Friday, 1 May 2009

Teaching only positions

We've changed our banking arrangements recently and what with one thing and another I have been slow cleaning up the transfer of direct debits to the new accounts. I just did the last one this morning - NTEU fees. And I came damn close to resigning my membership in the process - not only because the website is the worst organised and slowest loading in the entire modern world - but because of the unbelievable fact that the senior executive of the union is flatly opposing the introduction of ongoing teaching-only appointments. If what's reported in this article by Bernard Lane is accurate (and there's no reason to think otherwise) then it seems to me that the union has pretty much lost sight of the most basic objectives of trade unionism, ie to use solidarity and collective bargaining to improve the working conditions of the most vulnerable and exploited workers in the industry. Those being casual academics. The NTEU does have a some sort of department aimed at representing the interests of casuals, but now that push is coming to shove I think the fundamental tokenism, or at least ineffectuality, of this gesture is revealed.

Lane quotes McAlpine as saying "A teaching-only academic is an oxymoron." WTF. WTF. WTF. What does this say about the union's opinion of the work done by casual / sessional / short term fixed contract academics? Doesn't he know about the excremental theory of graduate education?

The implied suggestion that research activity is necessary for effective teaching is a red herring. I think it's debatable that it is, personally, given the stupidity of many of the current measures of research activity now in use. But, in humanities at least, the casual staff who are now currently employed on a teaching only basis (and upon the steady supply of whose labour the viability of the current system absolutely depends) are almost without exception also engaged in research. They're just not being paid to do it. Which is of course an issue. But I'm not convinced it is as urgent and pressing an issue for the union to concern itself with, when the actual employment conditions of casuals are so unbelievably exploitative and insecure. I have to wonder if the union has asked its sessionally employed members at the unis considering industrial action whether they would like to be able to apply for ongoing teaching-only positions.

From the article again - "If it was about casuals and they wanted to offer them a more secure form of appointment, that's one thing," said Michael Thompson, NTEU president at Sydney. "(But) when we discussed it with them last week, they were for advertising teaching-only positions." Again, WTF is this supposed to mean?

I've only ever been in one other union - the SDA. Retail is another industry with a permanently high proportion of casual staff. The SDA looked after casuals and didn't treat them as second-class members of the workforce. The contrast is really striking.

As far as the motives of the university executives who are pressing for the introduction of teaching-only positions are concerned, of course it's right to assume the worst. But that doesn't mean that the interests of the administration can't coincide with the interests of the workers at the bottom of the food chain.

I stayed in the union for now, but if industrial action is to be taken at La Trobe I will have to reconsider.

update: today's news looks slightly better


Liam said...

Well said, Laura. IMO the NTEU aren't just poor organisers---they're generationally behind developments in trade unionism, especially university trade unionism.
I also know that the CPSU/PSA have been rather interested in this kind of organising of casual quasi-academic staff, certainly in NSW.

Armagny said...

2 random comments:

The NTEU are bullies, as anyone who has found themselves in a student union with different interests to the NTEU's members will know.

Inflexibility in coverage is the reason I left the CPSU- obsessed with fighting individual contracts, they had nothing to offer me when I went on to such with the Feds. Yet I still had plenty of other work interests for which a source of advice and support would be useful.

Given the contract gave me more leave and higher pay it wasn't exactly in my sights, either.

Liam said...

I'm not sure any union's going to offer you a great deal apart from a cheap lawyer to enforce your individual contract, Armagnac.
I hear you on the matter of student unions, BTW. And could probably contribute to the conversation if the internet weren't such a permanent place.
Laura, I wonder if what you say about the NTEU's tactics of defending the interests of more experienced, more secure aca staff against encroachment by the young shows a growing craft-guild mentality---a source of mutual support and advice for professionals, held fiercely against those seen as untrained?

meli said...

bad... the are similar problems in the uk at the moment. my university recently informed all the post-docs (recentish phd graduates who want a career in academia but haven't found permanent posts yet) that there would be no more teaching for them this year, and the phd students were invited to step up to fill the gap. we all thought it was because they have to pay the post-docs more, but it turns out it's because new laws mean that if post-docs are teaching a 20% load they have the right to demand a fractional contract. and the university doesn't want that.

as the university is inflexible about four year deadlines for phds, too much teaching at that level will be bad for phd students and the university in the long run... anyway, we're all up in arms and hopefully we'll sort something out...

lucy tartan said...

