Sunday, 25 March 2012

Counting Myself Out of the Statistics

As with most tutors, I also work as a casual research assistant.  The project I am currently working on is an ARC linkage project looking at equity and diversity in my profession, especially in relation to gender and women.  I am in the middle of a task trying to count how many women are employed in my profession including researchers and academics.  It was decided last week that it would be too difficult to count casual academics in the statistics as universities tended to not effectively record their positions as their numbers are too great and constantly changing.  My heart sank at the realisation that firstly, universities do not warrant my contribution enough to keep a record of my position and that, secondly, I would fall outside of the statistics of my own profession after 10 years of contributing through my work and involvement with my professional community.  One of those moments where you realise you've made a poor career decision. 

What's in a Name?

The Howe inquiry into casual workers and the impact of insecure work conditions on the community concluded last week after holding hearings in 23 locations around Australia.  While the hearings were not specifically related to casual staff in higher education, hopefully some attention will be brought to the tertiary sector by the casual academics who spoke at a number of the hearings.  A recent article in the Australian also indicated that the increasing casualisation of the tertiary workforce was threatening teaching and learning quality at Australian universities,  Hopefully though, I've already established how Australian universities undervalue their teaching and research staff, my concern is how bad is it going to get?

Adjunct or Non-Tenure Track verse Casual or Sessional
Well, my concern is that the situation gets as bad as things are for casual academics in the U.S..  Recently on twitter I've been part of a conversation on the various names for casual or sessional academics (credit for this topic goes to New Faculty Majority and Daniel Maxey!/danmaxey).  In the U.S. these positions are described as 'adjunct' or 'non-tenure', translating to a position description for someone who is 'not essential' to the organisation and not permanent.  I would think that both of these terms are problematic and this is apparent in the current poor conditions for casual academics in the U.S..  I recommend reading some of the comments from The Adjunct Project Blog and then also read comments from uni casual website's Casual Voices page .  Between the two pages you will read a number of parallel stories and while I think 'casual' or 'sessional' academic is the lesser of the two evils for a name, the situation is much the same.  I think the challenge here is to seek a better term for casual teaching and research staff - what is a title that sets us up for a greater, more secure position at our universities?  Something more specific, with agency and meaning about the contributions we make to higher education.

Suggestions welcome!      

Long Break Between Drinks

It's now week five at my university and I am still waiting on three contracts to be processed so that I might be paid sometime before week 8 - maybe....hopefully?!  This is nothing new in my experience as a casual/sessional academic, I've always seen it as a forced form of savings.  Although I have friends for whom this is a serious problem and waiting for the income that is owed to them is a very stressful situation.  What I didn't realise, until this week, is that receiving my contracts in week four meant that I was not covered by the university's insurance in those first four weeks of teaching.  The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has negotiated rights and terms for sessional and casual academics at each Australian university, you can download a copy for your university here:  I also recently learned about what the NTEU had negotiated (most of which aren't in place at my university for sessional staff) through completing the online survey here:  While I'm sure this survey will serve a greater purpose, it is also a great five minute tutorial in what you are entitled to as a casual or sessional academic.  Unfortunately, I can't see where the agreement covers contracts that arrive some weeks after we the semester has commenced - especially now I'm aware that I may not have been covered by the university in the weeks before my contract arrived.  In comparison to my professional office job, the classroom can be a little more risky, for good reasons and for not so good reasons!

This problem is not unique to my university as I found this article on Swinburne university's failure to pay its casual staff .  This would be unacceptable practice in most industries and yet seems to happen so often for casual staff in higher education - why?       

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Wheels In Motion

Today has been very eventful.  I've made some great contacts from the U.S. who've been active for some time, they are New Faculty Majority () and the adjunct project () as well as some Australians who are already active as well.  This presents a great opportunity for an ongoing collaboration on how to approach the increasing casualisation of teaching staff in Australian higher education.  I also attended my university's sessional academics meeting at which the lack of access to basic facilities was brought up.  At our university we are not provided with a safe place to store out belongings, a computer, printing facilities or a private space to meet students outside of class time.  I've heard that this is also the case at other universities?  Frustratingly, the building in which we met has recently been re-furbished with new carpet, paint and furniture, yet seemingly the university cannot afford to provide sessional staff with a secure work point (not even a shared one).

