On Leaving the Circus


Circus poster, 1890. (Library of Congress)

My last day of work at Athabasca University was Friday, June 3. That weekend was the most relaxing I’d had in… ever. Even finishing my PhD didn’t come close to the sensation of lightness. For the two weeks prior, it was almost impossible to concentrate because I felt like a kid about to start summer holidays.

If I had stuck around until September, it would have been 8 years. Unlike most schools, Athabasca University does not break up its year into terms or quarters. It has a continuous enrollment model, where new students start the course every month. Students can submit their assignments at any time during their contract period. The result is that there is no way to predict workload. There is also no way to predict income, because it depends partly on monthly enrollment, as well as the number of papers graded. For me this meant my life was in a perpetual holding pattern to accommodate the irregular income and schedule. Eight years is a long time to stay in an unproductive holding pattern.

The message I got upon being hired by Athabasca was that my position was intended to be a small auxiliary source of income, kind of like babysitting is for a teenager. Nevertheless, I would be expected to offer the highest possible standard of customer service. If I could coin a phrase, it would be “work like you’re full-time.”

But I managed this. I also had the opportunity to revise my courses, which made me feel like I was actually in a teaching position. However, Athabasca’s financial concerns soon came to the forefront. There was the email requesting that employees take unpaid vacation to reduce the burden on payroll. AU entertained the notion of laying off all tutors for a day to save money. Large-scale layoffs happened. There was the move to digital textbooks, where savings realized from the lower cost of digital textbooks were not passed on to students as a decrease in fees.

And then there was the call centre. This news came in the form of a sternly worded email from the acting president that a) tutor costs were unsustainable, and b) this problem would be solved by getting rid of the system of tutors and replacing it with a “one stop shop” for all inquiries.

The claim was that students contacted their (unhelpful, unprofessional) tutors infrequently, and when they did it was mostly with administrative questions that tutors were not equipped to handle. Therefore, there should be a call centre that students would contact first. Knowledgeable and professional call-centre operators (in sharp contrast to tutors) would then connect the student with appropriate resources. If it were deemed necessary, a highly qualified Academic Expert (former tutor) would be contacted and informed that the student had a question. The Academic Expert would then contact the student within 2 business days.

They argued that the centre could be open for longer hours, and on weekends, whereas there were limited office hours during which students could contact their tutors. First of all, these office hours were limited because AU was not willing to hire tutors full-time—so it’s hardly fair to blame the tutors for that. But second, and far more importantly, who uses the phone anymore? If I got more than 30 phone calls in the time I worked there, I’d be surprised. But I did get emails at all hours of the day and night, 7 days a week. The vast majority of those questions were about the course material.

The call centre would save money because the Academic Experts would be paid only for specific activities, rather than the “block pay” determined by the number of students assigned to a tutor. Getting paid would require filling out time sheets to document those activities. You can see a list of what counts here, in the appropriately named Outsider newsletter of CUPE 3911 (the tutors’ union).

And that’s were my self-respect threshold came into view. The notion of having to subdivide my job into the most miniscule bits and pieces, and keep meticulous track of them in order to get paid, seemed incredibly burdensome. That’s not why I teach. Add to that rumblings about Academic Experts having their time sheets rejected, and the suggestion that I could expect a 40% decrease in my income, and it just didn’t seem worth it anymore.

My initial plan was to wait until my courses were moved to the call centre. I would see how things went, and then resign if the situation got as bad as I thought it would. But I got tired of waiting for the axe to fall. I got tired of there being an axe. I started to feel like a chump for staying there.

I might have been able to tolerate the problems if I had felt valued, but I didn’t. Even before the call centre, I had the sense that AU felt its tutors needed to be scolded into doing a good job. On an employee pulse survey, someone commented that tutors as a whole lacked professional development. This is in spite of the fact that no-one had bothered to ask what kind of professional development tutors had done. There also seemed to be a pro call-centre PR strategy to denigrate the abilities and work of tutors, as a means of emphasizing that AU was making the tough choices and seeking solutions.

So I felt about as valued as a piece of chewing gum stuck to the bottom of a shoe. I didn’t realize how deeply that feeling went until I received a 5-year service pin in the mail. I was surprised and confused because I honestly didn’t think tutors counted as employees for purposes of service recognition.

I’ve never quit a job before. I expected that quitting this one would happen when I was angry and bitter, but instead I was completely blissed out. If this post sounds like an angry rant, it isn’t. It is more of an exorcise- an exercise in exorcising those demons so I can leave them behind and begin whatever healing is required. Being chewing gum is hard on a person’s psyche.

