The Restructure

A work of fiction.

[the scene: a conference room set up with rows of chairs facing the front. Thirty or so workers in office attire file in dutifully. A woman with perfectly coiffed hair, and the detached air of a circling shark (“Shark Woman”) is flicking back and forth through PowerPoint slides being projected onto a screen at the front of the room. A Man enters the room and the energy shifts, the meeting is now ready to begin. The woman takes position at the front of the room. The man sits on a chair to her right]

Shark Woman: I just want to start off by saying how happy that George and I both are to have you all here today. This is a great turnout, isn’t it a just a great turn out George [she gestures to her right but doesn’t turn her head. The man remains stony faced].

Shark woman: I think I speak for all of us when I say that we are thrilled that George, our CEO and “fearless leader” [the woman makes air quotes as she says this] was able to join us today. I think we all appreciate how busy George’s schedule is, in light of recent developments. Can I just ask for a quick round of applause for George for showing up today?

[the crowd claps politely. George eyes the room impassively. Shark Woman waits for the clapping to die down]

SW: you may be wondering why we have organised this meeting, George and I appreciate how busy you are so we will endeavour not to take up too much of your time. You may have heard rumours of a restructure and I want to put these rumours to rest. To allay your fears once and for all. George and I are really a united front on this.

[murmuring breaks out among the audience]

SW: George and I would like to take this opportunity to field questions from you, the team.

[a woman raises her hand]

SW: Yes, Sandra, what is your question

Sandra: so the rumours of a restructure are untrue?

SW: That’s a great question. I would like to address your question by acknowledging the broader context in which we operate. I am sure you can appreciate that the sector is in a time of continual change, and in order to remain competitive we need to change along with it. This situation isn’t unique to us, in fact I would say it is affecting our colleagues and competitors across the sector. If anything they are faring much worse than us! I think we should all feel really good about that actually

Sandra: [interrupting] so there is a restructure then? I thought you said you were putting the rumours to rest?

SW: [narrowing her eyes] yes, by confirming that the rumours were, in fact, true. NEXT QUESTION

[a man raises his hand timidly]

SW: Ahmed yes, what is your question for George?

Ahmed: Umm yes. Thank you. So, by restructure do you mean downsize? As in, will jobs be lost [the crowd murmurs]

SW: Thanks for that question Ahmed, that is a really great question. George and I really appreciate you coming along today. I think it is safe to say, that in an organisation as large as this it can be quite a challenge to see the forest from the trees! It just makes sense then to thin out some of the dead wood. In these uncertain times the imperative exists to be fiscally responsible. We want to build for the future, but we don’t want to borrow from the past to do so. That would set an incredibly dangerous precedent, I think we can all agree on that NEXT QUESTION

[a short woman stands up. SW eyes her suspiciously]

SW: yes Alex?

Alex: What is the timeline on this? Who is affected? I have kids in school!

SW: [her face morphing into an approximation of a smile] Look these are valid concerns, and I thank you for bringing them to the table. I think you can appreciate that George and I have a heck of an undertaking in front of us. Massive. How long does it reach to achieve all of our outcomes? Satisfy all of our stakeholders? Trim the fat off the bone? How long is a piece of string Alex? [SW gestures magnanimously around the room]. Believe me on this colleagues, George and I are working on a full suite of real-world solutions for these very complex problems, and these will be communicated to you all in the fullness of time NEXT QUESTION

[the audience is mumbling, audibly concerned about this turn of events. George remains impassive, his eyes glued to the back of the room. SW has cemented the smile to her face]

SW: I think we have time for one more question?

Sandra: I hardly think this is the appropriate venue for this? Where is the consultation?

SW: That’s some great feedback. Really great. George and I are really going to take that on board. I want to thank you for your contribution Sandra. Unfortunately we have run out of time. We can’t reasonably expect to take up any more of George’s time, the restructure is keeping him very busy as I am sure you can all appreciate! As we move beyond the design phase of the restructure, beyond the communication phase, and into the implementation phase of the restructure then I am sure George will have some time to breathe again! But until that happens it will be all hands on deck!

[the room is quiet. A man in the back row is crying silently]

SW: This has been a great meeting. Really great. I feel like we really broke down some barriers here. And believe me team, I can say in all sincerity that George and I are looking forward to a productive and fiscally responsible future with some of you.

[in a sweeping motion SW leads George from the room. Both exit]

[the room is quiet. A woman scrolls through Seek on her mobile phone]

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Father’s Day

Skull by coda, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License   by  coda 

Sunday, the 6th of September 2015 was Father’s Day in Australia.

Saturday, the 25th of October 2014 was the day my 61 year old Dad passed away from liver cancer.

You do the math.

I had anticipated that a lot of days following Dad’s death would be painful. Christmas was one of these. Not that my Dad enjoyed Christmas, he despised it openly and vocally to anyone who visited our house at that time of year. He would sit in his usual corner of the living room (every Dad has their own I suppose) ranting ineffectually about the money wasted, and the crowds, and the spoiled children. Meanwhile my Mum was hoarding presents in the linen cupboard and the top shelves of wardrobes, in preparation for the big reveal. The pain of Christmas day that year was less about his contribution than his absence. He wasn’t there to complain.

To be honest I can’t remember how we spent his birthday in early January. My guess there would have been a lot of forced jocularity between my brother and I, in an effort to keep Mum’s head above water. She is barely buoyant at the best of times, but on this occasion I was worried she would disappear altogether.

