I have shared an ongoing joke with my brother over the last few years. It is that every year follows a similar pattern, and he can anticipate the theme of our weekly dinners based around the time of year it is. I am nothing if not predictable! The pattern is as follows:
I start off the year pining for mental stimulation that only casual teaching can provide. It is a long time between drinks for casual academics if you don’t have any other projects, or thesis writing, or teaching over summer session, so by the time late January rolls around I have usually started putting out feelers via email to try to locate some work, or am responding to requests for the same. Around this time I also start to reconnect with my casual colleagues, enquiring if there are “any hours” going begging. This pre-session time reeks of quiet desperation, wherein my colleagues and I are wanting to line up the employment which will sustain us through the next 6 months.
My enthusiasm dips slightly in the weeks just prior to session starting. Organising my one-hour-a-week office space usually takes multiple trips onto campus. More and more emails making demands on my time find their way into my inbox. Casuals have to, for a reason that is never adequately explained, provide a copy of their birth certificates. Having been employed at this same institution previously for any length of time apparently doesn’t preclude you from this.
Cue the first few weeks of session. For want of a better term I am PUMPED. I am excited to get into the classroom with the students, I am excited to really get my teeth into the readings and the assignments. It doesn’t matter how many times I explain, I still receive emails from students in these first few weeks asking if they can see me at obscure times, outside of my consultation times. I ask if we can schedule an appointment at this time, or perhaps talk over the phone. I suspect they think I am fobbing them off. Turns out there aren’t enough paid hours in the day to read the readings, prepare for class, and handle the many requests for help I field from students who are overwhelmed by the demands of higher education.
I have to add the printer to the shared PC I am allocated. I know how to do this, however all of the printers on the system have vague names that give no indication of their location within the labyrinthine building I am located in. If I do manage to link my PC to a printer, and then actually find the printer within the building, chances are it is out of paper. Or ink.
I dread using the photocopier. As a long-term casual academic, I am more than familiar with most of the faculty administration staff. But if I cross paths with someone new then I will likely find myself subtly interrogated: “who are you teaching for/what days are you in/don’t think I have seen you before”. To get around this I will minimise photocopying I have to do, which is easy to justify with environmental concerns. Or I will photocopy earlier in the morning when the building is empty, photocopies I then have to lug around with me for the rest of the day.
I enjoy watching the lectures, but am doing it at home, im my own time, on my own internet. My speakers are broken so the sound isn’t the best but if I lean close I can just hear it.
Mid-session I am sick of the parking situation. It is $9 a day for casual parking, which still relies on their even being a space for me to park in. My daughter is usually the first to be dropped off at daycare so I can hopefully find a spot on campus. If I don’t find a spot on campus I will have to park on the street, which means an extra 15 minute walk after work. This could mean the difference between picking my daughter up on time, or picking her up late, which incurs a hefty penalty. I carry around piles of text books, markers, draft assignments, and my own supplies in an overstrained backpack as I have nowhere to leave them. I don’t have a room in which to leave it so I take it everywhere, including lunch and meetings. I have the tendency to become irritated with my colleagues if they use over their allotted hour in our shared office space. If they run over their hour that causes me to start late, and run over my hour, or get less shit done that I intended to do.
By late session I am stressed. The hourly rate I am paid has been blown out of the water with extra duties. A student plagiarising equals hours of unpaid work. My students want more of me than I am paid to give, but often I will give it any way because to do otherwise runs counter to my academic ideals. It takes an hour to reupload marked assignments to the learning platform. I do this from home because I refuse to hot desk, but as a result I am using my own internet. My Twitter notifications blow up on the night the essay is due and I am online a lot more.
I haven’t been paid to attend all of the meetings I have instigated. I want to meet with the subject coordinator to make sure we are a united front, that what I am telling my students is not different from what s/he is telling them. It isn’t a requirement (my subject coordinators have always been great that way) but to me it is a part of good teaching. I am coming onto campus more often.
The end of session. I am buried under a virtual pile of assignments. Around marking time particularly my existence becomes diminished to the size of my tiny spare room office. My daughter whines for me plaintively from the other side of a closed door while I mark long into the night. The rate of payment for marking paid by some unis doesn’t account for adequate feedback, and barely allows a marker to read an assignment more than once. I provide it anyway, against the advice of my colleagues and subject coordinator. Marking is a sacrifice our entire family makes; my husband, my 4 year old daughter, and myself, in order to allow me to do the thing I once-enjoyed but now I’m not so sure.
After session. The assignments have been handed back, or uploaded to the learning platform. I have attended the second of only two paid meetings allocated for the session and my work was found to be satisfactory. I am no longer able to use my temporarily assigned office so there’s no point hanging about, that much is clear. The above pattern is repeated for the second session.
And you know what happens at the end of every year? I say “fuck this”. I rage. I bitch and moan like an impotent jerk about how I am getting exploited and how I refuse to put up with it any longer. I attend end-of-year parties and drink to a new beginning. I ask myself who I would be if I judged myself by different parameters, who The Smart Casual would be if she existed outside of the institution.
January rolls around and I miss it. I fucking miss it. I tell myself it wasn’t that bad last year. Sure you don’t have an office. Sure you are isolated and fatigued and work for apprentice wages. But the flexibility is good right? And the students, you love the interactions with the students! You get along great with your casual colleagues, too. And besides, what else would you even do?
I am aware of this cycle, because I have lived out some variation of it for the last ten years. The byproduct of being a long term casual is that I have started to think of myself and my labour as not having value, because that is how it is treated. I am dispensable. My employment is precarious. I am underpaid. If I am all of these things then I must be pretty shit mustn’t I? On Twitter Josh Boldt summed it up succinctly when he Tweeted: “the psychological impact of contingency can be the most crippling“.
So if the current situation isn’t that great and the future opportunities are practically non-existent, what’s keeping people around? For me I think it is partially because I have given so much of my time and energy to these ideals that my identity has become inextricably linked to academia. Which is bizarre because ‘academic tutor’ is a position others often hold in high regard. People are sometimes impressed when I tell them what I do.. impressed! Which is ironic to me because I sometimes feel like the least important person on campus.
2014 is a turning point for me. As I have posted about before, I am going to set unprecedented boundaries in terms of my workload. I plan to be proactive in terms of communicating my needs and limitations to my full-time peers and colleagues, and maybe, just maybe, I will be able to focus on all of the things I love about teaching at university. Yeah there are sector wide institutional issues with casualisation that aren’t going away any time soon, but there are also issues with ME I’ve got to work on too. I take complete ownership of that. I remain optimistic that things can and will change, on both fronts. The outcome could be that my conditions improve and I start to feel good about what I do again. Or it could be that I am quietly and unceremoniously dropped off the list of suitable candidates for teaching. Either way I know that I tried to make things better. I honestly believe that it can be better.