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.

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.

The Smart Casual sure is Punctual!: on Mental Health and Academia

It is all too common to see PhD students work themselves to the point of physical and mental illness in order to complete their studies. It is less common to see PhD students who feel that they are under such pressure that the only option is suicide. But it does happen. There is a culture of acceptance around mental health issues in academia – and this needs to change. (source)

I have read a few recent pieces from The Guardian about mental health issues and academia. This has caused me to reflect upon my own experiences as a woman with OCD, a casual academic, and prior to that, an undergraduate and postgraduate student. In this post I am not speaking for all people with mental illness, or even all people who have OCD. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a term that encompasses a wide selection of behaviours and compulsions, and the experience that one person has is likely far different to that of another, even with the same diagnosed condition.

OCD has manifested itself in different ways for me, in different points of my life, however one thing has held true for me for as long as I can remember. The reason it took so long for me to realise I had anxiety because I didn’t know that was what it was. I became so used to being consumed by panic and worry that it never occurred to me that it was even a problem, it was and is my default setting. I am always fucking worried, or as I would tell myself, a “realist”.

I was not diagnosed with OCD until after my daughter had been born. My pregnancy had been horrendous to say the least and I had become extremely unwell. One observation I had made, even before this diagnosis, was that the behaviours I had adopted during my pregnancy (obsessive thoughts, rituals, obsessive Googling) were just an extreme manifestation of behaviors I had experienced since I was a teenager. However many of these could easily be written off as quirks, or eccentricities. I have always been a “worrier” and come from a long line of worriers. My Mum is a superhero whose superpower is the ability to leap to the worst conclusion in a single bound and I found that I followed suit. I used to do silly things, that I recognised as being silly as I was doing them. The pegs on the line had to match in colour on a single piece of clothing or something would happen to my brother. That is ridiculous. I know it’s ridiculous, but it was an easy enough ritual to do, would make me feel relieved once I had done it, so really what was the harm?

Insidious.

I was never particularly successful at high school, a point that some people find surprising given the academic aptitude I displayed once I got to university. The only subject I gave a shit about was 3 unit English. Whether or not that still exists or how that system works I have no idea, but that’s what it was called in the shadowy era known as the late 90s.  I got to uni and I crashed head first into Cultural Studies and English and Sociology and fell in love. I loved the thick books of photocopied readings full of Stuart Hall and Foucault and Dorothy Porter. I loved the writing and the reading and the discussions. I loved discursive analysis and semiotics and ate it all up. What I didn’t realise at the time was that I began to engage in behaviours which were unhealthy, and perhaps even damaging, but because these equalled success within the academic context it didn’t even occur to me to question them.

Inimical.

I lived only a ten minute walk away from campus, if that. However it became my mission to always be “on time” to class. However what is “on time” for me is actually grotesquely early for others. I had to be the first person in the classroom, I don’t know why but I had to be. I would sometimes get to class as early as 60 minutes before it was scheduled to start in order to avoid the shadowy spectre of ‘lateness’. I don’t know what would have happened if I had have been late, and I never asked myself the question of why it was such a big deal either. I would use this time alone in the classroom to review the readings and mentally prepare for class discussion.

The Smart Casual is so punctual!

I would hand in assignments at least a week earlier, if not more. This was in the pre-eLearning era which meant that I handed my beleaguered tutor a physical print out which they would then have to store until the assignment was actually due. They would be astonished, or annoyed, or confused. I had to do it, to give myself at least temporary respite from the anxiety that was a part of my daily existence. Once I had handed it in I would feel okay, it was one less thing on the list. Why would I want to leave it until the night before when I could relieve some of that grinding worry by getting it out-of-the-way a month or so before?

The Smart Casual is so organised!