I think it's really complicated Liam and the considerations involved don't all add up to people with secure jobs putting their own interests first. I have only ever met a few academics who seem to think the current system serves any party very well.

There is certainly a dearly held belief that the current system is acceptable because the casual stage is a sort of apprenticeship, but the reality is that sessional teaching is the only academic job most people will ever have. I suspect that the apprenticeship idea is held on to partly because it makes the exploitation of sessionals seem like a temporary, if nasty, larval phase.

The decency of most permanent academic staff put in the difficult position of supervising sessionals makes the union's actions all the more difficult to understand.

Liam said...

There is certainly a dearly held belief that the current system is acceptable because the casual stage is a sort of apprenticeshipThat's exactly what I was getting at. I was wondering about your senior colleagues' attitudes towards the situation and I'm glad to hear they're decent.

That's my own experience of casual teaching; getting a great deal of support from full-time academics, especially junior ones, but the explicit hostility of the non-organising union---I went to the branch office to join up and was told they'd send me a form in the post, they didn't have any on hand, but would I like to join (by "email" from my "office") by payroll deductions (not available on the casual payroll)?

If I weren't such a hidebound unionist ideologue myself I doubt I'd have persisted.

I think the basis of the position of the union is the reluctance to come to terms with the fact that they've utterly lost out, with the rest of the economy, in the battle against casualisation. It's a strategy to avoid loss of face, not a strategy to protect anyone's conditions.

lucy tartan said...

It was like that when I first tried to join the union.

Your second paragraph makes a lot of sense.

girlprinter said...

Hi LT,

Have you seen this?

lucy tartan said...

Thankyou - yes, I did see that, but I'm afraid I didn't read past where it said that universities are busily cranking out teachers for whom no teaching jobs exist - because, actually, that's bull, in the US even more so than here. There's plenty of work, it's just fragmented into weird little casual positions.

eyrie said...

Hi Laura,

I completely agree with the principles of what you're saying but, knowing Sydney Uni, I don't believe for a second that the administration's proposal was about offering more secure employment to casuals, which is what the insistence upon advertising the positions suggests to me. What they would really be trying to do, I think, is to create two tiers within their non-casual workforce and progressively move as much of the non-casual workforce onto the lower tier as was feasible. It's a grab at reducing conditions across the board.

Of course my previous dealings with the university have left me very jaded to the point where I don't believe the interests of the administration and the most vulnerable staff could ever coincide and this may be distorting my view.

lucy tartan said...

Hi Eyrie, thanks for that. Your theory sounds right. I just think the union needs to work harder to acknowledge that we already have a two tier system and that at least by allowing teaching only positions with security, career development pathways etc, there is a chance to narrow the gap, when everything else that's been tried hasn't worked.

eyrie said...

It's a theory based on previous (unpublishable) experience that leads me to see a certain characteristic way of operating behind that story.

I agree that there does need to be more of an attempt to find some sort of career development for those currently in casual positions (who are often there by the luck of the draw, not because there's any rigid assessment of merit), but I read the NTEU's role a little differently. It certainly doesn't have the same power as other education unions, but it also doesn't have the strength of their numbers. My experience of casual academic work is that most permanent staff, even very kind and well-intentioned people, have very little or no knowledge of the terms under which their less fortunate, usually younger colleagues labour and are quite oblivious when their actions increase the unpaid workload. I think it's that fundamental lack of awareness or interest in these issues on the part of established staff that is a large part of the problem and what, perhaps, makes the NTEU weaker than it possibly could be. The nature of academia encourages a very individualistic, careerist mindset. I also think it would help if students had a better awareness of the working conditions of their teachers and why the education they are receiving (and ultimately paying so much for) is so limited as a result.

I despair of universities most of the time. The future of the sector depends upon offering casuals the career path that will enable them to stay in the system, but university administrations can only focus on doing everything on the cheap in the present- mutually-assured destruction. But then you look at something like the Melbourne model and you think "Oh, so that's how they'll manage with the (very few) staff they'll have left".

