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)

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