Making Ends Meet as a Visiting Professor in the Humanities

“The man-hunter and the job-hunter have succeeded the hunter and warfare and welfare merge in a way of life as completely as any Paleolithic or Stone Age society.”

–Marshall McLuhan, in his 1971 Convocation address at the University of Alberta.

26 December 2022

I had not previously been a radical job-seeker until April of 2020. Prior to this time, I had been active in seeking tenure-track jobs in Classics and Ancient History, but only rarely looked beyond these opportunities. (You can read about the present state of the job market in Humanities disciplines here and here.) It was in April 2020 that the university I was working for in Edmonton announced that they would not proceed with their scheduled courses for spring and summer, adapted to the pandemic-induced online mode of delivery.

This meant that my job for the summer, to teach Classical Mythology, had been canceled and I was out $7800 for July and August, on which my family of four was going to survive until my regular teaching resumed again in September 2020. We had our second child in September 2019 and my wife, a high school teacher, was just gearing up to return to work after her maternity leave. (Learn more about how maternity leave is punished in education and academia here.)

So, April arrived, and I had nothing lined up to carry us through beyond the first week of July. Luckily, the course I usually teach for a college in Cold Lake, AB, is set up as an online course, so that proceeded as usual, and I had a steady income from when teaching ended at my main employer in Edmonton until July.

At this time, I was working a three-year Sessional-Extended Contract, which includes guaranteed 3-3 teaching from September to April, compensated at 7800 CAD per course. Usually, I taught nine or ten courses per year between Edmonton and Cold Lake, bringing my income to what I would consider sustainable levels, between seventy and eighty thousand Canadian dollars.

The pandemic-related work stoppage was a big shock for me, as it came on the heels of two tenure-track searches for Classics faculty at my main employer, where they had passed me over. Now, I was laid off in the most sensitive time, when the Canadian Prime Minister was frequently on the news asking institutions to retain their employees as much as they could, and I realized I could not keep doing the same things and expecting different results.

I changed my academic job-search strategy to apply also for the short term, visiting positions. We had had a family agreement that we would only move if I got a permanent job, because my wife was happy with her work as a teacher. Now, because of the pandemic and hiring priorities, I could no longer rely on my main employer in Edmonton as a stable source of income. I needed to work at a different university, so I cast my net wide.

At the same time, I was idle and frustrated during the first pandemic restrictions, having only my online employment in Cold Lake as a connection to the outside world. I went looking for local jobs, and I started serving as a handyman for the condo corporation where we owned our home, and started delivering food for an organic food start-up in Edmonton.

This gave me renewed confidence. It felt OK that I had lost my ordinary work and picked up these odds and ends. But something else was about to change as my main employer, who had just laid me off, sent me a new contract for September, asking me to sign by a certain date, and Memorial University asked to discuss my application for the 8-month Visiting Assistant Professorship.

Long story short, I took the Memorial offer. I told my employer in Edmonton that I couldn’t teach for them in 2020-21, we sold our house, and moved from Edmonton, AB, to St. John’s, NL. The shock of moving from the lowest-taxed jurisdiction in Canada to the highest, at the same time as living apart from everyone in our new home because of the pandemic, took its toll on my family. My wife doubted whether this had been a reasonable choice for us.

This shock wore off in about nine months and we started to enjoy our time here very much; life and work returned to normal. Everything was about 30% more expensive than we were used to, but we adjusted. What we, and everyone else on earth, did not expect was the massive inflation of late 2021 and 2022. The shock of that put me back in my April 2020 mindset.

We did the math. Over the course of 2021, I lost $7000 dollars in purchasing power. That’s a big hit to a $56,000 annual income. (Yes, I am one of those who moved across the country for lower pay and more prestige.) In 2022, my salary lost another $7000 in value. Now, I am working my visiting professorship for $42,000 in 2020 dollars. This is very bad.

I had free time coming after I submitted grades in December, so I took a risk and worked as a mall Santa for two weeks. That was the very definition of an “odd job,” but it bought our family what we would consider an ordinary Christmas, which we otherwise would not have been able to afford.

The Santa job ended, and here I sit, working as a security guard in a hotel. I hope that working this job part-time alongside my full-time academic work will help us survive the global affordability crisis, and I hope the best for everyone struggling with these issues.

Picture of man with brown hair and glasses smiling from a hotel lobby

Kevin Solez, PhD

Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador St. John’s, NL, Canada (kevin_solez@hotmail.com)