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?

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

  1. LOL. I once taught a class with 2 drips in with a leave pass from the hospital up the road from my uni… where I was waiting for an operation. i have also taught on crutches in a building without lifts.
    This overwhelming sense of responsibility to the class takes hold and i will try to do my best. in 15 years of sessional teaching, I missed 1 class though illness and 1 class because public transport failed. For the last 3 years I’m on fixed term contracts and have taken 3 hours of sick leave. That sessional conditioning does something to us.

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