Sunday, 2 February 2014

A Note From Anonymous

I recently read this post on academics blogging anonymously and how this act is one of cowardice.  I am positively one of those cowards and I don't think that's a good thing and I also agree with the article that blogging anonymously is going to limit my impact.  But I'm going to continue the that I have been.  To be re-assured that I am one of many anonymous bloggers is a bitter sweet fact.  How are we ever going to affect change?

I think this is a symptom of a system that relies heavily on anonymity.  The number of times I would have liked to connect with a blind reviewer of my work, or say thank you to the anonymous comments left by students on teaching evaluation reports are too many to count.  I have spent the last seven years receiving mostly feedback from, well, anonymous.  The only face to face feedback I receive is from coordinators or researchers who are too busy to invest the time to help me improve my work.  Their feedback is simply 'good' (and probably a sigh of relied that they don't have to complete that task).  I only work on very short term contracts and there is little motivation for my superiors to invest in my 'career.'

Other than agreeing with this author, I don't know what else I can say about blogging anonymously - I feel I have to stick to what I'm doing.        

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Back Again

After six months away from working as a casual academic, for personal reasons, I'm back doing exactly what I was this time last year.  Am I mad or stupid?  Or both?  It's week two and I'm still waiting for any of my five contracts to come through - I wonder when I will get paid this semester?  My intention was to look for alternative employment upon my return to work, but after a short search, I ended up saying yes to tutoring and RA work once more - why?  Am I lazy?  I feel embarrassed that after all of my, essentially, complaining on this blog, I've just returned to do the same roles, again.  I do take some comfort though in knowing that I am not the only one with this 'problem' (maybe it's some weird addiction).  One of my friends called me this week to say that she had finally said no to all offers... finally, it was an achievement worth acknowledging and celebrating.  Others though are caught in the same spiral that I am.

This article, 'Academia's indentured servants' by Sarah Kendzior (sent to me by Jen at the NTEU), makes some sense of this predicament.  The article nominates a number of explanations as to how universities have maintained such atrocious employment practices in the U.S.  Perhaps two that really resonated with my situation were the investment I have made so far into my academic 'career' and the cult like administration of universities that lead to feelings of unworthiness amongst their staff.  On the investment made by early career academics, Kendzior writes, " "Path dependence and sunk costs must be powerful forces," speculates political scientist Steve Saidemen in a post titled "The Adjunct Mystery". In other words, job candidates have invested so much time and money into their professional training that they cannot fathom abandoning their goal - even if this means living, as Saidemen says, like "second-class citizens". (He later downgraded this to "third-class citizens".)."  On the 'cult' of university administration she writes, 'Self-degradation sustains the adjunct economy, and we see echoes of it in journalism, policy and other fields in which unpaid or underpaid labour is increasingly the norm. It is easy to make people work for less than they are worth when they are conditioned to feel worthless....a list of behaviour controls used by cults - "no critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy seen as legitimate", "access to non-cult sources of information minimised or discouraged" - that mirror the practices of graduate school.'

At the end of last year, one of the universities I was (WAS) working for had significant cutbacks within the school I belonged to.  The cutbacks were not because of funding arrangements, but because of silly spending by the school, which resulted in cutbacks to teaching affecting students and sessional staff (and not the extra few too many professors that were hired).  Instead of my colleagues thinking that this situation was unfair and that continuing working at this school was untenable, there was a mad dash and scramble for the reduced hours and positions that were available.  I was fortunate to know that I was finishing and could sit on the sideline and watch it all unfold in shock and dismay.  These friends of mine who have so much to offer any employer work harder when their employment conditions are made worse.... is this cult like behaviour?  I'm not sure, it's not my field, but there was something uncanny about the situation.          

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Getting the Drift of Things

I'm sorry I haven't written very much for a while.  The NTEU casuals Connect magazine published a brief article of mine last month on their last page.  I don't know who selected the image to go with the article, but I loved it!  I thought it captured exactly what I had been trying to express in this blog in one thoughtfully selected image.. so thanks to whoever chose that image.  This isn't the image exactly, in fact the image in the magazine is much better, but this is the basic gist of it - an overgrown pathway.


