Non-Regular Interview with Terra Poirier

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Terra Poirier, Non-Regular: Precarious academic labour at Emily Carr University of Art + Design, 2018

Questions by Adi Berardini

Terra Poirier is an interdisciplinary artist in Vancouver BC. Her work is often concerned with (in)visibility and erasure, both of which inform her long exposure photography, her autobiographical book works, and her social practice projects in a variety of media. She has a BFA in Photography with an Art + Text minor from Emily Carr University. A graphic designer by trade, she has spent 12 years translating social justice research to accessible forms.

Her latest project, a collaborative book titled Non-Regular: Precarious academic labour at Emily Carr University of Art + Design, is being published by UNIT/PITT Projects and will be released at the 2018 Vancouver Art Book Fair (Oct 18-21) and at a launch at ECU’s Aboriginal Gathering Place on October 23 where she, Kristina Lee Podesva, Deneige Nadeau, Magnolia Pauker, and Rita Wong will consider how academic precarity affects their art and research practices.

  1. Can you describe more about Non-Regular? How does it address issues of higher education and academic labour?

Non-Regular: Precarious academic labour at Emily Carr University of Art + Design is an artist’s book with contributions by 27 instructors and artists speaking about the conditions of their labour. Using testimonials, interviews, essays and visual art, it looks at teaching as low-wage work, job security, respect and the value of art(ists), maintaining professional practices, the politics of space at the new ECU campus, impacts on students, solidarity and the role of tenured faculty, and the erosion of academic freedom and integrity. We also consider how these conditions are exacerbated by and amplify gender and racial bias within academia.

While the book comes out of Emily Carr University in Vancouver, much of the content applies to any post-secondary school that relies on precarious teaching labour. A key aspect of the project is that contributors had the option to contribute anonymously or with pseudonyms, thereby allowing them to speak more candidly.

  1. Where did the idea or motivation to start this project first come from?

The book is the third iteration of the original project. My first idea, which I explain in more detail in the foreword essay, was to take long exposure pinhole portraits of non-regular instructors at ECU. My perception was that sessional instructors’ considerable contributions to ECU were being minimized and to some extent erased by the conditions of their employment, which include under-compensation, no job security, lack of appropriate workspace and other problematic conditions. It’s important to underline that non-regular instructors comprise the majority of faculty members at Emily Carr, and in 2016-2017 they delivered 56.5% of all undergraduate course sections. As Mark Giles noted in a recent Canadian Art article, “Without contract academic labour, the institution would fail.” So you have this huge labour force that is treated as if it’s inconsequential, but in fact is absolutely essential to the success of universities. I wanted to use the formal qualities of long exposure photography, including blur and erasure, to point to how non-regular instructors are devalued and erased. And of course, portraiture is itself an act of recognition and recognizing sessional instructors felt very important to me because most of my ECU instructors have been non-regular, which means they form a huge part of my fine art education.

I should also say learning is a huge part of my art practice. I started my BFA in my late 30s and took almost 10 years to complete it. As a low-income single mother who started parenting in my teens, this felt like the only way I could access post-secondary education. Over that decade I became deeply attached to the process of learning. So I take particular issue with policies or practices that degrade my learning experience and disrespect my mentors. To me, this is personal.

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Terra Poirier, Alex Hass Sessional Instructor, 30 Seconds, Non-Regular 2018.

As I developed the portrait idea and spoke with instructors, I began to feel like portraits wouldn’t adequately address this huge issue that was largely hidden from students. Instructors with no job security can’t speak freely about their crappy working conditions—it’s too easy for the university to simply not hire them again. So most students aren’t aware of the issue. That’s why I decided to make the book as a platform for instructors to share their experiences. I also felt that a book had more potential to be collaborative, and that felt necessary because while precarious academic labour does affect me as a student, I can’t speak for instructors.

