To the incoming students of Autumn session 2014: what I want you to know

A student came to see me in my consultation time last session. She wanted to talk about a potential future for her in academia. To prove her point about the opportunities academia afforded, this student gestured around the room we were in and exclaimed “but look at what you have!”. I laughed, thinking she was making a joke, however her look of  confusion told me I was off base. This interaction highlighted to me the disconnect between student assumptions about the labour conditions of the casual academics they encounter, and the lived reality. This student saw me sitting behind a computer, in an office, with a window and a phone and some abandoned ring binders and took these accoutrements to signify permanence, stability, importance. Why would she think any differently? What she didn’t see was the backpack in which I had to carry around all of my readings and class supplies, as I didn’t have a permanent room in which to leave them. What she didn’t notice was the sign on the door, which indicated that this room was shared with at least half a dozen other casual academics, in tightly scheduled one-hour allotments. Her perception of this meeting, of this space, of this moment, was so vastly removed from my own reality that I didn’t know how to address it. This post is my attempt at bridging that gap, at addressing the disconnect between the assumption that the educators at university are full-time office inhabitants, and the somewhat grim reality of the limitations of casual contracts. I would welcome a response piece from any first year students regarding things you want your tutors to know/understand about your experience as a student. Please link them in the comments!

Hi guys!

Many of you have come to uni straight from high school, having been targeted since primary school as potential students *cough* customers *cough* of the university system. Some of you will have seen shiny brochures highlighting ‘campus culture’ and green lawns and O-week parties. There are certain realities associated with teaching at university of which you are probably not aware. For too long the labour of many of the workers within higher education has been obscured by marketing departments, who place the conditions of labour within highered under a soft lens. Many of the people you’ll be taught by at university are casual employees. I think it is important that you have a proper appreciation of what this actually entails for us, your casual tutors. To many of you we are the face of the insitution, however we are also the university’s most precarious and undervalued employees.

Firstly consider this: the tutor you are meeting for the first time in week 2 is likely paid on an hourly contract. They are alloted a certain amount of hours based on the number of tutorials they agree to take on but the easiest equation to remember is this; (varying of course based on institution/class/faculty/level) one class = one to two hours a week of paid employment (which does not include marking time, I will get to that later). So a staff member who agrees to teach one 100 level subject will potentially sign a contract for 12 hours over a 3-4 month period, not including marking.

That doesn’t sound right does it, so let’s break it down further. Academic tutors get paid a ‘high’ hourly rate as there is a certain amount of work that is assumed to preface every hour of face-to-face class time. This rate assumes that a casual tutor will perform 3 hours of labour for every 1 hour they are paid for, however many of us would argue that 3 hours is a very conservative estimate. For example, tutors want to be familiar with the course material the lecturer is offering and so will likely spend 1 to 2 hours  a week watching lecture recordings. We also prepare by reading the same readings/materials as you do, which will likely take an additional hour (conservatively). If we need to prepare a lesson plan, and then a supporting prezi or powerpoint presentation we can add another hour. We are also asked to offer an hour of ‘consultation time’ where students can come and visit us privately and speak face-to-face (or increasingly as facilitated via the internet).  I have not even begun to factor in the other more miscellaneous tasks such as blog reading, twitter monitoring, email checking, and downloading/reuploading assignments onto the learning platform. So in this scenario every hour of paid work is likely prefaced by at least 3 hours worth of preparation time, plus the time spent in the classroom. I won’t tell you how much an hour we get paid (if you are interested you can Google the information relevant to your own institution, it isn’t a secret and is freely available on the web) but suffice to say, the amount isn’t as impressive when you realise the hours of assumed work that is loaded into that 60 minutes a week.

