The dream is dead, long live the dream

In a previous post I wrote about how casual employees within higher education (in this instance sessional academics) can have their skill set undermined and their experience dismissed, and how upsetting and marginalising that can be. In this piece I talked about the possibility of a permanent part-time contract eventuating for me, which would allow me to “put strict limits on what I was able to do and achieve, and not bear the burden of expectation of a casual”. I (rather uncritically) represented this contract as being a “beacon of hope” for me, that I would finally be able to forge myself a career within higher education, as opposed to the series of piecemeal contracts and project positions I had worked at up to this point. I posited that with this contract would come the ability to negotiate better conditions for myself, as well as successfully manage the project I had been given the responsibility for. A project that is important and meaningful and sorely needed.

I got the offer for this position on Friday.

Friday was an eventful day for me in other ways as well. I started the day standing in what was soon to be my ex-office, crying. In short the situation was this: my colleague and I had an office which we had worked in for months. I was notified that we had two weeks to vacate due to other people being allocated the space. This was not particularly surprising (space is at a premium where I work) and while I was not happy, I was open to talks about where we could be moved to and in what time frame. Fast forward a few days and all of a sudden the two weeks has turned into “yesterday” and my colleague is looking for boxes to hurriedly put our things into so we can move into a thoroughly inappropriate and alien space. She took action in a way that I was incapable of in that moment, while I stood crying. I was crying because I was frustrated and had no emotional reserves left with which to deal with the situation at hand. I was crying at the injustice of the bureaucratic methods that dictate my workplace. I was crying because I was being shuttled around like a pawn on a board with no thought given to my needs or the needs of the colleague who was also affected by this move. I cried because I tried so hard, and continued to try in the face of every stupid bureaucratic bungle and office fuck up and at that moment in time it appeared to not ever be doing a damn bit of good.

That’s the problem with bureaucracy: no one is to blame. I don’t ‘blame’ anyone for what happened on Friday. It isn’t that people actively dislike me, or the project, or my colleague. It isn’t that they want to actively undermine my project or what we are seeking to do. I understand 100% that this isn’t the case at all. It isn’t about people at all, it is in the innefability and inscrutability of bureaucracy which allows that to happen. The forms and the emails and the chain of command and the hierarchy does not leave room for days off or flexibility or humanity. When offices need to be moved, then apparently they need to be moved, no debate and no discussion. Sure, there may be policies in place which seek to protect the rights of working parents, or say that these things are accounted for. Let me assure you however, when you stand in your half empty ex-office, with the desks pulled away from the wall to allow the removal of the hardware, I didn’t feel very protected.

My colleague stood there and tried to comfort me. She was a bloody champion for me in those moments and I put way too much of an emotional burden on her on Friday, but she recognised a human in pain and helped me as she could. It wasn’t that the move was a big deal in and of itself, it’s more like death by a thousand pin pricks. Yeah having to move offices with one day’s notice was inconvenient. Yeah having someone come into your office on the ONE FREAKING DAY you’re not on campus and move your things around feels like a violation. Yeah being moved to a space which is wholly inappropriate and without being able to put any input or consultation into that decision-making process was annoying, but it wasn’t really any of those things either. It is the endless fighting that I am sick of. The endless negotiating for resources and wrangling with bureaucracy. A colleague who I whinged (read sobbed to) perfectly captured it when he said to me you get employed to do a job, then you spend all of your time and emotional labour fighting for the resources which would allow you to do that job. You spend so much time fighting for those resources that you don’t have any energy left to do the job you have been employed to do.

It all sounds so petty, the things I have had to put up with. The  emails chains I have been purposefully excluded from, promises made that end up disappearing into the ether, last-minute cancellations that function to undermine my authority, “collaborations” which end up with me doing the bulk of the work. I smiled through it and knuckled down and worked hard and accepted all of these things as a part of ‘the way it is’. In the back of my head though, I genuinely held onto the mythical contract as being my escape from the bullshit, that I would be granted some agency and recognition for the hard work I had been doing all along.