And there is yet another iteration of the project—a photo installation titled Sessional Office: Proposal for a new arrangement. At the new ECU campus, over 80 sessional instructors at the new ECU campus share a small classroom-sized office (the first one was in the basement, and the new one is on the main floor but is even smaller). IKEA shelves filled with banker’s boxes took up a large portion of that first space. There is such a disparity between the space that is afforded to the majority of ECU’s faculty and to the President. The latter’s space is over twice the size of the original sessional office (almost four times the size of the new one) and is shared between five people. So I took digital photographs of the sessional shelving and installed the prints outside the President’s office. Some of these images, along with two of the sessional portraits, are included in the book.

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Terra Poirier, Sessional Office: Proposal For A New Arrangement Installation, Non-Regular, 2018.
  1. Can you explain photography and its relationship to the project? Do you consider photography as a tool for activism?

As I described, photography was the original impulse—it’s a medium in which I often work, so I developed the idea within that framework. But then I realized that this project would not be sufficiently served by the portrait treatment. I needed to open it up to not only different photographic techniques but also different media altogether because it needed to become our project. The project needed to become a platform for the issue, rather than the issue being a platform for my own photography practice.

Which is not to say that photography alone couldn’t have provided a platform for the issue—but I decided that within the time frame I had what was most urgent was to inform readers about the breadth and depth of the issue, and I felt a book would be able to accomplish that.

I did not want the project to simply document a problem. I wanted it to engage and unsettle the viewer, to create a space for readers to consider how they are implicated in these issues. With respect to the pinhole portraits, I wanted to use photography’s irregularities to point to the instability of this employment model. And with the Sessional Office cubicles, I wanted to create a physical space for the viewer to enter—the cubicle prints were life-size and viewers reported to me that at first, they thought they were looking at real furniture installed in this space set aside for the President. But of course it was installed outside the President’s office, so while the viewer was invited to consider this as real, they were not invited into the President’s inner space, which is guarded with a card lock system.

I absolutely consider photography as a tool for activism and I think there are a number of ways it can achieve this. Documentary photography is an obvious strategy for informing viewers about an issue, but I’m more interested in experimenting with ways to engage viewers, to create openings for viewers to reconsider their positions. So even though I went with the book and predominantly text as a way to more comprehensively consider the issue of precarious employment and allow for instructors to give their own testimonies, I wanted there to be elements that offer opportunities for viewers to pause and reflect on their roles within this economic scheme.

  1. Do you think of Non-Regular as a form of institutional critique? If so, how does a book format lend itself well to this?

Absolutely this project is a form of institutional critique—Non-Regular is entirely concerned with how power, capital, and agency are enacted and denied not only specifically at this art school, but also within neoliberal, corporatized postsecondary education models.

“I wanted there to be elements that offer opportunities for viewers to pause and reflect on their roles within this economic scheme.”

I hope that the project also exposes how these practices have caused the neoliberal university to, in a sense, eat itself. “—” a non-regular instructor I interviewed for a feature piece in the book, articulates this very well, describing how precarious labour practices are connected to anti-intellectualism and to the erosion of the quality of postsecondary education. If the university is, by positioning students as consumers and instructors as cheap commodities, unwittingly (or maybe even intentionally) consuming itself, then it strikes me as fair to turn the institution’s own branding and other communication media on itself in order to expose these contradictions. So I appropriated ECU’s official font for the Sessional Office installation and used the ECU colour palette for the cover of a draft edition (available in the ECU Library’s Artist Book Collection). I researched and sourced images of the surround chairs that ECU is suggesting as a way to provide private meeting space for sessional instructors who have to share a tiny office. And I used screenshots of the online application forms for sessional hiring as illustrative elements for a piece by Risi Fruitti that discusses the annual application process and the negative impact it has on academic integrity and freedom. And of course, for Sessional Office, I was able to use the very space of the President’s office to invite viewers to consider how space is tied to precarity at ECU.

