(We really welcome comment on this post from casual and sessional university staff who are similarly experiencing loss of pay this fortnight when all the Australian public holidays have come at once. Long shot: are there any institutions handling this well?)
I got my sessional teaching contract a few weeks before session was scheduled to begin, which indicated that I had been allocated one tutorial class, one hour a week over 12 weeks of session. I had the option of more, but made the decision not to take them because of the huge marking load associated with taking on multiple 100 level classes. Now in other years this would have been financially prohibitive for me, but it just so happens that this year I am balancing sessional teaching with a project position which is absorbing a lot of my time so it has worked out well. Then something happened, which has happened to me on many other years, and I stopped to take stock at the inherent bloody unfairness of it.
This year one of my classes was scheduled to run on a public holiday.
In previous years this has been hugely impactful on me. At the beginning of session when I would receive my contract I would allocate the funds from each week’s pay towards different needs: rent, the phone and internet bills, and more recently childcare and other Ms 4 related expenses. Some years are leaner than others, but this is money that I would budget for and rely on. So it would come as an unpleasant shock when a class was scheduled for a public holiday, and therefore wouldn’t run. Meaning, of course, that I wouldn’t be paid for it.
Now I am not an optimist, and would never claim to be. My glass is not half full and is more likely to be bone dry with the faintest odor of vodka, but some might argue that while I wasn’t getting paid, at least I wasn’t working. Au contraire! As a sessional teacher I still need to watch the lecture and familiarise myself with all of the readings and texts as set for that week, as it would be unreasonable to mark student work based on that material without being knowledgeable on it myself. So I spend hours preparing for a class I will not facilitate, and therefore will not get paid for.
As has been acknowledged by authors both on this site, and others, sessional teachers already spend a shitload more time than they are ever compensated for on teaching, as well as marking and other administrative duties that are never acknowledged. So a public holiday and the friendly banter around it about weekends away and “getting away from the office” just add insult to injury for the casual academic. It signifies yet another way that we are different, lesser than, fucked over. We never truly “get away from the office” because we don’t have offices. The bulk of my class preparation happens at my home office. The term “office hours” is meaningless to us as the hours we keep are our own. The work needs to be done, public holiday or otherwise. Marking for example, is a task that needs to be completed within a certain timeframe. If an assignment is submitted before a public holiday then so be it. And before you say: this is also true of full-time academics, just remember who gets paid on public holidays. Oh, right.
But wait, there’s more. Sessional teachers who are parents often face an added complication: child care. My daughter attends a daycare centre in which fees are not charged for public holidays. However others aren’t so lucky. For those, public holidays present a double whammy: not only do they need to do work which remains uncompensated, they also need to pay for their child to attend daycare at a school which their child won’t be attending because the centre will be closed. (This is actually a pretty common policy: in order to hold a child’s place at a centre, fees need to be paid, including for public holidays.)
This public holiday conundrum has happened to me many times before. In other years I have fought to have the class rescheduled, which is no easy feat considering timetabling restrictions and the competing constraints on my students’ time. It is something you have to argue and fight for (it is never offered) and oftentimes it just cannot be done. So this year I took the hit. I let it slide. I am one of the lucky ones in that I have project work to continue with over the Easter break which can tide me over as well, I won’t have a week without pay. Many of my sessional teaching colleagues aren’t so lucky.
Meanwhile, I have had a few awkward interactions with some of my full-time colleagues in the last few weeks. With nought but the best intentions they ask me if I am heading away anywhere. They make the same banter about weekends down the coast and spending time with the kids. So to our allies: please remember that some of us only get paid when we physically front up to work, and public holidays put a massive dent in our income, while still requiring that we put in hours of preparation for a class that won’t happen.
But you’re right, it is nice to get away for a few days … isn’t it?