I have had a couple of good things happen at one of my workplaces over the past couple of months.  I'm now on roll over pay which means getting paid is easier and faster with less paper work (I received my first pay 6 weeks after commencing, which is much better than previous semesters) we have a few desks - with two computers to use on campus - oddly positioned, but it's a start!  I've had paid training, I've even been on a paid trip to present a paper at a conference interstate.... I mean things are really looking up!  Our Vice Chancellor promised to make things better, and well look, things are starting to get better.

We are heading into that time of year where work ceases, or slows down for many casual academics.  I'm not too concerned as I'm not as invested as my colleagues who are employed as casual lecturers.  For me, as a tutor and RA, I still have time to have my pinkies in one or two pies that allow for some income over the break.  This is not the same for my colleagues who are casual lecturers and have to invest all of their time and energy into teaching throughout the semester, only to see their work evaporate very quickly over the break and then they are left wondering what to do, trying to scrounge at what ever work they can get for 4 months before they disappear into the academosphere again for the year.  It's a vicious cycle for a few who are not also undertaking HDR, that limits their prospects for advancement into permanent positions.  Some of whom are great teachers that have a lot of practical advice and knowledge to offer and are well liked by students, but just can't translate that knowledge into a value that the university is interested in.  The universities really get their pound of flesh out of these guys as well - only employing them for about 60 - 70% of the year compared to their full time counterparts and getting the same amount of work out of them.

This time of year is also the time for applying to study overseas for which students require an academic referee.  This weekend I have six academic references to write for students for their applications.  This is of course outside of my role, I'm not paid to do this, but I don't mind, I'm more than happy to write a few words to help a student experience the world.  Moreso, I wonder if students didn't have tutors who they would ask to write their references?  Who would they talk to about their careers, their studies, their ambitions if it weren't for the humble tutor?  So while I am starting to understand the trend towards blended learning techniques, I see its value and understand that students do learn a lot from their peers.  I just think we are overlooking a very critical human factor here, that relationship between student and teacher, emerging professional and mentor..... I really think our students will miss us and I hope that universities are thinking about this as well.

So thanks to my uni for making things better, but don't keep cutting us out of the classroom.  While I have had other financial benefits from my uni, my hours are still cutback from when I first began tutoring and will probably continue to be into 2013.            

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Whackademia - Richard Hil

I'm sure most people have heard of Richard Hil and his book Whackademia.  If you haven't heard his interview on ABC it's up online here and definitely worth a listen! 

Inger Mewburn has written a critique on this book which I think has valid points, although I do disagree with some of Inger's comments.  I graduated from my undergraduate studies only five years ago and I did engage in debate and intelligent conversation, I did feel well equipped for the workplace and this was because of a few passionate, talented, highly intelligent teachers (and not because of some teaching and learning program, or a first year experience survey).  I got a lot out of my lecturer's (even the odd ones who hadn't updated their slides for decades) because I could engage with them and draw from their knowledge.  I now tutor students who sometimes surprise and delight me with their work because we can engage in higher order thinking, but this is only the experience for a few students who have this capacity to engage on this level, the others miss out (as it sounds as though Inger did) because we suffer teaching cutbacks that reduce the time that I have to deliver content. 

This is indicative of the different experiences of working within the tertiary sector in Australia.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Nepotism (and other networking strategies)

