I’m Karina, I’m a geographer, and I’ve been a sessional-casual academic (lecturer, tutor, unit convenor, academic developer, project officer, project manager, research assistant, postgraduate student, research officer) for nine years. I’m up to job contract number 22. That’s a lot of time sheets.
I’ve worked as such in the sciences, arts and humanities, education, social sciences and in business faculties. I’m the embodiment of multi-disciplinarity but my head and heart belong to human geography – the study of people’s interactions with environment. I’m a social geographer so I’m particularly interested in how people work to belong, even in isolated, alienating, precarious situations.
For me, this is what it is to be a casual academic worker in higher education. You are always working (hard) to belong, to make a good living from this place that has so much potential to provide all anybody could need and want from a workplace: a (very) decent standard of living, intellectual stimulation, professional development, sincere collegiality, exciting collaboration, service to your community and to other generations of scholars.
But job insecurity is the enemy. Because of job insecurity, your efforts at belonging are consistently thwarted. On a casual contract – hired and fired by the hour – you cannot belong because you are so easily disposable. When you are a casual worker, you can never really feel safe or at home.
CASA means ‘home’ in Spanish.
And this is what we hope this site will be – an online home for casual, adjunct, sessional and ally academics and students where rich and productive conversations can be had about the reality of casualisation in the academy and ways to belong, in spite of it, alongside it, or maybe even, because of it.
Now these are the conversations about casualisation I’ve had and heard:
“Do you want to start teaching this semester? Here’s the unit outline and just sign here. It’s a contract for 70 hours over the semester and that includes three hours – one hour for prep, one for face-to-face teaching, and one hour for marking… approximately, 150 students.”
“Excuse me, is there a teacher training program available?”
“So, can you teach for me this semester? It’s just four one-hour tutorials in a row per week. No, not in the same room; different rooms and I think one’s actually off campus. It’s the last tute though. The one at 7pm. And if we have the student numbers, we might put an extra tute on Friday morning…”
“ Yep, just put those papers over there, shove that laptop over…yeah, brand new. The faculty gives a new laptop to all its PhD students. No, of course, tutors don’t get one, are you mad? How much do you think they’d have to spend to do that? The casuals can bring their own.”
“I don’t suppose you have any research assistant work I could do over December and January?”
“Before the tutors get access to their online classes, they have to do 8 hours of training and pass a test at the end. No, they are not paid for the training. No, they cannot work unless they have passed that test.”
“Hi Ashley, how are you? No, no that’s fine. I’m just sorry we have to talk about this in the middle of the quad but as I think I mentioned in class, I don’t have an office. Yes, it does make it totally awks. Now about this paper you’ve written…”
“Please let us know if the marking takes you over the allocated time of 9 minutes per essay.”
“Is it okay if I give no written feedback, just the grade at the end?”
“We can’t guarantee there will be funding for your position next year. We’ll do all we can but you know, the faculty budgets have been slashed.”
“Where do the sessional staff fit into this learning and teaching plan?” (*crickets*)
“I’d like to apply for the Newstart allowance please.”
These are the kind of conversations I’m all too used to having and hearing as someone who works at a university.
I’m here at CASA because I would like to start having different conversations about casualisation in the academy; conversations that foster collegiality, co-operation, and professional support for what could very well be the majority of teachers in higher education, depending on how and when we count ‘em . I want to have conversations that acknowledge the divide between tenured academic life and casual academic life; and conversations on ways to ease the burden and the risks of casualisation on all who are involved in learning and teaching at university. I want conversations that may be difficult, but that nonetheless, let others working as sessional and casual staff members know that they are not alone in their successes and their frustrations.
My thanks in advance to all those who will join us in conversations here ‘en CASA’.
Please make yourselves at home.
This line really hit home for me: “We can’t guarantee there will be funding for your position next year. We’ll do all we can but you know, the faculty budgets have been slashed.” I heard this just yesterday – “We can’t offer you the permanent position you applied for, but we’ll try to have your contract renewed. We can’t promise anything though.” I feel like a teenager waiting by the phone for a boy to call me! (Not my style at all.)
Got an offer of a 2 yr contract in another city and now trying to decide whether or not to leave my partner behind and move on my own. Tough times for casuals. I’d love to be involved in any activities to help improve the situation for all of us. Thanks for sharing your story and creating a place for others to share theirs. 🙂
Katie, thank you. I’m glad that this post resonated with you but I am also really sorry that it did. Trying to make a decision to move away from partner, family and friends for a 2 year contract must be gut wrenching. Crossing my fingers that something else near home will come through for you.
(I once commuted from one city to another for a year. To this day I can’t remember anything about that year except how tired I was all the time).
Karina, like Katie, I have the pleasing, and displeasing, experience of resonance with so many of these quotes. I am still getting used to the basic revelation that so many of these things that I have been through are not my lone experience. I look forward to hearing more from your perspective.
Thank you! I’m looking forward to hearing more from you too – I have the feeling I’ll be slapping my thigh (metaphorically because after a while – ow!) and going “Me too! Me too!”
What a great introduction Karina! I am also a human geographer, now on my 25th job number at my university! (not something I’ve ever boasted about). I spent today in a career development workshop for female academics stewing over 1, 5 and 10 year plans, privileged to have an opportunity to attend but also feeling awkward that I didn’t have a ‘proper’ academic job in the first place. Esteemed elders told us that dropping out, steps sideways and nonlinear paths were all good fodder to draw from but the underlying assumption was that everyone in fact had a ‘job’ from which they could plan their working lives.
Thanks for initiating and sharing your experiences, I look forward to hanging out at CASA on a regular basis, I feel at home already.
Thanks Jenny, so glad to meet another geographer in the house! Oh yes, I know those kinds of workshops and have felt similarly ambivalent – really pleased to be there because the information is (or could be) so useful and feeling grumpy cos I can’t put it to work (so to speak). Thinking about these kind of prof dev events, I realise now how often I’ve had to plan or even think about a hypothetical academic career from the completely imaginary starting point of ‘the ‘ongoing position’.
My *actual* career plan not to mention, its trajectory, is a red hot mess – one of my references said as much in an otherwise glowing report. (It was for one of the many internal jobs and therefore, this reference has been *very* well used and yet somehow remains very supportive. Am assuming that on this occasion they were tired!)