I hereby declare, on behalf of all of us, that the university isn’t just the corporate body that collects our tuition and signs our paycheques, gives us degrees and tells us to pack up our personal effects when we’re no longer needed.

The university isn’t the books we read or the ideas we try on, whether to learn them or to teach them to others. Even the fiercest defender of the liberal arts will acknowledge that that can all happen just as easily in a coffee shop or a living room as in a classroom.

The core of the university is, for better or worse, our relation to one another – our dependence on one another, both intellectually and materially. Without each other our daily activities, whether learning, teaching, or supporting, would be impossible and meaningless.

***

This declaration of interdependence is a cheeky repudiation of the liberal fetish of being free and alone. Independence, in politics as in private life, is vastly overrated.

Sure it’s good to think for yourself, and healthy to have your own ideas and not be too concerned with necessarily fitting in. But to believe that we, in our social and economic lives as we make our way in the world, are independent of one another, is a dangerous fiction.

The dominant message of our society is that we should, like everyone else, think of ourselves as fundamentally alone. Our society tells us over and over that the object of life is to get ahead, to win, to be the best and to get the best because we deserve it.

This me-first attitude has been the basis of colonization and capitalism and is responsible for overwhelming levels of violence and misery over the last couple of hundreds of years. Over the last forty years especially, the idea that we are all little entrepreneurs, little personal brand identities, has been at the core of a disastrous economic and social experiment.

This hyper-intensified neo-liberalism, with its greed-fueled de-regulation frenzy, went kerflooey in 2008, and a lot of people lost their jobs and their homes. A lot of people who thought they had it made, who were educated, had good experience and job skills and owned stuff, became poor.

The whole ‘work hard, get ahead’ equation, according to pollsters, doesn’t mean much to an increasing number of us. We all know neo-liberalism isn’t working, but getting beyond it to something else, something more real and more humane, is a challenge to the imagination.

The processes of individualization are really entrenched in the way we live. We work in complicated organizations, we work precarious jobs with weird hours, we’re in debt, we travel to work or even split our time between different part-time workplaces, between school and work.

If we’re really lucky and get a job making good money, we stand a good chance of being professionalized, atomized, indifferent to or even at war with our peers. We work long hours and struggle to make time for family, friends and neighbours, let alone for strangers.

We need to understand each other, and understand ourselves in relation to one another’s position. Hence a declaration of interdependence, a formal recognition that we are, in some sense, in this together.

***

For myself, having spent almost twenty years in or around a university, the university inherently makes sense as a scene of interdependence. What drew me into caring about the institution, and eventually adopting it as a career of sorts, is its political aspect.

Most of this time I’ve been a graduate student and teaching assistant, which, though technically a menial rank, I like to think of as the noblest position from which to view and participate in the politics of the university.

A graduate student doesn’t make very much money – a little under $10,000 as a teaching assistant, plus whatever else you can get by proving abnormal cleverness or destitution – but has the fullest extent of academic freedom of anyone on campus. Graduate students can and do get into all sorts of trouble, including but not limited to fighting fiercely for their own rights.

Recently I’ve had the mixed distinction of graduating out of being a teaching assistant to being a contract instructor. In some ways it’s more rewarding teaching your own course, but you’d be surprised to learn that contract instructors get paid about $6000 – less than undergraduate students pay in tuition – to teach a one-term course.

Often contract instructors teach at more than one university to make a living. For some, this is a temporary situation between finishing graduate school and getting a full-time job. But for others, sometimes by choice and sometimes not, it becomes a career.

Commuting between campuses, it can be hard to build relationships with students and colleagues. For myself, teaching at a campus I was unfamiliar with last year felt like going to the moon every week. If my options were to do that for another decade or be a barber, I’d be a barber.

Sometimes this happens just because of the job market, but often it’s an explicit rule that makes part-timers nomads. Trent, for example, has a course cap for contract faculty, so it’s impossible to make a living wage teaching on contract at Trent. The cap is there to prevent the university from relying entirely on non-tenured labour, but its effect is to prevent contract faculty from contributing all of their time to the university if they want to.

The goal, for me and some of my colleagues, is to land a tenure-track job, which gives you full-time work at one institution for shockingly good pay. It sounds like a dream scenario in some ways, but the reality is that the pressures of the job market mean that a lot of faculty are professionalized, and don’t have the inclination or the time to engage in any kind of politics either on campus or off. Tenure becomes just job security, rather than the protection from academic sanction for making trouble that faculty of a few generations ago fought for.

Academic freedom should be about the freedom to create together an institution that embodies the values we preach, not just a right to never get fired. All of what we do should be done with justice, and with an eye to improving our collective, institutional ability to increase our enjoyment and our freedom to do things differently.

***

The disastrous outcome of the massive social experiment of neo-liberalism is visible all around us. You can see it in Peterborough in the empty and near-empty factories, in the faces of the jobless people who might have worked in them, and in the homes and communities they might have built and cared for, but didn’t.

Neo-liberalism failed disastrously at Trent when the university decided a decade ago to market itself as a kind of mall in the forest, complete with a CEO with a strained smile, which predictably didn’t resonate well with our actual strengths and weaknesses. It’s a little harder, but so much more rewarding, to market Trent as Trent.

How do we build on this failure? By turning our needs, whether desperate or banal, into common causes, investing our separate struggles with a common idea of the university as a place not only of learning about injustice but challenging it, even out-smarting it.

Through solidarity we can make the university a better place to work and learn, and also enrich our lives by thinking of others, our dependence on them and their dependence on us. By working together, as students and workers, to improve each other’s position, we not only improve our conditions but create conditions of possibility for a different way of living together, of sharing the institution.

If we learn that in our time at Trent University, whether our time is a few years of post-adolescence or a lifetime of professional service, we will have learned something of true value.

David Tough is a part-time instructor at Trent and editor of the Beacon, the newsletter of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3908.