Monday, November 9, 2009

An Ancient, Subtle City

Well, the strike lasted a little over a week, and the deal we ended up with was pretty mediocre. The membership voted 58%, according to the union leadership, in favour of the university administration’s latest offer, even though there’s a practical pay cut across the board. I suppose it’s pretty hard for people in a position as prestigious as graduate students to realize when their contracts are terrible. The role of an academic is still held in high esteem. To most people, academics included, the idea that we’re exploited is pretty laughable.

I met one workman waiting at the Cootes drive picket line this afternoon who asked what we were striking over, and when I explained our issue with the high benefit charges for teaching assistants with families, he told me he had no sympathy for us because he had never had a benefit plan at all for his entire working life. It puts us in the absurd position of trying to argue that we have a right to strike when we already have better privileges than many other unionized people, like merely having a benefits plan at all. We’re in training to become one of the elites of society, and it’s very difficult to explain that trainee academics are considerably underpaid, and that an increasing number of professional academics have low-paying insecure university and college positions. The social prestige in which university professors and graduate students are held, I think, prevents us from making our case that we are shafted with growing frequency.

I hope the irony of this situation is appreciated.
It’s one thing to read that a city is several centuries old, and another experience entirely to walk through such a city, like Edinburgh. I have never been in a city built of stone, and it was immensely surprising to wander along a cobblestone street down roads flanked by some of the oldest skyscrapers in the world, huge grey apartment buildings the same colour as the streets themselves. For the three days of the conference, I walked there each morning, usually chilly, with the sun hanging low in the sky, often obscured by centuries-old masonwork stuffed to bursting with shops selling pastries, curry, fish and chips, secondhand books, and novelty hats, the last of which I meant to pick up for my Halloween costume, only to drop the ball again.

My friends Ray and Erin, who I stayed with, live in a comfortable if slightly drafty apartment on High street, the centre of the old town of Edinburgh, the district that was over five hundred years old. I spent the bulk of my time in the city in this neighbourhood, a decision I think was for the best. The whole neighbourhood is a dense maze of streets winding into each other in three dimensions. It was the easiest city to get lost in that I’ve ever experienced, and for the most obvious reason. Going in the same direction as you started the previous day could take you to an entirely different destination, which would be underneath where you wanted to go. Many streets are bridges leading over other, even older, streets, and I would not be able to tell you how to get back to the level on which you began.

One of the walking tours the conference booked for us took us to the large stone apartment complex that used to be the most prestigious place to live in all of Edinburgh. David Hume and Adam Smith once lived in that very building only a short distance away from where I was staying for that week. It is now University of Edinburgh’s most prestigious, and expensive, student residence. As our tour guide was telling us stories about Hume’s particularly crazy parties, a notably nerdy young Chinese man was taking his garbage out.

Stories about J. K. Rowling’s coffee shop, the ubiquity of kilts, and the best chicken vindaloo I’ve ever had in future entries.

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