Employment (In)security and Shame: Working Hard on Soft Money

For those of you who are familiar with my blog, you would know that I am a long term casual academic, who last year was able to gain fractional employment within the tertiary sector under a short term contract as a professional member of staff. I am very fortunate in that this opportunity has afforded me a modicum of security and financial stability. This set of circumstances occurred at both a good and bad time for me. Last year my Dad became ill with liver cancer and died, while earlier this year my husband had to go undergo spinal surgery and is unable to work full-time while he is in recovery. In my writing I have acknowledged both my extreme privilege in being able to access paid leave concessions during these stressful experiences, while also acknowledging that the precariousness of my working situation has meant that I have never quite felt comfortable enough in my position to take full advantage of them. I am employed year-to-year and it just so happened that I was in the position of having to apply for my own position just a short time after having buried my Dad.

Needless to say, 2014 wasn’t the best year for me.

However due to my hard work, and the successes of my project, I am now acknowledged on my institution’s public webpages as a member of staff. From the outside it may appear that I may have even made it. I am liked and respected, perhaps even valued by my colleagues and peers. However the nature of my employment has meant that I have never felt like I was properly a part of the institution. Still no tinsel for me.

And soon I may not be. I very recently learned that the grant body which funds my position may be withdrawing their support for my project into 2016. Not because of any wrongdoing on my part. Not because of any dissatisfaction from the student participants of the project I am a part of, if anything the opposite is true. Not because of anyone’s individual cruelty, this is the system and the system works in its own obtuse way. Not because of budgetary mishandling or political maneouvreing or any kind of strategic misstep on my part, but simply because the priorities of this group has shifted onto other projects. This is simply the nature of soft funding, one minute you have it and the next you don’t. Now this decision isn’t fait accompli. I was tasked with writing an “impact statement” which would outline the risks to the university if funding was not to continue from this source. I wrote one, a damn good one, which made salient points about the welfare of the students and the need we were addressing. Later in the year I will learn of the outcome of this appeal. Until then I continue to work under the BAU model, making plans for the future and operating under the tenuous assumption that everything will be just fine.

I am in limbo. My position is funded up until 31 December 2015, but after that there is no certainty. If and when funding is secured (either from this original source, or internally sourced) then my job will still not likely be secure as, like last year, I will be put into the position of writing my own position description, and again applying for my own job. Sound familiar?

This is entirely circumstancial, and none of these events are a reflection of my skills, abilities, or dedication to the role that I have. I know this intellectually. I understand that a staggering 8 out of 10 workers employed within higher education in Australia are employed under either casual or short term contracts contracts (boy do I know). Lots of people know about it. The NTEU know about it. Actual Casuals know about. There has been an academic conference dedicated to these issues. I am not unlike so many of my friends and colleagues in the sector, insecure, overworked, and possibly soon even unemployed.

Then why do I feel so fucking ashamed?

Today I was on my phone at work, speaking to a friend on the phone about a conference submission we were working on. She asked me how I was and naturally, this was at the forefront of my mind. I hesitated in telling her, not because I thought she would judge me (quite the opposite in fact) but because I work in an open plan office and didn’t want the people I work with to know my secret. Because they might judge me. Because they might blame me. Because they might think I brought this upon myself with incompetence, or laziness, or stupidity.

I told my friend anyway, playing it off like it wasn’t a big deal, but I could feel my face burning. My dirty secret was out, a secret not mine to keep, a secret not a secret at all.

It has always been important to me that people know how hard I work, how dedicated I am to what I do. I am often the first to arrive in the office and among the last to leave. Now we are in the middle of Australia’s winter I frequently walk to my car in the dark, using my phone’s flashlight function to illuminate the way. I try I try I try so. fucking. hard.