Anyway, I best take myself off to consider happier matters!

M-H said...

All my working life I've been in a union - I joined the NTEU for the first time when I was working at one of the medical colleges. I found them to be bullying and, after a disastrous teleconference at which a union organiser was quite wrongly insisting that staff weren't being paid extra for writing for an online learning website - a project which I was involved in and knew intimately - I resigned. I haven't rejoined, and this week's events at Sydney Uni haven't changed my mind at all. The union was holding out for a 5.5% wage increase, and the Uni was offering 4.4%. As people I know are losing their jobs outside the university sector, and inflation and the cost of loving rises are so low presently, I thought it was completely irresponsible to want more money. Settlement has now been reached and the strike cancelled. However, I am physically placed in one of the huge first-year science areas, and one of the things I did become aware of this week was how much of the burden of the necessary re-organisation of classes in the even of a strike falls on very lowly paid general staff, some of whom are getting paid about half the salary of even a starting-out lecturer. This turned me even further off the union's actions.

M-H said...

Ugh - should be 'cost of living' - although the other may be getting cheaper as well, I suppose.

JahTeh said...

I am loathe to introduce frivolity in the midst of serious but ...


Sorry, but it's been so long.

Liam said...

Re-reading this I should probably make something clear: despite my kvetches against the leadership I'm really a strong supporter of academic unions as a whole, and found it well worth my while to be in the union rather than out of it.

For each of my whinges I could name a counter-example, like that of my colleague at a certain university in the western suburbs of Sydney, who won a semester's worth of back-pay for casual tutoring through union action. Their faculty claimed that they couldn't pay their wages bill to casual tutors because payments hadn't come through from the Government; a walkout of all staff changed their minds and the money materialised.

lucy tartan said...

Heartiest congrats JahTeh! I was just thinking the other day that Bazlotto wins were few and far between at the moment. Quite likely that has something to do with chronic blog neglect.

Enjoy your congratulations, because that's all the prize there is.

dogpossum said...

I'm a bit jaded about these issues atm... hells, when have I _not_ been?
But USyd has a particularly bad reputation. I was offered a bunch of teaching there earlier this year and I was all 'oh, no thankyou' when I found out about the working conditions. Worse than any of the other universities I've taught with. In fact, quite shockingly bad.
So when I heard this story about NTEU/USyd conflict I was immediately sceptical of USyd.
But then, the NTEU has been particularly useless in regards to sessional teachers in my experience. I keep comparing them to my experiences with SDA (for retail casuals) and can't believe how useless they are in comparison. Maybe we should be joining the teachers' union instead?

You know there's a conference on at UNSW this year about these sorts of issues?
I was considering going, but have just decided that perhaps it's not worth going and getting all worked up about. I'd go, get really upset/angry/fired up and then go back to normal life, being screwed over and having a shitty time with casual university work. It is free, though. In fact, thinking about it now is making me really stressed. Part of me wonders whether these sorts of issues should have been addressed earlier as sessional staff raise them, rather than waiting for one moment when it feels too late...

oh, man, I need to go look at lolcats to cheer myself up.

Unknown said...

Dogpossum, please come! The only way the SOI conference has been able to happen is that a few of us have managed to break through from sessional teaching and bring our experiences and knowledge of it to people's attention - so that it can't be ignored any longer.

It's not too late to talk about it. The pace of generational change has certainly limited our opportunities to have a platform to raise these issues, but now is the time to capitalise on the momentum that's started, don't you think?

As for the NTEU's work representing sessionals, I'm not sure they have much of a basis to work with if sessionals consistently refuse to join. If you're going to create change from the outside, then you better make sure you've got some pretty good alternatives.


lucy tartan said...

I don't understand the 'if sessionals consistently refuse to join' part of your comment Melissa. Pretty weird, unless it just signals that you've been lucky enough to work at institutions where the NTEU actively attempts to organise sessionals.

Mark Bahnisch said...

This is an excellent discussion.