At least I anticipated that though. A milestone people ‘warned’ me about. “It will be hard” they said, and in response I gritted my teeth and thought “it can’t be any harder than what has preceded it”. Marking the first of his birthday’s after his passing would in no way be more difficult than witnessing the way cancer ravaged his body and stole from him his ‘grey nomad‘ dreams. Following his diagnosis and his rapidly failing health our small family, my Mum, my brother, my Dad and I, closed ranks, drew closer, while in the shadows, in the alone time, we fell apart.

While his birthday was fucking hard, in no way was it harder than experiencing that.

After my Dad died, I took a week off work. The “work” I reference is of course paid employment. I was lucky that I both had access to paid leave, and a job I could return to. However this was not time “off”. I would rather attend a thousand lunch time meetings than organise my father’s funeral. Discuss payment plans with a funeral director. Sit in a house full of stuff which has become unmoored. Existing in a weird in between place of not being ours but not exactly being his either. Sorting through belongings and wills. This of course does not fall under the banner of work. However it was expected and it was needed and it couldn’t be outsourced and so it was done. I had known this moment was coming ever since I learned of Dad’s diagnosis, and when it came it was every bit as horrendous as I imagined it would be.

No one thinks planning their father’s funeral is going to be easy.

My daughter started school this year. There have been hat parades and book parades and endless events at which grandparents are always fucking invited. Please come to grandparents day! said the push notification from the school’s app (which as an aside seems to be programmed to remind me that I am a shitty Mum at the most inopportune moments). Some of these moments pass by with a whisper, some with a wail, but each of them I see coming. I prepare myself. I give my very best ‘stiff upper lip’ and by god they won’t see me cry.

Which is why I was surprised at the intensity of my grief at Father’s day.

I got a sneak preview. I had come home from work and I was flicking mindlessly through a pile of catalogues. They were thematically linked but my tired brain didn’t automatically put together the pieces. There were boxer shorts and cheap, embossed tool sets. T-shirts emblazoned with ‘World’s coolest Dad!’ and car washing kits. I flicked and I paused and I flicked and I paused and two thoughts passed through my mind in quick succession: 1. Shit, not again. What are you going to get Dad for Fath.. 2. Oh.

Oh.

Perversely I even felt a sense of relief. Dad was difficult to buy for, and made a big deal out of not wanting anything to the point that giving him gifts was an awkward exercise all around. On the father’s day before he died my Dad was on a week long trip that my brother and I paid for in order to give just a small (far too small) taste of the retirement travel he had spent his entire adult life planning for. So he got no tacky “gift” last year either. In the years directly preceding his diagnosis we would take him out for Indian food, and strangely he would insist on having my brother and I order. My daughter, then a toddler would spill rice all over the ground and inevitably get butter chicken all over her “good” clothes. My brother and I would compete to see who could make Dad laugh the most. While he was a morose man he loved to laugh. His favourite saying was “Life’s shit and then you die” which sounds horrendous, but made sense in the context of a man who went through some extraordinarily shitty things in his short life.

With a lapful of catalogues full of laughing male models and their placid wives and their giggling children I sobbed. I sobbed in a way I had managed to avoid for some time.

When Dad died my grief was all enveloping. It wasn’t just an emotion, it was a physiological experience. I was wracked with full body sobs. I would talk to my daughter about whatever it was that was happening at that time (which I can honestly say I don’t remember) but it was a very clear feeling of surviving, white knuckling through every single moment of every single day. I didn’t register her presence, I just did enough to get through the interaction so I could get back to the full time occupation of existing. Even though I spent most of the early days preceding and following the death of my Dad in a state of tight lipped obstinance, inside I felt as raw and bloody as an open wound. Vulnerable, exposed, and ultimately ashamed of my very human-ness. A yawning chasm of pain.

I appear to have now passed my socially sanctioned “grieving time”. My Dad doesn’t come up in conversation, and unless asked I won’t bring him up. A few days after returning to work a few cards appeared on my desk, signed by colleagues I barely knew, with all of the appropriate platitudes. I was told by a well meaning manager to “take all the time [you] need”, however this offer wasn’t followed up with any kind of concrete support (who would do my work in my absence?) and the matter was never raised again. Now friends don’t ask and I don’t offer. When my Mum brings him up in conversation I will contribute, reminisce, but at the same time my jaw is set. This isn’t the day my resolve will fade. This isn’t the day I will bleed my pain over everyone, not when they need me. At least this is what I tell myself. Perhaps the pain is too much to feel so I avoid it all costs. The grief is too messy. It bleeds into my professional demeanour, into my closely guarded private life. Perhaps it is a wound I salve with work, and business, and the emotional labour of motherhood. Perhaps I don’t sit still long enough to come to that conclusion.

Over time the pain has mostly dulled. The taste of blood has left my mouth, the scab has fallen off. I am aware of my grief now as more of a background emotion. It is a brittle bone, flesh dissolved by hungry ants and bleached white by the unforgiving sun. It exists, but fades into the background, disappearing into the sand. However as bones age they splinter, and the sharp edges cause me to bleed when I don’t want to, or least expect it. I am beginning to learn that I can’t avoid my grief because the shards are embedded in me.

Father’s day came and went, as do all days. To mark the occasion my family and I visited a horrendous “all-you can-eat” buffet which my Nan insisted we go to, despite it being entirely unsuitable and completely lacking on food suitable for vegetarians. We raised a toast to the Dad’s not with us (my Dad and my Pa) and we talked about other things. My daughter ate far too much toosghetti and I drank far too much wine. The day was entirely unremarkable, yet entirely out of the ordinary because my Dad wasn’t there, and wasn’t ever going to be there again.

