#YEG: The University Bubble


October 2015

illustration by Emily Chu

Let’s be honest. I came here for the cash. I didn’t know a thing about Edmonton, but who cared? The University of Alberta offered the best PhD funding, and the “university bubble” would keep me insulated from all the truck balls, rednecks and rig pigs. Yeah, I was pretty ignorant. 

In 2005, rent is cheap, and everything proceeds as expected. The university becomes my community, and I live and write almost entirely in the bubble. Sure, I have to downsize apartments — twice — as rents rise. But I also start volunteering at the Boyle Street Centre, attending local literary events. At one event, I unexpectedly find I know almost half the people there. Strange. But not until 2010 do I notice signs of the university bubble bursting: departmental funding cuts, and a personal pay cut as I start teaching at contract-instructor rates. 

By 2011, I’m half in and half out, still teaching but losing my health benefits the moment I defend. Win a writing grant, take a term off teaching, finish the first book, return to teaching. Year by year, there are more cuts at the university, layoffs and early-retirement buyouts. Sell my first book in 2012, teach, publish that book in 2014, teach, promote the book, teach. More cuts. And just as the book gains some small notoriety, another 30 per cent rent hike.

And though my financial bubble has long since burst, the cultural one remains. To those outside, the difference between a contract instructor (me) and a tenure-track professor remains hazy at best. Such haziness can even work to my benefit, as when I strategically sign a letter to my landlord as “Dr. Greg Bechtel.” Or a local publication calls me a “U of A prof,” prompting the school to boost my success as (implicitly) its own, though current fiscal realities clearly preclude hiring a term-to-term contract instructor to a permanent tenure-track position at three times the pay, plus benefits.

And yet, I stay. Teaching, revising the next book, paying the rent I can no longer afford. Why? That’s when I realize. For the past 10 years, I have been growing into this city. Into its cafes, reading series and festivals. Into communities I have joined so incrementally as to miss their slow threading into the fabric of my life. 

And I will stay. For now. But, even if I left tomorrow, a part of Edmonton has grown into me too. A different sort of bubble, perhaps.

Greg Bechtel is the author of Boundary Problems (Freehand Books), which won Alberta Book of the Year (trade fiction) and was shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch City of Edmonton Book Prize and the William L. Crawford Fantasy Award.

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