My marks were of the utmost importance to me. If I didn’t get at least a D I would be devastated, and to be honest less than a HD made me profoundly unhappy. I worked and stressed and worried and in the last two years of my undergraduate degree I got a HD average, but at what cost? I wasn’t in any social clubs, I had only a small group of friends, and I worked only short-term temp jobs between sessions in order to make my studies my absolute number 1 top priority above all else. My only respite was Thursday “uni night” drinking sessions where I would drink to get drunk. Drinking culture was a massive part of undergraduate life so this wouldn’t have even stuck out as unusual. I drank to escape my own stupid mind.

The Smart Casual is so smart!

Now I am not arguing that being punctual and organised and smart aren’t all good qualities to have, because they are in fact all exceptional qualities to have and will serve you well both in the workplace, and in life generally. However they must also be weighed against the personal cost that they present. However to me none of the above ‘symptoms’ I mentioned signalled that something was wrong. I cast these behaviours in a different light: they instead meant that I was a born academic, I hit the milestones, I got the marks, I submitted the First Class Honours thesis and if constant “worry” was what it took to get it done, well so be it.

It is this element of my personality that has brought me the most personal success and recognition, is also a part of me that has caused me the most anguish. It was my (unrecognised and undiagnosed) OCD that was part of the reason I dropped out of my PhD without seeking assistance or guidance from anyone else. I had been so successful as an undergraduate, I never needed help to get the HD’s, so it seemed to be an admission of failure to put my hand up and say “help me”. I didn’t want to need help. I had worked as an undergraduate in isolation and it had got me places, I don’t know why this stopped working when I was a PhD student.  I think it was the isolation, the fatigue of working on a massive project with seemingly no end in sight. I felt like I was a burden to my PhD supervisors. Coupled with the breakdown of a long-term relationship it got to the point where the only option I had was to walk away. While I did what I had to do to cope at the time, I have regretted that decision ever since.

I have learned to recognise these unhealthy patterns in myself now. While I have learned to temper my more extreme tendencies, these patterns still remain. I am early to work. I get things done always. Deadlines are not a challenge to me, as the only way to avoid the extreme anxiety they cause in me is to face them head on and get that shit done. The point of this post is that I understand the pressures that undergraduate and postgraduate studies can cause, and I empathise with the myriad ways that students may usocd-nightmare-memee to cope. Many students procrastinate, I could never do it myself but I get that is what works for some.

OCD has kind of become a buzzword, shorthand for ‘anal retentive’ or ‘obsessed with cleanliness’. Image macros about OCD make it about patterns and hand-washing. That’s not my thing. My house is almost always a shitfight, and a crooked picture or mismatched pair of socks has zero impact on my well-being. According to Jeff Szymanski, OCD in pop culture tends to focus on the disorder as being “cartoon-like” with individuals “portrayed as eccentric, sociopathic, or dismissively (just another hand washer)” (source).  The reality of OCD is much messier. Yes it can be hand-washing, and Monk style obsessive counting and cleaning, those are real manifestations, but they are not the only manifestations. Really OCD just refers to the myriad of ways that different people choose to alleviate their extreme symptoms of anxiety. I was and am a master of keeping my symptoms imperceptible. I don’t scream or swing from the rafters or scream obscenities at the train station therefore I must be okay. Except sometimes I’m not.

I have visited friends who’ve said offhand remarks like “I am so OCD about my dvd collection” or “I am so OCD about cleaning” and while I get it, it also makes me sad because it completely dismisses the reality for me and others who have this particular brand of mental illness. Our painful reality becomes a quirky idiosyncrasy. I don’t take it personally, the people who have said these things are almost always the most caring and empathetic people I know, but it reminds me that there is a thing wrong with me, a thing that is somehow good but also bad, a thing that makes me strange and wrong but also punctual and smart.