My daughter won’t know him. She won’t buy him a gift from the school’s father’s day stall. She won’t make him a card which sheds glitter all over the house, giving him something to complain about. We won’t share another Indian meal. He won’t laugh at something my brother says. He won’t call me girl. He won’t call my brother boy. No one else calls us that.

The bone stands in stark contrast to the blue horizon. It could easily go unnoticed, half buried as it is in the white sand. However, take the time to look and you just might see it.

I’m trying my best not to.

Employment (In)security and Shame: Working Hard on Soft Money

For those of you who are familiar with my blog, you would know that I am a long term casual academic, who last year was able to gain fractional employment within the tertiary sector under a short term contract as a professional member of staff. I am very fortunate in that this opportunity has afforded me a modicum of security and financial stability. This set of circumstances occurred at both a good and bad time for me. Last year my Dad became ill with liver cancer and died, while earlier this year my husband had to go undergo spinal surgery and is unable to work full-time while he is in recovery. In my writing I have acknowledged both my extreme privilege in being able to access paid leave concessions during these stressful experiences, while also acknowledging that the precariousness of my working situation has meant that I have never quite felt comfortable enough in my position to take full advantage of them. I am employed year-to-year and it just so happened that I was in the position of having to apply for my own position just a short time after having buried my Dad.

Needless to say, 2014 wasn’t the best year for me.

However due to my hard work, and the successes of my project, I am now acknowledged on my institution’s public webpages as a member of staff. From the outside it may appear that I may have even made it. I am liked and respected, perhaps even valued by my colleagues and peers. However the nature of my employment has meant that I have never felt like I was properly a part of the institution. Still no tinsel for me.

And soon I may not be. I very recently learned that the grant body which funds my position may be withdrawing their support for my project into 2016. Not because of any wrongdoing on my part. Not because of any dissatisfaction from the student participants of the project I am a part of, if anything the opposite is true. Not because of anyone’s individual cruelty, this is the system and the system works in its own obtuse way. Not because of budgetary mishandling or political maneouvreing or any kind of strategic misstep on my part, but simply because the priorities of this group has shifted onto other projects. This is simply the nature of soft funding, one minute you have it and the next you don’t. Now this decision isn’t fait accompli. I was tasked with writing an “impact statement” which would outline the risks to the university if funding was not to continue from this source. I wrote one, a damn good one, which made salient points about the welfare of the students and the need we were addressing. Later in the year I will learn of the outcome of this appeal. Until then I continue to work under the BAU model, making plans for the future and operating under the tenuous assumption that everything will be just fine.

I am in limbo. My position is funded up until 31 December 2015, but after that there is no certainty. If and when funding is secured (either from this original source, or internally sourced) then my job will still not likely be secure as, like last year, I will be put into the position of writing my own position description, and again applying for my own job. Sound familiar?

This is entirely circumstancial, and none of these events are a reflection of my skills, abilities, or dedication to the role that I have. I know this intellectually. I understand that a staggering 8 out of 10 workers employed within higher education in Australia are employed under either casual or short term contracts contracts (boy do I know). Lots of people know about it. The NTEU know about it. Actual Casuals know about. There has been an academic conference dedicated to these issues. I am not unlike so many of my friends and colleagues in the sector, insecure, overworked, and possibly soon even unemployed.

Then why do I feel so fucking ashamed?

Today I was on my phone at work, speaking to a friend on the phone about a conference submission we were working on. She asked me how I was and naturally, this was at the forefront of my mind. I hesitated in telling her, not because I thought she would judge me (quite the opposite in fact) but because I work in an open plan office and didn’t want the people I work with to know my secret. Because they might judge me. Because they might blame me. Because they might think I brought this upon myself with incompetence, or laziness, or stupidity.

I told my friend anyway, playing it off like it wasn’t a big deal, but I could feel my face burning. My dirty secret was out, a secret not mine to keep, a secret not a secret at all.

It has always been important to me that people know how hard I work, how dedicated I am to what I do. I am often the first to arrive in the office and among the last to leave. Now we are in the middle of Australia’s winter I frequently walk to my car in the dark, using my phone’s flashlight function to illuminate the way. I try I try I try so. fucking. hard.

Perhaps the root of my shame: I am a decidedly “working class” girl. My Dad was a hard-working electrician, my Mum “stayed at home”. We lived in a fibro house in what is classified as a Low SES area – my living situation had its own statistical category. We had a nice house and I am proud of how hard my Dad worked to provide for us, but we certainly were not “well off”. I was also the first in my family to attend university. My family was all incredibly proud of me for attending university, even if they didn’t always understand what I did there (my major was Communications, my Nan would tell people I studied primary school teaching, or psychology, or English literature, as the mood struck her). I had their full support to do the thing, even when the benefits of the thing became muddied. Even after I dropped out of my PhD there was still a certain amount of prestige for them associated with me being a “tutor” (now known as casual academic, a term which conveys prestige that tutor never did). But by withdrawing from the PhD, and never extending beyond the role of the casual academic, I feel like I failed my hardworking and principled family. Conversely I also failed the institution by never quite being good enough for them, ultimately failing to get the PhD that meant so much to me. By never properly escaping from the trap of casual academia all I proved (to myself, if no one else) was that I didn’t work hard enough. My academic successes were shared by my family and my institution, my failures were mine alone. Over time I came to reframe my misguided dedication to academia as a noble pursuit, a higher calling, to mask the shame I felt as having failed within a system in which there is little-to-no chance to succeed in the first place.

