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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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.

“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.