If you are reading this and it strikes a chord then I urge you to reach out to people around you. Some people get driven to the point of illness by the stresses of academia and this isn’t okay. For others, academia just exacerbates the tendencies that already exist, and that’s not okay either. Don’t drop out. Don’t disappear. Don’t think that you are lesser than, or weird, or sick. It’s okay to be a worrier, it’s not okay to be consumed by worry. Your campus should have mental health facilities available for both students and staff, please make use of them. If you are experiencing more urgent issues and are in Australia then call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

An Illustrated guide to the academic session (for a casual)

I have shared an ongoing joke with my brother over the last few years. It is that every year follows a similar pattern, and he can anticipate the theme of our weekly dinners based around the time of year it is. I am nothing if not predictable! The pattern is as follows:

Patrick Star's To Do listI start off the year pining for mental stimulation that only casual teaching can provide. It is a long time between drinks for casual academics if you don’t have any other projects, or thesis writing, or teaching over summer session, so by the time late January rolls around I have usually started putting out feelers via email to try to locate some work, or am responding to requests for the same. Around this time I also start to reconnect with my casual colleagues, enquiring if there are “any hours” going begging. This pre-session time reeks of quiet desperation, wherein my colleagues and I are wanting to line up the employment which will sustain us through the next 6 months.

My enthusiasm dips sligShit on my dreamshtly in the weeks just prior to session starting. Organising my one-hour-a-week office space usually takes multiple trips onto campus. More and more emails making demands on my time find their way into my inbox. Casuals have to, for a reason that is never adequately explained, provide a copy of their birth certificates. Having been employed at this same institution previously for any length of time apparently doesn’t preclude you from this.

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Cue the first few weeks of session. For want of a better term I am PUMPED. I am excited to get into the classroom with the students, I am excited to really get my teeth into the readings and the assignments. It doesn’t matter how many times I explain, I still receive emails from students in these first few weeks asking if they can see me at obscure times, outside of my consultation times. I ask if we can schedule an appointment at this time, or perhaps talk over the phone. I suspect they think I am fobbing them off. Turns out there aren’t enough paid hours in the day to read the readings, prepare for class, and handle the many requests for help I field from students who are overwhelmed by the demands of higher education.

I have to add the printer to thLLfHme shared PC I am allocated. I know how to do this, however all of the printers on the system have vague names that give no indication of their location within the labyrinthine building I am located in. If I do manage to link my PC to a printer, and then actually find the printer within the building, chances are it is out of paper. Or ink.

Hell_are_youI dread using the photocopier. As a long-term casual academic, I am more than familiar with most of the faculty administration staff. But if I cross paths with someone new then I will likely find myself subtly interrogated: “who are you teaching for/what days are you in/don’t think I have seen you before”. To get around this I will minimise photocopying I have to do, which is easy to justify with environmental concerns. Or I will photocopy earlier in the morning when the building is empty, photocopies I then have to lug around with me for the rest of the day.

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I enjoy watching the lectures, but am doing it at home, im my own time, on my own internet. My speakers are broken so the sound isn’t the best but if I lean close I can just hear it.

 Mid-session I am sick of the parking situation. It is $9 a day for casual parking, which still relies on their even being a space for me to park in. My daughter is usually the first to be dropped off at daycare so I can hopefully find a spot on campus. If I don’t find a spot on campus I will have to park on the street, which means an extra 15 minute walk after work. This could mean the difference between pickingcar my daughter up on time, or picking her up late, which incurs a hefty penalty. I carry around piles of text books, markers, draft assignments, and my own supplies in an overstrained backpack as I have nowhere to leave them. I don’t have a room in which to leave it so I take it everywhere, including lunch and meetings. I have the tendency to become irritated with my colleagues if they use over their allotted hour in our shared office space. If they run over their hour that causes me to start late, and run over my hour, or get less shit done that I intended to do.

By late session I am stressed. The hourly rate I am paid has been blown out of the water with extra duties. A student plagiarising equaThe Simsls hours of unpaid work. My students want more of me than I am paid to give, but often I will give it any way because to do otherwise runs counter to my academic ideals. It takes an hour to reupload marked assignments to the learning platform. I do this from home because I refuse to hot desk, but as a result I am using my own internet. My Twitter notifications blow up on the night the essay is due and I am online a lot more.

