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  • Redefining “Work”: English Studies, Teaching, and the Shifting Canadian Postsecondary Landscape
  • Lee Easton (bio)

What are you working on now?” That seemingly innocuous question is my departure point for exploring the challenges emanating from the changing nature of Canadian postsecondary education and the concomitant emergence of teaching-oriented positions in universities. When people ask what I’m “working on,” the question inadvertently underscores what commonly counts as academic labour. Said differently, the question “What are you working on?” highlights the privileged role universities have ascribed to themselves as the primary site of knowledge production, of research. This once unchallenged role has been eroded as teaching-focused colleges and vocationally-oriented institutes of technology, once barred or at least discouraged from undertaking research, now boast growing research agendas, usually called “applied research” to differentiate it from the “pure research” of universities, as they offer degree programming in their respective domains. I want to contend that the emergence of a spectrum of Canadian postsecondary institutions with a variety of work options is nothing to fear, although adopting this stance means confronting long-held ideological beliefs about the relative importance of research and teaching that have attended Canadian higher education since the 1950s. [End Page 8]

From a structural perspective, the blurred lines between teaching-focused institutions engaged in applied research and research-orientated universities who also teach are the product of changing federal and provincial government policies that have shifted the certainties which have structured Canadian postsecondary education since the postwar period. Then, buoyed by federal government funding for research and the need to confront the imminent arrival of the postwar baby boomers, Canadian university officials marked out their territory in higher education and left the rest of the terrain for les autres, the soon-to-be established community colleges, vocational schools, and technical institutes which came to populate the postsecondary terrain in the 1960s and 70s.1 Created by the provinces to further their own economic and political needs, the community colleges were differentiated both by their teaching/training focus, and, where transfer systems existed, by their subordinate status to universities. Unlike our American counterparts where institutions of higher education ranged from comprehensive research universities to four-year liberal arts colleges to two-year community colleges, the Canadian postsecondary landscape is notable for its organization of higher education into a hierarchy of colleges and universities. This arrangement is especially obvious in Ontario but evident even in Alberta, which arguably has the most diverse array of postsecondary institutions in Canada. The entrenchment of this arrangement has many features, but for my purposes, I will reductively describe the scheme as follows:

Universities (Education) Colleges (Training)
Role Knowledge Production Theory Knowledge Transmission Practice
Work Research Teaching
Audience Peers/Colleagues Students

[End Page 9]

English professors played a special role in creating these oft-unspoken or taken-for-granted differentiations: I refer to Dr Claude T. Bissell, Professor of English and President of the University of Toronto, who publicly, adamantly, and ultimately successfully lobbied the Ontario provincial government to reject transferability between the nascent Ontario colleges and the expanding universities, producing what remains in many respects what John Dennison called in 1986, “two solitudes” (12). While it may be true that neo-liberal policies have contributed to diminishing the line between liberal education and vocational training, these self-same shifts are giving rise to a new spectrum of postsecondary institutions to replace the tiers of the college/university binary where teaching sat comfortably as a necessary adjunct of research. Indeed, the federal intervention into research funding since the 1990s has intensified the rewards of research at the university while also creating new opportunities for colleges to engage in research for the first time.

If we are to adapt to this new spectrum, we need to resist the temptation to think about tiers (tears) and address the deep-seated ambivalence about the role of teaching, especially of undergraduates, in university life. Undoubtedly, despite its challenges, some university professors see undergraduate teaching as a rewarding aspect of their work. But this particular academic work seldom has the same prestige as teaching graduate students or supervising doctoral work. The everyday language around teaching underscores the point. For...


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