However a decade later my insistence in remaining loyal to the sector has paid off, in a fashion. I have secured work I enjoy. I am good at it. I am starting to build a profile. And now the chance exists that the rug will be pulled out from under me.

Richard Kuttner (cited in Bertram) notes that the ‘new’ economy has destabilised the central premise of the ‘old work economy’, that being that a worker’s commitment and loyal service to her employer would be rewarded over time with security and advancement opportunities. However, as Eva Bertram argues, with downsizing and deindustrialisation within the new economy, employment now comes with little to no security. As has long been discussed in regards to the increased casualisation and precarity of employment within the tertiary sector in particular, employee loyalty and commitment are a decidedly irrational decision. There is no security in higher education in Australia. While regular employment “provides the anchor for spatial and temporal aspects of daily life” (Wilson in Bertram) Bertram notes that:

Today however, incoherence and unpredictability are not only a hallmark of unemployment, but also are the characteristics of many jobs

Work in the tertiary sector in Australia is indeed both incoherent and unpredictable. It makes no sense for casual and limited term contract employees to be loyal to the tertiary institutions they work for. I know from my own experience that my loyalty, commitment, and dedication are unlikely to be acknowledged, let alone rewarded, in this current climate. Yet I was a casual academic for over a decade. I know of higher education workers who have worked for even longer on back-to-back limited-term contracts, only to find out at the eleventh hour after all of those years of service, that they didn’t have a job to return to after Christmas. I know of an exceptional academic who worked as a subject coordinator in one session, only to be scrambling for work the next. These stories aren’t the exception in higher education in Australia, they are the rule.

I knew all of those things. I know them intimately. I blog about them for goodness sake. And yet still I try. Still I commit. Still I return to my car in the dark. Still I miss the soccer practice and the school pick ups. Still I irrationally hope that my hard work will be rewarded with security, opportunities for advancement, recognition of my contribution.

As well as being ashamed, I think I am also angry. Over the twelve months I have sacrificed time I could have spent with my daughter, who this year entered kindergarten. I sacrificed time I could have used to look after myself both physically and emotionally following the illness and death of my Dad. My working class background, coupled with my long term history of precarious employment has left me feeling ashamed and guilty. I am angry at my own perceived childishness for investing in the seemingly naïve notion that hard work is always recognised and rewarded in due course. I am angry at myself. I am angry at being in this position yet again.

I know this problem is much bigger than me, my friends and colleagues, my Twitter allies. These are issues that need to be addressed at the systemic level. I don’t have answers, only a drive to see positive change in the sector that I am a part of, however tenuously. Join the #securework Tweetup on Friday and share your stories. I know I will.

Part 5: The quiet room

In order to get some respite from the hordes of family who have taken over my house, I decide to “look after Ms 5” by which I mean lie on the bed like a petulant teenager and scroll through Twitter. Around 4 I get the call from my husband’s surgeon. His surgery had taken longer than expected (6.5 hours compared to 4) but he was well, and would be transfered to the ward in 15 minutes.

Knowing that time is a malleable concept in the hospital system I choked down a “salad sandwich” comprised of crunchy tomato, limp lettuce, and stale bread. My baser needs satisfied I was off!

Parking didn’t prove much easier the second (third?) time around, but I managed to find a park which while not being in the direct vicinity of the hospital, was at least in the same postcode. While walking I received another phone call, this time from a nurse on the ward, the same one who had written down my number before: my husband was on his way to the ward, now was the time to visit!

After the day’s earlier calamities my spirits were buoyed. I was finally going to see him and know for myself if he was ok.

Through the hospital’s entrance I walked, down the hall, then up the lift to level 4.

When I arrived I was told that my husband had not yet begun the journey from the theatre to the ward, so I was directed to sit and wait in the “quiet room”.

While the waiting room from earlier in the day had been grey, the quiet room had beige as its defining motif. The carpet was beige, the walls a different shade of beige, and the furniture was the most delightful shade of brown melamine. There was a side table that I recognised as being from The Reject Shop. I admit I know this because I have this same ‘piece’ in my house.

This was a dreary room. A depressing room. A room for receiving bad news in. A room for making unfortunate phone calls in. A room for being quiet.

The guy perched awkwardly on the end of the lounge we were sharing had a different interpretation of the term “quiet” than I did. He was watching a YouTube video on his phone of an interview with the boxer Mohammad Ali. At full volume.

The quiet room was not devoid of decoration. There were 4 ‘prints’ which looked remarkably like wrapping paper presented in cheap metal certificate frames. There were also some aging wilting flowers which had been cast aside by patients past. Lastly, one wall of the quiet room was dominated by a pair of brown curtains. I pulled the curtains aside to reveal:

IMG_20150223_172508what appeared to be an xray screen. The curtain was an affectation, an attempt at homeliness in a beige and sanitised space. The quiet room used to be a consultation room.

Fifteen minutes turned into thirty turned into forty five. My phone’s battery died, leaving me with the windowless curtains to ponder. My fellow quiet room patron started to watch another video. I couldn’t tell you what or who he was watching, just that they fancied themselves a comedian and bandied about the “n word” a lot. It cut through the silence like nails on a chalkboard. The tension was palpable, or maybe it was just me.