I haven’t been paid to attend all of the meetings I have instigated. I want to meet with the subject coordinator to make sure we are a united front, that what I am telling my students is not different from what s/he is telling them. It isn’t a requirement (my subject coordinators have always been great that way) but to me it is a part of good teaching. I am coming onto campus more often.

The end of session. I am buried under a virtual pile of assignments. Around marking time particularly my existence becomes diminished to the size of my tiny spare room office. My daughter whines for me plaintively from the other side tumblr_muxqpy814F1qkp0mmo1_500of a closed door while I mark long into the night. The rate of payment for marking paid by some unis doesn’t account for adequate feedback, and barely allows a marker to read an assignment more than once. I provide it anyway, against the advice of my colleagues and subject coordinator. Marking is a sacrifice our entire family makes; my husband, my 4 year old daughter, and myself,  in order to allow me to do the thing I once-enjoyed but now I’m not so sure.

After session. The assignments have been handed back, or uploaded to the learning platform. I have attended the second of only two paid meetings allocated for the session and my work was found to be satisfactory. I am no longer able to use my temporarily assigned office so there’s no point hanging about, that much is clear. The above pattern is repeated for the second session.whining

And you know what happens at the end of every year? I say “fuck this”. I rage. I bitch and moan like an impotent jerk about how I am getting exploited and how I refuse to put up with it any longer. I attend end-of-year parties and drink to a new beginning. I ask myself who I would be if I judged myself by different parameters, who The Smart Casual would be if she existed outside of the institution.

January rolls around and I miss it. I fucking miss it. I tell myself it wasn’t that bad last year. Sure you don’t have an office. Sure you are isolated and fatigued and work for apprentice wages. But the flexibility is good right? And the students, you love the interactions with the students! You get along great with your casual colleagues, too. And besides, what else would you even do?i-never-make-the-same-mistake-twice-ecard

I am aware of this cycle, because I have lived out some variation of it for the last ten years. The byproduct of being a long term casual is that I have started to think of myself and my labour as not having value, because that is how it is treated. I am dispensable. My employment is precarious. I am underpaid. If I am all of these things then I must be pretty shit mustn’t I? On Twitter Josh Boldt summed it up succinctly when he Tweeted: “the psychological impact of contingency can be the most crippling“.

So if the current situation isn’t that great and the future opportunities are practically non-existent, what’s keeping people around? For me I think it is partially because I have given so much of my time and energy to these ideals that my identity has become inextricably linked to academia. Which is bizarre because ‘academic tutor’ is a position others often hold in high regard. People are sometimes impressed when I tell them what I do.. impressed! Which is ironic to me because I sometimes feel like the least important person on campus.0CcEoX3

2014 is a turning point for me. As I have posted about before, I am going to set unprecedented boundaries in terms of my workload. I plan to be proactive in terms of communicating my needs and limitations to my full-time peers and colleagues, and maybe, just maybe, I will be able to focus on all of the things I love about teaching at university. Yeah there are sector wide institutional issues with casualisation that aren’t going away any time soon, but there are also issues with ME I’ve got to work on too.  I take complete ownership of that. I remain optimistic that things can and will change, on both fronts. The outcome could be that my conditions improve and I start to feel good about what I do again. Or it could be that I am quietly and unceremoniously dropped off the list of suitable candidates for teaching. Either way I know that I tried to make things better. I honestly believe that it can be better.

Except for marking. That’s always gonna suck.  marking

Suggestions for ways to improve your relationship with your casual colleagues

After many Twitter-based discussions regarding the state of casualisation within the higher education sector affecting academic staff, general staff, and professional staff alike, I have decided to write a list of suggestions to take on board when you are communicating with your casual colleagues. Some of these are specific to academics, while others apply to casual colleagues more generally. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list. Make your own suggestions in the comments.

The anecdotes and examples are drawn both from my own experiences, and those of my peers. Thanks to those of you who contributed your stories.

1) Don’t liken your situation to that of your casual colleagues, especially if they are not comparable.

