Technological innovation and the invisible labour of casuals

There are discussions happening, both within Australia, and within the broader global community, about the use of casualised labour within higher education. There are discussions happening about the use of technology to innovate learning and teaching practices within higher education. One of these is largely happening in privately managed online spaces, and within mediated online spaces. One is happening in public talks and conferences, and is sponsored by private enterprise and the institutions themselves.

The issue I can see is that these issues are inextricably linked, and yet my fear is that the voice of casual academic staff members is being lost in this push towards digital learning and the push to be seen to adopt innovative teaching practices. Research coming out of the LH Martin Institute indicates that numbers of casual academics now outnumber full-time academic staff. It has been my experience that the bulk of face-to-face contact that students have of their ‘learning experience’ is with staff members who are operating under the limitations of a casual contract. The inherent restrictions of the hourly contract have been explored by myself and others for some time, but the increasing use of technology within the classroom, and as a normalised part of the learning environment within higher education, brings with it an entirely new set of problems for sessional academics.

I have had cause recently to reflect critically upon the role that technology plays in learning and teaching within higher education.  The use of technology in relation to student experience and engagement are usually central (for a critical perspective on the student experience I would look no further than the blog Little Brown Lady, I will not speak to that in this post). However in my reading and exploration of this area I find myself increasingly troubled by the way the labour of casual workers is obscured, or more often than not, completely disavowed. There is a real buzz around the use of technology within teaching and learning practices in higher education, with the increased adoption of learning platforms such as Moodle, online assessments and quizzes, along with the increased use of public platforms for assessments such as Twitter and WordPress. Increasingly students are also being asked to create websites, animations, videos, and curate and manage an online presence. I wish I could get caught up in this rhetoric, but honestly all I can think is – what about the casuals?

Based on the analysis of the use of technologies in teaching, you could be forgiven for thinking that these platforms and technologies are the driving force in higher education currently. The students (apparently of their own volition) tweet and blog and create, apparently without any support or guidance from intermediary staff. Paradigms and diagrams and frameworks are created and discussed that place emphasis on subject and assessment design (of course) and student experience (central!) and the use of technology to create students with increased “employability” in a competitive workforce. However while much is written about the use of technology in teaching, but not as much attention is paid to the tension that exists when these technologies are being used by the exploited casual labourers of higher education: the sessional academics.

I am not a Luddite, if anything I consider myself fairly technologically proficient. Being a casual has actually been the driving force behind much of my current skill set. As a casual you can never afford to turn down work so I have found myself learning skills on the fly, in order to stay competitive in a casual workforce. This ‘training’ of sorts has rarely (if ever) been supported institutionally, and usually consists of watching YouTube videos, learning ‘on-the-job’, or relying on my network of colleagues for support to learn these skills and address these gaps. I have kept current with many technological innovations in order to support my addiction to casual teaching and keep myself employed. So… thanks for that I guess?

However I do take issue with the fact that sessional academics are essentially being ignored despite the central contribution they make to and within these online learning spaces. My primary concern is that sessional academics, being the primary point of contact for most students, are the usual go-to point when a student is experiencing issues with the technology. Contrary to popular belief, students do not spontaneously start to blog and tweet and create YouTube channels (well of course some do, but you understand my point). It seems to fit the popular narrative that students take to these activities like ducks to water, there is an acknowledgement that there can be a “period of transition” but then the technology somehow propels them to do all of the wonderful things that technology allows. Student outcomes are used as justification for these practices (look at this great blog! Look at this animation! Look at this YouTube channel!), and then little to no attention is paid to the fact that some students need support in order to bring them up to speed in the uses of these technologies and platforms. I am especially sensitive to the fact this support will likely be provided by a casual worker, whose skill set is otherwise not acknowledged, and who is grossly underpaid for all of the extra work that they do outside of marking and classroom teaching.