Then lo! A wild nurse appeared. 30 minutes he tells me, not long at all! I might have believed it an hour ago, but now i’m not so sure.

The die is cast. I sit in the not-so-quiet quiet room and I continue to wait.

Part 4: A fuck up of biblical proportions

You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

It appears someone has installed a revolving door in my house. Social conventions have gone out the window as well-meaning family members let themselves in and out without knocking, without so much as calling out. I am resentful at their intrusion on my space, then feel shitty at myself for feeling resentful. They are helping! Stop being an ungrateful bitch! I can hear them now, taking up all of the chairs in the living room, making awkward small talk.

3 pm comes and I drive to the hospital. Cars are circling like sharks around prey. I get lucky and find a spot to park in, albeit one on the dark side of the moon. It is only for two hours but that should be fine… it should be fine..

I drag myself up the hill. The clothes that were suitable at 6 in the morning are now far too hot and heavy. I am sweating and anxious and feel sick. It doesn’t help that I haven’t eaten since this morning, but surely that mascarpone should tide me over? I enter the hospital entrance and walk with conviction, walk with purpose, whereas really I am just walking the way that the architecture ostensibly leads me to go.

I get to lifts and give up my one-woman mission. I ask a young guy who could be an intern or a specialist, I can never tell. Without taking his eyes off his phone he directs me to level 4. The lift carries me up.

I get out and walk until I find a desk. Visiting hours have just started but there appear to be people everywhere. Am I late? Could I have already got here? A nurse asks who I am looking for. I say my husband’s name and the woman repeats it as if she has never heard of such a person. Hell she probably hasn’t. He is my husband and I need to know if he is okay.

The woman is on the phone. She talks to numerous people in order to ascertain that my husband is still in theatre. All bustle and business she reports to me that he will be at least another two hours, if not more. I ask if something has gone wrong, if I should be concerned. She answers as if by rote that she doesn’t know, but that it is likely he was bumped back for another surgery, perhaps an emergency came in overnight, perhaps perhaps perhaps. I am welcome to wait but they will ring next of kin, explaining it to me as if I am a small child. “that’s me!” I exclaim “I am his wife!”. She takes down my number on a slip of paper I am convinced will never been seen again before asking me to repeat my husband’s name. She writes my name besides his, joined with an arrow. My connection to my husband reduced to a road marker.

I want to scream his name. I want everyone in this ward to know his name! I know it, it is burnt into my skin. I am trying not to cry, I am angry and upset. This is a fuck up of biblical propoertions and yet a completely ordinary misunderstanding. I should have called first. I should have eaten lunch. I want them to know my husband’s name. I don’t express any of this. Instead I say “… oh okay thanks”. I turn on my heels and take the lift downstairs. Then begins my long walk back to the car.

Part 3: A parental call to arms

You can read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.

I hit publish on this when the phone rings. Not my mobile, which I expect to ring, but the home phone which we only keep connected because parents and in-laws tend to be averse to using their mobiles. My heart is in my throat as I have no idea who would be calling that number and why. I hurry to answer it.

After pleasantries are exchanged I am asked if I am Mum to Ms 5. I answer in the affirmative. “She just vomited” the voice on the phone tells me. “I will come and get her right away” I answer.

A parental call to arms. Regardless of the other dramas that might be happening, and my overwhelming compulsion to sit around feeling sorry for myself, I race to Ms 5’s school.

I park illegally and half-walk/half-run into the office. A kindly office lady brings my baby out. She is pale and shaking, vomit splatters the front of her school tunic. “There was red in her vomit, did she drink red cordial?” she asks kindly. “At a party yesterday, yes, red cordial” I reply, hoping that it is in fact red cordial and not a sign of something more sinister. She did attend a party yesterday, against better judgment she drank red cordial. But what if? I shut that thought down quickly. That is not an option.

I bundle her home. Bubble bath is run, toast is made and promptly goes cold. A fever has gripped my baby, we argue about medicine which she stubbornly refuses to take. She is now in bed, on my husband’s side, watching a movie on our TV. I am jumpy, every movement sounds like the beginnings of a vomit. I hear my phone making phantom noises. What if someone needs to contact me? What if what if what if

Plans are rearranged. No ballet for Ms 5 this afternoon, likely no school tomorrow either. Work commitments flicker on the edge of my consciousness. Lists and lists and lists of tasks to do. Time critical tasks. A husband in surgery who needs me. A child in bed who needs me.

I want to not be needed for five minutes. That doesn’t change the fact that I am.

I feel sick I feel sick I feel sick.

It isn’t even 2 pm.

Part 2: “I’ll have the special”

I went from the hospital waiting room after saying my goodbyes, to the beach. Well, not directly to the beach as I had to navigate the labyrinthine car park in order to even leave the premises. The parking machine didn’t take credit cards, I somehow took three wrong turns in the car park itself and for a while found myself unable to leave. Trying not to cry, trying not to become overwhelmed, failing on both counts.

Eventually I escaped and found myself at the beach. I left the hospital and went to the beach without even really knowing why. I drove there because it is a scenic place to be, and I know how to get there, and the parking is easy at that time of the morning. Mind you, I don’t have to justify that decision to anyone as there is no one to justify it to, but here we are.

A man is sitting in the gutter, covered in blood. A police car is next to him, with its lights flashing. His bike lays mangled up on the grass. I don’t know what happened. He is alive I guess, as am I. Traffic slows to take in this spectacle. I avert my eyes and park my car.