This situation can manifest in a few ways, but the crux of the issue is this: sometimes full-time staff make demands on the time and energy of their casual colleagues without taking the scope and limitations of our casual, limited-hours contracts into account. For example, if we come to you concerned that the assignments we are marking have no defined upper word limit, don’t dismiss us with “I have a lot of marking to do as well”. The thing is you don’t get to compare your situation to ours because you have the ability to do something about it. Casual tutors are paid a flat rate for marking which assumes a certain amount of words per student, so marking assignments that are 3000 words, as opposed to the paid rate of 1500 words, makes a big impact on the time we spend doing it and how much we will eventually get paid for our labour. You have a full-time position and an office, whereas we are oftentimes marking from home at 3 in the morning around caring responsibilities, thesis writing, and other employment. NOT the same.

Similarly, don’t demand that we call you from home, or ‘glance over’ something, or come onto campus unnecessarily. Separately these things amount to being ‘not a big deal’ and may only register to you as an inconvenience. However what is not a ‘big deal’ for you may in fact be a huge deal for us as this is time and expense that we aren’t reimbursed for. That’s how these minor inconveniences have come to encroach on so much of our time, because they are incremental.

     WHAT YOU CAN DO INSTEAD: Be mindful not to overload us with work that is outside of the scope of our casual contracts. Set strict word limits and take care to design assignments and prepare course content which is mindful of these limitations. Be supportive of our concerns, and when we come to you with an issue relating to the workload, please LISTEN.

2) Don’t refer to us in the plural

Don’t refer to my casual colleagues and I as “the casuals” or “the team” when you actually are referring to me. For example, if you receive work that needs to be assigned to me then please use my name. Say: “I will see if The Smart Casual is able to do that” not “I will get one of the casuals to do that”. Your casual colleagues are not an amorphous, interchangeable blob of work doers, or free floating heads who seem to magically appear whenever unpleasant things need to be done.

     WHAT YOU CAN DO INSTEAD: Include us in these conversations as full and equal participants. When you speak to us think about how you would feel to be talked to/communicated with in this way. This goes beyond casual/full-time relations and is just common courtesy.

3) Don’t dismiss us when we want to know more about the future of the project you want us to work on together

For casual staff within higher education, our employment is precarious and piecemeal. We have to give careful consideration to the projects we take on, and those we choose to reject. If we come to you wanting to know if the project is going to be ongoing, or what you see our role as being, then please be candid. No funding? Fine. No future? No problem. But don’t dismiss us and don’t give us false hope. The time commitment and deadlines also play a major factor in our decision making, so let us know as much as you know so we are able to make an informed decision.

     WHAT YOU CAN DO INSTEAD: Don’t take our participation for granted. Instead, ask how are we going and if your proposed project is likely to fit into our schedule. We have many conflicting priorities and don’t just exist when it is convenient to you.

4) Do value and acknowledge the contribution we make.

Casuals work really hard. Take notice of that. You don’t have to throw us a parade, but a simple thanks at the end of session goes a long way, maybe even a cup of coffee (on your dime) can make us feel less like the hired help and more like your peer and colleague. Similarly…

5) Don’t forget we exist in the time between projects.

To be an ally to your casual colleagues you should keep them in the loop. When the working relationship is over, the marks have been submitted and the essays handed back, maybe invite your casual colleagues to talk about future projects, their kids, whatever. This may appear to be in contrast with what is set out in point 1) about coming onto campus unneccesarily however just being invited would go a long way to making us feel as if we are a part of our campus’ community.

6) Don’t comment on the personal appearance of your female colleagues.

I am not going to explain this one. Comment on the contribution we make in the workplace. Give us feedback on work we have submitted to you. Ask our opinion even, but don’t draw attention to things that are irrelevant to our interactions within the workplace. You may consider it to be friendly banter, but the power dynamic is as such that we may not feel comfortable having to defend our sartorial choices to you.

[Please note: that faux leather jacket is not an “affectation”, the word you are looking for is “awesome”. But regardless, please don’t]

7) Don’t pay lipservice to the idea of the ‘team’ and then operate the workplace based on a caste system.

