Recently, in a meeting about a teaching contract, I was told that I am brilliant teacher and scholar. I finished my Ph.D. in 2016, completed an SSHRC postdoc in late 2020, and have been working on contracts of various lengths since then. Through the years, I have heard this so many times from so many people working in permanent positions inside the university – that I should have a permanent job, that I’m worthy and deserving of being one of them, of working shoulder-to-shoulder among the permanent faculty. Sometimes these informal assessments will take strange turns, and the individual conducting the assessment will want to compare me favourably with another person – someone who the system has by some measure found worthy. I am to understand, in these moments, that I am just as good – or even better! – than these other people who have been successful, who have made it through to the inside.
As someone who does not lack a serviceable level of confidence in her work or abilities and does not measure herself against the university structure for this affirmation, I am always aware, in these moments, that I am to find these remarks comforting and that this is not a two-way street. I am forever to be assessed, but an assessment from me would not be welcome or appropriate. It is always there, floating between us, that I am the object of the assessment, and that it is my value, as an outsider, that remains perpetually in question. When I have pushed back, lightly, against this dynamic, these conversations have changed noticeably in tone. In the long run, I have come to understand, my assessors don’t have to be this generous. And maybe I’m not so brilliant after all.
I often think about whether a university can decolonize when it does not understand why or how it is colonial. Obviously, this is a complicated issue, and there are a lot of people contemplating this question and producing important, urgent work. But working in the university and thinking about this question in the context of my own familial and cultural history, I am often reminded of the sermon that John Winthrop delivered to the Puritans on board the Arabella in 1630 before sailing across the ocean to violently entrench Massachusetts Bay Colony in Massachusett land.
“GOD ALMIGHTY,” his sermon begins, “in his most holy and wise providence, hath soe disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poore, some high and eminent in power and dignitie; others mean and in submission.” This sermon, most famous for its articulation of the colonial mission and its identification of so-called America as a “city on a hill,” a civilizing force that would lead the world, was a pre-emptive warning against rebellion and disruption in colonial hierarchies. We need to have poor people, Winthrop argued, so that we can have rich people; we need to have powerless people so that we can have people (like Winthrop) who wield power over others. We must necessarily have some people living or working in poor conditions so that others need never accept those same conditions for themselves. And we all, rich and poor alike, need to understand and agree that these differences are natural, consecrated, necessary — we are to honour and depend on these differences for our collective survival as we move through time.
Patty Krawec (Anishnaabe) writes about how societies based on charity — and Winthrop’s famous sermon was of course titled “A Modell of Christian Charity” — systematize exploitation by requiring the existence of people to be charitable towards. This ideology remains the foundation of so much of what settlers perceive and accept today as neutral. In Winthrop’s vision of society, questions of wealth and power are continuously bound up with threatening messages about God and eternal punishment to convince the colonists of their sacred obligations to their fundamentally unequal social positions. These social positions, he argues, have been thoughtfully prescribed by God – and so “community” or “kinship” is herein based on an agreement to accept these unequal placements in the supposedly natural order of things. He argues that the rich and the poor live happily together when accepting of their unequal positions, united by this sense of mission (lighting and leading the world), and committed to one another under a “bond of love.”
But none of this is love.
Working in a university, a colonial institution that still so openly mythologizes itself as a light and a leader – and aren’t we all, faculty and staff, tenured and contingent alike, bound together by this covenant, by our commitment to this mission, to this good work, to these ideologies of improvement – I feel the expectation or assumption from others that I am to covet a tenure-track position. Because how else will I possibly know that I am good — that I have been successful in or with my life? That I am above my friends in this system that depends for its life on their exploitation? Surely I am hungry for signs that I, too, am one of the chosen ones? Surely my sense of worth is bound up in confirmation and affirmation from this system and from those who have been successful within it?
And yet I refuse to accept that this is the best that we can do for one another. We need to think deeply about what our supposed affinities and solidarities are based on and about where and whether they are yet real. I would argue that our ongoing unwillingness to address questions like this one in the university speaks volumes, and that if we truly love each other, then we will struggle together against this model until it breaks.