Sian Bayne and Jen Ross in their chapter ‘Digital Native and Digital Immigrant Discourses: a critique’, challenges many of the assumptions that drive this push towards the use of technology in online spaces. The authors unpack the binarised assumptions that underpin these two discourses (I really suggest you read it), and they pay particular attention to the effect that the uncritical adoption of these assumptions within academic discourse has on staff within higher education. The authors note that the uncritical adoption of the ‘digital immigrant/digital native’ binary implicitly disadvantages teaching staff:

The digital immigrant teacher always speaks from a position of insufficiency – an insufficiency she exposes whenever she is critical or reluctant where she should be willing – indeed eager – to change. Any argument can be dismissed if it is spoken in the accent of the immigrant. This fully reverses the more radical, and ever receding (Davies 2003) positioning of the academic, as the ‘notion of being an educational “professional” is …redefined, with notions of “autonomy” and “the right to be critical” replaced by “disinterestedness” and “accountability”’ (Usher and Edwards 1994, p.113). (2011, 163)

Staff voices (and in my observation, particularly the voices of the most disempowered staff members, the casuals) are silenced with this neat sleight of hand. Anyone who is critical of the use of technology within higher education can be easily dismissed as being “insufficient” as an academic and a teacher. The burden of technology is then borne particularly by casuals who internalise any concerns about the use of technology in teaching practices as being indicative of a personal failing. They then endeavour to improve their own skill set (which some would say is a positive outcome) and also take on the additional workload implicit in the use of online and learning platform mediated learning. Casuals who make waves aren’t likely to be casuals who secure ongoing employment after all.

Bayne and Ross, further argue that the increased use of technology in higher education is often posited as being driven from the ‘ground up’. That it is the students who want increased flexibility (absolutely), increased access to learning materials (who would argue) and hence more ‘digital stuff’ (aye there’s the rub). They argue: “The need for institutions and individual academics to change (to become more ‘digital’) is regularly justified by referral to student ‘needs’ which come to stand as proxy for market ‘needs'” (2011, 163). To unpack this further – voices of dissent are silenced in two ways. Students (actually the market) want ‘digital stuff’, and if you are a good teacher then you should want to help give it to them. If you (the staff member) can’t keep up, or feel the workload is too great, the onus is on you to change.

Honestly, this is a massive fuck you to casuals.

This uncritical acceptance of the narrative of technological determinism functions is two ways: technology is seen as the driving force behind changes within higher education, there is pressure for academic staff to either adopt this perspective or risk being seen as a Luddite, as well as out of touch with student needs. In this rush to adopt technologies (specifically the use of online platforms in assessment practices), I strongly suspect that the use of casual labour (specifically sessional academics on hourly contracts) in maintaining and monitoring the activities and interactions that take place between students within these online spaces, is at best dismissed, and at worst completely disavowed.

The increased incidence of assessment practices within public online spaces (Twitter, WordPress), has coincided with the increased visibility of academics within these same public online spaces. Also, in order to facilitate the practices of students who are expected to maintain a Twitter account for example, it stands to reason that the academics associated with the subject would have a twitter account. Twitter is a platform which works best when you utilise it conversationally (using hashtags, following conversations, contributing publically) and these are all practices I support. However the effect of this public performance is that students see you occupying these spaces as well and choose to interact with you. Which is great! I enjoy it and can definitely see the benefit to both students and staff (I actually really enjoy this aspect of teaching as well) however it is also work and should be acknowledged as such. The lines between my professional and private identities are obscured to the point of obliteration. This is not the fault of the student, but is more an issue implicit to the use of these technologies. You can’t offer students the flexibility of online platforms and spaces, you can’t imply that consultation hours and lectures are the way of the past, that they can access their learning anywhere and anytime, without it standing to reason that that flexibility extends to the availability of the academic staff as well.

This is all well and good if it is your subject,  and you are able to set these parameters. You are able to use the ‘outcomes’ of this subject to support your own research or raise your own profile. The only perceived ‘benefit’ to casuals is ‘flexibility’ of the working hours… which really means that they are expected to be available anywhere, and at any time. The labour of monitoring Twitter timelines, or checking the timestamps of blog posts, or reading comment threads, or bringing stressed students up to speed with technology they may not be familiar with, is not always acknowledged as marking, but it is also not acknowledged as part of teaching, it is just one of the many things a sessional academic is expected to do in silence if they want to continue working in higher education. People with permanent hours and office space (complete with a computer and internet access) come up with wonderful and innovative ideas concerning the use of technology in higher education. Ideas that casual staff then need to help implement, that casual staff need to support the students in achieving, and that casual staff commit their labour to, labour which happens behind the scenes, late at night or early in the morning, our faces reflected in the glow of our monitors and our mobile phone screens.