The term is meaningless buzz unless there is real commitment to it. Team doesn’t just mean “people who work in the same room as me sometimes”. There is nothing more patronising than attempting to use empty team rhetoric to motivate adults. And think about what you are communicating to your casual colleague by asking them to hold down the fort so the full-timers can attend the department Christmas party… two years in a row.

     WHAT YOU CAN DO INSTEAD: Create open communication channels, and check in with all team members to see how they are moving towards their professional goals. Don’t just talk about “the team”, facilitate it on our behalf. Help your casual colleagues by fighting for paid meetings so we can discuss issues and not feel so bloody isolated. If you are aware that the Faculty or Department you are working in is holding an event then make sure the casual members of your team are included. Not just cc’d into the email mind you, but that they feel that they would be welcome to come. At the very least, make an attempt to have all team members in the same room at the same time at least once every few months. Nothing makes me sadder than realising that it has been months since I have seen a colleague in person, because our roster/schedules have us passing like ships in the night.

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I think we can all agree that the system is broken. Full-time positions are unlikely to materialise in the immediate future, however that doesn’t mean we can’t start to think of more immediate and direct ways we can foster a healthier and more balanced work environment for all workers within higher education. What are your thoughts?

Casual Academia as a “calling” and why I won’t be picking up after 5pm anymore

I was prompted to write this post following an illuminating conversation I had with a colleague of mine regarding the ways that casual academics model unhealthy work practices for students. I doubt I can do it justice, but these are my reflections on the conversation we had. Thanks again AW.

I have recently come to the conclusion that I have been doing my students a great disservice.

For those of you who have been following my blog you would be aware of the fact that I pride myself on my commitment to my position as an academic tutor. Beyond my in-class responsibilities I also check emails, monitor Twitter conversations, and read blogs well outside of business hours and into the weekend. I make myself available to my students for a few reasons I have already outlined: my feelings of inadequacy and my own perfectionist tendencies being major motivators. However one of the primary reasons I offer up so much of my time and energy to my students is that the conditions experienced by them are at odds with my own ideals of how they should be treated.

At Australian universities generally, the past decade has seen class numbers double, while actual face-to-face class hours for some students halved. While there was some spurious justifications cited that I won’t give credence to by repeating, the main reason was that as the bulk of teaching is done by casual academics who are employed under hourly contracts, what better way to cut costs than by halving the amount of hours they are paid to do. This has put many of us as casual academics in the position of trying to fit last year’s two hours worth of materials, into a one hour contact time. My casual colleagues and I are effectively trying to make up for the bureaucratic failings of the institution by investing our time and energy into making ourselves available and accessible to our understandably overwhelmed students. We are human beings and we care damn it! However in this process we (I) have unthinkingly committed myself to fulfilling the  role of being a “good educator” without thinking critically about what that actually entails, and about the broader implications of what I am doing for either my students, or for myself. This post is my attempt at rethinking some of my work practices from the locus of student welfare and outcomes.

I have a memory of a class I taught at the end of last year of which I am particularly ashamed. We were discussing changing working conditions in a Web 2.0 world, with particular reference to Melissa Gregg’s concept of ‘Presence Bleed’. Gregg defines Presence Bleed as:

[…]  the familiar experience whereby the location and time of work become secondary considerations faced with a ‘to do’ list that seems forever out of control. It not only explains the sense of responsibility workers feel in making themselves ready and willing to work beyond paid hours, but also captures the feeling of anxiety that arises in jobs that involve a never-ending schedule of tasks that must be fulfilled – especially since there are not enough workers to cover the load.

My students are increasingly being asked to spread themselves thinner and thinner. They work and study and have caring responsibilities and a whole fucking life outside of the institution, and as such already experience this presence bleed as a lived reality. However in this class I wanted them to think critically about the implications of this boundary-less existence, I wanted them to think about their own futures as potential knowledge workers graduating into an increasingly casualised and precarious workforce. But you know what I did instead? I stood in front of this room full of 20 year olds and when questioned on my own work practices said to them “don’t do what I do”.

