Thanks to everyone who’s sent us links and tips for the weekly news round up, or for good articles appearing elsewhere that we might want to reblog. If you come across something, just email us at casualcasa at gmail dot com.
So, what happened this week?
The academic year began. And while full-time academics were sent welcome back emails, too many casual staff were still finalising contract details on last-minute and emergency hiring, despite being asked to provide all their details months in advance. Both CASA articles had pointed out that these harmful inefficiencies also then have to be explained to students.
So it was timely to read an article written on the Lawyers Guns Money blog back in 2005 saying more or less the same thing.
Why have universities exposed themselves to this level of casualisation, for so long? At the Canadian Higher Education Strategy Associates blog, Alex Usher (@AlexUsherHESA) has a persuasively simple account of how casualisation came to be such a widespread problem:
But there’s no mystery here: universities, for the most part, get paid by governments and students according to how much teaching they do; despite this, they pay their academic staff to spend roughly half their time doing stuff other than teaching. Unsurprisingly, this results in there being more teaching duties than available teaching time. Hence the need for sessionals (a need that has only grown larger as research has increased in importance). … Basically, no one “decided” to create an academic underclass of sessionals. Rather, they are an emergent property of a system where universities mostly earn money for teaching, but spend a hell of a lot of it doing research.
This isn’t as glib as it sounds. Casualisation is a quicksand in which universities are now also substantially stuck, without anyone having intended that things come to this. And just like quicksand, it’s going to need as much creative intelligence as effort to figure out how everyone gets out and moves forward.
The week’s big story internationally: mental health in academic life
Since The Guardian highlighted the culture of acceptance of mental health problems in the PhD student experience on March, there has been such a strong response that they followed up on March 6 with an article on the rise of mental health problems in academic life generally. This caused some earlier pieces to recirculate, including this from The Chronicle of Higher Education from December last year, on depression as the toll academic life exacts.
This connects to casualisation in obvious ways. First, in many higher education systems casual teaching is an embedded part of the graduate student experience. The Guardian again looked at the pay rates for Graduate Teaching Assistants in the UK. And in the US, Overworked TA wrote a moving post on the graduate student culture of self-neglect:
Being overworked and putting ourselves and our needs last is unhealthy. Let’s just call it that. Just shout it out and breathe easier. It’s not okay. When you aren’t getting sleep, food, exercise, and time with your family, you aren’t meeting your basic human needs. Remind yourself of these things.
Second, there is significant research on the mental health effects of casualisation in any profession, suggesting that casual university workers are doubly at risk, holding down the most insecure jobs in an increasingly unhealthy profession.
The coming storm: who will do the tutoring in MOOCs?
Academic allies have been speaking up for a while about MOOCs as a labour issue, noticing in particular the use of graduate student TAs who seem to be acting as volunteers in MOOCs as part of doing what they love in the graduate seminar wherever they are. In the US, historian Jonathan Rees has been a consistent critic of the way the promotion of MOOCs overlooks the actual work of teaching. In a recent post, for example, he responds to an article on the use of AI to create programmable teaching assistants.
This week, a substantial discussion from Canadian online education specialist Tony Bates on the problems with the idea that massive online courses can be managed by TAs.
Reputation, and who cares
Mainstream media coverage of Australian higher education focused on the fact that Australia “fell in rankings”. The Scan has succinct coverage; HESA in Canada summarised the limited significance of the shuffling in the prestige index, although they did go out of their way to say that Australian universities tanked. Ouch.
None of these executive level scans look closely at casualisation, which is why the proposal to shrink TEQSA is important: in the current back-and-forth about red tape, it’s good to remember that TEQSA was one agency that required universities to treat their rate of casualisation as a business risk—and thus potentially a repetitional risk—and report it accordingly.
Bits and pieces
In the latest in the Inside Higher Education “Two Adjuncts Talk” series, “Why Cultural Capital Doesn’t Pay The Rent.” Jessica Lawless, adjunct at Santa Fe Community College put it like this:
We need to create alliances with other academic workers, administrative staff, maintenance, food services, who have been fighting for equity in their jobs on college campuses for years. Part of this is recognizing that, as a work force, we are at the intersections of faculty, culture workers, and contract laborers. … I also strongly believe we have to find ways to address our emotional collapse, the loss we have experienced in having a brick ceiling laid over our heads at every turn as we tried to build careers. We have individual and collective grief that has to be recognized in whatever organizing we do.
CASA has been given very strong support by US adjunct activists in particular, and our articles are being read. We have a whole lot of new Australian subscribers this week.
Thanks so much everyone.
Kate and Karina