It ends up being worthwhile for tutors to take on more than one class per session, as class prep and consultation doesn’t need to be repeated for every class you take on (assuming it is the same subject). However it should be mentioned that the hourly pay rate declines for each tutorial you agree to take. Also, an average class size is now 20 odd students so for every class a tutor takes on, they should also expect to take on the marking load associated with 20 more students. With an expected two week turnaround to return assignments (this also varies by department/faculty/institution) an additional 20 assignments can become a next to impossible task to take on. Also, casual tutors are paid a flat rate for marking which assumes a certain amount of words per student, so if word limits are not respected by just a few students, or heaven forbid we encounter plagiarism that we then have to investigate, then we are working on our own time. Our marking money also doesn’t really properly allow for extensive written feedback, so any tutor who has left this for you has done it solely because they are committed to your learning outcomes.

Physical space is also at a premium. At many institutions tutors are allocated a physical space only for a set amount of time, and that is usually one hour a week for our consultation. One hour. A week. Outside of these times we are given access to shared offices with computers at which we can ‘hot desk’. This means that we are able to access these computers only if someone else isn’t already making use of them. First come first served. As a result many of us use our own computers and internet to check emails, mark, and communicate with you guys, at our own expense.

Our parking situation… exactly the same as your parking situation. I have heard students refer to a mythical “staff parking area”, and I am sorry to say but there really is no such thing. We are able to partake of the same $9 to $12 a day casual rates that you are, or alternatively we can purchase an annual pass. However when we have no guarantees as to the amount of hours we are likely to be working in an academic session, let alone in an entire year, it doesn’t seem like it would necessarily be the wisest investment.

Your tutors come from diverse backgrounds. Some are PhD students, meaning they are in the middle of writing their dissertations. Some have completed their PhDs and are looking to gain full-time employment within academia. Some are nearing retirement age. Some have young children or other caring responsibilities. Many are juggling tutoring with other casual employment opportunities. Our circumstances are as diverse as yours but we have one thing in common: we want to provide you with the support and opportunities that we believe that you are entitled to, however this is incredibly challenging, if not impossible, under the scopes of our casual contracts.

Why am I telling you this? I think it is important for you to understand that the casual employees you are likely to encounter in the course of your university education are putting up with a lot of shit right now. Most of us aren’t paid to work full-time, so when we don’t get back to you it isn’t because we aren’t invested in your educational outcomes, it is because university teaching isn’t always our top priority. Why do we get cranky when you haven’t done the readings? It is because we spent time creating engaging lesson plans and activities which rely on you having read and understood basic concepts; time that we are grossly underpaid for. If we give you written feedback on an assignment then please read it. Not only because it can help you improve your marks in future, but also because the time we used to provide it is not financially rewarded.

You guys are likely familiar with many of these issues, yourselves being casual workers in an intinerant workforce. This isn’t about garnering sympathy, it is about building an alliance of shared understanding in an unforgiving economy, and breaking down barriers of difference and resentment. Casualisation is on the increase across many sectors, however high education is unique in that our teaching conditions are also your learning conditions: and right now the conditions are fairly grim. It’s not all bad news however. We are at a unique point in time, in that there are many highered bloggers who are speaking out, who care deeply about university education and your outcomes. If you are interested, the following are some sites which provide a platform for these casual and allied voices both in Australia, and within the broader global community.

CASA: Casual, Adjunct, Sessional staff and Allies in Australian Higher Education: The aim of CASA and this blog is to create a new space for casual, adjunct and sessional staff and their allies in Australian higher education to share resources and experiences, and to learn from each other.

Unicasual: The website for Australian Casual and Sessional Academics: The official website of the casual branch of the Australian National Tertiary Education Union. It provides info regarding the legal rights of uni casuals, as well as providing a safe anonymous space for casual and sessional academic workers to share their experiences.

The Adjunct Project: This site gathers data regarding the pay and working conditions of adjuncts working in the American Higher Education sector. There are also ongoing columns and a space for sharing their stories and requesting advice from their peers.

Adjunct Nation: This site is a space for casual/adjunct workers across the United States, Canada and Europe, and provides analysis, advice columns, news, as well as a section for adjunct voices.

And for some light relief I recommend the Tumblr All My Friends Are Academics. No serious discussion or analysis to be found, but who doesn’t have time for pop culture GIFs?

I eagerly anticipate getting to know you all over the course of this session, and look forward to learning from you as well. I encourage you to think critically about your experiences as a first year undergraduate student, and perhaps make your own contribution to the ongoing conversation about teaching and learning conditions within higher education. This is our employment and your opportunity. Let’s work together to make it better.

Cheers,

The Smart Casual

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Suggestions for ways to improve your relationship with your casual colleagues

After many Twitter-based discussions regarding the state of casualisation within the higher education sector affecting academic staff, general staff, and professional staff alike, I have decided to write a list of suggestions to take on board when you are communicating with your casual colleagues. Some of these are specific to academics, while others apply to casual colleagues more generally. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list. Make your own suggestions in the comments.

The anecdotes and examples are drawn both from my own experiences, and those of my peers. Thanks to those of you who contributed your stories.

1) Don’t liken your situation to that of your casual colleagues, especially if they are not comparable.

This situation can manifest in a few ways, but the crux of the issue is this: sometimes full-time staff make demands on the time and energy of their casual colleagues without taking the scope and limitations of our casual, limited-hours contracts into account. For example, if we come to you concerned that the assignments we are marking have no defined upper word limit, don’t dismiss us with “I have a lot of marking to do as well”. The thing is you don’t get to compare your situation to ours because you have the ability to do something about it. Casual tutors are paid a flat rate for marking which assumes a certain amount of words per student, so marking assignments that are 3000 words, as opposed to the paid rate of 1500 words, makes a big impact on the time we spend doing it and how much we will eventually get paid for our labour. You have a full-time position and an office, whereas we are oftentimes marking from home at 3 in the morning around caring responsibilities, thesis writing, and other employment. NOT the same.

Similarly, don’t demand that we call you from home, or ‘glance over’ something, or come onto campus unnecessarily. Separately these things amount to being ‘not a big deal’ and may only register to you as an inconvenience. However what is not a ‘big deal’ for you may in fact be a huge deal for us as this is time and expense that we aren’t reimbursed for. That’s how these minor inconveniences have come to encroach on so much of our time, because they are incremental.

     WHAT YOU CAN DO INSTEAD: Be mindful not to overload us with work that is outside of the scope of our casual contracts. Set strict word limits and take care to design assignments and prepare course content which is mindful of these limitations. Be supportive of our concerns, and when we come to you with an issue relating to the workload, please LISTEN.

2) Don’t refer to us in the plural

Don’t refer to my casual colleagues and I as “the casuals” or “the team” when you actually are referring to me. For example, if you receive work that needs to be assigned to me then please use my name. Say: “I will see if The Smart Casual is able to do that” not “I will get one of the casuals to do that”. Your casual colleagues are not an amorphous, interchangeable blob of work doers, or free floating heads who seem to magically appear whenever unpleasant things need to be done.

     WHAT YOU CAN DO INSTEAD: Include us in these conversations as full and equal participants. When you speak to us think about how you would feel to be talked to/communicated with in this way. This goes beyond casual/full-time relations and is just common courtesy.

3) Don’t dismiss us when we want to know more about the future of the project you want us to work on together

For casual staff within higher education, our employment is precarious and piecemeal. We have to give careful consideration to the projects we take on, and those we choose to reject. If we come to you wanting to know if the project is going to be ongoing, or what you see our role as being, then please be candid. No funding? Fine. No future? No problem. But don’t dismiss us and don’t give us false hope. The time commitment and deadlines also play a major factor in our decision making, so let us know as much as you know so we are able to make an informed decision.

     WHAT YOU CAN DO INSTEAD: Don’t take our participation for granted. Instead, ask how are we going and if your proposed project is likely to fit into our schedule. We have many conflicting priorities and don’t just exist when it is convenient to you.