What kind of weaksauce bullshit was that?

As students of the humanities I want to instill in them the notion of critical thinking linked to active change. These aren’t just abstract ideas communicated within the vacuum of the institution, these are theories and concepts and ideas that are meaningful, empowering, and worth consideration.

But that all came undone when I demonstrated to this room full of capable, reasoning adults, that I was a hypocrite.

Of course I didn’t intend for that to be the case. I thought I could serve as a warning to them, look upon me and weep undergraduates! Do not do what I have done! says the wise one from atop the ivory tower. What a load of bollocks. All I did was lose my credibility, and reinforce the idea that humanities scholarship is somehow distinct from the realities of the outside world. As if to say “here is what could happen in an ideal world, but we all know what happens in the real world”.

As casual academics it is time for us to ask ourselves: what are we modelling for our students by allowing ourselves to be exploited? Are we in fact doing them a favour by answering emails at 11pm on a Friday and taking on work far beyond the scope of our casual contracts? We justify it to ourselves with a number of accepted narratives: the students come to uni unprepared from a learning-by-rote highschool education, the students are crammed into classrooms, the students are under-resourced and over-committed, the students deserve more, and we are the ones to give it to them. And begrudgingly we do this knowing that most of our labour will not be monetarily rewarded because it is academic work and much like artists, our primary motivation should not be mercenary in nature. Nate Kreuter in his response to the brilliant ‘In the Name of Love‘ posits it thusly:

The common trope within which academics, and indeed educators at all levels, undertake their work as a “calling,” and out of love, is a trope that marginalises educational work within our broader cultural landscape. Some of the ramifications are hard to measure, such as declining respect for the ethical, community-serving, and indispensable profession of teaching. Other ramifications are quite tangible, as salaries are far outstripped by inflation while workloads simultaneously increase.

As casual academics we are trapped within an exploitative system which undervalues our labour, and we allow this to happen because the narrative exists that teaching at an academic institution is its own reward. Regardless of the hours of study that it took to get there, or the multitude of skills we have developed along the way to become skilled and empathic educators: We do it because We love it. Because of this, open and honest discussions with the our full-time peers about money and lived working conditions feel somehow crass and wrong. Our resentments simmer under the table, we have whispered conversations with our fellow casual colleagues in the hallways “I marked double the word limit last night” “it took me an hour to upload the assignments”, but it is almost like it is our cross to bear, the implicit cost to being involved in the supposedly prestigious field of academia, and for “doing what we love”. We are all in this together, it is about outcomes isn’t it? That sounds noble and worthwhile and we buy into it, which is a disservice to us, and our students.

Likewise Tokumitsu cites Sarah Brouillette who argues:

… our faith that our work offers non-material rewards, and is more integral to our identity than a “regular” job would be, makes us ideal employees when the goal of management is to extract our labor’s maximum value at minimum cost.

But the thing is, while being a tutor is one of the most rewarding and enriching positions I have ever done, it is still a job. I deserve to get paid for my labour, and to set boundaries which accommodate for my life outside of the academy. That doesn’t make me mercenary to expect fair compensation for my time and skills. I don’t want exploitation and burnout for myself, and I especially don’t want that for the students I ultimately feel responsible for.

I acknowledge that I made a mistake. I fucked up. I had the best of intentions, but I modelled for my students some work practices that are unhealthy and unsustainable. With my actions I told them it was okay to be exploited. I told them it was okay to make yourself available to your employer for their own purposes and to bear the weight of an unjust system. That their working life could bleed into every other aspect of their life and that that was okay. And so for that reason I am going to take a small but significant stand. I am not going to answer emails outside of business hours, I am not going to check my Twitter while playing with my daughter. I am going to work really hard to reestablish some boundaries and balanced work practices into my life, and believe it or not, I am doing it for my students.