Stop the ride, I want to get off: on being trapped in the swings and roundabouts of casual employment

Today my 4 year old daughter is a little bit sick.  You learn to make these qualifications as a working parent: she is ‘really’ sick, or just ‘whingey’ sick, or ‘drop-everything-and-get-to-the-doctor’ sick. These categories tend to be more or less fluid depending on how much work you have to do, and how much stress you are under at the time. However today I made the assessment that she isn’t the ‘serious’ kind of sick, just very unhappy and out-of-sorts. It took some finagling, cajoling, and bargaining, but eventually I got her to agree to go to daycare, on the understanding we would go to Burger Queen on the way home.

Why did I do this? I had to go to work. HAD TO. Couldn’t not.

I had promised some people that I would go to some meetings and talk to some people and answer some phone calls and when I got to work I did indeed do these things. I did them at the expense of my daughter. At the moment I am balancing two casual positions, and I had things to do for both. And besides, if I didn’t go I wouldn’t get paid. I am not just a casual academic, I am a casual a lot-of-things. At the moment I have steady employment over the course of a two different positions, both within the academy, but neither academic in nature. Casualisation doesn’t just affect the academics within the university sector, but happens across the board, affecting general and administrative staff of these institutions as well. My adopted name of The Smart Casual is supposed to be an acknowledgement of my participation in casual employment across the university, not just within the academic sector.

And I am fucking sick to death of it.

I am sick of employment opportunities which are doled out in hours. I sign a contract for 100 hours of this lasting till June, 25 hours of that ending in December. I have to remember to claim the hours for this job before this date because the funding ran out at the end of the calendar year and doesn’t roll over. I have to remember to claim extra hours for that job because I covered someone else’s shift. It is practically a full-time position just managing my own time and resources, making sure the hours are claimed, the boxes are ticked, the work is completed, and I have enough irons in the fire to keep me going into the future when those hours inevitably run out and I cease to exist.  I expend so much energy selling my labour to the lowest bidder, desperately trying to satisfy the needs of the institution, that I have no time to actually sit and consider the ramifications of the decisions I am making. I am too busy to revolt, those emails won’t answer themselves you know.

Early last year I was involved in a car accident, which while spectacular was ultimately not serious. I was driving my daughter to daycare, ahead of a full day of teaching. It was raining heavily, and because of the time of day it was (around 8am) the roads were packed with commuters on their way to work. I turned left at an intersection, an intersection I had turned left at probably three times weekly for the previous year. However on this day the odds were not in my favour and I lost control of the car. Rather than turning left, my car turned right. Braking did nothing, and the car ended up lodged on the road’s central dividing embankment. Not even a minute after the car stopped moving, the traffic lights changed and my daughter and I, in my shitty magna, were facing head on into oncoming traffic, all of whom had to brake hard in order not to hit us head on.

My first instinct was to turn around to check on the status of Ms 4 (then Ms 3). Strapped into her car seat she smiled at me and said “is our car bwoken? Do we get to get a new car now mummy?” a statement which made me burst into tears. After some helpful bystanders managed to help me manoeuvre the car off the embankment, and into the breakdown lane I sat there panicking, running various ‘what-could-have-been’ scenarios through my mind. I rang my husband to rescue us and one thought kept running through my head. It somehow made itself known above the din of the worst-case-scenarios and screamed at me “you have to get to work”.

At the time this seemed like a completely rational reaction to have. I had a full day of teaching ahead of me. I had been up that night preparing the presentation and associated activities. I had committed to teaching these classes and I had to get there. I couldn’t let ‘them’ down. Who ‘they’ were or are I only had a vague understanding. Was it the students? While some would have been pissed off at perhaps having to travel in from a remote location for a compulsory tutorial, probably most wouldn’t have begrudged me the time off. The academic I was tutoring for?  I sincerely doubt it would have impacted his opinion of me in any way. The shadowy figure of the ‘institution’ made up of administration and decision makers and people-more-important-than-me? It wouldn’t have even registered because the thing is: I don’t get paid unless I am present. But it wasn’t even money really that drove me to campus that day. Sure I need the money, but that wasn’t it either.

The truth is this: My name is The Smart Casual and I am an academic junkie.

It was after reading Josh Boldt’s addicted to adjuncting confessional, that I decided to examine my own position within these terms. In it he writes:

The fact of the matter is tens of thousands of us fall on our swords every year. Just like any good addict, we are expert manipulators—except we are the victims of our own justifications.