Perhaps the root of my shame: I am a decidedly “working class” girl. My Dad was a hard-working electrician, my Mum “stayed at home”. We lived in a fibro house in what is classified as a Low SES area – my living situation had its own statistical category. We had a nice house and I am proud of how hard my Dad worked to provide for us, but we certainly were not “well off”. I was also the first in my family to attend university. My family was all incredibly proud of me for attending university, even if they didn’t always understand what I did there (my major was Communications, my Nan would tell people I studied primary school teaching, or psychology, or English literature, as the mood struck her). I had their full support to do the thing, even when the benefits of the thing became muddied. Even after I dropped out of my PhD there was still a certain amount of prestige for them associated with me being a “tutor” (now known as casual academic, a term which conveys prestige that tutor never did). But by withdrawing from the PhD, and never extending beyond the role of the casual academic, I feel like I failed my hardworking and principled family. Conversely I also failed the institution by never quite being good enough for them, ultimately failing to get the PhD that meant so much to me. By never properly escaping from the trap of casual academia all I proved (to myself, if no one else) was that I didn’t work hard enough. My academic successes were shared by my family and my institution, my failures were mine alone. Over time I came to reframe my misguided dedication to academia as a noble pursuit, a higher calling, to mask the shame I felt as having failed within a system in which there is little-to-no chance to succeed in the first place.

However a decade later my insistence in remaining loyal to the sector has paid off, in a fashion. I have secured work I enjoy. I am good at it. I am starting to build a profile. And now the chance exists that the rug will be pulled out from under me.

Richard Kuttner (cited in Bertram) notes that the ‘new’ economy has destabilised the central premise of the ‘old work economy’, that being that a worker’s commitment and loyal service to her employer would be rewarded over time with security and advancement opportunities. However, as Eva Bertram argues, with downsizing and deindustrialisation within the new economy, employment now comes with little to no security. As has long been discussed in regards to the increased casualisation and precarity of employment within the tertiary sector in particular, employee loyalty and commitment are a decidedly irrational decision. There is no security in higher education in Australia. While regular employment “provides the anchor for spatial and temporal aspects of daily life” (Wilson in Bertram) Bertram notes that:

Today however, incoherence and unpredictability are not only a hallmark of unemployment, but also are the characteristics of many jobs

Work in the tertiary sector in Australia is indeed both incoherent and unpredictable. It makes no sense for casual and limited term contract employees to be loyal to the tertiary institutions they work for. I know from my own experience that my loyalty, commitment, and dedication are unlikely to be acknowledged, let alone rewarded, in this current climate. Yet I was a casual academic for over a decade. I know of higher education workers who have worked for even longer on back-to-back limited-term contracts, only to find out at the eleventh hour after all of those years of service, that they didn’t have a job to return to after Christmas. I know of an exceptional academic who worked as a subject coordinator in one session, only to be scrambling for work the next. These stories aren’t the exception in higher education in Australia, they are the rule.

I knew all of those things. I know them intimately. I blog about them for goodness sake. And yet still I try. Still I commit. Still I return to my car in the dark. Still I miss the soccer practice and the school pick ups. Still I irrationally hope that my hard work will be rewarded with security, opportunities for advancement, recognition of my contribution.

As well as being ashamed, I think I am also angry. Over the twelve months I have sacrificed time I could have spent with my daughter, who this year entered kindergarten. I sacrificed time I could have used to look after myself both physically and emotionally following the illness and death of my Dad. My working class background, coupled with my long term history of precarious employment has left me feeling ashamed and guilty. I am angry at my own perceived childishness for investing in the seemingly naïve notion that hard work is always recognised and rewarded in due course. I am angry at myself. I am angry at being in this position yet again.

I know this problem is much bigger than me, my friends and colleagues, my Twitter allies. These are issues that need to be addressed at the systemic level. I don’t have answers, only a drive to see positive change in the sector that I am a part of, however tenuously. Join the #securework Tweetup on Friday and share your stories. I know I will.

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COLAs and DECRAs: a comparison of kindergarten and higher education

In February of this year my 5-year-old daughter started kindergarten. Starting school is one of those thoroughly ordinary and expected events in your child’s life that still manages to knock you sideways when it happens, not because of what it is but of what it represents. My child is independent, my child is brave, my child is smart, my child is growing up.

But this is not her story, this is mine.

On her first day of kindergarten Ms 5, Mr TSC, and the other kindergartener parents and their kids met at the school for a briefing. We all congregated under an outdoor shelter while teachers chastised us into silence, but then spoke far too quietly for most of us to hear. The gist of it was that our children were to enter into a new routine, that the expectations for them were to change. Likewise there was the acknowledgement that our roles as parents had shifted as well, but that we should rest assured that our children were to be supported and well cared for.

At least that’s what I think was being said. There were far too many parents and I was way up the back.

