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.


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

  1. I think this is a remarkably well-written and well-thought out post. My mother always said that we tell people how to treat us by setting boundaries. I’m the type of person that likes to take care of everyone so I have a hard time setting clear ones sometimes. Teaching was an area I struggled in. I used to answer emails late (as a lady sans-kiddos and no AM classes, I used to really be a night owl) and that bit me in the rear. I had students then EXPECTING an answer at 2 or 3 AM. Now, I know better. After 7 PM, I don’t answer emails. Even if I have downtime and am up working, I will flag them and answer them as part of my AM tasks to get done. It sets a bad precedent. When I had an issue with students last year about how they were “disappointed” in me not responding to an email, I basically had to give them a boundaries lecture. It’s hard to know where to set them but you have to just mark out what you are comfortable doing on your every day on the weekday and stick to it.

    In a way, it’s like having kids, I’d imagine. Varying that routine isn’t good for anyone and it just makes everyone cranky.

    • Thanks so much! And yeah, I found that my students did start to expect a certain ‘timeliness’ from me as well, because of the ways I interacted with them. I even received tweets from students ‘reminding’ me to reply to emails they had only sent a few hours previously! I have had discussions with my colleagues about how our time was our own yadda yadda but this is the first argument that has really resonated with me: I am potentially causing harm to my students by modelling for them unhealthy work practices. I can’t control an awful lot about their conditions but I can demonstrate to them that certain things are not okay. It’s a small thing, but it’s a start. Burn out is all but inevitable otherwise.

  2. Casual workers in higher education are caught in a rip at the moment: university policies and self-promotion in relation to the service expectations of student engagement are written in direct contradiction to the reality of university budgets. So we budget for austerity while we promise in abundance.

    I have sat in meetings with university administrators where ideals, standards, and expectations that we should try to meet so that students feel they are well cared for are discussed, and the reality of casualised hiring is completely swept aside. There’s an institutional fiction (immortalised in every image of the university) that students are only working with FT academics who have all the time in the world to support the practices that evidence has shown leads to better outcomes: consulting outside class time being a big one.

    Academics with benefits have some more room to try to move things around, respond on the fly etc because we are paid for more hours. Casual academics can only do this as volunteers. Setting limits is very courageous because it will expose to students the differences between an academic on the salaried payroll, and an academic on just-in-time shift work. So those of us on salary have to join this campaign to set boundaries because without that, casual academics will bear the brunt of complaint.

    Well said, all of this.

  3. pretty much exactly how i feel. and it’s not only casual academics that are feeling this pinch, this double bind, either.
    i have a memory of one incident slightly different to the one you recounted, where 3 of the better students in the class asked me whether they could meet me outside of class time to discuss further the issues we’d been discussing. when i replied:
    i’m not paid enough to do that
    they smiled and nodded, saying something like,
    we understand what you’re saying.
    but, at the same time, i felt guilty and mean.
    like, what else was i going to do with that time? and i would’ve enjoyed talking with these students further. at the time, my aim was to take a stand on all the extra work i was being asked to do – to the detriment of the student cohort in general, and to the profession as well. and yet, i still felt bad.

  4. Great post – thank you for so clearly articulating what many academics – casual and otherwise – are experiencing.
    I’ve been thinking more and more about both our professed and real care for students, and how this often manifests, in academia at least, in this weird kind of ‘presenteeism’ and ‘uber-availability’; and the ways this is increasingly overriding care for ourselves.
    I’ve also noticed that it’s Care For Students ™ that is cited as the number 1 reason not to take any industrial action that may disadvantage students (and in academia, what industrial action is left to us then??).
    However, what has been especially difficult to think about, is the fact that no matter how much we actually do care – about our students, about our teaching, about our profession, about our work – we’re still doomed to not being able to do the best job we could do, because as casual academics, we lack essential resources. Like payment for the work we do in student consult hours outside the class. And offices. And job security so we can concentrate on our teaching and not on how we are going to feed ourselves in mid-semester break or during December to February.
    I don’t know if you’re familiar with US -based Rebecca Schuman’s work but she has done her own ‘hanging up’ on her ‘academic calling’ here – (hopefully still not behind a paywall!).

  5. It is so heartening – and disheartening – to see so much of my own experience as a casual reflected here. Aha, I am made to feel like it’s my individual problem, but it’s not, it’s systemic. I knew that, dammit! In a slight tangent, being made to feel like it is my individual unseemliness to bring up that I am not, for example, being paid to attend a meeting reminds me of this article where the awkwardness at bringing up saturated sexism is internalised by women: (hopefully not also behind a paywall, apologies if so). I am very glad that you are blogging. More. Also, “weaksauce bullshit”.

  6. Pingback: An Illustrated guide to the academic session (for a casual) | The Smart Casual

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