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.


The Smart Casual

4 thoughts on “To the incoming students of Autumn session 2014: what I want you to know

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

  2. Rebecca this is such an interesting article! I really had no idea about most of the above. It’s so insightful to see it from the fabled ‘other side’. PS – you were the best tutor I had at uni!

  3. Pingback: It’s so nice to get away for a few days | CASA

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