I sit myself in a cafe after being directed by wait staff to sit anywhere I like. I wait 20 minutes and realise no one is coming. I don’t have the mental energy to flag down a waitress so I sit somewhere more public. When asked what I want I order my usual coffee (you know the one) and “the special”. I order it because reading the menu is confusing, plus the special has mascarpone which a) sounds delicious and b) i have never had. Now seems like as good a time as any to try mascarpone. I am not entirely sure what it is but if pressed I would say it was a kind of cheese.

When the food comes I take a photo of it and post it to instagram with the caption “heaven”. I have no idea why I do this as heaven is a place that some people think dead people go to. I don’t. The food isn’t heavenly. The pancakes are slightly burnt and weigh heavily on me. I cram it into my mouth in that half distracted way that you do in order to satisfy yourself, in an attempt to not feel feelings. Despite the pancakes being burnt and sickly, when the waitress returns I tell her “it’s lovely, thanks”. What else can I possibly say?

On autopilot I drive home. My daughter is at school so I am bouncing about the house. I write a blog post. My sister-in-law (who I appreciate more than I can ever express) drives out to my house and sits with me. I spew stream of consciousness things at her about my worries and fears, work, the recent death of my Father, clothes we both like. She brings me coffee and listens and offers no solutions because sometimes there are none to offer. She leaves as she needs to and should, full of unnecessary apologies. I am now alone.

I am agitated. My hands are shaking. People are sending me supportive messages on Facebook and Twitter and I reply with smiling face emoticons. There is no “agitated, hands shaking emoticon”. I am running on adrenaline and caffeine.

My husband was admitted at 6:30am. It is now 12pm. I will see him in 3 hours.

For now I will wait.

Part 1: You’re waking up with Sunrise!

The artificial light in the waiting room cast a sickly grey pallor over everything. A small TV overlooked the space, the noises cutting through the otherwise silent room. An obnoxiously cheerful blonde woman dominated the screen, rabbiting on about whatever it is people on such shows rabbit on about. Mr TSC and I eyed each other warily and exchanged those tight-lipped smiles that people do in emotionally fraught situations. “You’ll be fine lover” I told him, trying my hardest not to let my eyes well up. I chastised myself internally “For fuck sake woman hold it together”.

Two women appeared out of nowhere. One in administrative garb and one in surgical scrubs. The lady in the office clothes sat next to me and started speaking far too quickly for the time of day it was. “4c you can come up to 4c between 3 and 8 are the visiting hours 4c” is what it sounded like she said. “You mean she can’t stay, she has to go?” said my husband. “You’re waking up with Sunrise!” said the cheery woman on the TV.

I had bags of books and pens and water bottles, prepared for a day of waiting. Apparently none of this was necessary as I was being given my cue to exit. The woman in scrubs looked on sympathetically. The administrative woman with the staccato voice disappeared. “Take your time” said scrubs woman, in a way that suggested that we should say our goodbyes quickly.

I held my husband and kissed him on the cheek. I couldn’t kiss him properly as I have a cold that won’t go away and I don’t want him to get sick. I have lived in fear of it, knowing this day was coming. We exchanged goodbyes multiple times, not wanting to let go, not thinking this was going to be it. I understand that logically these people perform surgeries every day, that my husband is one of the many people who come in and out of these rooms. But I don’t love all of them. They aren’t all the father of my big-headed baby. I love this one. My heart is sick with worry.

My husband is having surgery on his sciatic nerve as I write this. I am going back at 3pm to see him. I need him to be okay. Please let him be okay.

COLAs and DECRAs: a comparison of kindergarten and higher education

In February of this year my 5-year-old daughter started kindergarten. Starting school is one of those thoroughly ordinary and expected events in your child’s life that still manages to knock you sideways when it happens, not because of what it is but of what it represents. My child is independent, my child is brave, my child is smart, my child is growing up.

But this is not her story, this is mine.

On her first day of kindergarten Ms 5, Mr TSC, and the other kindergartener parents and their kids met at the school for a briefing. We all congregated under an outdoor shelter while teachers chastised us into silence, but then spoke far too quietly for most of us to hear. The gist of it was that our children were to enter into a new routine, that the expectations for them were to change. Likewise there was the acknowledgement that our roles as parents had shifted as well, but that we should rest assured that our children were to be supported and well cared for.

At least that’s what I think was being said. There were far too many parents and I was way up the back.

Then the expected routine was outlined. We were to drop our kids off at the COLA if we arrived before 8:30. If we arrived after 8:30 we were to take them directly to the classroom. Bags went here, umbrellas somewhere else. If x scenario was to happen then y was to be contacted. Information was spewed at us by a kindly, but harried (and again, softly spoken) assistant principal. We were told of SRCs and P and Cs. NAPLAN tests and Crunch and Sip. And I thought to myself WHAT THE HELL ARE THESE PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT?

I would steal surreptitious glances at my fellow parents, hoping beyond hope that I wasn’t the only one lost, awash in a sea of acronyms and jargon. Being someone who prepares for every possible scenario, I had been arrogant enough to assume that when it comes to kindy I would have it in the proverbial school bag. Boy was I wrong.

Later I was talking with my husband about the proposed drop off routine. “What the hell is a COLA?” I asked. He replied (as if this as the most obvious thing in the world) “a Covered Outdoor Learning Area”. My husband in his long-term association with the building industry had been tasked with building many of them under the Australian government’s Building the Education Revolution school’s stimulus scheme. Revenue offered to government schools as a part of this scheme was often used to build, amongst other things, large concreted spaces with rooves. On the plans he would see this acronym and came to learn what it meant. Later I struck up a conversation with another Mum while waiting for Ms 5 to come out of school. I confessed in that conspiratorial way that parents are wont to do “I didn’t even know what a COLA was until yesterday”. She turned to me and exclaimed “oh thank god, I thought it was just me!”.