I think academia is a house of cards ready to collapse. As you said, Laura, it’s not that there aren’t jobs in teaching and academia, it’s just that they’ve been carved up into tiny little bits. It’s actually a classic case of deskilling and division of labour, masquerading as some sort of postmodern phenomenon. So - with marking for instance - it becomes something for which the majority of people who do it are rewarded directly - at about 33 bucks an hour - but then has to be done on top of everything else, and thus has to be either done by rote, or carelessly, or you just can’t fit it in if you do want to do it properly. I think it’s actually making a lot of people reflect in a different way - more personally - on how much longer these compromises can be made - particularly when the ‘apprenticeship’ model of academia is pretty much shattered. Here, I think there’ll be a real exodus of younger academics - full time and casual - to elsewhere which is building already. Most will never return.

In a few years’ time, the house of cards *will* collapse because the people actually doing the work that supports research professors, inflated bureaucracies, etc, etc, won’t be there, or won’t be able to do it any more to the standard at which it can be done.

It’s an object lesson in the pathologies of a certain approach to casualisation and work organisation.

I have friends who are just finishing phds and looking at AL positions where they'll teach around 500 students a semester. In two years time, they'll leave, or be pushed out the door, because of 'lack of research output'. It would be more honest to offer teaching focused positions.

The big problem, in my eyes, is that the NTEU does see everything according to the rolling cycle of industrial negotiations. The level of 'thinking' about higher ed policy and the conditions of academic production is about as sophisticated as that emanating from Vice-Chancellors and the incredibly confused Bradley Review.

We need either to carve out some spaces outside the academy, or revive some of the models of non-industrial organisation within universities - it's astonishing to me that absolutely no one ever mentions the huge progress made in democratisation within university governance in the 70s and 80s which was all reversed in a trice in about 1991!

Sorry for the long comment.

Mark Bahnisch said...

An afterthought - part of what supports the ideologeme of 'apprenticeship' is the myth that in ten years' time, the 'boomers will all retire', and then... I was told this by my honours supervisor in 1998.

In reality, anyone appointed anywhere after 1994 has no legal retirement date. And conversely, there is no such thing as tenure. In Arts Faculties, the cycle of carrot and stick redundancies has been ritualised. There are usually no replacements, or the money is diverted into 'strategic projects' or whatevs. The tasks are just casualised - both research and teaching.

It is a two tier system but the conditions of employment of the majority of 'research intensive' or 'research only' staff are almost as bad, and the insecurity the same, with the added pressure of often having to organise their own continuance in employment.

The recent ad for postdocs @ Griffith was a cruel joke. Applicants were to be ranked on a range of 'metrics', prominent among which was 'number of publication in top tier journals'. This explicitly benefits those who are already in research teams, on the sciences model, where they are named as 10th author or something (if lucky). The suggestion was, though, that if you brought your own research money with you, that wouldn't matter so much.

This is a risible basis on which to evaluate people who have just finished a phd.

Barry Saunders said...

Mark: they pay for marking now? That's a first.

Mark Bahnisch said...

Some do; some don't, Barry. I'm thinking of the supposed structure of payments for tutes too - one hour preparation, one hour delivery, one hour marking.

But on Laura's point about conditions for casuals, what passes for 'contiguous' marking these days...

Barry Saunders said...

ah ok. when i was teaching it used to be no pay, or 5 hours per subject per semester, max. I remember calculating that for the amount of time I spent preparing, delivering and marking subjects i'd make more money washing dishes....

i think I'm a member of that exodus. I racked up nearly $20 000 in credit card debt trying to make ends meet as a casual academic - which is as much my fault as the conditions of modern day academia - but still.

Mark Bahnisch said...

Same same, Barry. I've got the credit card debt from my phd to go along with my HECS debt!

dogpossum said...

Mark B:
" I think it’s actually making a lot of people reflect in a different way - more personally - on how much longer these compromises can be made - particularly when the ‘apprenticeship’ model of academia is pretty much shattered. Here, I think there’ll be a real exodus of younger academics - full time and casual - to elsewhere which is building already."