Then the expected routine was outlined. We were to drop our kids off at the COLA if we arrived before 8:30. If we arrived after 8:30 we were to take them directly to the classroom. Bags went here, umbrellas somewhere else. If x scenario was to happen then y was to be contacted. Information was spewed at us by a kindly, but harried (and again, softly spoken) assistant principal. We were told of SRCs and P and Cs. NAPLAN tests and Crunch and Sip. And I thought to myself WHAT THE HELL ARE THESE PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT?

I would steal surreptitious glances at my fellow parents, hoping beyond hope that I wasn’t the only one lost, awash in a sea of acronyms and jargon. Being someone who prepares for every possible scenario, I had been arrogant enough to assume that when it comes to kindy I would have it in the proverbial school bag. Boy was I wrong.

Later I was talking with my husband about the proposed drop off routine. “What the hell is a COLA?” I asked. He replied (as if this as the most obvious thing in the world) “a Covered Outdoor Learning Area”. My husband in his long-term association with the building industry had been tasked with building many of them under the Australian government’s Building the Education Revolution school’s stimulus scheme. Revenue offered to government schools as a part of this scheme was often used to build, amongst other things, large concreted spaces with rooves. On the plans he would see this acronym and came to learn what it meant. Later I struck up a conversation with another Mum while waiting for Ms 5 to come out of school. I confessed in that conspiratorial way that parents are wont to do “I didn’t even know what a COLA was until yesterday”. She turned to me and exclaimed “oh thank god, I thought it was just me!”.

Jargon can be defined as “unnecessarily technical language which provides polysyllabic replacements for perfectly adequate simple words“. Acronyms are a form of jargon, obscuring simple concepts behind codified letters, which then become part of a new language which make sense according to their own internal logic. I am not saying the abbreviations and language that was used on that first day of kindy don’t make perfectly rational and logical sense to the people who work in primary schools, or that they aren’t useful as signifiers, just that they didn’t make any bloody sense to me. The end result was that I felt like an idiot. and in order to hide my apparent idiocy I kept my ignorance to myself.

Anyone who has worked in higher education would agree with me when I say that it has its own internal language which you need to learn. Much like my daughter’s primary school, tertiary institutions create and adhere to language and logic of their own. Some acronyms are relevant to higher education providers across Australia (SSAF, DECRA). Others are more institutionally specific (TELT anyone? How about SMAH? Should I ask TEL or ITS?)

If you are a staff member at a tertiary institution, deeply embedded in the discourse of higher education, think back to being a student starting out in this space. Sure many of these acronyms are useful, and jargons can make sense, but their use is exclusionary. As a new student I remember being faced with acronyms for everything from staff members, to faculties, to support services. In orientation these were thrown about with such abandon that you would be forgiven for thinking that this language must be the norm and that you are an idiot for not knowing. I internalised that, as many students do, but used it as incentive to learn and become a part of the institution. I fear that not everyone has that resolve, and students who face extra challenges in accessing higher education don’t really need additional barriers put in their way. If higher education is already challenging for you then feeling like you don’t know your LD’s from your LLS can be a real pain in the A.

Similar problems exist for staff working in higher education. Mysterious internal workings are obscured in outdated websites and policy documents nobody reads. The person you talk to for annual leave is different to the person who arranges maternity leave, they both work in departments which are acronymed but you’re not sure what it is as the website hasn’t been updated and neither work after 3 anyway. The person who supports the phone is different to the department that supports your computers, and who the hell do I ring when video conference isn’t working? This environment fosters a great deal of self-sufficiency in higher education staff, and breeds a particular resilience in casual staff who often can’t, or don’t know how to access these support services and administrative staff at all. But it also divides the staff between those who know (or know someone who know) and those who flounder their way through the murky internal systems unique to their institution, taking six months to find out information that could have taken them five minutes had they have known the appropriate acronym to input into Google.

This critique isn’t unique to the tertiary sector, or any of the institutions where I have worked. This sector just happens to be the one I know best. But that day at my daughter’s school it hit me: it has taken me over a decade but I now have a passable understanding of the langauge and internal of higher education. For a long time the language and internal workings were foreign to me, and functioned to make me feel like an outsider, even after working as a casual (sorry ‘sessional academic’) for so long. I was familiar with the practices of higher education sure, and was more than comfortable with teaching and research, but I didn’t know the language. I could visit higher education, but it wasn’t my place.

