Our seventh interview in the Contingent Faculty Series is a virtual conversation between Dr. Taylor Coughlan and Dr. Victoria Austen.
Victoria Austen received her Ph.D. from King’s College London in 2020 and has been teaching at the University of Winnipeg since 2019. In September 2022, she will begin a two-year position at Carleton College, in Minnesota, as the Oden Postdoctoral Fellow in Innovation in the Humanities (Classics). Her main research focuses on the imaginative space of Roman gardens and landscapes across literature and art from the Late Republic and Early Empire; she is also interested in classical reception (particularly related to myth) and the study of race and ethnicity in the ancient world. She is the social media manager for Peopling the Past (@peoplingthepast), and you can also find her tweeting @Vicky_Austen.
Taylor Coughlan: You received your education and training in the UK, and moved to Canada to begin your professional career, and have a further move to the U.S. on the horizon. What have you learned from working in different cities and countries?
Victoria Austen: I think one of the most valuable things I have learned in terms of teaching is to try and make connections to the local environment. Our field can seem so distant in so many ways, and yet its presence can also be felt around us in unexpected ways; and, so, making these local connections can make such a difference to how students view the ancient world.
One of the class exercises I have been most proud of is when I took my “Race and Ethnicity in the Ancient World” students to the Manitoba Legislature (a short 10-minute walk from campus) to look at how classical references are utilized in the iconography of the building in order to create a specific colonial framing of the province’s history. This exercise was linked to my colleague Melissa Funke’s public lecture on the same topic, and to be able to go with my students and Melissa to the actual site, and discuss it in real time, was such a thought-provoking and impactful moment. This field trip has inspired me to continue these kinds of local and experiential pedagogical exercises moving forward — and, just on a personal level, I am always excited to discover and investigate how the ancient world may have informed the world around me.
TC: Building on the theme of movement and mobility, how has this amount of travel impacted your relationship to your role as a contingent faculty?
VA: I think the honest answer here is: it’s complicated!
In some ways, I am happy that all of this travel has mentally prepared me for aspects of contingency — I like to think I am now world-class at packing, and I know what it takes logistically to move around and set up a new home easily. But am I happy I had to develop these skills out of necessity? Not so much.
Emotionally, it is very draining to pick up your life and move it multiple times — especially if you move alone. I have been thinking about the emotional elements of movement quite a lot recently, as I am increasingly aware that my next move is fast approaching. I have been in Winnipeg three years now, and so that is more than enough time to make connections and feel “settled” or “at home”—and yet, I am also constantly aware that I am not settled. You make these connections in a new place, and then just at the point you feel fully comfortable, it is all change again. It can be very overwhelming. The personal and professional can never be fully aligned — or, at least, that is how it feels — so that creates a lot of conflicting feelings about what to prioritize and when.
TC: You have worked in communications and outreach roles for several Classics organizations and projects, including the Women’s Network for the Classical Association of Canada and the popular ancient history and culture project Peopling the Past. How has this work informed or been informed by your contingency?
VA: I think my biggest takeaway from being involved with these organizations is the importance of community building — and, by that, I specifically mean community not linked to geography. In many ways, the virtual communities I have built are the most stable aspect of my contingent life. It doesn’t matter where I am, what time zone I am in, if I am on campus or spending another day on Zoom in my apartment—these communities are always there and have, quite honestly, been a lifeline during the pandemic.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have also noticed that a lot of the people doing these sorts of communication and outreach roles are also in contingent or early-career positions themselves. On a personal level, I enjoy working and collaborating with other individuals who are on the same level as me — there’s definitely a sense of shared solidarity there — but, on a structural level, it does frustrate me that so many of the people doing this important and significant work for our field are also the ones who are not secure in that same field. I am so passionate about communicating my love of the ancient world with as many people as possible, and I know so many other contingent and early-career scholars that feel the same, and yet it really is an uphill battle in terms of emotional labor. For Classics to thrive as a field, we can’t just rely on individual goodwill. We need outreach to be valued and supported at an institutional level, regardless of position or career stage.
TC: What current project — in the classroom, in your research, or in public outreach — are you most excited about?
VA: I have just submitted the manuscript for my first monograph, which is very exciting and feels like such a huge achievement, particularly in the face of a global pandemic and the overall inequities of adjunct life. The monograph, entitled Analysing the Boundaries of the Roman Garden: (Re)Framing the Hortus, will form part of Bloomsbury’s new Ancient Environments series, and is scheduled to be released in early 2023. Having been almost exclusively focused on this project for a number of years, I am excited about the prospect of being able to explore new areas of research. I have rediscovered my love for Flavian literature after teaching Lucan and Statius this past year, and I think there is so much material within these texts related to issues of landscape that I would like to dig into (I’m sorry — it is impossible for me not include some sort of gardening pun in my writing!).
I’m also looking forward to simply having more time to reflect on and contribute to projects and causes I am passionate about when I take up my new position in September. Over the past three years, I have taught 25 courses, which doesn’t exactly give you much time to breathe (I recognize that I am fortunate to not have any additional caregiving responsibilities) — honestly, just writing that number out makes me realize how utterly ridiculous that workload is for sustaining a living wage as a single person, but I digress.
The postdoctoral fellowship at Carleton is specifically designed to provide a reduced teaching load, so this will actually provide me with paid time to dedicate to research and my public outreach projects. I want to get back into monthly Wikipedia editing as part of the #WCCWiki initiative, and I am also interested in setting up my own website and blog to share my research and pedagogy in an accessible way.
TC: How do you think the field can, should adapt and evolve to better serve contingent faculty members?
VA: Ultimately, the only real solution here is to not have contingent faculty at all — but I am realistic and know that that is wishful thinking.
There are, however, various things that I think departments and institutions can do within the confines of contingent contracts that would have a significant positive impact on the day-to-day lives of contingent faculty. I feel fortunate to have been part of an incredibly supportive department at the University of Winnipeg, who have done everything within their power to help ease the burden of my workload — they have shared old course materials with me, offered to provide guest-lectures, and even allowed me to share or borrow their offices because I don’t have my own! Most importantly, they have made me feel welcome and encouraged me to grow as a teacher and a scholar.
This support also speaks to one of the ways the field needs to better serve contingent faculty members. Contingency is not just an issue for the contingent. It is imperative that tenure-track faculty also push back against this system and advocate for those that have not been lucky enough to gain a permanent position (and I use “lucky” on purpose here — because we all know the job market). I think the most emotionally draining part of contingency is this constant feeling that you are in a “lower class” of academia — the system makes it easy to think being contingent means you are “not good enough,” even when this is objectively not true — and so I think more needs to be done to build solidarity across the so-called “levels” of academia, with those in secure positions making a conscious effort to advocate for better institutional policies.
Header image: The Manitoba Legislative Building with ionic columns and neoclassical pediment. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.