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Coastal Diss-patch: Graduate students work and learn far from campus

Amanda Murphy and Kelly Black

The relatively recent and still somewhat unusual opportunity to work and live far from campus is made possible by the Internet and new forms of digital pedagogy. However, we have quickly realized that within these new opportunities there exist unique challenges for those who work and study remotely.

Many graduate students face the difficulties of isolation. For those on-campus, there are opportunities to engage with the university community by attending talks, working on campus-based initiatives, and socializing in the grad pub.

For students working remotely, this lack of a campus-oriented schedule can be wholly replaced by the cycle of teaching, writing, and research. When isolated, this can be intensely overwhelming. Continuously working on a growing list of projects — rather than socializing, eating vegetables, or leaving the house — becomes the new normal.

If you work from home, like we do, it’s all too easy to sit around in your pajamas eating ketchup chips. Dissertation deadlines are mentally present but geographically distant.

That’s why it’s important to keep in touch with your department. Get news (and gossip!) from on-campus students and schedule regular online or phone appointments with your supervisors and supportive mentors. Work on fun and fulfilling collaborative projects (such as articles in the Leveller!) with fellow graduate students suffering from pajama-and-ketchup-chip-induced malaise. (In case our supervisors read this, we’ll add that we’re also co-authoring a peer-reviewed journal article.)

In your new location, try to attend public talks and get involved in local events. This was made easier for us when we both relocated to towns with nearby universities. It is hard to balance life in two places — you can’t give up your student status and forget your home institution, but you need to find ways to build a new community to supplement the one you left behind.

In our experiments with PhD-ing remotely to date, the division between here and there was made most clear when our fellow Teaching Assistants (TAs) took a strike vote and gave CUPE 4600 a strong bargaining mandate. As TAs for online courses, we continue to follow the struggle for a fair contract, but we remain unable to participate in the show of hands that follows discussion and debate.

Whether you’re off campus temporarily for fieldwork or indefinitely for personal reasons, know that you are not alone. As stay-at-home grad students, we offer these suggestions to the relocated and their supporters:

– Ask your department about plugging in to digital lectures and events. Encourage them to maintain an active presence on social media. Remember — you’re still paying tuition fees…

– Stay in touch with your friends back home!

– Build alliances and encourage inter-university cooperation. Student and labour unions are connected across Canada and have the potential to be an important resource for relocated students.

– Share your stories. If your friends are the ones missing from campus, let them know you’re thinking of them. Send them emails with pictures of Ottawa’s snow to remind them that they made a good decision to move somewhere warmer. Catch up with them at academic conferences, invite them to contribute to the departmental blog, or cut out this article and mail it to them.

– Share your desk. If students from other institutions have moved to your town, offer to share your work space, provide recommendations for quiet coffee shops, or invite them to grad activities. If unfamiliar faces attend talks at your university, get to know them and invite them to start a writing, walking, or reading group.

Although we miss the on-campus opportunities for free food, the challenges have also presented new opportunities to collaborate, expand our scholarship, and experiment with online pedagogy.

Whether you’re off-campus, on-campus, or in a host community, we hope sharing our experiences can help you build community, learn, and grow wherever your studies (and travels) take you.

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 6, No. 6 (Mar/Apr 2014). 

Strike for Safety!: Campus Safety Workers’ Fight Exposes Carleton Priorities

By: Sam Heaton 

Carleton students and workers march in support of their colleagues in campus safety March 14.  Credit: Filip Szymanski

Carleton students and workers march in support of their colleagues in campus safety March 14. Credit: Filip Szymanski

Nearly 50 campus safety workers at Carleton University walked off the job at 12:01 a.m. on March 10. Half of them are students.

In support of the striking workers, who are members of Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union (OPSEU) local 404, students and workers from the campus community marched across campus, condemning the Carleton senior management for its misplaced priorities.

The March 14 rally greeted the picket line at Bronson and Sunnyside before heading to campus safety offices at Robertson Hall, followed by the River Building, University Centre Atrium, and finally outside the offices of Carleton’s president on the fifth floor of Tory Building.

According to the union, the workers have given Carleton the dubious honour of being the first university in Canada to force campus employees to strike.

