An Academic without Academic Freedom

Freedom by whateverwinnie CC-BY-NC-ND
Freedom by whateverwinnie CC-BY-NC-ND

I am, unquestionably, an academic. Although I do not spend a lot of time publicizing my credentials in my current position (mostly to avoid conversations about why I should have just finished my PhD – and please do read about the positive side of withdrawing), I could put ABD after my name if I chose. I am working on my second masters degree, this time in education. I have been training as an academic for a long time and I sometimes struggle with the fact that I am both an academic and not an academic. I am a grad student – academic. I am a staff member at a university – not academic. Neither role provides me academic freedom, however.

In watching a recording of a forum on academic freedom, I felt uncomfortable. Why? Because it is clearly stated that staff do not have academic freedom. True. I can’t debate that. I know it is not my right as a staff member. Whether I need it to do my job is somewhat debatable, as I am supposed to be researching pedagogical approaches, looking at what is happening, what is coming, what could be happening. I can do that research but I do not have protection if I criticize my university in doing that research. I do not have protection to publish or share material. If I choose to do research, I am in an uncomfortable position. A decision was made at some point in the past to classify instructional designers as staff, at least at my university, which fairly clearly puts me in my place.

Admittedly, I never really spent a whole lot of time contemplating academic freedom in my previous trajectory. Nobody talked about it with me that I can remember. It was just this part of tenure that meant you were protected.

Learning more about it, about how it is being discussed at my university, reminds me of the divide that exists on a lot of campuses. There are faculty and there are staff. Faculty are the core, the central hub of the university. Often they seem to feel at odds with administrators but that does not change that a traditional university model has faculty as involved in governance, having a vote. There is no university without faculty. The carrot for going through all the work and the pain is having academic freedom to do your research, to teach your subject, to engage critically with your university and the world at large – at least in your field.

I stand on the other side of that divide now. I am a staff member. I am a support person, someone who is here to help the university run, to deal with various details that have crept into the system. In my case, I am here to support instructors (faculty and sessionals – and sessionals are a whole other issue) who teach online. In some cases, that means being referred to as “tech support.” Yes, I am technologically competent. Yes, I can help with the technical side of teaching online. I do, however, have more to offer. I spend a lot of time thinking about the medium. In returning to graduate school, I am focusing on teaching with, through, and about technology so far because I think it is important. I have been in a classroom and I care a whole lot about teaching. I am in a unique position, working to create courses, being responsible somewhat for student experience, and yet being a consultant. Being only an assistant instructional designer, I have less responsibility but also less authority.

And yet I think like an academic. I have things to say. I ponder questions and I am a highly developed critical thinker. I (and my colleagues) have knowledge worth sharing. I hope to do more teaching in the days to come.

Will I ever have academic freedom? I don’t know. Right now I cannot say I have a great desire to once again enter the world of a PhD. It could, however, be an asset to me in a university and I certainly do see the truth of that. Having gone through the trials and tribulations of acquiring a PhD, some faculty make certain judgements of others who have not also done the same. If you have watched the video, you may hear a few echoes of the elitism that can accompany that view. In my field, I would need a PhD to fall under this umbrella. I have a few years of my MEd first before I even contemplate taking that step again.

Will I ever need it? Again, I don’t know. I have things to say about teaching. The more I advance in my studies, the more I will have to say. I can publish without academic freedom. I can speak without academic freedom. Whether anyone hears me may be another matter. Whether I say the wrong thing and find myself looking elsewhere for employment, well, knowing me that seems unlikely. I am not a fan of conflict. It could happen, though.

Then again, right now I am still working on having a permanent job (I am a term employee for now). Being vocal about sensitive topics is just a bad idea all around at the moment.

So I will step carefully. I will think about things and express myself in considerate ways. I will learn and grow.

And I will continue to consider myself an academic. Freedom or not.

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