4) Do value and acknowledge the contribution we make.

Casuals work really hard. Take notice of that. You don’t have to throw us a parade, but a simple thanks at the end of session goes a long way, maybe even a cup of coffee (on your dime) can make us feel less like the hired help and more like your peer and colleague. Similarly…

5) Don’t forget we exist in the time between projects.

To be an ally to your casual colleagues you should keep them in the loop. When the working relationship is over, the marks have been submitted and the essays handed back, maybe invite your casual colleagues to talk about future projects, their kids, whatever. This may appear to be in contrast with what is set out in point 1) about coming onto campus unneccesarily however just being invited would go a long way to making us feel as if we are a part of our campus’ community.

6) Don’t comment on the personal appearance of your female colleagues.

I am not going to explain this one. Comment on the contribution we make in the workplace. Give us feedback on work we have submitted to you. Ask our opinion even, but don’t draw attention to things that are irrelevant to our interactions within the workplace. You may consider it to be friendly banter, but the power dynamic is as such that we may not feel comfortable having to defend our sartorial choices to you.

[Please note: that faux leather jacket is not an “affectation”, the word you are looking for is “awesome”. But regardless, please don’t]

7) Don’t pay lipservice to the idea of the ‘team’ and then operate the workplace based on a caste system.

The term is meaningless buzz unless there is real commitment to it. Team doesn’t just mean “people who work in the same room as me sometimes”. There is nothing more patronising than attempting to use empty team rhetoric to motivate adults. And think about what you are communicating to your casual colleague by asking them to hold down the fort so the full-timers can attend the department Christmas party… two years in a row.

     WHAT YOU CAN DO INSTEAD: Create open communication channels, and check in with all team members to see how they are moving towards their professional goals. Don’t just talk about “the team”, facilitate it on our behalf. Help your casual colleagues by fighting for paid meetings so we can discuss issues and not feel so bloody isolated. If you are aware that the Faculty or Department you are working in is holding an event then make sure the casual members of your team are included. Not just cc’d into the email mind you, but that they feel that they would be welcome to come. At the very least, make an attempt to have all team members in the same room at the same time at least once every few months. Nothing makes me sadder than realising that it has been months since I have seen a colleague in person, because our roster/schedules have us passing like ships in the night.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________

I think we can all agree that the system is broken. Full-time positions are unlikely to materialise in the immediate future, however that doesn’t mean we can’t start to think of more immediate and direct ways we can foster a healthier and more balanced work environment for all workers within higher education. What are your thoughts?

“It’s not that bad” – acknowledging privilege when critiquing the ‘Adjunct Narrative’

Please note: In this blog post I use the term ‘adjunct’, as that is the nomenclature used by my casual colleagues in the US. It is not exactly interchangeable with “casual” as we use it in Australian higher education, which is why I did not just substitute it in. However the issues faced by adjuncts in the US are parallel to the ones faced by casual academics in Australia, and this is the position I am taking with this post.

At the moment there is an outpouring of adjunct/casual rage within the blogging world. There is a seething undercurrent of resentment and hostility, where my casual colleagues are sharing their adjunct stories and communicating outside of the parameters of the networks offered by their institution to forge friendships and alliances. Their seems to be consensus that casualised staff within the higher education sector are marginalised and excluded, that the system is essentially broken.

Except there isn’t consensus at all.

Amongst the blog posts by academics outraged, confused, and appalled by the conditions they (and by extension their students) are facing, there are the faint voices of disapproval, the dissenters whose main thesis appears to be: come on now, it’s not that bad. The latest contributor is Kelli Marshall, a lecturer at dePaul University. In her piece ‘Part-Time Professing: It’s Not All Gloom and Doom‘ she argues exactly this, that it isn’t that bad. In her title itself she downplays the experience of adjunct staff in the US by recasting their very real concerns and lived experiences as “doom and gloom”. In one fell swoop she acknowledges these experiences, and then completely disavows them.