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Terra Poirier, Sessional Office, Non-Regular, 2018

And the book form, as a vehicle for assemblage, allowed me to deploy all of these and other forms of appropriation and détournement. And as a multiple, it’s portable and can move throughout the institution, [and can be] read and viewed by anyone who works or studies there. A book is also more financially accessible than, say, a series of portraits that are exhibited in a gallery for a limited time, and is a more economical way to curate a diversity of voices. It was also important to me to design the book in such a way that the information and ideas would be engaging, accessible and digestible. We can, of course, do this with other media, but as a graphic designer and book artist, this is the form I gravitate to. In particular, the book form offers an opportunity for narrative, for storytelling, which is a powerful tool for viewer engagement.

  1. In the interview on gender and non-regular labour, an instructor explained that a lot of emotional communication issues fell to them instead of their male colleague with shared teaching responsibilities. In what ways do you think gender plays into precarious work situations and roles?

Not only is there a greater incidence of employment precarity for women, non-binary folks, racialized people and those of us from lower-income backgrounds, its impacts are also felt more acutely by those who are marginalized socially or economically. The Canadian Association of University Teachers’ report found that “women and racialized [contract academic staff] CAS were more likely to find their job extremely stressful, while men and non-racialized CAS were more likely to find their job not stressful at all.” An obvious example: we already know that women are carrying a disproportionate share of domestic responsibilities, for example, so having to juggle multiple, lower-paying jobs is going to create more chaos and insecurity in one’s life if you already bear most or all of the childcare responsibilities in the home.

Or we could consider the many systemic barriers that racialized and lower-income people face in order to access higher education in the first place, and the countless major and micro-aggressions one must navigate within academia. If, in spite of these barriers, one is able to achieve the credentials that qualify one to teach, to then have to deal with employment precarity for the foreseeable future while also carrying huge student debt, that makes the whole venture seem somewhat untenable. That is how it looks to me, anyway, as I consider going on to a master’s degree, and as someone who is interested in teaching. My historical experience with gendered poverty makes me hesitate—why pursue a career that will just be more of the same?

I’m also interested in how teaching is a form of care, and how care is gendered. Mierle Laderman Ukeles gets into this with her For Maintenance Art. Care and support of others are generally not valued under capitalism (and the art world is no exception). Parenting is not valued. Social services are not valued. And teaching is not valued, which I think is partly why we see elementary and secondary school teachers so vilified when they push for better working conditions or compensation. But of course we know that these kinds of labour are essential to the functioning of society, so they should be valued as such.

There’s an article in Times Higher Education that looks at how female academics are at a disadvantage for promotion because they are doing a disproportionate amount of the less valued service tasks, while their male counterparts are able to focus more on research, which is valued within academia. And that is for tenured and tenure-track professors. Imagine you are a contract faculty member who is not even compensated for service work, even though your students absolutely and reasonably require it of you.

Anonymous’s account in the book of carrying more of the load of communication and emotional support than her male colleagues is certainly an example and one that I have observed as a student. “—” also discusses how women and particularly racialized women at ECU are doing more of the committee and service work that is supportive of students and other faculty members.

Another issue that “—” describes is how research has shown that students tend to give less favourable evaluations to women and racialized instructors. I have heard from several collaborators that these evaluations have become the main or perhaps only method of evaluating contract instructors at ECU. And this extends beyond ECU too, because students can also review their instructors on sites like ratemyprofessors.com where, until June of 2018, they could additionally rate their “hotness.” So this is a very concrete example of how gender bias is contributing to academic precarity.

  1. How does precarious employment affect opportunities for student mentorship?

Precarious employment impacts students’ experience of mentorship in a number of ways. One of my essays in the book asks what we need from our mentors. First and foremost, I need my mentors to be present, but precarity means a high turnover of instructors. One of the book’s contributors, “G,” wrote: “it is impossible to establish a solid and supportive intellectual community when your teachers and mentors never know if they’ll be back to teach a class.” Mentorship is really about relationships, and we can’t develop that if our instructors don’t know us.