“Got a class? Anybody got a class? Just need one class to get me through. You holding?”

But that one class only gets us back to normal. We’ll never get ahead, never have enough. The system is designed that way. You realize that, right? Living as a full-time adjunct really is a lot like living as a drug-addled tweaker

While I do not intend for this blog to be only a platform on which I lament my employment status as it has tended to be thus far, I do think it is an interesting exercise to critically examine the conditions that lead me to making the decisions I have made that have got me to the point I am in. I take on research positions, and IT positions, and project work in order to fund and facilitate my addiction to teaching. The precarity of casual teaching means that I take on these positions, to fill in the days, weeks, and months in between academic sessions.

I both over-inflate, and underestimate my importance to the university. On the day of the car accident I so badly didn’t want to let the students down, because to them I am the face of the university. They come to me about assignments, and to get written recommendations for the exchange program, and to help them make their student projects. This feeds my ego, I feel important, and needed, and valued. But to the broader institution I am expendable, there are plenty more like me, perhaps even willing to do more for less. There are always more PhD candidates who are willing to teach for McDonald’s wages, and if I was to withdraw from the casual academic register then my absence would likely not even warrant an email.

I am at the point know where people seek me out to work for them on projects. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t like this. People ask for me to help and I hear myself saying yes when I want to say no. But somehow it doesn’t occur to me, a woman who can use ‘pedagogy’ and ‘disavowal’ and ‘panopticon’ in sentences, and even sometimes have them make sense, that I have lost the use of the shortest but most empowering word there is. One contract ends and another is renewed and I keep going, with no obvious endpoint, and no point either. Maybe it’s time to kick the habit. I don’t know if I am ready to give it up.

At least it’s not smoking right?

The argument you can’t win because you have it with yourself: on combining parenting with casual academia

I returned to university tutoring when my daughter was around two years old. I had actually been “out of the game” so to speak for four years, due to a self-imposed exile wherein I took a cut in pay (in return for job security) and worked in the community sector. The academic and community sectors share a lot of similarities, which is probably what made the transition an easy one for me: both are poorly funded,  or funded in such a way that the money doesn’t always end up where it should. Both purport to assist disadvantaged people and hold themselves to lofty ideals, both more often than not, fall short. There may be a blog post brewing about my experiences working in the community sector, should you feel compelled to read it.

Ok, now we have that tl;dr out-of-the-way: my return to tutoring. I had not worked as a casual tutor (TA/academic dogs body) for four years. I can’t even remember if anything specifically prompted me to email a contact I had within the faculty, but my educated (haha) guess is that my motivation was largely mercenary. He was amenable to the idea on the proviso that I would receive an offer only after the current lot of PhD candidates had been exhausted. This was a bruise to my ego but I accepted what I was offered, and ended up with one first year class.

I arranged with my mother-in-law to take Ms 4 (then Ms 2) for the morning while I taught. I launched myself into creating innovative activities and lesson plans, motivated not only by my own need to feel like I’d done a good job by the students, but also to prove that hiring a PhD dropout was not a huge mistake to make. I invested my time and energy and resources and by all accounts (and based on glowing student feedback forms) it was a success.

Fast forward to now. I seemed to easily transition from struggling to get offered one class, to having two or three a session. My daughter was put into daycare for three days a week in order to facilitate my increasing involvement with the faculty. I took on research assistant work, and was employed in learning platform support with the IT department.  I was bringing money in again, my mental energy was being targeted towards something productive, rather than obsessively monitoring my daughter’s developmental milestones and possible hazards in her immediate environment (thanks Google!), and I was working towards something…. ay, there’s the rub. I was/am not working towards something bigger at all. I am spinning my wheels, in a holding pattern, treading water. While my other casual colleagues lament the non-existence of full-time academic positions (a position which I sympathise with), I quietly continue my teaching, beating myself up that their plight is not my own, that really I should just be grateful for whatever I happen to receive. Adjuncting/casual teaching is supposed to be a temporary measure, something you do to sustain yourself on your journey towards a full-time academic career. This is increasingly not the case for people who have completed their PhD’s, so what does that mean for me, for whom casual teaching is, at least for the moment, part of the end point?

I love teaching and interacting with students in an academic context. Obviously I do or I wouldn’t do it. However the position I am in as both a parent, and non PhD academic, means that I don’t feel I have the right to be critical of the changing conditions I am experiencing in the same way that my colleagues do. It also seems that  many aspects of casual academia are increasingly incompatible with parenting, and yet here I am bashing away at the square peg, not quite wanting to believe that it won’t fit into the round hole I am forcing it into. Upon reflection, the main issues I personally experience are:

  1. Class sizes have blown out to double what I remember teaching a decade ago. This isn’t a deal breaker necessarily when it comes to teaching but makes a MASSIVE difference when it comes to marking time. I embark on marathon marking sessions where I lock myself away for a week at a time just so I can get my marking done in a ‘timely’ fashion. A two-week turnaround is seen as standard, and I pride myself on always getting them returned in this time. This is no small effort and takes sacrifices on behalf of myself and my family. Mr SC takes sole responsibility for Ms 4 during marking time, where I emerge from the home office only to find coffee and sustenance.
  2. Technology has made it so that I can effectively consult with students 24 hours a day, which is both tremendous and terrible at the same time. I answer emails all weekend, I am sitting on Twitter on the Friday night when an assignment is due, fielding all the questions answered in class but that noone seems to remember now it is crunch time. Now that the classes I teach operate through a learning platform (as well as Reddit, WordPress and Twitter) my consultation time has become moot. I’m never not available. I also need to take responsibility here, my overcommitment to these technologies functions to salve my guilt at being the drop out, at taking the teaching position off someone who could add it to their resume and use it in the future. However where once I would consult with my students an hour a week (if anyone even showed up), now I am available (and make myself available) at almost all times. The line between my personal and work life hasn’t been blurred, it’s been ground into the dust.
  3. The flexibility that blended learning offers is awesome, but that same flexibility also renders much of my labour invisible, and unrewarded in the financial sense. Marking assignments is acknowledged, uploading them to a learning platform is not. Scheduling a consultation time with my students is timetabled and recognised, checking emails on a Saturday night is not. Each individual tweet, and email, and Reddit inbox is no big deal in and of itself, but combined make for hours of labour, and mental energy, that are not on campus, not seen, and not recognised under the casual contracts that academics at my institution are offered.
  4. Casual contracts also leave no room for the ongoing expense of child care commitments. I have my child in daycare for two days a week, an expense that continues outside of the academic session. I maintain her position in the daycare when I am not working despite the ongoing expense because if I take her out, I risk losing the place altogether. I also do this in the hope that a) I will be offered tutoring in the next session and b) that the hours I am offered happen to fall on the days my daughter is scheduled to be in school. I accept all of the hours I can to fund the daycare expense during the times of the year I am not working, which means I accept more hours than I may feel comfortable with taking.

Margaret Betz in her brilliant post ‘Contingent Mother: The Role Gender Plays in the Lives of Adjunct Faculty‘ puts much of this down to “free floating head syndrome” within academia, which she defines as “the common failure to recognize academic instructors as real people with outside lives and responsibilities”. This is probably the most insidious aspect of academia which is also incompatible with parenting. This devaluing of the academic workload exists at many levels, students are guilty of it, but  so is the administration, and sometimes even the more senior academics for whom we work.

I don’t have answers. All I can do is reflect upon where am I am at this moment. I have stable employment on some non-academic projects right now that are really bringing me a lot of happiness, and colleagues who value my input. I have tried to rationalise my dual roles as academic and parent so many times and end up back where I started: in a shared office (only for a few hours a week mind), plagued with worry about how being a mother affects my role as an academic, and vice versa. I feel like I’m doing an awesome job and a terrible job at the same time. I get shit done always, but there are so many spinning plates now that I wouldn’t know how to stop one without the whole lot falling down.

There are a lot of factors at play here. I acknowledge my own feelings of inadequacy as also being at the crux of the issue. Combine that with a culture of casual exploitation, bills that need paying, and a 4-year-old who insists on receiving attention no matter how much marking I have to do, and I have ended up in a position I can’t rationalise, engaged in an argument I can’t win.

The Disneyland Dilemma

Disclaimer: I am not judging anyone for the parenting choices they make, these are just my thoughts on the role of memory making in parenting decisions. I have one kid, what the heck do I know!

“Memory is identity…. You are what you have done; what you have done is in your memory; what you remember defines who you are; when you forget your life you cease to be, even before your death.” Julian Barnes

Earlier this year I made what I thought was a thoroughly unremarkable decision for myself and my family: I decided we were going to Disneyland.

There wasn’t a lot of forethought put into this decision. My husband and I visited Disneyland in 2008 after we got married in Las Vegas, and I enjoyed the spectacle of it. I thought the production values on everything, from the rides, to the displays, to the shops, were really very well done. Before having children I would probably have no compulsion to go there again, but it occurred to me while watching my 4 year old daughter, who loves Disney and princesses and all things ‘magical’, that she would really get a kick out of it. Furthermore, while international travel is hardly a light undertaking (I am The Smart Casual after all, not the Smart Full-Timer) this is something that is feasible if my current rate of employment is maintained throughout the year. I thought about it, I emotionally invested in it, and dang it, the Smart Casuals were going to Anaheim!

What I was ill-prepared for however, was the reaction I got from others regarding this decision. In the course of conversation with friends and family I would bring up my future plans. While some asked questions of the more benign variety, a significant portion responded to this proclamation with some variation of:

“What’s the point of that? It isn’t like she will remember it anyway”.

This reaction really took me by surprise. I was prepared to engage in all types of discourse about the topic of international travel with a 4/5 year old. Some could argue that the plane ride would be too long, or that the time of year we plan to travel would be too expensive. Heck, someone could argue that the Disney universe perpetuates racist and sexist stereotypes, and I would be hard-pressed to disagree. (My own thoughts on this is that because my daughter has only watched a few Disney movies, she is only familiar with the Disney princess as a fluid concept, rather than a gender limiting archetype, but I digress).

Instead it was being posited to me that the experience we would have in Disneyland was somehow not worth doing at this point in her life because when she grew up, she may not remember it. My initial reaction to this was confusion, but after some consideration I think I understand a little more why I really found this troubling:

1) Rather than Ms 4 having an experience in and of itself, it has become currency in a transaction. By taking her to Disneyland, I am effectively buying myself “good parenting credits”, exchanging hard-earned cash for a good time my child can take with her for life. However if I instead choose to take her to Disneyland at an age when she may later be unable to remember the experience clearly, then there is apparently “no point” to have gone in the first place. If we take this to be so, then what is the age at which she will reach peak memory recall? You could substitute just about any other experience for Disneyland within this transactional scenario and the problem still exists, if you argue that an event is only worthwhile if it is remembered, then we can save ourselves a lot of carnival rides and zoo visits as well.

2) I don’t agree that an event need to be remembered to have resonance in our lives, to “count” or be worthwhile. My Pa  was diagnosed with Dementia with Lewy Bodies, and died from this disease only a few years ago. After he was diagnosed his health deteriorated very quickly, and it soon became evident that he was losing all of his memories. He was a man who adored his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He was also very clever, known for his ability to beat just about anyone at Trivial Pursuit. He had the most beautiful singing voice. Towards the end of his life, before he was put into palliative care, I would go and visit him when he was still at home with my Grandmother. When we would arrive he would invariably greet us the same way, by saying “Mother! (his nickname for my Nan) Just look who it is!”

He said this to cover the fact that he didn’t know who we were. While he was losing his memory, he still had the social wherewithal to try and hide it. But we knew. He was hospitalised and died a few months later.

This was a man with over 70 years of memories, most of which were gone, or confused, or hidden in the depths of a damaged brain. In the end he forgot me, and my daughter, and my Mum, and maybe even his wife. But his life was still well lived. It still happened. I like to think that even if he didn’t have his specific memories, of me, my daughter, of his time in the Navy travelling the world, he at least had the essence of those experiences, because what is the alternative? As Julian Barnes writes in his book Nothing To Be Frightened Of (and in the quote featured at the top of this post), did he instead die before his body shuffled off this mortal coil? Did he “cease to be” as a result of ceasing to remember? And if so, what was the point of it?

My Pa went to Anaheim Disneyland once, he was stationed in the area when he travelled with the Navy. He told me that when he went there, that the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ ride was closed and that he was disappointed because it was the only one he wanted to go on that day, and it was closed for maintenance. I plan to take my daughter on this ride, regardless of the fact she may well not remember it. My Pa almost certainly didn’t remember any of these things at the end of his life. While Lewy-bodies is not an inheritable disease, a time may come where I may not remember our trip to Disneyland either. But it will happen. While the memories may fade, hopefully in the short time we are there, we will spend far too much on Disney memorabilia, take more photos than we could ever hope to print, and my daughter will have the most fun she has ever had. Maybe that can be the point.

a picture of my Pa and my daughter

a picture of my Pa and my daughter

Roadblocks to blogging: or why I have never blogged before but intend to start

I have worked as a casual humanities academic, on and off, for the past ten years, and was a humanities student for a significant amount of time prior. In this time I have witnessed a gradual shift in the pedagogy of my own institution from being a strictly offline “real-world” (ha!) institution, towards blended learning, all the while hurtling towards the inevitable endpoint of the MOOC. The benefits/arguments/lamentations about this journey have been well documented by writers more skilled than myself, and I do not intend to explore them in this post. What I do want to explore is my own hesitancy in launching myself into the fray of blogging and online writing.

The link I am making is this. In the last few years I have tutored a number of subjects in which the students have been asked to blog as a part of their assessable work. I have stood at the front of classrooms and spewed the appropriate rhetoric about how in this current job market it is important to put your writing out into the world, that there was no point having a box of essays hidden away somewhere never to be seen again, that YOUR voice is important and should be heard, Henry Jenkins, participatory culture, my goodness, you would be silly not to have one!

and yet I didn’t have one of my own.

I skirted around this in class when asked; I haven’t got the time, writing is a luxury not afforded to the casual academic, I have a child, balance 4 casual contracts, I have marking… and these are all true, and legitimate, and they buy me time to not blog and to instead read the blogs of others and think about what they have written and maybe even respond to them and engage with them and want to be involved. And to WRITE! I miss writing. And yet I didn’t do any of those things. I marked and tweeted and decidedly DID NOT BLOG.

This brings me to now. I was in a meeting today with some colleagues, both of whom mentioned blog posts they had written. I was envious… of their free blogs that they had taken the time, and energy to create, of their own volition. But still I was envious. They put their opinions out into the world! And people responded! It seemed such a grown up thing to do, it was a thing I have been harassing my students to do for the past two years but I somehow didn’t feel worthy of having one.

Rather than it being an issue of time, or energy, or ability,  I think it is to mostly to do with how I define myself, and my contribution to the world. Why would anyone want to read the things that I write? Why would they want to consider my opinions on things? As my husband would attest, I do not have a shortage of opinions, he listens patiently every day to the torrent of unfiltered STUFF that pours out of my head and into the world: opinions about the casualisation of academia (adressed here beautifully by Music for Deckchairs), the state of Australian politics, my 4 year old daughter and how despite my best intentions, princess culture has infiltrated our home. I tell him, and being a man of few words he accepts these opinions and they remain unchallenged, unwritten, and safe from scrutiny. No one can ever accuse me of taking myself too seriously (my twitter account is testament to that).

I define myself as the person who deferred their PhD many years ago: or more specifically, the academic failure, the outsider looking in whose career has stalled as a result of their failure to see their dissertation through to its bitter end. Who am I to blog, when I don’t have the credentials to do so? This goes completely against what I tell my students by the way, they should blog, as should you, and everyone else, but I digress. I don’t take myself seriously because I do not have the right to do so. I haven’t earned it as I am missing those letters behind my name. So to protect my fragile ego I hide behind humour. I consider myself to be an excellent tutor. I have got nothing but excellent feedback, and I go above and beyond to assist my students if I can. However the story I tell my students is very different to the one I tell myself.

So here I am, the academic outsider, silencing myself based on my own hubris. As a casual academic I put up with sometimes woeful conditions (of the systemic variety, the individuals I work with/for are almost always lovely) BUT I should be grateful for what work I am given as I do not have a PhD and am not even working my way towards one. In other words, really, who the FUCK do I think I am? And why would I blog if the given endpoint is to promote yourself for future academic employment?

Who am I? I am 33,  juggling casual contracts at a university, Mum to a 4 year old, partner in a business, with my own (not unique) apathy and disinterest in any kind of ‘housekeeping’. I have opinions about princess culture, about student engagement, casualisation and exploitation within academia, and an ongoing love for all things David Lynch or even Lynch-esque.

And I intend to blog. It may not be regular, and it hopefully will not always be this long, but I will write into the world. I will likely have a small or non-existent readership. I will write and hold myself accountable for the opinions I spew forth. I will engage in the broader community of academic bloggers, and I will acknowledge, without shame, the fact I am the PhD dropout. Rather than being mired in self-loathing about the place I hold in the academic world (which I plan to address in a future blog post), I will write. I will work on the skill of writing. I will engage with others, and be swayed by them, and not squirrel myself away as I have been. I will walk the journey of blogging with my students, and for once, I may even take myself a little seriously.