One part of her post I find particularly problematic. After acknowledging the shitty things that her adjunct colleagues have endured (empathy), and then recounting her own tale of woe, she appears to flip the focus away from the administration. A slip of the hand and the blame shifts onto the adjuncts themselves.

I quote:

It’s Who You Know (and Knowing Yourself)

I’ll close with two bits of advice.

First, get to know people in your field. Whether through social media or conference networking, introduce yourself and make acquaintances; you never know when or how those people will pop back into your life. As your parents once told you, sometimes it is connections that make the difference. Indeed, I owe much of my current situation to a colleague who once “threw my name into the pot.”

Second, go for it if you know without a doubt that academic life is the road for you (i.e., you would be miserable outside of academe, you shudder when you think you’d never get to interact with college students again, etc.). Once you’ve determined that, then be wary, but don’t let all 1,320 of those “NEVER EVER GO TO GRAD SCHOOL” posts deter you from your academic aspiration(s). For even in the part-time arena, it’s not always doom and gloom.

The systemic issues that are preventing casual staff from progressing in their careers, that see adjunct staff take on work far beyond that outlined in their contractual agreements, is all diminished to an issue of networking. Of Nepotism. I am not exactly sure what we are meant to take away from Kelli’s post. Should we work on our LinkedIn profiles perhaps? Should  more effort be put into creating an attractive personal brand?

This cloying empathy makes me angry. Obviously I am not the only one, as Kelli cops a hiding in the comment section. Dr Robert Baum captures the sentiment perfectly when he responds:
Her “doom and gloom” narrative is a dismissive, irresponsible, unethical, and repressive counter-narrative gesture (think “power/knowledge”) that seeks to demoralize and further disenfranchise any and all individuals intent on joining the adjunct uprising. Why? To avoid the main issue of equal pay for equal work. How can at-will faculty meet the needs of time tested, successful, and sustainable curriculum and instructional design?
Language is a slippery terrain, here used to silence those who are only just beginning to find their own voice. A similar strategy is employed in this piece on the Yellow Dog blog ‘Adjunct Narratives‘. I recommend you read it in order to get the full context, but in this piece the author J. Rice concludes [emphasis my own]:
So what do these narratives accomplish? These are some tropes I pick out and respond to. I don’t respond because I’m against adjuncts or don’t understand the situation. I very much understand the situation. But that is not my purpose here. My interest is in how the story is framed, and why this way as opposed to some other strategy? Most of the stories, after all, are similar and repetitive. Repetition can be highly effective. Is it in this case? I don’t think so.
Our stories are, to J Rice, repetitive, and not entirely strategic. In his piece he acknowledges that “[t]he adjunct problem has long been with us. Exploitation of teaching in the university is hardly new” and goes on to argue that perhaps it is a cynical grab at readership, citing Slate has published some “hyperbolic and uniformed pieces” (unlinked). He attacks this adjunct narrative from a number of angles in order to achieve what? An admission that it “isn’t all doom and gloom” perhaps? Again, the issue is acknowledged, and then the old bait and switch, ad hominem, the adjunct story, my story, is reduced to a narrative which, to him, is counter-productive and repetitive.
Both of these authors came from a place of unacknowledged privilege. Ms Marshall’s identifies scheduling as being her biggest issue with adjuncting, whereas Associate Professor Rice… well his privilege is right in his title. The difficulty in addressing these kind of blog posts is that it puts us (and I will include myself in this) in the position of having to defend our position, and reframes our concerns as “whingeing”. Of course things could be worse. Of course the flexibility that casual academia offers can be great for working parents such as myself although I seem to work a lot of hours and give up a lot, at the altar of “flexibility”. Yeah it could be worse, but here is a novel approach: rather than getting caught up in pedantic bullshit about who has it worse, or better, or indifferent, and why; let’s focus on improving the system we do have. Let’s not reframe the outpouring of adjunct anger as being cynical clickbait, let’s instead take these stories at face value, and consider why, as J Rice asks, these stories are surfacing right now, at this point in time. Rather than defending a broken system, I think our time is better spent thinking about how we can improve employment conditions for all casual academics. And that can only be achieved by acknowledging all of the realities of casual teaching/adjuncting… even the unpleasant ones.

Only the Lonely: on my decision to parent an only child

The Doctor leaned over the desk towards me with an earnestness that was touching. “You really need to think about this” he said “your fertility will start to decrease after you turn 35”. He then leaned back in the chair and tented his fingers, gazing into the middle distance “mind you, that doesn’t make it impossible, it’s just something you should keep in mind”.

This interaction doesn’t come across as striking until you take into account why I had visited this doctor in the first place. I went to him regarding my toenail fungus.

Almost from the earliest days of bringing my now 4-year-old daughter home from the hospital, it had been asked of us when we were planning to have another. This I now understand is not a unique experience, and has become the default question for almost all new parents of healthy children. I said “never again”, the way many new and first time mothers probably say it. I meant it though. And 4 years later I continue to mean it, for so many reasons.

Now my pregnancy and birth were both high unpleasant for me, both physically and emotionally. I suffered from extreme vomiting and was on the verge of dehydration for five draining months. Lifting my head from the pillow became an event worth celebrating, and the term “morning sickness” made me angry and reesentful. I didn’t have “morning sickness” I had entire life sickness and it left me physically drained. Unfortunately after my so-called “morning sickness” subsided, I went into a bad emotional space. I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which manifested itself as having repetitive, obsessive, and highly distressing thoughts that I had brought specific harm to the developing fetus. Overall I missed out on the glowing pregnancy stuff and instead was catapulted straight into hormonal, vomiting, obsessive, crazy-lady hell.

The internet also isn’t short of horrific birthing stories, so I won’t add mine to the list. Suffice to say my daughter was diagnosed with IUGR of unknown cause at 34ish weeks, and I was induced at 37+6 in order to accommodate for my obstetrician’s upcoming Golf tournament (this is not a joke, this is an actual thing that happened).  The whole event was a clusterfuck of epic proportions and the only good thing to come out of it was my tiny 2.495 kilo baby. However this was not the end of my nightmare. While I have heard it said by some Mothers all of their fears were swept aside when they held their tiny bundle of joy in their arms et. al. my own experience was that my fears and obsessions only took hold of my life and I was hospitalised for OCD and depression when my daughter was around 6 weeks old.

I never glowed. I never nested. I never counted tiny fingers and tiny toes. I never debated the benefits of one brand of car seat or pram over another. Instead I cried and vomited and at my lowest moments I thought about taking my own life.

You don’t see that on the cover of Mother and Baby magazine.

There isn’t a glowing redemption story. I never really had a moment of clarity wherein I experienced “the true beauty” of motherhood, or any such thing. I did some counselling, took some medications, and slowly came to terms with the idea that maybe I was wrong about the things I had invested so much emotional energy in. Life goes on. My tiny baby grew into an average sized child, I got some “Mum” friends to whom I partially owe my life, and eventually my life started to resemble something vaguely normal. My daughter and I went on play dates, swimming lessons, all the stuff that parents and children apparently do, and while there have been some dark moments, it all didn’t feel as foreign and dark and soul-devouring as it perhaps once did.

Many of my daughter’s little friends now have younger siblings, 1 or 2 years old. My daughter wants a sibling, she tells me so regularly. She loves to play with her baby dolls, I watch her as she watches other kids play with their siblings and I feel like shit doing it. I feel like the worst Mum in the world. Feeling like shit becomes the default emotion of a parent I have since learned. Child last to get picked up from Daycare? Feel like shit. Child’s speech not developing at the expected rate? Feel like shit. Child asks for a sibling you aren’t able to give them? Better believe I feel like shit about that.