Next time you refer a colleague to ITS, or a student to “the hub”; think about what you are asking them do, and what assumptions you are making. Not everyone knows to stand under the COLA until 8:30. Extend your institutional knowledge to your colleagues and students. Orientate your staff (particularly your casual staff, especially your casual staff) in the support networks and departments they should be aware of. When creating new departments and programs and roles, think about ensuring the transparency of the role, and the accessibility of the services to the people who need it most. A link on a website or a byline in an email isn’t enough: people need to know what it means. I extend that kindness to staff and students I know because know what it is to be the foreigner confused by the language of the locals. It makes you feel like an idiot, and worse, it makes you feel like an outsider.

Meet me under the COLA at 2:30 and I will tell you all about it.

Out of the Frying Pan and into the Toaster: the casual who coveted the fractional appointment

Anyone who has followed my blog would probably be aware that it has been a hell of a year. Among other things, I have gone from being a long-term sessional academic, to a professional staff member employed on a coveted fractional appointment. I am privileged enough to be able to continue to work within the sector I have spent so much of my time involved with and dedicated to. I have invested a lot into this sector and enjoy the challenges it presents.

In the past year I have established a profile for myself within this space. I have been the lead investigator on two successful grant applications for 2015. I work bloody hard, and invest much of my emotional and physical energy into making sure that my work is done efficiently, transparently, and to the highest possible standard.

Be that as it may, my contract is ending on the 31st of December. My position is going to be advertised, and I am going to apply for it. This isn’t a reflection on my capabilities, and was not the decision of anyone ‘up the chain’ from me to. Rather it is an interpretation of a clause within the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement that when my current funding ends, it is expected that my job will be advertised internally to my institution. Regardless of my performance, and ongoing responsibilities. My one comfort is that this situation is not unique to me, and affects many of my colleagues, as well as many across the sector.

To adopt the parlance of our time I am more than aware of my own privilege. I have had access to sick days, and family leave when my daughter has been unwell. I was able to reduce my hours in order to deal with the illness and subsequent death of my Dad. I have access to a computer in an open-plan office, and get a lot of satisfaction and meaning from my job. But much of my time recently has been absorbed not only with processing the death of my Dad, a husband who is unable to work due to a back injury, and a 5-year-old daughter who selfishly insists on eating every bloody night, on top of that I have been running the bureaucratic gamut of trying to ensure all of my ducks are in a row for my impending job application.

Most frustratingly, my job has yet to be advertised, and with the end date of my contract looming, it is appearing more and more unlikely that my new contract (were I successful in my application for the job I currently do) would be in place before the end of the year. There are a few side effects of this (other than sheer inconvenience) that I will outline:

  • As my position is only being advertised internally, I will need to be on a current contract in order to apply. If the appropriate measures are not put in place before end of year, the possibility exists that I would become ineligible to apply for my own job. The job that my colleague and I wrote successful grant application for. For the project that with our combined efforts we made a success.
  • If my contract was to end without me having secured ongoing employment, I will need to remove all of the files from my computer, in order to format it and return it to the Information Technology people. Likewise I will need to return swipe cards, and empty out the space in which I have been working. Effectively I would need to erase any evidence of my existence, only to bring it all back in again if and when my contract was reinstated.
  • I will lose any accrued leave entitlements (sick leave, long service leave), as any contracts you have need to run back-to-back in order for these to carry forward into the next year or period.
  • The project I am working on currently, into which I have invested so much emotional energy, would be in jeopardy without someone to continue the work or preparing for project activities ongoing.
  • In my unique circumstance I am afraid to reduce my hours or take too much advantage of the flexibility afforded to me following the death of my Dad, because a part of me worries that it will reflect badly on my work ethic and impact my chances of getting my job again next year.

People ‘in the know’ have advised me to pursue an extension on my contract, which would allow me to continue working, while the lumbering cogs of bureaucracy tumble into place. This will address some of the above issues (such as being ineligible to apply for my own position) however this only delays the stress, and doesn’t negate it entirely. An extension on my contract offers no guarantees as to my employment status ongoing, it only buys the institution time to fulfil their obligations while allowing my important work to continue. It is a band-aid, it isn’t a cure.

