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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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.