The Castor (Caster) Wheel Revolution
This brings me to the topic on the commercial properties and aesthetics of new university spaces.  I like to call this the 'Castor Wheel Revolution,' where innovation in teaching spaces comes in the form of two forked wheels fixed to the base of every piece of furniture and equipment.  It is the ubiquitous space for teaching that is so nondescript that if all the furniture were wheeled away it could easily become a shopping centre or an office building.  This extends to the offices for academics who work on castor wheeled desks and chairs in open plan white laminate planar deserts in the same insular manner as accountants or marketing staff.  Your position reflected in the mobility of your furniture as only the Vice Chancellor has furniture of solid timber, heavy enough to represent some sense of permanence.  The casual staff are so temporary that they are not provided with a desk at all.  The marketization of the university is manifest in its architecture and spatial arrangements, its furniture and equipment.

I was first made aware of the commercialisation of university spaces at a conference in Auckland in 2010 by Sean Sturm and Stephen Turner in their paper 'Crystal Capital: the Business of University Building':    

"There, everything communicates psychically with everything else in the code of capital:  the language – the logo-rhythm – of the academosphere is encoded according to the design drive of econometrics, namely, in terms of economic calculability and accountability. And the mission of the University is growth, a mission that transcends its onetime imperative to educate and demands a glasshouse of industry: in Sloterdijk’s terms, an “immaterialized” and “temperature-controlled” enclosure.......The danger of this disclosure of the one space of the transcendental university, a space that grows in us and in which we grow as teachers and learners, is that it closes out the many human foibles by which education flourishes: just talking, being idle, sharing, charity, invention."        
Sean Sturm and Stephen, University of Auckland, at Interstices 2010 (

If you have photos or stories of teaching spaces at your university - I would be really interested in hearing from you.

Saturday, 17 March 2012


I decided to write this blog to reflect on my experiences as a sessional academic in an Australian University.  I titled the blog, 'Hyperlink Academia' in reference to a conversation I had with a lecturer and good friend of mine who described the teaching in her theory unit as the 'hyperlinked' version of modern history and theory.  I thought this a very astute observation on the contemporary university classroom, where the role of tutors is not to assist students to thoroughly examine ideologies and test their own thinking, but rather to give them the links to the content and focus on strategies for them to achieve their academic goals.  The university class room has become an almost a content free zone.  It's not all bad though - students, I am told, gather content outside of the classroom from their peers, the web, social media etc..  These are anonymous or un-knowledgeable sources of content, they are difficult for students to contextualise or place in a framework of knowledge for themselves.  Technology undoubtedly plays an important role in the modern classroom, but how does a first, second or third year student know how to make value judgments on the quality of the data they collect?  How can they evaluate these sources?  Their tutor is the first port of call of course to assist students in this kind of evaluation - but there is so little time in the classroom - I am personally tutoring a subject where I see my class of 16 students for only seven hours in the entire semester.  Obviously this is an inadequate amount of time to assist students with the content and their assessment, so they either miss out or we rely increasingly on technology.

It's a Sunday and I have an email from a student in my inbox that reads, 'I feel as If we didn't get a chance to discuss my ideas with you and I want to make a good start on the design for next Friday,' this is now the normal method for communication with my students, it's either email or Facebook because the classroom doesn't cater for learning.  None of my time spent online emailing, Facebook-ing or Skype-ing is paid work, it's not even considered by the university as part of teaching.  Teaching isn't aligned with the marketable aspects of the university, it's the 'University for the Real World', 'The University of U,' or the 'The World Standard University,' not the university where you learn and think - that's got nothing to do with it!  I know I'm not saying anything new.  Like most industries, the tertiary industry has been subject to cutbacks and I understand this is why I tutor subjects where I'm only paid for seven hours of contact or have classrooms with 30 - 40 students, however the tertiary business is booming with enrollments up by 24% in the 2007-2012 period (  So why are there teaching cutbacks?  Why are universities giving their students such a raw deal?

Each year my appointments for tutoring (sometimes teaching the same subject for the third or fourth time) are reduced, and as a result of this, this will be my last semester of tutoring.  I am very sad about this because I am genuinely passionate about the content that I teach, I like working with the students but the university itself seems to the barrier between me and teaching.  Senior staff are only interested in the numbers generated by student surveys and attrition trends and not the content being taught in the classroom.  The purpose of this blog is to have a place to share some of these experiences and to hopefully ignite some activism amongst Australian universities both by students and sessional academics.  Most of what I have written today has been anecdotal, I'll do a little more of that but also over the next few weeks I'll write some more articles based on existing research on the lack of support for sessional academics by institutions, a few interviews with long-standing tutors (those ones who've been involved with the university for 20 or so years), comments from students and the commercialization of university teaching spaces.  I would really love to hear other people comments, I have a twitter account here:!/SessionalAcadem and will get moving on a Facebook page in the next couple of weeks.  I'll also share any news I hear from other organisations, a good place to start with is the uni casual survey here: