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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hard Working, Adaptable, and Skilled in Word

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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?

“It’s not that bad” – acknowledging privilege when critiquing the ‘Adjunct Narrative’

Please note: In this blog post I use the term ‘adjunct’, as that is the nomenclature used by my casual colleagues in the US. It is not exactly interchangeable with “casual” as we use it in Australian higher education, which is why I did not just substitute it in. However the issues faced by adjuncts in the US are parallel to the ones faced by casual academics in Australia, and this is the position I am taking with this post.

At the moment there is an outpouring of adjunct/casual rage within the blogging world. There is a seething undercurrent of resentment and hostility, where my casual colleagues are sharing their adjunct stories and communicating outside of the parameters of the networks offered by their institution to forge friendships and alliances. Their seems to be consensus that casualised staff within the higher education sector are marginalised and excluded, that the system is essentially broken.

Except there isn’t consensus at all.

Amongst the blog posts by academics outraged, confused, and appalled by the conditions they (and by extension their students) are facing, there are the faint voices of disapproval, the dissenters whose main thesis appears to be: come on now, it’s not that bad. The latest contributor is Kelli Marshall, a lecturer at dePaul University. In her piece ‘Part-Time Professing: It’s Not All Gloom and Doom‘ she argues exactly this, that it isn’t that bad. In her title itself she downplays the experience of adjunct staff in the US by recasting their very real concerns and lived experiences as “doom and gloom”. In one fell swoop she acknowledges these experiences, and then completely disavows them.

One part of her post I find particularly problematic. After acknowledging the shitty things that her adjunct colleagues have endured (empathy), and then recounting her own tale of woe, she appears to flip the focus away from the administration. A slip of the hand and the blame shifts onto the adjuncts themselves.

I quote:

It’s Who You Know (and Knowing Yourself)

I’ll close with two bits of advice.

First, get to know people in your field. Whether through social media or conference networking, introduce yourself and make acquaintances; you never know when or how those people will pop back into your life. As your parents once told you, sometimes it is connections that make the difference. Indeed, I owe much of my current situation to a colleague who once “threw my name into the pot.”

Second, go for it if you know without a doubt that academic life is the road for you (i.e., you would be miserable outside of academe, you shudder when you think you’d never get to interact with college students again, etc.). Once you’ve determined that, then be wary, but don’t let all 1,320 of those “NEVER EVER GO TO GRAD SCHOOL” posts deter you from your academic aspiration(s). For even in the part-time arena, it’s not always doom and gloom.

The systemic issues that are preventing casual staff from progressing in their careers, that see adjunct staff take on work far beyond that outlined in their contractual agreements, is all diminished to an issue of networking. Of Nepotism. I am not exactly sure what we are meant to take away from Kelli’s post. Should we work on our LinkedIn profiles perhaps? Should  more effort be put into creating an attractive personal brand?

This cloying empathy makes me angry. Obviously I am not the only one, as Kelli cops a hiding in the comment section. Dr Robert Baum captures the sentiment perfectly when he responds:
Her “doom and gloom” narrative is a dismissive, irresponsible, unethical, and repressive counter-narrative gesture (think “power/knowledge”) that seeks to demoralize and further disenfranchise any and all individuals intent on joining the adjunct uprising. Why? To avoid the main issue of equal pay for equal work. How can at-will faculty meet the needs of time tested, successful, and sustainable curriculum and instructional design?
Language is a slippery terrain, here used to silence those who are only just beginning to find their own voice. A similar strategy is employed in this piece on the Yellow Dog blog ‘Adjunct Narratives‘. I recommend you read it in order to get the full context, but in this piece the author J. Rice concludes [emphasis my own]:
So what do these narratives accomplish? These are some tropes I pick out and respond to. I don’t respond because I’m against adjuncts or don’t understand the situation. I very much understand the situation. But that is not my purpose here. My interest is in how the story is framed, and why this way as opposed to some other strategy? Most of the stories, after all, are similar and repetitive. Repetition can be highly effective. Is it in this case? I don’t think so.
Our stories are, to J Rice, repetitive, and not entirely strategic. In his piece he acknowledges that “[t]he adjunct problem has long been with us. Exploitation of teaching in the university is hardly new” and goes on to argue that perhaps it is a cynical grab at readership, citing Slate has published some “hyperbolic and uniformed pieces” (unlinked). He attacks this adjunct narrative from a number of angles in order to achieve what? An admission that it “isn’t all doom and gloom” perhaps? Again, the issue is acknowledged, and then the old bait and switch, ad hominem, the adjunct story, my story, is reduced to a narrative which, to him, is counter-productive and repetitive.
Both of these authors came from a place of unacknowledged privilege. Ms Marshall’s identifies scheduling as being her biggest issue with adjuncting, whereas Associate Professor Rice… well his privilege is right in his title. The difficulty in addressing these kind of blog posts is that it puts us (and I will include myself in this) in the position of having to defend our position, and reframes our concerns as “whingeing”. Of course things could be worse. Of course the flexibility that casual academia offers can be great for working parents such as myself although I seem to work a lot of hours and give up a lot, at the altar of “flexibility”. Yeah it could be worse, but here is a novel approach: rather than getting caught up in pedantic bullshit about who has it worse, or better, or indifferent, and why; let’s focus on improving the system we do have. Let’s not reframe the outpouring of adjunct anger as being cynical clickbait, let’s instead take these stories at face value, and consider why, as J Rice asks, these stories are surfacing right now, at this point in time. Rather than defending a broken system, I think our time is better spent thinking about how we can improve employment conditions for all casual academics. And that can only be achieved by acknowledging all of the realities of casual teaching/adjuncting… even the unpleasant ones.

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.