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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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.