As I have stated before, I don’t think these decisions have come about as the result of any one individual’s cruelty or poor judgment. Rather I think they are the result of business decisions, decisions which take into account bottom lines and balancing cost centres, and not valuing the knowledge and experience of the staff you already have. Their personal circumstance. The emotional and psychological impact of precarious working conditions. Higher Education is a business, and while business has been better (the push for deregulation has suffered a setback);  it is still a money-making enterprise.

I was asked by someone, in a completely innocuous fashion, why my contracts should run consecutively. Why, it was posited to me, couldn’t I in fact start back again in Autumn session? There was no malice in this question, and my understanding was that it was in response to a ‘business case‘ type scenario. The appropriate boxes needed to be ticked, the right questions answered with the right key words, and HR would gloss smoothly over my position before examining the next. However the fact that question was even asked was honestly a shock to me. The scenario offered was that at some Australian institutions (thankfully not mine) the regular practice is to end contracts on the 15th of December, and not start then up again till mid way into the next month. The justification being that across a whole university, the savings are immense. No paid concessional days. No carry over of leave entitlements. This was explained to me in a matter-of-fact way that perversely makes sense in a literal ‘money comes in, money goes out’ way, but all I can see is the human cost. The emotional cost. The angry, disillusioned, and frankly tired staff who have spent the year working hard and achieving objectives and managing budgets, all to have to jump through the bureaucratic hoops of the employment process (complete with rigorous selection criteria and three-people intensive interview panels), all in order to continue on with the work they were already doing. And they don’t even get a bloody paid day off for Christmas.

I was sitting in my open-plan office today, trying-not-to-but-not-quite-avoiding-to overhear the conversations of some of my colleagues in this same space. They were talking about the leave they were planning to take over the new year period to spend time with their kids. These same colleagues have been busy putting up displays of tinsel and decorations on their cubicle walls. Leaving their mark in this shared space. At the same time I am receiving weekly emails reminding me of the end of my contract, reminding me that my place in this sector is temporary, contingent upon me yet again jumping through the bureaucratic hoops and again proving my worthiness. There is every chance I will be continuing my job next year, mostly because I am damn good at it. But that isn’t 100%. I don’t dare pin my tinsel to the cubicle wall in case I need to again pack it away in a month’s time, put it in the boot of my car, and take it home.

I think about the plight of sessional academics working in higher education currently. It was only six months ago that I was the exploited casual. Then it happened, I got the contracted appointment I had wanted for so long, with all of its associated perks and entitlements. I was and remain grateful for that opportunity. However now that the end of the year is fast approaching I am feeling that familiar unease that I don’t know what the next year will bring. I am experiencing again the itch, the compulsion to go above and beyond, to prove time and time again that I am worthy of working in the sector, that my ideas are valuable, that I am valuable. However rather than the hot-oil immersion of casual labour (13 intense weeks of teaching followed by months of radio silence, or inconsistent research opportunities), I am experiencing the slow burn of the short-term contract employee. The closer it comes to the time of my contract expiring the more I am sweating it out, my anxiety rising, the assurance I took in my own competence not shielding me from the growing feelings of unease. I sit at my desk and write and email and make plans for the coming year, all the time thinking: “…but what if I don’t get my job back?”

Keep me in your thoughts, along with all of your professional and academic colleagues on short-term contracts. One of the people you share a cubicle wall with in the office, or see in line at the coffee shop, or share a joke with at the copier, might not be a successful applicant for their own job. They might not be successful in getting the grant money to fund their own position or might bugger up the interview process… they are probably feeling the heat right now and who knows; they might well be toast.

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)

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.

Hard Working, Adaptable, and Skilled in Word

I have recently had reason to look at my resume. The last time I looked at it was when I was applying to be approved as a sessional teacher way back in the last half of 2013, so I thought it could do with some sprucing up in order to reflect the last six months of casual work.

To apply to be a sessional tutor you gather together your resume and your teaching evaluations, your transcript and your letters of recommendation, and you upload them to a website. Applying doesn’t guarantee you teaching hours, this only means that you are applying to be a part of the grab bag of sessional teachers that subject coordinators in your faculty have to choose from.This all happens in the second half of the year, and you don’t receive any kind of acknowledgement that you applied to be on this register, or are even made aware of your application being successful, until you are offered a contract in the mail in February/March of the following year. You can go up to nine months without knowing if you have been deemed worthy, and the process is closeted: there is no feedback or guidance offered as to what makes a candidate suitable, or not. As you can imagine there is a quite a lot of stress associated with this process, and sessional workers put a lot of effort into honing their CV’s in order to mollify this process.

For years now I have been putting together my resume and applying to be included on the list of chosen ones. Carefully updating my skills section to highlight all of the new competencies I have attained while working the various piecemeal contracts I have cobbled together.  In terms of the work I have actually done it seems impressive. A year doing learning platform support? Hmm that’s pretty key surely. Three months research into online teaching and collaboration tools. Who wouldn’t want to make use of that? Sessional teaching since 2003? Jesus that makes me old but surely I have learned a few tricks in that time. I studiously update my resume, feeling a sense of pride to see all of my hard work captured in this way, acknowledging to myself that all of these hours of work have amounted to something.

However I have come to realise that my resume itself is only useful for getting past the first stage of what I will loosely refer to as the ‘recruitment’ process. What attention or weight is given to these skills in the evaluation process by the shadowy figures doing the evaluating I am not entirely sure, although I suspect not a great deal. My point is however, once I am given the congratulatory letter plus contract which indicates I am indeed a part of the chosen few, these abilities are no longer important. It doesn’t matter if you have taught for ten years or one. If you are an expert in your institution’s learning platform or not. That you can WordPress or you can’t. To the institution that isn’t what you are and it isn’t what you represent. You are the sessional tutor. You facilitate the tutorials with the students, you mark the assignments, you reupload them, and after the session has passed you move on. Remember to forward your emails as your account will expire in 30 days. Thank you very much, don’t let the door hit you on the way out. I have crafted a set of skills and body of knowledge best suited for higher education and yet as it turns out, none of that is a “requirement” of sessional teaching.

The skills and abilities that I have gained by working within higher education for the past decade largely go unacknowledged within the very sector they are most relevant to. Rather than being viewed as an employee with a lot of skills to offer, I am viewed by the institution as useful only when I am deemed so for their uses. It seems trivial from the outside, but it is a situation which has become hurtful to me. Problems arise which affect myself and other members of the loosely assembled “teaching team”. In response, and if it is an area I have a lot of knowledge in (learning platform, a decade of marking) then I offer my advice. I word it carefully, deferentially, but still I take it upon myself to point out errors in Moodle sites and subject outlines with only the best of intentions. Wanting to be a team player. Wanting to contribute the things I know so that my practical understanding can be useful to others. These offers/advice largely get rebuffed or ignored or dismissed and it makes me disappointed. Not because I am underworked, far from it, but because I am under utilised. I have years of experience working in higher education, navigating these complex situations, and yet no one ever thinks to ask me what I think or ask for my advice. Moodle, and data management, and assessment design are now all concrete skills that I have, things that I know how to do. However these things are useful only within this very specific sector in which I have become entangled. And even then they are now not considered useful because no one wants to make use of them. If a casual Moodles in the woods et. al.?

I have backed myself into a corner, put all of my eggs in one basket, fucked myself over. I feel trapped within higher education and don’t know how to even begin to extricate myself. A decade of piecemeal higher educational experience has rendered me unemployable outside of this sector. It isn’t that I am incapable of working outside of higher education, it is that these skills and abilities aren’t easily translatable or transferable into other sectors. For example, some of the skills I have gained are quantifiable, but higher education specific (learning platform expertise, sessional teaching experience, marking and student data management) whereas others are not necessarily higher education specific, but are also not quantifiable (able to negotiate complex situations, socially aware, hard-working, dedicated, puts up with shit for years past when I should). My work experience is made up of a collection of short-term contracts and casual positions. I have performed just about every ‘office’ type function there is, there isn’t a platform or program I can’t learn, or a politically fraught situation I can’t deal with. Yet how do you put that into words? All of that is meaningless when your roles last 3 months at a time. When your title is simply ‘Sessional Tutor’ or ‘Research Assistant’ or ‘Project Officer’. As a casual I perform the same functions of any full-time staff member in the workplace and yet get credit for none of them. We are adaptable and able to learn on the fly, work long hours at multiple conflicting tasks and yet none of these titles really translate properly to the big, bad, outside world. Try putting “hard-working” on your resume and see how far it takes you.