My resignation letter was one sentence saying only what date my resignation would be effective. I didn’t say why I was quitting, and no-one asked. I was a little surprised that they didn’t ask for a hand-off overview of how the courses were going. They should have. Maybe I could have offered that information, but there would have been a lot to say. I’ve tried to communicate issues and solutions before, only to be disregarded, and I didn’t have it in me to try again. And anyway—not my monkeys, not my circus.

I don’t have a new job lined up, per se, but I do have a project that I’ve been meaning to start. I will get to use my research skills, and learn new things. I will have an opportunity to progress rather than being trapped in a holding pattern. I won’t have to read messages from administrators about how I’m not worth what they’re paying me. I won’t have to be afraid of decisions others are making about my future. I won’t need the approval of people who are less qualified than I am to make decisions. I’m not leaving higher ed just yet, but I am branching out and trying to make my own opportunities. What comes after remains to be seen.

13 thoughts on “On Leaving the Circus

  1. Good luck, Karla. Before my retirement as a professor at Athabasca U in 2014, I tried to do my bit, in tandem with your union and other groups and individuals within AU, to push back against the management’s efforts to further humiliate and deprofessionalize the tutors, whose work was always precarious but had gotten more so over the years. But we were all dealing with a brick wall in the form of what I perceived of as a bloated management that could have been running a widget factory rather than a university. Their corporate model gave little thought to staff or students; nothing they said made any sense outside of a corporate universe that is inappropriate to an educational institution. I thoroughly enjoyed the work and the privileges that I had as a full professor but was glad to leave a university that seemed to be following the path of most universities in becoming anti-intellectual, hierarchical institutions with growing and useless management taking more and more of funds that are being depleted, in any case, by government funding cuts. As I retired, no one in authority thought to give me an exit interview after 36 years of service. But I had never held back on my views and so management, if they cared a fig, knew that I had contempt for them. Mind you, I am not suggesting any equivalence in our situations. I received a fat buy-out package (which has a provision that says that I cannot confide the terms of the agreement at all) and I have a generous pension. So I’m somewhat bought and sold, but I don’t think it means that I have to be quiet about the injustices within AU that have gotten worse over time.

    • Alvin, thank you so much for your comments. It means a lot just to get some confirmation that I wasn’t imagining things. After hearing nonsense for so long, one begins to doubt one’s own sanity. I knew the faculty association was working to assist tutors, but it was hard to find more than a trickle of information about anything. It seems AU is on the same path as many other distance education programs. It’s hard to find info, but best I can tell, some have gone over completely to a call centre/database driven model (talking to a human is an exception) whereas others are laying the groundwork. AU seems to be somewhere in between. I think the best way to subvert this trend by showing individual faculty at brick-and-mortar schools (what an expression!) how to offer their courses online in all the best ways- where online is part of what makes the course good, rather than for the sake of being online. Then students will have the option of taking a class with someone in their home institution who is teaching it, rather than at a school in the business of delivering widgets, as you say. Thanks once again for your insights. They are helpful and appreciated!

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  3. I just graduated from AU. And was glad to be done before the call centre model was implemented. I chatted (email) with my tutors a few times about them and we shared the same academic concerns. I am shocked to hear about the monitary concerns for tutors as well! I had so many amazing tutors (professors) and I will be forever grateful to them. It was incredibly disheartening to hear of all the changes being proposed. AU could be a wonderful school yet, but the changes concern me. And the pressure on its profs, those they need to make the whole thing work, is astounding. As a
    Student i found myself concerned over the treatment of the profs. Because without them, without the quality they had….where would i be? I’m happy you followed your gut. And while i never had you specifically for a tutor, thank you for everything you did.

    • Anna, congratulations on your graduation! That’s an accomplishment under any circumstances but requires extra dedication and discipline when done online.

      Thank you for your kind words. There’s no reason online learning and teaching can’t be done well, but it really does require teachers being available to students. That’s true whether you’re talking about direct assistance, or being mentally and emotionally able to engage fully. Stress and low morale don’t help at all. I’m glad you had a positive experience in spite of the circumstances. I bet the instructors you were able to share concerns with about the changes appreciated very much the opportunity to talk about it. It certainly would have made a difference to me. 🙂

  4. I was one of many tutors laid off unceremoniously and with no warning. I then got my 10 year pin in the mail congratulating me for being an important part of the university. I was livid.

  5. Great piece, thank-you for writing and sharing it. I posted it to my Facebook page and wrote the following – just wanted you to know.: ” ‘And then there was the call centre. … ‘ The state of contract faculty exploitation in Canada’s universities is revealed so well in every paragraph of this piece, written by someone who quit after the university brought in a call centre to replace her and her contract colleagues. Thanks to Dr. Karla Panchuk for sharing this — as someone who also quit the system a few years ago, I hear you 1000%.”

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