I could physically have a child, and I feel very lucky for that. I am very sorry for the people who desperately want children and are unable to conceive them. My heart breaks for those people in fact. When my GP was advising me about my declining fertility that was coming from a good place. I wasn’t offended, although given the context I was a little surprised. But society expects multiple children. Bring 2 or 3 children into the world and nobody will question your decision. Claim that you only want a single child and you will be asked to explain that decision again and again. The only child confessional has become a genre in and of itself. So this is my contribution to the genre. It isn’t an easy decision, and I am not always even comfortable with having made it, but it is the only one I am able to make.

People say it could be different next time, that I don’t know. Maybe they’re right, it’s impossible to say. But all I know is that I have joy in my life right now. I am working, and planning for the future. Ms 4 and I have so much fun together, and she is the funniest person I have ever met (she calls spaghetti “twosghetti” and speed limits “speed lemons”. That is ADORABLE). I am sorry that my child doesn’t have a sibling to play with, but if her options are a sibling, or a desperately ill mother, then I know what she would choose. I am choosing to be the mother to an only child, and if that makes me selfish then so be it.

Casual Academia as a “calling” and why I won’t be picking up after 5pm anymore

I was prompted to write this post following an illuminating conversation I had with a colleague of mine regarding the ways that casual academics model unhealthy work practices for students. I doubt I can do it justice, but these are my reflections on the conversation we had. Thanks again AW.

I have recently come to the conclusion that I have been doing my students a great disservice.

For those of you who have been following my blog you would be aware of the fact that I pride myself on my commitment to my position as an academic tutor. Beyond my in-class responsibilities I also check emails, monitor Twitter conversations, and read blogs well outside of business hours and into the weekend. I make myself available to my students for a few reasons I have already outlined: my feelings of inadequacy and my own perfectionist tendencies being major motivators. However one of the primary reasons I offer up so much of my time and energy to my students is that the conditions experienced by them are at odds with my own ideals of how they should be treated.

At Australian universities generally, the past decade has seen class numbers double, while actual face-to-face class hours for some students halved. While there was some spurious justifications cited that I won’t give credence to by repeating, the main reason was that as the bulk of teaching is done by casual academics who are employed under hourly contracts, what better way to cut costs than by halving the amount of hours they are paid to do. This has put many of us as casual academics in the position of trying to fit last year’s two hours worth of materials, into a one hour contact time. My casual colleagues and I are effectively trying to make up for the bureaucratic failings of the institution by investing our time and energy into making ourselves available and accessible to our understandably overwhelmed students. We are human beings and we care damn it! However in this process we (I) have unthinkingly committed myself to fulfilling the  role of being a “good educator” without thinking critically about what that actually entails, and about the broader implications of what I am doing for either my students, or for myself. This post is my attempt at rethinking some of my work practices from the locus of student welfare and outcomes.

I have a memory of a class I taught at the end of last year of which I am particularly ashamed. We were discussing changing working conditions in a Web 2.0 world, with particular reference to Melissa Gregg’s concept of ‘Presence Bleed’. Gregg defines Presence Bleed as:

[…]  the familiar experience whereby the location and time of work become secondary considerations faced with a ‘to do’ list that seems forever out of control. It not only explains the sense of responsibility workers feel in making themselves ready and willing to work beyond paid hours, but also captures the feeling of anxiety that arises in jobs that involve a never-ending schedule of tasks that must be fulfilled – especially since there are not enough workers to cover the load.

My students are increasingly being asked to spread themselves thinner and thinner. They work and study and have caring responsibilities and a whole fucking life outside of the institution, and as such already experience this presence bleed as a lived reality. However in this class I wanted them to think critically about the implications of this boundary-less existence, I wanted them to think about their own futures as potential knowledge workers graduating into an increasingly casualised and precarious workforce. But you know what I did instead? I stood in front of this room full of 20 year olds and when questioned on my own work practices said to them “don’t do what I do”.

