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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then why do I feel so fucking ashamed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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COLAs and DECRAs: a comparison of kindergarten and higher education

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

But this is not her story, this is mine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Disneyland Dilemma

Disclaimer: I am not judging anyone for the parenting choices they make, these are just my thoughts on the role of memory making in parenting decisions. I have one kid, what the heck do I know!

“Memory is identity…. You are what you have done; what you have done is in your memory; what you remember defines who you are; when you forget your life you cease to be, even before your death.” Julian Barnes

Earlier this year I made what I thought was a thoroughly unremarkable decision for myself and my family: I decided we were going to Disneyland.

There wasn’t a lot of forethought put into this decision. My husband and I visited Disneyland in 2008 after we got married in Las Vegas, and I enjoyed the spectacle of it. I thought the production values on everything, from the rides, to the displays, to the shops, were really very well done. Before having children I would probably have no compulsion to go there again, but it occurred to me while watching my 4 year old daughter, who loves Disney and princesses and all things ‘magical’, that she would really get a kick out of it. Furthermore, while international travel is hardly a light undertaking (I am The Smart Casual after all, not the Smart Full-Timer) this is something that is feasible if my current rate of employment is maintained throughout the year. I thought about it, I emotionally invested in it, and dang it, the Smart Casuals were going to Anaheim!

What I was ill-prepared for however, was the reaction I got from others regarding this decision. In the course of conversation with friends and family I would bring up my future plans. While some asked questions of the more benign variety, a significant portion responded to this proclamation with some variation of:

“What’s the point of that? It isn’t like she will remember it anyway”.

This reaction really took me by surprise. I was prepared to engage in all types of discourse about the topic of international travel with a 4/5 year old. Some could argue that the plane ride would be too long, or that the time of year we plan to travel would be too expensive. Heck, someone could argue that the Disney universe perpetuates racist and sexist stereotypes, and I would be hard-pressed to disagree. (My own thoughts on this is that because my daughter has only watched a few Disney movies, she is only familiar with the Disney princess as a fluid concept, rather than a gender limiting archetype, but I digress).

Instead it was being posited to me that the experience we would have in Disneyland was somehow not worth doing at this point in her life because when she grew up, she may not remember it. My initial reaction to this was confusion, but after some consideration I think I understand a little more why I really found this troubling:

1) Rather than Ms 4 having an experience in and of itself, it has become currency in a transaction. By taking her to Disneyland, I am effectively buying myself “good parenting credits”, exchanging hard-earned cash for a good time my child can take with her for life. However if I instead choose to take her to Disneyland at an age when she may later be unable to remember the experience clearly, then there is apparently “no point” to have gone in the first place. If we take this to be so, then what is the age at which she will reach peak memory recall? You could substitute just about any other experience for Disneyland within this transactional scenario and the problem still exists, if you argue that an event is only worthwhile if it is remembered, then we can save ourselves a lot of carnival rides and zoo visits as well.

2) I don’t agree that an event need to be remembered to have resonance in our lives, to “count” or be worthwhile. My Pa  was diagnosed with Dementia with Lewy Bodies, and died from this disease only a few years ago. After he was diagnosed his health deteriorated very quickly, and it soon became evident that he was losing all of his memories. He was a man who adored his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He was also very clever, known for his ability to beat just about anyone at Trivial Pursuit. He had the most beautiful singing voice. Towards the end of his life, before he was put into palliative care, I would go and visit him when he was still at home with my Grandmother. When we would arrive he would invariably greet us the same way, by saying “Mother! (his nickname for my Nan) Just look who it is!”

He said this to cover the fact that he didn’t know who we were. While he was losing his memory, he still had the social wherewithal to try and hide it. But we knew. He was hospitalised and died a few months later.

This was a man with over 70 years of memories, most of which were gone, or confused, or hidden in the depths of a damaged brain. In the end he forgot me, and my daughter, and my Mum, and maybe even his wife. But his life was still well lived. It still happened. I like to think that even if he didn’t have his specific memories, of me, my daughter, of his time in the Navy travelling the world, he at least had the essence of those experiences, because what is the alternative? As Julian Barnes writes in his book Nothing To Be Frightened Of (and in the quote featured at the top of this post), did he instead die before his body shuffled off this mortal coil? Did he “cease to be” as a result of ceasing to remember? And if so, what was the point of it?

My Pa went to Anaheim Disneyland once, he was stationed in the area when he travelled with the Navy. He told me that when he went there, that the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ ride was closed and that he was disappointed because it was the only one he wanted to go on that day, and it was closed for maintenance. I plan to take my daughter on this ride, regardless of the fact she may well not remember it. My Pa almost certainly didn’t remember any of these things at the end of his life. While Lewy-bodies is not an inheritable disease, a time may come where I may not remember our trip to Disneyland either. But it will happen. While the memories may fade, hopefully in the short time we are there, we will spend far too much on Disney memorabilia, take more photos than we could ever hope to print, and my daughter will have the most fun she has ever had. Maybe that can be the point.

a picture of my Pa and my daughter

a picture of my Pa and my daughter