Serious Male Authors and Contract Status: On Gilmour and the Plight of the Adjunct

Among the most prominent people from the University of Toronto speaking out against David Gilmour is Holger Syme, a professor of early modern drama. 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 as a professor and as a colleague.

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 points out that he is simply a 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. She 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 that was still fresh in my mind when I read the responses to Gilmour. In it, he spoke of the need for tenure-track faculty to recognize that adjunct faculty are a part of their community.

I’m not too concerned about Gilmour’s ego. He can seek solace in the words of his favourite 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. Adjuncts typically do significant amounts of teaching, while being excluded from the job security and benefits offered to faculty at their universities. Would Professor Syme and others rail against calling them professors of literature and deny them as colleagues? I would hope not, given how prevalent such individuals are and the likelihood of their numbers growing. Gilmour can be criticized without establishing lines that exclude people without much power from membership in the academic community in Toronto. Whenever we exclude people from community, we need to think about the people with less power we may also be unintentionally excluding.

[A longer version of this essay originally appeared on the author’s blog.]

About the author

Peter Buchanan

Peter Buchanan recently defended his doctoral dissertation on Anglo-Saxon literature at the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. During that time he worked as a teaching assistant in the UofT English department and as a course instructor at York University's Glendon Campus. He is currently living in the US, where he is in the process of applying for jobs teaching both on and off the tenure track.

By Peter Buchanan