What kind of weaksauce bullshit was that?

As students of the humanities I want to instill in them the notion of critical thinking linked to active change. These aren’t just abstract ideas communicated within the vacuum of the institution, these are theories and concepts and ideas that are meaningful, empowering, and worth consideration.

But that all came undone when I demonstrated to this room full of capable, reasoning adults, that I was a hypocrite.

Of course I didn’t intend for that to be the case. I thought I could serve as a warning to them, look upon me and weep undergraduates! Do not do what I have done! says the wise one from atop the ivory tower. What a load of bollocks. All I did was lose my credibility, and reinforce the idea that humanities scholarship is somehow distinct from the realities of the outside world. As if to say “here is what could happen in an ideal world, but we all know what happens in the real world”.

As casual academics it is time for us to ask ourselves: what are we modelling for our students by allowing ourselves to be exploited? Are we in fact doing them a favour by answering emails at 11pm on a Friday and taking on work far beyond the scope of our casual contracts? We justify it to ourselves with a number of accepted narratives: the students come to uni unprepared from a learning-by-rote highschool education, the students are crammed into classrooms, the students are under-resourced and over-committed, the students deserve more, and we are the ones to give it to them. And begrudgingly we do this knowing that most of our labour will not be monetarily rewarded because it is academic work and much like artists, our primary motivation should not be mercenary in nature. Nate Kreuter in his response to the brilliant ‘In the Name of Love‘ posits it thusly:

The common trope within which academics, and indeed educators at all levels, undertake their work as a “calling,” and out of love, is a trope that marginalises educational work within our broader cultural landscape. Some of the ramifications are hard to measure, such as declining respect for the ethical, community-serving, and indispensable profession of teaching. Other ramifications are quite tangible, as salaries are far outstripped by inflation while workloads simultaneously increase.

As casual academics we are trapped within an exploitative system which undervalues our labour, and we allow this to happen because the narrative exists that teaching at an academic institution is its own reward. Regardless of the hours of study that it took to get there, or the multitude of skills we have developed along the way to become skilled and empathic educators: We do it because We love it. Because of this, open and honest discussions with the our full-time peers about money and lived working conditions feel somehow crass and wrong. Our resentments simmer under the table, we have whispered conversations with our fellow casual colleagues in the hallways “I marked double the word limit last night” “it took me an hour to upload the assignments”, but it is almost like it is our cross to bear, the implicit cost to being involved in the supposedly prestigious field of academia, and for “doing what we love”. We are all in this together, it is about outcomes isn’t it? That sounds noble and worthwhile and we buy into it, which is a disservice to us, and our students.

Likewise Tokumitsu cites Sarah Brouillette who argues:

… our faith that our work offers non-material rewards, and is more integral to our identity than a “regular” job would be, makes us ideal employees when the goal of management is to extract our labor’s maximum value at minimum cost.

But the thing is, while being a tutor is one of the most rewarding and enriching positions I have ever done, it is still a job. I deserve to get paid for my labour, and to set boundaries which accommodate for my life outside of the academy. That doesn’t make me mercenary to expect fair compensation for my time and skills. I don’t want exploitation and burnout for myself, and I especially don’t want that for the students I ultimately feel responsible for.

I acknowledge that I made a mistake. I fucked up. I had the best of intentions, but I modelled for my students some work practices that are unhealthy and unsustainable. With my actions I told them it was okay to be exploited. I told them it was okay to make yourself available to your employer for their own purposes and to bear the weight of an unjust system. That their working life could bleed into every other aspect of their life and that that was okay. And so for that reason I am going to take a small but significant stand. I am not going to answer emails outside of business hours, I am not going to check my Twitter while playing with my daughter. I am going to work really hard to reestablish some boundaries and balanced work practices into my life, and believe it or not, I am doing it for my students.