Like so many other casual academics I'm becoming frustrated enough to vocalise my concerns.  I am fully aware that I am entering very dangerous territory, previously chartered by so many other casuals, that will probably relegate me out into a situation similar to Alanna's.  We have now lost all of out facilities at our school - no desk, computers, phone or anywhere to complete our work and I have been making my thoughts on this situation known.  The last time I saw my Head of School he hardly made eye contact with me - after years of working together on projects for the school it would appear that my requests for a desk and computer are going to break that bond.  Fair enough, I'm sure he's under some pressure further up the chain to spend money on more 'visible,' or perhaps marketable facilities within the school (why bother with the teaching and research staff, you can't put photos of them on brochures or television ads).  Interestingly, this was brought up by two students from the University of Sydney on last week's Q&A program (you can click to the chapters on the right hand side of the video panel titled 'Value for Uni Fees' and 'Sydney University Cutbacks').  I thought Michael Spence's responses were very careful and he obviously is very suited to the role of Vice Chancellor - pleasing everyone and no one at the same time.  His answers only indicated that universities are large complex organisations that cost a lot of money to run and failed to answer the two students' questions.  However, Nicola Roxon's responses were the most disappointing - one student complained about increasing class sizes and she brought up the well-trodden statistics about increasing student numbers and first generation students.  Aren't you listening?!  We know the numbers are increasing - so how are you addressing this situation?  How are you improving standards to assist first generation students to graduate from their courses; by uncapping places and increasing class sizes?  I did, however appreciate Simon Sheikh's comments :

The fundamental challenge we face here is that we're corporatising our universities. Now, when you have a look at a university, if you’re an administrator like Michael is, he has to look at that and say, well, where’s my largest costs. The largest costs for almost every university in this country is still the staff base, so there [they] look. You know, let's get rid of the casual teachers teacher, let’s get rid of the markers. Problem is you then have your best and brightest academics spending less and less time doing what we want them to do and that’s research and teach not get stuck in these administrative questions. Now, there are some moments in life, some moments in public policy, where if you spend just a little bit more you get the gold plate version. You spend just a little bit more and you unlock the value of what you have already spent. So my view on this is that while I’m not sure about some of the changes Michael is making my view is that it really shouldn't be just up to him. We should be funding our education system more broadly, more adequately, so that we can unlock those returns on investments in the Asian century, a century where our skills an skills based economy is going to be absolutely crucial.        

Now, back to my original point - those furrowed looks from my Head of School.  In my particular school I think nepotism is rife.  Maybe this is the case for most schools?  Our current Head of School is a really nice person - a good person - mostly makes time for students and staff and will partake in a drink with anyone!  His only downfall is in his scholarly track record.  He has limited publications, no books and only a couple of projects that aren't necessarily 'significant.'  In comparison to his predecessors he has a lot less to stand on when it comes to representing the school at the Faculty or University level.  There is speculation that he got to his role (promoted from level C to E overnight) through his networking (...drinking) skills.  It is unlikely that another university would give him a Professor job title and therefore he is in some way indebted to the university... in other words, he is in no position to rock the boat.  Therefore, my rocking the boat does not bode well for him - he is left between a rock and a hard place and it is unfortunate that a desk (or lack thereof) is going to cause so much trouble.  For me, as well, my lack of engaging with the unspoken protocol of 'keep stum' (put up and shut up) is probably going to see my hours dwindle... like Alanna's....

I thought I was good at networking but networking in academia is a whole other complicated system - I guess it's just a reflection of the university's larger complex organisation.        

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Some Thoughts About Teaching Evaluation

It's been a long break between posts.  I've been caught up in the mayhem of end of semester panicked emails from students and then.... marking, marking and more marking!  Amongst all of this the students' evaluation of teaching are also released.  I generally perform OK with student evaluations - not brilliantly - I tend to polarise students, in that they either rate my teaching very highly or very lowly, giving me a solid statistically 'average' score overall.  Student evaluations, while undoubtedly flawed, are very valuable to my career.  Firstly, they are as close as I get to genuine feedback on my work and secondly, good results in student evaluation help me to secure work in future semesters.  Around my school it's a known trend that student evaluations of tutors and evaluations of the unit go hand in hand, therefore unit coordinators tend to look for tutors with good scores.  I have learned a lot from students' evaluations about my teaching over the years, once I have recovered from the initial shock of some of the more abrasive remarks.  I have also seen good friends completely demoralised by the hurtful comments students write under the safety net of anonymity (she writes as an anonymous blogger).  If we have to provide feedback and grades to our students face to face, why can't their feedback be provided in the same manner?