Jargon can be defined as “unnecessarily technical language which provides polysyllabic replacements for perfectly adequate simple words“. Acronyms are a form of jargon, obscuring simple concepts behind codified letters, which then become part of a new language which make sense according to their own internal logic. I am not saying the abbreviations and language that was used on that first day of kindy don’t make perfectly rational and logical sense to the people who work in primary schools, or that they aren’t useful as signifiers, just that they didn’t make any bloody sense to me. The end result was that I felt like an idiot. and in order to hide my apparent idiocy I kept my ignorance to myself.

Anyone who has worked in higher education would agree with me when I say that it has its own internal language which you need to learn. Much like my daughter’s primary school, tertiary institutions create and adhere to language and logic of their own. Some acronyms are relevant to higher education providers across Australia (SSAF, DECRA). Others are more institutionally specific (TELT anyone? How about SMAH? Should I ask TEL or ITS?)

If you are a staff member at a tertiary institution, deeply embedded in the discourse of higher education, think back to being a student starting out in this space. Sure many of these acronyms are useful, and jargons can make sense, but their use is exclusionary. As a new student I remember being faced with acronyms for everything from staff members, to faculties, to support services. In orientation these were thrown about with such abandon that you would be forgiven for thinking that this language must be the norm and that you are an idiot for not knowing. I internalised that, as many students do, but used it as incentive to learn and become a part of the institution. I fear that not everyone has that resolve, and students who face extra challenges in accessing higher education don’t really need additional barriers put in their way. If higher education is already challenging for you then feeling like you don’t know your LD’s from your LLS can be a real pain in the A.

Similar problems exist for staff working in higher education. Mysterious internal workings are obscured in outdated websites and policy documents nobody reads. The person you talk to for annual leave is different to the person who arranges maternity leave, they both work in departments which are acronymed but you’re not sure what it is as the website hasn’t been updated and neither work after 3 anyway. The person who supports the phone is different to the department that supports your computers, and who the hell do I ring when video conference isn’t working? This environment fosters a great deal of self-sufficiency in higher education staff, and breeds a particular resilience in casual staff who often can’t, or don’t know how to access these support services and administrative staff at all. But it also divides the staff between those who know (or know someone who know) and those who flounder their way through the murky internal systems unique to their institution, taking six months to find out information that could have taken them five minutes had they have known the appropriate acronym to input into Google.

This critique isn’t unique to the tertiary sector, or any of the institutions where I have worked. This sector just happens to be the one I know best. But that day at my daughter’s school it hit me: it has taken me over a decade but I now have a passable understanding of the langauge and internal of higher education. For a long time the language and internal workings were foreign to me, and functioned to make me feel like an outsider, even after working as a casual (sorry ‘sessional academic’) for so long. I was familiar with the practices of higher education sure, and was more than comfortable with teaching and research, but I didn’t know the language. I could visit higher education, but it wasn’t my place.

Next time you refer a colleague to ITS, or a student to “the hub”; think about what you are asking them do, and what assumptions you are making. Not everyone knows to stand under the COLA until 8:30. Extend your institutional knowledge to your colleagues and students. Orientate your staff (particularly your casual staff, especially your casual staff) in the support networks and departments they should be aware of. When creating new departments and programs and roles, think about ensuring the transparency of the role, and the accessibility of the services to the people who need it most. A link on a website or a byline in an email isn’t enough: people need to know what it means. I extend that kindness to staff and students I know because know what it is to be the foreigner confused by the language of the locals. It makes you feel like an idiot, and worse, it makes you feel like an outsider.

Meet me under the COLA at 2:30 and I will tell you all about it.

Out of the Frying Pan and into the Toaster: the casual who coveted the fractional appointment

Anyone who has followed my blog would probably be aware that it has been a hell of a year. Among other things, I have gone from being a long-term sessional academic, to a professional staff member employed on a coveted fractional appointment. I am privileged enough to be able to continue to work within the sector I have spent so much of my time involved with and dedicated to. I have invested a lot into this sector and enjoy the challenges it presents.

In the past year I have established a profile for myself within this space. I have been the lead investigator on two successful grant applications for 2015. I work bloody hard, and invest much of my emotional and physical energy into making sure that my work is done efficiently, transparently, and to the highest possible standard.

Be that as it may, my contract is ending on the 31st of December. My position is going to be advertised, and I am going to apply for it. This isn’t a reflection on my capabilities, and was not the decision of anyone ‘up the chain’ from me to. Rather it is an interpretation of a clause within the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement that when my current funding ends, it is expected that my job will be advertised internally to my institution. Regardless of my performance, and ongoing responsibilities. My one comfort is that this situation is not unique to me, and affects many of my colleagues, as well as many across the sector.

To adopt the parlance of our time I am more than aware of my own privilege. I have had access to sick days, and family leave when my daughter has been unwell. I was able to reduce my hours in order to deal with the illness and subsequent death of my Dad. I have access to a computer in an open-plan office, and get a lot of satisfaction and meaning from my job. But much of my time recently has been absorbed not only with processing the death of my Dad, a husband who is unable to work due to a back injury, and a 5-year-old daughter who selfishly insists on eating every bloody night, on top of that I have been running the bureaucratic gamut of trying to ensure all of my ducks are in a row for my impending job application.

