Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Let the assessment stress begin!

I've been marking furiously over the last couple of weeks, it hasn't been so bad, the good thing about tutoring subjects over a couple of years is that you get very efficient at marking.  You know exactly what you're looking for, you know the content inside out, and it's easy to make value judgements on the quality of the students' work.  Although I feel for my colleagues who are teaching subjects for the first time around, some of them take three times as long to mark the same amount of work and will still only be paid for the one or two hours allocated for marking.  Of course the stress associated with assessment is mostly an issue for the students.

It is very difficult to see students struggle with their workloads, but there are those wonderful moments when you can help a student overcome their struggles and successfully submit their assessment.  Sometimes you can build a relationship with a student and its easy to work through their problems, however there are students who you can't help out.  They're usually the students that have been absent throughout the semester, struggling at home - maybe for very legitimate reasons they haven't been able to attend class - and now that it's come to the crunch, they turn up to a tutorial and melt down.  With these students I never know how to help them.  I don't know how they've been coping with the content, I don't know their situation at uni or outside of uni, I just don't know them.  This means you and the student enter into this awkward conversation where they want to tell you an elaborate personal story about their situation, even though you're mostly strangers, and you have to try to digest this information in relation to their assessment.  Even worse are the emails from students who are stressed about their assessment and confess to having never attended class (generally these emails make me incensed!  I have to wait a while to respond to them)- how do you respond to these emails?

Last Friday I had one student attend their first class, a tutorial in which assessment was due, and the student burst into uncontrollable tears.  I spent about an hour with the student to talk through how to strategise their work for the next piece of assessment.  There are those standard processes you go through, suggesting the student go to counseling, apply for extensions and make sure they communicate their problems as soon as they arise and not let it build up.  Although these responses all seem very cold and not very sympathetic to the student.  Basically I'm ill-equipped to handle these situations - I've had no training on how to help students handle these stresses, especially when I don't know them well at all.  The other thing this issue brings up is the value of face to face teaching.  I couldn't find any literature on how more contact hours might alleviate the stress of uni - but I think it would be an interesting study.                      

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Overload and the fear of saying no.

I tutor at the same school as where I studied.  Most of the lecturers know me well as when I was going through they were my tutors, so I have no problem with picking up subjects each semester to tutor.  My only problem is when I am overloaded and I have to say no to a job offer, I probably won't be offered that subject again.  I know, poor me, too many subjects to choose from.  But it happens every semester, the budgets come out too late and there is this scramble by lecturers for tutors, the phone rings the emails come in and you draw up a weekly timetable to work out your availability, prioritising those subjects you enjoy or have expertise in.  If I can't accept an offer to tutor I usually recommend a colleague, one from a long list, who are keen to tutor.  Of course, when I see this colleague at the end of the semester (they're probably still waiting to be paid and don't know how to get their password, staff card or access their email), they possess a slightly more cynical outlook towards tutoring, but if the offer comes up again next semester of course they'll say yes.  And this is the problem, how do you say no to tutoring offers without a convenient excuse of subject clash or lack of expertise?  I struggle with this and by this time of the semester (week 6/7) realise I am overloaded.  My fear is that if I say no to a subject, I will have less and less offers each semester and when tutoring is your staple income and that only comes in 26 weeks of the year, you need to feel certain that there will be work next year.  So I feel some pressure to say yes to every offer and agonise over the ones I say no to.

Somewhat like call centre workers who fear saying no to a shift in case they are never offered another shift.  Well, it's not as bad as it is for call centre workers, one of the stories that came out of the Howe Inquiry was from a call centre worker who witnessed other workers wetting themselves as they were too afraid to take toilet breaks.  So while it's not great being a casual worker in the tertiary sector, it could be so much much worse!  This inability to say no to work is not restricted to casual workers at universities either, I see lecturers involved with numerous projects, unable to keep up with their workload.  We have a host of academics at our university who pride themselves on waking up at between 3am and 4am to get through their workload.  When I was working in practice I was proud that I had reached the point in my career where I could negotiate reasonable timeframes and requests for work from employers and clients.  Now I'm back to the early days of my career, saying yes to everything, working seven days a week and limiting my social life.  I have no problem with that as I am the bottom rungs of the academic career ladder, my concern is that there is no cessation of this work ethic throughout the academic career track.  And for what?  Some profound research finding?


Monday, 2 April 2012

Day of Higher Ed

Today is the day of 'Higher Ed' a day for those involved with higher education to blog, tweet and post their higher education opinions and experiences.  I look forward to reading what amounts as a result of this activity.  I am learning so much from other people here in Australia and from overseas, especially the U.S..  My background is in architecture and I have limited knowledge in the fields of politics, governance and humanities.  I can only really comment on my own experiences and try to contextualise them... as best I can.  So blogging (and this is also my first blog) has provided this platform for me to connect with other people in higher education from Australia and abroad.  I am very grateful for these new connections and happily the spruik the potential of the day for 'Higher Ed'.

Pay and Hours Worked
This week's ponder is based on how sessional and casual academics are paid in Australia.  I tutored a theory subject today for two hours and was paid around $112 for each hour.  That sounds like a great rate, doesn't it?  But that pay rate covers my preparation, meetings, outside consultation with students, emails and (although it's not supposed to) marking.  On average I spend one to one and a half days on this subject, working out to about $22 per hour - about the equivalent of a fast food chain worker in Australia.  Now, coming from a background in architecture, I am not going to complain about low pay, it's all I've ever known!  My gripe here is about how we are paid.  Why aren't we paid in a way that represents the hours that we work instead of these ridiculous hourly rates?  There are a few reasons this concerns me, firstly because it is difficult to cry 'hard done by' when you are paid at this rate, which is in no way a representation of the work involved with tutoring a two hour class.  Mostly, though my concern is in the way that employment is measured in Australia, in that employment is measured by how many hours worked in a week and not the amount earned (which makes sense, I'm not arguing that it doesn't).  I currently work around 45 - 50 hours a week as a tutor, but I am only employed by my university for 9 hours a week.  This becomes an issue when applying for loans from banks and in means testing for welfare.  For example, if a woman employed in the manner that I currently am were to apply for the Australian government's maternity leave they wouldn't qualify.  The maternity leave scheme requires that the mother has worked for 330 hours over the last 10 months (that is working for just over one day a week).  Working these limited hours per week and only for the appointed period of between 7 and 13 weeks, someone like myself could not qualify, even though I work more hours than required to satisfy a full time week.  I am interested then in why we are paid in the way that we are and if it could be changed to more suitable model?