Which is why it was funny that the contract came into my inbox on Friday.

“Congratulations” said the email. I looked at this email from a borrowed computer in a borrowed office away from the drama of the morning’s move. This was the thing I had been waiting for, that I had been waiting for a decade probably. To me it had represented acceptance and recognition from the institution I had spent more than a decade of my life intimately involved with.

I studied at university. I became employed at university. I bought the academic ideal. I aspired to what I believed the ideal to me and beat myself up at my failure to unlock the appropriate badges. Higher education combined with my own mental illness created a monster who was forever seeking the approval of the institution. I posited “the contract” as representing, at least for me, my acceptance into the club. That the institution was finally saying I was “good enough”. When I had meetings with people who pointed out what a “massive leap” this position was going to be, how lucky I was to be getting this opportunity (were it ever to eventuate) then I took these in my stride, thinking I could prove myself when the time came, trying to ignore that they were dismissing over a decade of work experience with their words.

So reading this congratulatory email in this borrowed computer in this borrowed space I thought well… fuck. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. With a contract would come more responsibility sure, but it would bring with it more agency, the ability to better negotiate for the resources I sorely needed to do the job I had been employed specifically to do. And instead I felt more disempowered and disengaged and alienated than ever.

The email invited me to attend an induction, it told me I would be told how to access university systems and processes. I read this email with new eyes. “I have worked here since 2003” I thought “there isn’t a whole lot you can tell me I wouldn’t already know”. I looked over at the colleague who had shown me such kindness by allowing me to share her borrowed space while I attempted (wholly unsuccessfully) to pull myself together. As a casual she could access none of these support services. I felt sick and confused and torn. The contract I had longed for had finally arrived, but it did not equal the recognition and acknowledgement that I so sorely craved.

Monday morning came around and I went and sat in my newly appointed cubicle. I knew no one around me so I sat in silence for an entire work day. It was like Friday never happened. Like my entirely unprofessional outburst of emotion was silently erased and the only retribution I could make was by coming into work like the dutiful employee I am, and have always been. I had finally made it, but where was ‘it’ and what did it mean?

I will sign my contract this week, and hand in all of the appropriate copies of all of the appropriate forms to all of the appropriate people. I will attend my induction and smile at all of the right people, but with the new understanding that none of it means what I thought it meant. That for every casual who gets lifted out of the drudgery of casual employment there are ten who are left behind. That while this appointment will improve my situation in some ways, there are other ways in which it won’t. That my humanity will never be acknowledged by the machinations of bureaucracy, and it is only the people who I know that will see me for the human being that I am, and they can’t always help me anyway. That makes me sad.

So that’s why the dream is dead. Long live the dream.

3 thoughts on “The dream is dead, long live the dream

  1. Deep feeling for you. It’s so clearly not about people, *and* it so is. It so is. These days – this Friday you describe – and trying to convince ourselves that these days may improve, are the lived reality of the decisions and pettiness. It is not your pettiness or sensitivity. If anything emotions are invoked by this impersonal, offensive bullshit. I do hope things improve, and there is a congratulations for you in it all anyway. Truly.

    It’s kind of like the Federal Budget: it long ago stopped having a logic of its own. Not even destruction of lives for an ideological purpose, or crunching of bodies, minds, and psyches to move people and contracts around in an institution. I don’t know if rational argument with this runaway destruction for the sake of it is going to cut it. And word to all those who do argue.

    Maybe something far more strategic is the go. That is about the people. Not The People, but you. That includes the moments of being ‘unprofessional’ as the centre of the strategy.

    • I fear, after this latest budget, that conditions for all workers within highered (and elsewhere) are only going to get worse. That this fear and anxiety and precarity (even with a contract) are going to become more and more the norm.

      I refuse to feel guilty and ashamed for having a real human reaction to a shitty situation, but it is hard not to when these injustices are either ignored, or dismissed as part of the deal. If that is the deal I am not sure I want it anymore.

      Thanks for your kind words. I am happy there are still beautiful and decent humans working in this crazy system.

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