Most frustratingly, my job has yet to be advertised, and with the end date of my contract looming, it is appearing more and more unlikely that my new contract (were I successful in my application for the job I currently do) would be in place before the end of the year. There are a few side effects of this (other than sheer inconvenience) that I will outline:

  • As my position is only being advertised internally, I will need to be on a current contract in order to apply. If the appropriate measures are not put in place before end of year, the possibility exists that I would become ineligible to apply for my own job. The job that my colleague and I wrote successful grant application for. For the project that with our combined efforts we made a success.
  • If my contract was to end without me having secured ongoing employment, I will need to remove all of the files from my computer, in order to format it and return it to the Information Technology people. Likewise I will need to return swipe cards, and empty out the space in which I have been working. Effectively I would need to erase any evidence of my existence, only to bring it all back in again if and when my contract was reinstated.
  • I will lose any accrued leave entitlements (sick leave, long service leave), as any contracts you have need to run back-to-back in order for these to carry forward into the next year or period.
  • The project I am working on currently, into which I have invested so much emotional energy, would be in jeopardy without someone to continue the work or preparing for project activities ongoing.
  • In my unique circumstance I am afraid to reduce my hours or take too much advantage of the flexibility afforded to me following the death of my Dad, because a part of me worries that it will reflect badly on my work ethic and impact my chances of getting my job again next year.

People ‘in the know’ have advised me to pursue an extension on my contract, which would allow me to continue working, while the lumbering cogs of bureaucracy tumble into place. This will address some of the above issues (such as being ineligible to apply for my own position) however this only delays the stress, and doesn’t negate it entirely. An extension on my contract offers no guarantees as to my employment status ongoing, it only buys the institution time to fulfil their obligations while allowing my important work to continue. It is a band-aid, it isn’t a cure.

As I have stated before, I don’t think these decisions have come about as the result of any one individual’s cruelty or poor judgment. Rather I think they are the result of business decisions, decisions which take into account bottom lines and balancing cost centres, and not valuing the knowledge and experience of the staff you already have. Their personal circumstance. The emotional and psychological impact of precarious working conditions. Higher Education is a business, and while business has been better (the push for deregulation has suffered a setback);  it is still a money-making enterprise.

I was asked by someone, in a completely innocuous fashion, why my contracts should run consecutively. Why, it was posited to me, couldn’t I in fact start back again in Autumn session? There was no malice in this question, and my understanding was that it was in response to a ‘business case‘ type scenario. The appropriate boxes needed to be ticked, the right questions answered with the right key words, and HR would gloss smoothly over my position before examining the next. However the fact that question was even asked was honestly a shock to me. The scenario offered was that at some Australian institutions (thankfully not mine) the regular practice is to end contracts on the 15th of December, and not start then up again till mid way into the next month. The justification being that across a whole university, the savings are immense. No paid concessional days. No carry over of leave entitlements. This was explained to me in a matter-of-fact way that perversely makes sense in a literal ‘money comes in, money goes out’ way, but all I can see is the human cost. The emotional cost. The angry, disillusioned, and frankly tired staff who have spent the year working hard and achieving objectives and managing budgets, all to have to jump through the bureaucratic hoops of the employment process (complete with rigorous selection criteria and three-people intensive interview panels), all in order to continue on with the work they were already doing. And they don’t even get a bloody paid day off for Christmas.

I was sitting in my open-plan office today, trying-not-to-but-not-quite-avoiding-to overhear the conversations of some of my colleagues in this same space. They were talking about the leave they were planning to take over the new year period to spend time with their kids. These same colleagues have been busy putting up displays of tinsel and decorations on their cubicle walls. Leaving their mark in this shared space. At the same time I am receiving weekly emails reminding me of the end of my contract, reminding me that my place in this sector is temporary, contingent upon me yet again jumping through the bureaucratic hoops and again proving my worthiness. There is every chance I will be continuing my job next year, mostly because I am damn good at it. But that isn’t 100%. I don’t dare pin my tinsel to the cubicle wall in case I need to again pack it away in a month’s time, put it in the boot of my car, and take it home.

I think about the plight of sessional academics working in higher education currently. It was only six months ago that I was the exploited casual. Then it happened, I got the contracted appointment I had wanted for so long, with all of its associated perks and entitlements. I was and remain grateful for that opportunity. However now that the end of the year is fast approaching I am feeling that familiar unease that I don’t know what the next year will bring. I am experiencing again the itch, the compulsion to go above and beyond, to prove time and time again that I am worthy of working in the sector, that my ideas are valuable, that I am valuable. However rather than the hot-oil immersion of casual labour (13 intense weeks of teaching followed by months of radio silence, or inconsistent research opportunities), I am experiencing the slow burn of the short-term contract employee. The closer it comes to the time of my contract expiring the more I am sweating it out, my anxiety rising, the assurance I took in my own competence not shielding me from the growing feelings of unease. I sit at my desk and write and email and make plans for the coming year, all the time thinking: “…but what if I don’t get my job back?”

Keep me in your thoughts, along with all of your professional and academic colleagues on short-term contracts. One of the people you share a cubicle wall with in the office, or see in line at the coffee shop, or share a joke with at the copier, might not be a successful applicant for their own job. They might not be successful in getting the grant money to fund their own position or might bugger up the interview process… they are probably feeling the heat right now and who knows; they might well be toast.