Because I am an extremely keen student, I feel like I operate as a bit of a stress test for mentorship. If we students are actively engaging with our education, trying to get as much out of it as we possibly can, then what we come up against is the system’s many failures. For example, one of the things I needed from my instructors was some perspective on how my work was developing over the course of my degree. But hardly anyone was able to comment on that because most of my instructors had only taught me one course.

And all students need our mentors to champion us. We need our mentors to not only be present long enough to meaningfully engage with our work,  but we also need them to be available to recommend us and to know our work sufficiently to champion it. One of my instructors—a tenured professor—nominated me for an award last year, and this nomination had a pivotal impact not only on my practice but on my confidence as an artist. She knew my work because I had studied with her for two classes, and I feel very fortunate to have been able to do that. But most of my instructors have been sessionals, and they do not know my work beyond what I executed in the three months I studied with them. What’s more, they are perhaps not even receiving those calls for nominations in the first place.

I also need letters of recommendation for grad school. These letters are considered service, so sessionals are not compensated to do them. I still only have that one regular instructor who has worked with me more than once so I’ll ask her. But the thing you have to understand is that if most of the instructors at Emily Carr are not compensated to do this service, then you have a shrinking number of regular faculty who have to do all the service that the university requires. This means that they too are stretched. So will this one regular instructor have the time to write me multiple letters of recommendation?

  1. What is one of the most shocking developments you discovered in regards to how non-regular faculty members are treated?

There are so many aspects of academic precarity that I find upsetting, including all that we’ve already discussed. I was chilled by the extent to which academic precarity is tied to the erosion of academic standards and academic freedom. At its simplest, instructors with no job security can’t afford to take risks. But is it not the mission of education to push limits, to explore new ideas, even those that are challenging? And now apply fine art to this question—several contributors responded to the question of why tenure and regularization are important in a fine arts context. “Worm in the Apple,” wrote:

“What is the role of the artist in contemporary culture? If it is to respond criti­cally to the world around us, then we need to institute economically meaningful support systems that recog­nize and support the importance of that criticality.”

  1. Patriarchal systems and capitalism influence precarious employment and lack of academic freedom. Do you have any ideas for a more thoughtful, mentorship-focused form of education? Have you heard any suggestions after doing this project and writing this book?

Certainly, there are alternative fine art education models. There’s one where people pool the money they would have spent on grad school to collectively create a program that is more flexible and probably more robust. There is also BC Arts Council funding to pursue paid mentorships and internships. And I’m sure there are many other models that I have yet to look into.

But I’m not ready to give up on academia. As long as formalized postsecondary education exists, we should fight for regularization and fair working conditions for all workers within those institutions. If students and regular instructors were organized and acted in solidarity, we could change the tide. And everyone who is invested in education—in other words, everyone—should pressure governments to restore funding to postsecondary education.

  1. What is one thing you would like readers to take away from this book?

I want students and tenured faculty at all universities and colleges to take action—to understand that employment precarity is not just the problem of 80 instructors tucked away in the basement of an art school in Vancouver. Precarity and corporatization are eroding the project that is education—and that’s a shared project. If we value learning then we must actively challenge exploitative labour practices within academia. If we choose to look away then we’re complicit.

And if we value art and its role in our societies, then we must also fight for our art educators to be valued and fairly treated within postsecondary fine art education. It’s that simple.

 

The first edition of Non-Regular will be published by UNIT/PITT in October 2018, in time for the start of collective bargaining for BC colleges and universities.

Check out Non-Regular at the Vancouver Art Book Fair (Oct 18-21). The book launch at ECU’s Aboriginal Gathering Place takes place October 23 where Terra Poirier, Kristina Lee Podesva, Deneige Nadeau, Magnolia Pauker, and Rita Wong will consider how academic precarity affects their art and research practices.

For more info:

www.nonregular.ca

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One thought on “Non-Regular Interview with Terra Poirier

  1. Fantastic interview. I am looking forward to reading this book. As a grad from ECUAD, the situation is unfortunately exactly as described.

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