you're reading...
Change one thing, Experiences

The Tutor Hunger Games

As a follow up to my recent article on the realities of ‘systemic irresponsibility’ in universities, which has also been picked up in Richard Hall’s UK blog, this week I’m reflecting on my personal experience of being pitted against my YIYO colleagues in the search for work after the long drought of summer.

Speaking from my personal experience of Week 1, many like me were pitted against our fellow teachers, reduced to pestering full time subject coordinators for work. We did this with the hope of not losing face, by keeping our composure, containing our frustration, concealing our emotions and without jeopardizing future work by revealing our disappointment at missing out.

By late-mid Week 1, I had been offered one tutorial at the 11th hour which – as it turns out – had been taken away from another tutor. Having discovered this a few days later by chance conversation, I have been conflicted, remorseful and confused, with a feeling of sickness in the stomach.

Stewing on it for a few days I was asking myself: “What do I do? What should I do? “Practice what you preach”, I can hear you saying, and “give the work back.”

But what would you do – if refusing to take on that class meant not having any work at all?

This is the very problem with systemic irresponsibility at universities: no one with the capacity to prevent this kind of circumstance takes any action to do so.

In a free market society, it makes sense that YIYOs (‘suppliers’) will sort out their own work arrangements by conforming to the realities of market availability (‘demand’). In this scenario the system takes a back seat.

But that is also why the free market makes complete nonsense when administrators instinctively suggest it should be left up to the market and not people to intervene and create a workable solution.

So, survival during Week 1 for YIYOs came down to playing a sort of ‘Hunger Games’ at the learning and teaching coalface. The experience exposes that the EOI system is not achieving anything like a clear or fair process for appointments. I can’t wait to see a student film about this.

Am I Not Good Enough?

It is often difficult for those who are not or have not been YIYO casuals to understand how much grief and anxiety there really is associated with the Week 1 Tutor Hunger Games. On top of a misguided Australian culture of anti-classist backlash against the ungrateful ‘middle class’ (ironic, because miners and skiledl labour typically earn quadruple the average YIYO), there seems so often a sense of shame in speaking out for us.

Thus, the solution which is imbued with these kind of classist/cultural tropes is a simple one: “If you’re good enough, you’ll get offered a full time position”, or “there’s plenty of jobs out there, just keep applying”. But when people say it’s a market of opportunity out there, what they really mean is that its a free-market of opportunity, which isn’t free at all because it privileges the most cunning, the least empathetic and those with the most effective personal networks within the university bureaucracy. The meritorious, the patient, the passive, and the aspiring newcomers to academia miss out.

If this was the Hunger Games, the survivalist rationale underpinning casual recruitment might be conceived as a logical training ground for recruitment to full time. But it’s not.

I have applied for at least 60 full time academic positions in Australia and internationally in the last two years. Only a handful ever replied – regardless of whether I was short-listed or not.

You hear that the job market is “saturated” with PhDs. Recently, a Sydney University reportedly received 70 applications for a history fellowship. At another university, there were 200 applications for a lecturing post in Humanities.

So you begin to wonder: “am I not good enough?” You question whether the application even makes it past HR. “Are academics in the Faculty even looking at my resume, or is the application process left solely up the HR manager who knows little about or places little emphasis on teaching?”

I have kept long paper trails of teaching evaluations going back a decade or so in my career as a YIYO. They seem to indicate I have exceptional teaching capacities. According to a formal teaching evaluation by the learning and teaching unit:

‘Because [he] has some outstanding skills it would be ideal if he could share some of his own methods… and share some of his expertise and interest with colleagues.’

‘[He] certainly contributes to the creation of a welcoming classroom through his effective communication, good planning and empathetic, intelligent approach.’

‘[He is a] skilled teacher to enable the students to transcend the limitations of their physical location and become immersed in the interesting issues and debates that the teacher has drawn them into.’

My teaching evaluations are very good. So what am I doing wrong either when I apply for a job or try and get tutoring work? What is my problem?

One answer is that academics aren’t hired to teach, at least not the full time academics. They are there to research and bring revenue to the university through grants. Teaching is more and more the sideshow to what full time academics are doing, even a distraction for ambitious academics.

I love teaching. The joy is unparalleled. But at what price? Does there have to be only one winner in the Tutor Hunger Games?



10 thoughts on “The Tutor Hunger Games

  1. It may be the case that, if you love teaching, then high school would be a more appropriate venue for your talents?

    Posted by Rob | March 21, 2014, 1:46 pm
    • Maybe. Personally though I love teaching adults. I love the enquiry that can come from tutorials and don’t really see this in the high school curriculum. What a sad world it will be too if/when all those who love tacking are forced out of higher education.

      Posted by Lizzieme | March 21, 2014, 4:49 pm
    • I’d love to teach high school. Unfortunately that would require returning to study to obtain an actual teaching qualification. I have always thought it strange to say the least, that you need formal quals to teach in primary and secondary but not in higher ed.

      Posted by Karina | March 24, 2014, 8:18 pm
  2. Similarly I went from thinking I was tutoring at two universities to nothing. One coordinator who seemed very keen simply stopped answering my emails. Another told me two days before classes were meant to start that I wasn’t required. Someone I know went from losing all but two of his 6 expected tutes one morning to being offered 12 by the end of the day … all fell on the same day.

    Posted by Jacqui | March 21, 2014, 9:45 pm
  3. Oh and I forgot to mention my own department didn’t even acknowledge my application for tutoring with an answer after a very complex application process. Now applying for admin jobs 🙂

    Posted by Jacqui | March 21, 2014, 9:48 pm
  4. After a few circuits on the casual roundabout it’s not uncommon to see “the most cunning, the least empathetic and those with the most effective personal networks within the university bureaucracy” being advantaged by their stealth or even disloyalty to their colleagues. This is indeed divisive. It rewards a ‘win at all costs’ mentality, compounds insecurities and discourages collegiality.
    Upon returning from forced bouts of unemployment, as session begins, and members of your previous teaching team cross paths it’s almost like an elementary school yard when students discuss the Christmas gifts they received except they are discussing work. What did you get? Unfortunately though, it’s not a shallow display of privilege or status, it’s often life altering.

    Posted by mstexta | March 22, 2014, 8:37 am
  5. This is exactly what I’ve found in several years of sessional work. I’ve been lucky enough to have also had three separate full-time “year-long” (actually about 9 months) contracts, which is wonderful and takes the stress out of having to reapply for jobs mid-year.
    Regarding “taking” work from others, I can see why you would feel a little guilty. However, if it’s the only tute you’ve got, I’m sure the other person wouldn’t begrudge you that.
    Sessionals need to look after each other. Remember too, they are the majority of teaching staff in most Australian universities. There is power in numbers, even though as individuals you can feel isolated and vulnerable as a sessional.

    Posted by Caron Eastgate Dann | March 22, 2014, 10:36 am


  1. Pingback: Session’s over (Part 1: now what?) | CASA - July 4, 2014

  2. Pingback: Session’s over (Part 2: Improving Our Lot) | CASA - July 20, 2014

We welcome your thoughts (update: oldest comments now appear first!)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: