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.

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