While I can't rigorously ground the argument I am about to present, anecdotally, I suggest that student evaluations may impact how critically we mark students' work.  For the majority of students the only method for them to evaluate their education is by the grades they receive - the better the grades they attain the better they feel about the quality of their education.  Therefore, I think, there is an undercurrent here to dish out better grades in order to receive better teaching evaluation scores.  I am always made aware of this when I work with first time tutors who grade students' work so harshly.  Although it does also take a while for new tutors to understand the university can't simulate the complexities of practice and therefore students can't respond and produce the same level of work.    

As a tutor I receive plenty of feedback throughout the semester informally, through conversations and emails with students.  These conversations are frank and helpful to my developing teaching style.  The problem with the anonymous student survey is that a student who has hardly attended a class can use teaching evaluation forms as recourse for a grade they are unhappy with, rather than discussing the mark face to face.  My suggestion is that teaching evaluations shouldn't be anonymous.  I do value students' feedback on my teaching but I think the manner in which it is delivered is unfair to teaching staff.  David Holmberg wrote about the pain of student evaluations in an article titled 'Student Evaluations' in the New York Times magazine in 2007.  He wrote:

"A journalist-professor friend who is less than enamored of teaching caustically refers to them [student evaluations] as 'customer service.'  Translation:  He has been burned by his students.  But his larger meaning is that higher education..... is increasingly market driven and by his jaded reckoning a student and his parents are not markedly different from Harry the Striving Suburbanite roaming the aisles of Home Depot"

I think this is a fairly uneven criticism of evaluation systems (although I know many who would agree with Holmberg).  I think his comments on the market driven premise to teaching evaluation are spot on.  On that note, I wanted to finish this post with a quote by Chris Hedges on education. 


Friday, 1 June 2012

Uni Casual Survey Results

The National Tertiary Education Union survey results on Casual Teaching and Research Staff 2012 are now available online.  I think NTEU and Uni Casual have put together a great publication from the survey results that highlight a number of issues for casual higher ed workers in Australia.  The summary of the results written by Jeannie Rea outline that casual staff experience stress as a result their insecure employment, work significantly more hours than they are paid to and lack sufficient access to resources to assist them in their role.  All of these points I have written about throughout the short history of this blog.  On the one hand I find this almost comforting and re-affirming that my experience is the normal, on the other hand I'm disappointed that universities are unable to provide adequate, basic conditions for their casual staff.

The stress associated with insecure work I have briefly touched on previously through the Howe Inquiry and perhaps I will write more on this next week.  I have also written about the impact of technology on managing contact time with students.  In the survey results over 80% of respondents (p.9) responded to emails or received calls on their own equipment after their contract had ended and they were no longer receiving payment.  Unfortunately, I have recently found myself being very selective about which student emails I will respond to, so that I can manage my time.  I recently received an email from a student who was disputing a grade and in the midst of replying to the email I was told I had to move from the one hotdesk that is shared between sessional teaching staff, casual research staff and one administration staff.  I'm not sure how many casual academics work in my school but we are a school of over 1000 students, so there's quite a number of casual staff and, frankly, one computer to share between all of us just doesn't cut it.  I asked for some more time to reply to my email, as it was from a Maters student who needed their mark clarified as soon as possible and was offered a computer in the student labs!!  I explained that this a totally inappropriate proposition for me to respond to a confidential email from a student whilst surrounded by students - eventually, I was allowed to finish my email.

Out of all the points raised by the casual staff survey, I personally think the lack of access to resources is the most pertinent.  If I was provided with adequate resources it would probably save me considerable time in performing my job - it would most likely reduce and simplify some of the out of hours work we are expected to do.  About 90% of my personal internet data usage is for my work at the university along with the majority of the usage of my phone and personal computer.  This problem could so easily be addressed if universities could simply provide access to phones, computers, internet, photocopying, printing and scanning freely and easily.  Access to these resources would seem like basic rights to an employee, wouldn't it?  According to the survey only around 50% (p.8) of respondents had access to space for student consultation, a phone and/or a computer.  This could be a relatively easy way for universities to improve conditions for their casual staff.