This is something I've noticed recently in people who've finished their PhDs recently. I know I've pretty much reached the point where I can't justify sessional teaching as an 'apprenticeship' for future academic employment - it's simply not cost effective to teach. I think the one, overwhelming problem I have with sessional teaching is that it _is_ sessional - I don't have any way of contributing to course development, teaching policy, etc in the subjects I'm teaching - I just drop in, teach, disappear. As someone who's pgrad work has trained her to think about bigger pictures and to devise solutions or responses to data in a critical way, it's super-frustrating to be limited to 'just teaching'.
I also think that it's a serious problem for the people who actually are planning and coordinating these subjects - they don't do much of the actual face-to-face stuff, and they really don't have time or mechanics in place to respond to feedback from sessional staff. So the course planning stays dodgy (and highly 'theoretical') or becomes less connected with the 'practical' element of teaching. I've never taught with anyone who's discouraged me from giving feedback, or who hasn't _encouraged_ it, it's just that as a sessional teacher, sometimes it's better to keep your mouth shut about dodgy teaching practices, or it can be difficult to know _how_ to make more complex suggestions about course design or teaching, beyond saying things like 'that reading was a bit light weight; blah blah would be better'.

I guess I'm really just reiterating familiar responses to the casualisation of labour.

RE the postdocs @ Griffith point: I've noticed an increasing demand for postdocs to have mad publishing records and/or mega grants under their belts. I think that it's really only possible to have this stuff on your CV if you've taken a longer time to do your PhD (ie longer than 3.5 years), and have taken the time out from your own research to get attached to other projects as an RA, etc. It's also looking more and more important to begin PhDs which are attached to specific, already-existing research projects (as in the sciences), rather than developing your own project. This seems a shame to me - while I'm all for collaborative projects, I think it's also important to learn how to start from scratch with a project and see whether it has wheels (or legs, depending on your metaphor). And of course, this approach is also affecting the type of work we produce as an industry. I also think that approach serves to cement heirarchies and limit the introduction of new ideas and new ways of thinking to a discipline.

On a different note: I saw an ad for 'postgraduate internships' at USyd come through the email lists the other day. Do they mean internships in the sense of going off to work, unpaid, in an industry placement? If so, I smell smoke. Again.

Barry Saunders said...

ah yes, HECS. I'd forgotten about that bit.

I guess my point is that I simply couldn't continue doing the PhD for a number of reasons, but even if i hadn't had a meltdown i just couldn't have kept going. The scholarship wasn't enough to cover repayments as well as food and rent, and tutoring is such a poor work/pay ratio it's not worth it.

Mark Bahnisch said...

dogpossum, I've been in the relatively lucky position (in some ways) of coordinating units/subjects/courses as a casual - sometimes there is a chance to reshape them, or even design them. But that's rare, and I agree with everything you say - it goes back to the point about carving up tasks - it works badly for everyone as you say because no one can see anything holistically.

On the phd and expectations, it's been around for a while. Of course, if you take time out to publish now, you run up against the 'complete in a timely fashion' wall that's relatively new (and a disincentive to thought during the phd too). One other point worth underlining is not just the ridiculous expectations of new phds, but how all these things work together to actively discourage any scholarship that isn't incremental and at the very conservative end of each discipline.

In other words, far more is wrong than working conditions - though I strongly endorse Laura's argument. But that's why all this needs an approach which transcends just industrial issues/being on the back foot fighting craziness.

It's also the reason why I think an awareness of that is crystallising and why a lot of people just don't want to work in academia any more.

The concept of the academic, as traditionally understood, has dissolved. Professors aren't doing what they used to do either (and again, I agree with Laura - there are few people at any level happy with what's going on). But the 'idea of the university' has been slowly reshaped into something quite different from what it was up until recently.

It's at that level, I think, that we need to conceptualise what's happening.

R.H. said...

Excuse me for laughing. What use is social science? What has it done? There's not a reformer among you.
You're a club, a Masonic Lodge, full of yakking gourmets.
Who understands you? -apart from yourselves? If you spoke plainly you'd think better.
What do you matter, really? Except to restaurant owners? And comedy writers.
'Conceptualise'. Golly, there's a word: entitlement to a creme brulee.
And a shiraz whatisname.

ha ha. Well we can't all be giants, someone has to wash the dishes.

Barry Saunders said...

I don't research social science. And this problem extends across the entirety of the university system, science and medicine departments included.

R.H. said...

It's not about you. Academics are undervalued, everywhere. Social science gives you all a bad name.

hema said...