I have a continuing position as a lecturer. I teach sociology and my research is around youth media, digital music, and the ways people talk about these in order to get moral and identity ‘work’ done. But I am also interested in academic life and academic culture and the work that is academic work: how it is done, and how it is described. I have done some research around this also. This doesn’t tell you really why I am here, though it is something of who I am as a person with the good fortune to have a job which involves research interests.
One of the main reasons that I became interested in researching universities as places with workplace cultures is that in getting used to my job I started to notice lots of elisions and erasures and attritions, lots of things getting wiped off the surface or rubbed out or obscured, lots of systematic oddities, oversights, wilful blindnesses, and permanently temporary, broken solutions.
My own job seemed to involve absurd amounts of work, much of which was largely pointless or redundant, designed to convince an absent ‘Big Other’ that we were doing what we are supposed to. I thought about this as the institutional production of mistrust: an urge coming from somewhere, to make it be a part of academic work to permanently be involved in whole arrays of justifications for why one should be permitted to continue engaging in academic work.
In this sense the university is a great example of the permanent revolution in the bureaucracy that is ‘new public management’. Forms of ‘competition’ (or rather, forms of administrative order vaguely proximate to it or appearing quite like how it is understood) are introduced which require mobilisations and rationalisations and accounts of how excellence is being accomplished and so on.
This then becomes not only an integral component of the work, but in a weird way supersedes it, in that if we can only figure out how to game the research grant applications, student evaluations, or whatever other forms we are filling out just presently, we don’t actually need to bother trying to do ‘teaching’ or ‘research’ well, as there is no administrative or bureaucratic capture of these substantive practices or their ‘content’ (and in a way, there couldn’t be).
So, the flip-side of this is that in certain ways teaching and research are like wild, abandoned spaces, empty spaces, cracks in the pavement where crazy, unauthorised, unsupported ad hoc communities come and go. This is productive and rewarding for tutors who know the material, but also extremely chaotic, stressful, and very localised and individualised. It is in many respects safer to simply go through the motions (that is, if any suggestion as to what they might be is available). Investments of time and energy and emotion in those spaces have to be balanced against the consequential foolishness of accounts of ‘learning outcomes’ or whatever it is we are told to say we are doing when we try to support people who have been bothered to come to these places in the hopes, maybe, of finding something out about the world.
I am here because I can see this in my daily working life, and because, like others, I understand and experience it as a loss and a cost, that the conditions of academic work and the conditions for the production of research and of learning as meaningful contributions are being steadily degraded. Casual, sessional staff, those who are being referred to here as YIYOs, are the front line of this, they embody it and live it and practice it. I do not have to worry about how to pay the rent when the teaching stops. The fact that I have this privilege is intimately connected to the fact that others do not, and this connection is due to those mechanisms of competition in use as mechanisms of cost.
The degradation of working conditions for casual staff obviously means more instability and chaos for people trying to live lives, but it also does other interesting things, for example, it makes the ethics of work and of collaboration sensitive and stressful, it pits people against each other in pursuit of dubious rewards, it institutes cynicism, distrust and hopelessness as ‘normal’ aspects of trying to have a relationship to place and work. Nobody would really think of these sorts of things as ‘good’ for those who endure them (in my experience, usually with inspiring wit and insight), but one of the things that is particularly distressing about this situation is how it impacts on the work itself which casuals do.
Universities are tasked with processing large numbers of young people, and showing them something of how we can understand the world. Universities performatively enact the social standing of inquisitiveness, of intellectual work, of particular ethics of cultural value, and perhaps most critically of care. Care here is a way of engaging with the world and with the canons which have been developed and sanctioned for doing so, and it is shown in how these engagements and canons are exhibited and transmitted to students. There are obvious and unpleasant reasons for why people would want to deface this and those who carry out this work (among them, a hearty contempt for ‘intellectual’ thinking, and an aggressive political interest in the benefits of the production of ignorance). I see the costs when I meet students, who are not prepared for what is going to happen to them at university, and who are being divested in the course of that from understandings of what is going to happen to them in their lives and to some extent therefore the capacities to do something about that. Where the shortfalls here are met, if at all, by unpaid, exploited labour, we are involved in quite a dangerous game, a literally unsustainable one.
The logical option for students, as for others also, is a strategic withdrawal from caring (about their education, about the rights and responsibilities associated with their relationship with this institution and others, about the riddle of how to productively effect their social and political agency), because the institution itself is showing them quite clearly what the costs of caring are.
This is not productive, it is not helping, and we can do better.