It could be argued that as workers in the free market we have the ability to choose what we do and do not do. This is true to the extent that I can put limits on my own time, however I cannot control what my colleagues do. In a competitive marketplace the casual staff are competing with each other for work. Student feedback can be used to support our application for sessional work each year. Casual workers are driven by the need to stay ‘current’ and be seen as compliant in the eyes of the full-time staff who chose to employ them, and also be seen as accessible and friendly to the students who act as the judge and jury to their performance of academia.

Ultimately there exists this point of tension. PhD students make up the majority of sessional academics that are entering the market each year. However with the recent changes in fee deregulation, there may end up being a drop in PhD enrolment. Casuals exist, their contribution can’t be disavowed for much longer as many of the promises of higher education hinge on their complicity. I don’t know how much longer this complicity can be relied upon. The burden of innovation sits heavy on the shoulders of casual labour. Consider this before engaging uncritically with the optimistic rhetoric of the use of technology in higher education.


A Long Time Coming (My Story Part 1)

I was enrolled in the second year of my Arts degree when I decided to devote myself to the pursuit of becoming a professional academic. I was enthusiastic, well-intentioned, and devastatingly naïve. I am not sure exactly what brand of academia I aspired to, and my understanding of academia was most likely wildly inaccurate and more of a piecemeal approximation of all of the best stereotypes of what I believed academics to be. Social justice activist? Check. Ardent Feminist researcher? Of course! Book lined offices and late morning starts? You better believe it. All I know is that I wanted to devote my time to researching things I believed to be meaningful, discussing and sharing my work in an environment which fostered collaboration and collegiality, and sharing knowledge and inspiring new generations of students in the same way I had been inspired as an undergraduate. I loved writing, I loved reading, I loved researching, my marks were outstanding, and thus academia seemed at the time to be the obvious endpoint for me. From this point onwards this is where my energy went. Other careers were simply not an option for me.

I graduated my undergraduate degree with First Class Honours, and went straight from this into my PhD research. I completed a literature review and impressed my primary supervisor with my progress. It was at this stage in mid 2003 I was enlisted to become a tutor for a subject being taught by a colleague.  As a tutor starting out all those many years ago I received no training or support in this practice. As a result I chose the path many academic staff take when they are at the starting point of their career: you fake it till you make it. I stood in the front of the classroom and emulated the kind of tutor I had always responded to. I was strict with readings and participation, I had exacting standards, I didn’t tolerate excuses, and I took myself Very Seriously™. I was (and still am) a very petite female, and often felt that I was being undermined, or that my authority was being questioned within the classroom. Whether or not this was actually the case is a question up for debate, but this is what I perceived, and thus reacted to. I wore a very specific ‘academic uniform’ of clothes that I thought would make me fit the mold of what academics wore. I didn’t wear anything I perceived to be ‘girly’ or feminine, as in my mind these were trivial pursuits and would mark me as someone who did not display the proper devotion to the academic ideal. At the time I was enrolled in my PhD there were a lot of men enrolled, and I think I felt pressure to fit in with the people around me. I had very strict ideas about what academics did, and said, and wore, and gosh darn it one way or another I was going to be that person!

As this period of time is over a decade ago my memories are hazy, although I know a few things to be true. The mistreatment of casual academics is not a recent phenomenon. For example, I remember going into the store room after hours to smuggle away my overhead projector slides, so as to avoid the ‘evil eye’ of the administrative staff who might not have known who I was. I hoarded whiteboard markers as they ran at a premium, and seemed to disappear from the supply closet as soon as they were restocked. I remember being questioned while waiting for the printer to spit out my copies (some things never change). I never felt part of the broader academic community, and even then was not included in any of the events that marked the academic calendar, but in my mind I think I saw this as part of the process of ‘paying my dues’, somewhat of a rite of passage that I would need to experience in order to become like the people I aspired to be. This treatment may have been shoddy sure, but it had an endpoint. When I graduated and joined ‘their’ ranks then things would be okay. My supervisor had warned me about the PhD drop-outs, the failures, the dreaded ‘non-finishers’. I was aware of that as a risk but I knew for certain that wouldn’t happen to me. I was different. Academia was my calling!

