throughout the evening and into the early hours of the morning. The second interview, in which Gilmour attempted to contextualize what he was saying and combat the view that he is a narrow-minded, sexist, self-obsessed teacher, was even worse than the first. Reading it, I felt a bit like I was watching Aziz Ansari talk about how poorly R. Kelly responded to questions about his scandal.

It shouldn’t have been a hard interview. All he had to do was make it clear that he respects women and is capable of appreciating their contributions to literary culture. This really shouldn’t be a difficult task for a well-read novelist in his sixties. Instead he disparages the motives of his interviewer, Emily Keeler: “And this is a young woman who kind of wanted to make a little name for herself, or something.” We are also supposed to understand that he was taken out of context because: “Quite frankly, I was speaking to a Frenchman, so I was more concerned with my French than I was with what I was saying to this young woman.” But the easiest question in the entire interview is the one he flubs the worst. David Medley asks Gilmour, “Who are some of your favorite female authors?” and the result is bad. At first Gilmour can only think of Virginia Woolf, who, as Medley points out, was the single female author mentioned in the original interview. Gilmour dredges up Alice Munro as the only other female author he loves, an answer that rings false given that three questions earlier he said that he can’t teach Munro passionately and in the original interview he said that he doesn’t love any Canadian authors. He was a film critic for crying out loud. Surely he’s capable of talking intelligently about books by women, even if he only likes them and doesn’t loooooove them. People would still rightly be upset, but he would have done some damage control and placated those who were most inclined to forgive, instead of just adding more fuel to the fire.

As I said, the thing that has been most heartening has been the humor of some of the responses to Gilmour. I especially like the protest that Miriam Novick created jokingly titled, “Serious Heterosexual Guys for Serious Literary Scholarship.” My own contribution to the facebook discussions was to imagine a class I would teach on silly heterosexual guys, where we would read Mark Twain, P.G. Wodehouse, Dr. Seuss, and Terry Pratchett. And Virginia Woolf, of course. If I were actually to teach a class only on the things I passionately love, it would be a kind of strange class. We would read Daphnis and Chloe, Beowulf, the Life of St Guthlac, Pearl, Jonson’s Bartholomew Fayre, H.D.’s Trilogy, something by Rabindranath Tagore, GRRM’s A Storm of Swords, Ursula Le Guin’s Annals of the Western Shore series, and Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. Finding a way of rationalizing it would be hard, but if anyone wants to give me a job teaching this course I’d do it in a heartbeat.

The most prominent person from UofT who has spoken out against Gilmour is Holger Syme, a professor of early modern drama. I should say here that while I have been in the same room as Prof. Syme a number of times, most recently during job talks at UofT this past year, and have read his blog on many occasions, I don’t think we’ve ever talked to each other. But in general I like the cut of his jib. His rant is epic and is well worth reading in whole. However, it touches on one thing that I find very discomforting about many of the professorial responses to Gilmour, and that is the way in which they go out of their way to deny him the title of Professor.

Before I continue, I want to pause a moment and clarify something about the structure of university departments, from my vantage point. People who teach university courses tend to fall into one of four categories: 1) tenure-track professors; 2) vanity hires; 3) graduate students; and 4) adjunct instructors.

  1. People in group one hold almost all of the institutional power. They decide who gets hired and what courses are taught. They also constitute the pool from which university administrators are chosen (although relations between administrative and non-administrative faculty are frequently tense).
  2. The people in group 2 are people like Gilmour. They’re novelists, journalists, politicians, lawyers, bureaucrats, and businessmen who through some combination of personal success and connections to people in group 1 get asked to teach courses. Their level of education and effectiveness as teachers vary considerably, and they are often given license to be very idiosyncratic in how they teach. There is typically no pedagogical support, although the most famous will often be given a considerable level of graduate student support, as is currently the case with David Petraeus at CUNY and was the case for Chuck Hagel at Georgetown. They hold relatively little institutional power, but their prominence outside of the academic sphere ensures some protection, provided they don’t leave any “dog doodle” on the carpet, as Gilmour said.
  3. The people in group 3 do most of the grading in large research universities, and in many universities teach first year courses. They have virtually no power, but do at least have security in the form of the guaranteed funding package on offer for the first four to six years at most of the top PhD programs in the North America. It is worth noting, though, that this guaranteed funding is often inadequate for covering living expenses, as is the case at UofT.
  4. The people in group 4 hold about as much power as those in group 3–that would be no power–and also have minimal job security. Their classes are the most likely to be cancelled, sometimes with no warning, leaving them with thousands of dollars of lost income. They have little recourse when universities take actions that adversely affect them. And they usually have PhDs (or possess ABD status).