The biggest issues raised at the negotiating table by the workers were chronic understaffing and inadequate compensation. The union says that while the campus population and infrastructure have grown significantly since the 1980s, safety staffing has remained more or less the same.

Earlier that day, at the request of teacher and staff unions on campus, Member of Parliament Bob Rae cancelled his appearance at a ceremony to award him an honorary Carleton PhD.

Though negotiations between management and the safety workers began in October 2013 – around five months after the workers voted 97 per cent in favour of forming a union – the union says there has been little progress dealing with Carleton. By January, OPSEU representative Nelson Ross Laguna told the Leveller that bargaining had “come to a halt.”

A study conducted by the union during negotiations also found that both special constables and student safety patrollers take home significantly less pay than their provincial counterparts in entry and advanced level positions. In the case of student safety patrollers, they currently make just over $11 per hour, while comparable positions in Ontario take home anywhere from $16 to $20.

When the campus safety workers resorted to creative means to get their message out, such as union pins, wristbands, and t-shirts, Director of University Safety Allan Burns attempted to ban such items from being worn. In early February, frustrated by lack of movement from the employer, workers voted 97 per cent in favour of strike action.

A student safety patroller, who wished to remain anonymous, spoke on behalf of the collective in describing working conditions to the Leveller: “We work overnights. A lot of us work until 7:00 a.m. in the morning, and we have class at 8:30 a.m.. And we choose that, but it’s also more of a respect thing than the wages.”

She said student patrollers perform first response duties, first aid, and crisis management along with many other duties, and they undergo months of training.

Strike campus safety workers on the picket line. Credit: Sam Heaton

Strike campus safety workers on the picket line. Credit: Sam Heaton

“We’re just looking to show that we are worth a lot to this campus. We do a lot of work, we patrol a lot, and we have to deal with a lot too. The fact that they want to reduce our pay already…”

Student workers say that student safety patroller jobs have been recently advertised at lower pay than previously. At this time, Carleton is advertising the position at $11.39 per hour, around the same as what the student patrollers are currently paid.

Participants in the rally on March 14 pointed out that the safety workers’ fight for better staffing levels and acceptable pay makes them question Carleton senior management’s priorities.

Justin Paulson of the Carleton University Academic Staff Association said, “What we need is not parking garages,” but “an environment that is safe for students to pursue education and research.”

While Carleton has refused to deal with what the workers say is inadequate safety coverage on campus, it has notably spent $34 million to date on building a new parking garage.

The Leveller reported in Sept. 2013 that Carleton senior officials admitted the university has no need for new parking spaces. A Leveller investigation found that the Carleton Board of Governors and its building committee included several key figures behind the redevelopment of Ottawa’s Lansdowne Park stadium.

According to the Ottawa Citizen, the City of Ottawa has been negotiating a Lansdowne parking agreement with Carleton University since 2010.

Chris Hurl, a member of CUPE 4600, the union that represents teaching assistants and contract instructors, said that Carleton’s senior management is “clearly a lot more interested in providing a good brand for the university and building parking garages” rather than “the basic operation of the university.”

“That means paying our workers a decent wage… and making sure we’re able to provide quality education and basic services like safety on our campus,” Hurl said.

Since the strike began, some students have had difficulty reaching campus safety in emergencies, according to the Ottawa Citizen. Parents who use the on-campus daycare centre have written to Carleton president Roseann Runte to express their concern.

A new round of negotiations between the workers and university management is expected to take place on March 20.

This article was first published in The Leveller Vol. 6, No. 6 (Mar/Apr 2014).

Federal Budget 2014 analysis roundup: The Leveller reads the punditry so you don’t have to!

By: Alana Roscoe

With a name like “The Road to Balance: Creating Jobs and Opportunities,” the 2014 budget might be expected to significantly contribute to the creation of jobs and opportunities for Canadians. Instead, most pundits agree, the Harper government’s latest budget doesn’t do much except offer the Conservatives a chance to position themselves favourably just before the 2015 federal election.

“Missing action,” “do-nothing,” and “plain vanilla” were descriptions offered by commentators from across the political spectrum, with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty himself admitting it may be considered “boring,” before adding that he takes this characterization “as a compliment.”

In a National Post comment piece, even Conrad Black agreed with NDP leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau when they said “there is nothing for jobs,” and “the government has run out of ideas,” respectively.