And for a while things really were pretty great. My PhD ran smoothly until my second year, where the long-term relationship I had been in came to a sudden and dramatic endpoint. The mistake I made and regret to this day was that my research focus was tied up in a community that my partner was loosely involved in, a community that shut its doors to me once my relationship had ceased, and a community I no longer felt comfortable being involved with at this point anyway. Within a six month period I lost my relationship, and my PhD stalled, before breaking down entirely. I moved out of the apartment I had shared with my now ex-partner and moved back in with my parents in disgrace. I was 24 years old and had spent the previous five and a half years preparing to become an academic. All of my time and mental energy had been spent working towards this goal. There was no plan B. I had never needed one, I was the exception to the rule remember.

Which is why I was as surprised as anyone when I had to line up at Centrelink in order to receive income support payments. I was even more surprised that despite having these years of study behind me, the first and only job I was offered 6 months out of my disastrous PhD was in a call centre. It was every bit as soul sucking and demeaning as it sounds. I was 24, miserable, and blamed myself for every event that preceded this point in my life. Graduate outcomes are pretty shit now, and let me tell you from experience, they weren’t that great in 2004 either. I was underqualified for the academic work I had aspired to, but grossly overqualified for anything else. The worst part was, I only blamed myself.

After a six month hiatus I ventured back into casual tutoring, which I combined with other casual and part-time employment to supplement this unreliable and irregular source of income. Knowing the alternative at this stage in my working career was working in a fucking call centre with recent high school graduates I was really happy to still have that opportunity afforded to me. I had always intended to return to my studies and complete my PhD, although likely in a different topic and area, however I still felt like a fraud. I internalised any negative treatment I was on the receiving end of as being what I deserved, and I even felt vaguely guilty about being given the opportunity to tutor at all, given that I was not enrolled in a PhD and was not likely to enrol in the near future due to personal circumstance.

Years passed. I worked many different jobs including a government position, got married, had a child, bought a house. When my child got older I returned to tutoring, seduced by the perceived flexibility of sessional teaching. I think I have always liked to hover on the edges of academia, flirting with the calling I once aspired to. This devotion to the academic ideal came at a high cost however. All the time I was “only” the casual, no permanency, no stability. Over the years as a sessional academic I have experienced increased responsibilities, decreased pay, and worst of all no acknowledgement from the broader community that the contribution my casual colleagues and I make even exists. Yet I hung in there, as have many of my friends and peers.

While many things about casual teaching have stayed the same (and if anything the conditions have worsened), I have changed a lot as a person. My outlook on teaching has softened a lot since I started a decade ago. I love interacting with students, learning from them, seeing what they bring to the table. I enjoy so much watching a class discussion where people are invested and engaged, where you can see they have been exposed to ideas perhaps for the first time. The upside of having dropped out of my PhD, and having made a complete balls-up of my academic dreams, was that I decided to take myself a little less seriously. I combined tutoring with youth work for a few years, where I worked with kids who had been kicked out of high school and were unable to complete their studies. My job was to find them work, or training, or something to do to get them off the dole essentially. For a few years these kids were everything to me, and that job bought so much satisfaction. It also taught me to meet people where they were, not where I think they should be. Helping these young people attain their goals was some of the most meaningful work I have ever been paid to do. The money was shit, the conditions were horrendous, and I will never go back, but it taught me so much and it is an opportunity for which I am grateful. Because of this experience I empathise with both the students and staff within higher education so much more than I ever did, all students, not just the super high achieving ones like I was. I have fun with teaching, I don’t let my fear of other people’s perceptions dictate my behaviour in the classroom, or outside of it for that matter. Here I am, I am a good tutor damn it, or at least well intentioned. As the saying goes, hell is paved with good intentions.

This brings me to today.

(Part 2 coming soon)