I’ve been a member of group 3 at the UofT English department for the past six years and of group 4 at the Glendon campus of York University for the past year and a half, although I am no longer a member of either group as I have relocated to the US to live with my partner (and I hope to be joining group 1 or 4 at another university sometime in the near future). I have gotten to know many wonderful colleagues at both schools who have treated me as an equal, but I also experienced many things at both schools that made it clear that I was a second class colleague.

Back to David Gilmour. Prof. Syme and others, all of whom I respect, are at pains to make it clear that Gilmour is not a professor of literature at UofT. Their case is pretty solid, and depends on a few points. The first is that UofT is completely anomalous in terms of University structure. It’s an odd mix of Oxbridge style colleges, overlaid by a North American research university, along with satellite undergraduate campuses. Gilmour’s position is within a particular program at Victoria College, and he has no administrative connection to anyone outside of his college, nor can he teach any students who are not in that program. As such, he is not a member of the Department of English or any campus wide department that teaches literature. As for the title of professor, the argument depends on the ambiguity of Gilmour’s position. In promotional materials he claims to hold the Pelham Edgar Visiting Professorship. However, as some have pointed out, this is properly the Pelham Edgar Visiting Lectureship, and it’s only a one year gig that Gilmour held when he first started at Vic. Prof. Syme simply points out that is simply an novelist who teaches a few classes. So, David Gilmour is not a literature professor at UofT.

Except, of course, for the fact that he teaches multiple courses a year on literature at UofT. And this is what bothers me about it. If you haven’t heard of Margaret Mary Vojtko and you care about university education, do yourself a favor and read this. Vojtko was an adjunct instructor at Duquesne University, where she had taught for a couple decades who died with no money and no access to institutional benefits, still trying to make ends meet while teaching courses with no job security. Given the rising adjunctification of universities, it is a very real possibility that there will be more stories like hers in the near future. James Donahue wrote a wonderful post responding to this tragedy. In it, he spoke of the need for tenure track faculty to recognize that adjunct faculty are a part of their community, and one example was still fresh in my mind when I read the responses to Gilmour:

Refuse to participate in the subtle but very real common indecencies that enforce the second-class situation of contingent faculty.  To give another local example, last year one of my tenured colleagues sent a scathing email to my department, insisting that we stop using the title “Prof.” when referring to adjunct faculty (and that we use the “more appropriate”^^^ “Mr.” and “Ms.”).  Her reasoning was that the title “Prof.” is something that is conferred to people with doctorates who are part of the tenure stream.

I’m not too concerned about Gilmour’s ego. He can seek solace in the words of his favorite male authors. And Virginia Woolf. But what of other contingent faculty spread amongst the many colleges and campuses at UofT? There are numerous instructors at the various independently administrated programs at UofT colleges, many of whom have PhDs from Toronto. Would Professor Syme and others rail against calling them professors of literature and deny them as colleagues? I would hope not, especially given how prevalent such individuals are and the likelihood of their numbers growing (and the anomalous institutional structure of UofT). Gilmour can be criticized without establishing lines that exclude people without much power from membership in the academic community at Toronto. Whenever we exclude people from community, we think about who else we are excluding.

Postscript: Since writing this I have been asked by the Toronto Review of Books to post an edited version of the second part of this. Many thanks to Jessica Duffin-Wolfe for this invitation, as well as those I’ve had conversations with since.

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