Commentators from organizations such as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) and labour groups argued the budget’s continuing austerity stifles relief from unemployment, economic growth, and critically needed investments. In fact, the CCPA’s senior economist, David Macdonald, says that the 2014 budget contains the “largest annual spending cuts to date,” with previous budgets’ cuts totalling $14 billion coming into effect.

The Fraser Institute, on the other hand, recommends caution in relying on “ambitious” revenue projections contributing to 2015-16’s anticipated $6.4 billion surplus and calls for even more spending cuts. The institute published pre-budget recommendations that included cuts to corporate welfare spending, “inefficient” Crown corporation subsidies, and government employee compensation.

So what does the budget do to create jobs and opportunities? Funds are earmarked for a smattering of reforms and programs over the next few years, but it is youth internships and vocational training in the skilled trades that generated most discussion, particularly from progressives.

Noting that dismal job prospects are particularly grim for young workers, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC)’s Angella MacEwen wrote that the new money for education and training initiatives is “a mere drop in the bucket,” and that the internships’ focus on workers in high-demand fields is a “shocking non-solution to a very real crisis.” CUPE Senior Economist Toby Sanger further commented that internships are often abused as a way to underpay youth for their labour and that they “will do little to reduce unemployment” for this group.

Paul Wells did some investigation on “the Conservatives’ fascination with college education” for Maclean‘s, questioning the budget’s focus on vocational training and trade apprenticeships. He pointed to research that connected voter support with educational attainment, claiming,”It’s among university graduates that the Liberal advantage is greatest,” while Conservatives have more support among college graduates. Wells suggested that Harper is therefore concentrating on pleasing the latter group in anticipation of next year’s election.

While it garnered relatively little attention from most commentators, the new spending program for on-reserve education was lauded by progressives and the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). AFN National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo welcomed the investment as a step “toward First Nations control of First Nations education based on our rights, jurisdiction and Treaties.” He went on to note that more improvements are needed in other areas.

The Toronto Star reported that Chief Charles Weaselhead of Alberta’s Blood Tribe more cautiously stated that the band “in no way endorse[s] the proposed legislation in its present form,” but that they remain “open to continued dialogue.”

Scientists, who have generally not fared well under the Harper regime thus far, may feel optimistic at the announcement of $1.5 billion slotted for post-secondary research. However, the Council of Canadians’ national water campaigner Emma Lui cautions that “it is not clear where that money will be funneled,” given the new fund’s explicit focus on “research areas that create long-term economic advantages for Canada,” a stipulation that received little analysis from most news outlets.

It is once again public servants who find themselves the subject of discussion by commentators of the federal budget. They are, as the CBC bluntly asserts, one of the “losers” of the 2014 budget, based on the continuing federal bureaucracy spending freeze and compensation reductions such as public servant retirees’ doubled share of health-care plan costs.

Progressive organizations and labour unions decried not only the erosion of civil servants’ benefits, but civil services themselves. For example, the Public Service Alliance of Canada stated, “After cutting a number of essential services, the government is now putting forward half measures that do nothing to restore what were once highly successful programs.”

More conservative writers, however, focused on labeling public servants as over-compensated and attacking their unions: Black commended the Harper government for the “reduced indulgence it has shown the rapacious public service unions.”

Overall, most budget 2014 analyses with any depth found something to criticize, with favourable comments (unsurprisingly) increasing as contributors’ political ideology veered right. However, no matter what political ideology they adhered to, most pundits’ cynicism was clear.

By positioning themselves to announce a sizable surplus and significant tax cuts next year, the Conservatives are aiming for a budget in 2015 that will please people enough to cause collective amnesia of everything they’ve done to displease those same people over the past nine years.

Political opportunism – and not the best interests of Canadians – is the real motivation behind the 2014 budget. From the National Post’s Andrew Coyne (“…whether it does the right thing or the wrong thing it is always and everywhere because it serves the government’s political interests.”) to the CCPA’s Macdonald (“This budget, while it is being pitched as one of economic management, is really about electoral management.”), the Conservatives aren’t fooling anyone.

This article first appeared in The Leveller Vol. 6, No. 5 (Feb/Mar 2014).

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