There is a rich discussion happening about the segregation of casual academics in universities, a practice that treats casual staff as a less valuable, and perhaps less capable, underclass of academic workers. Rebecca Schuman succinctly articulated the some of the isolating sentiments experienced by casual academics in her recent post “Careful, He Might Think He Works Here“. Among the isolating factors are the limited opportunities to access to training, development, education and to network with others.
In an earlier post I wrote about internal demarcation resulting from the demand that casual academics repeatedly submit an Expression of Interest in order even to be considered for work. The recruitment process reminds casuals that they are dispensable and their professional development not worth investing in. However, we need to keep telling ourselves that we are. We need to keep investing in our own education, demonstrating that professional development continues to occur and that we’re participants in the academic community.
Being a lifelong learner is how I came into teaching in the first place. I am motivated and love to learn. I relish sharing what I know with others. However, when it comes to having access to education, I am often left feeling locked out by my workplace and/or the circumstances of my work. The demands of teaching generally prevent me from attending symposia, workshops, conferences, or even presentations by visiting academics.
My learning, development and participation in academic life is therefore an independent pursuit rather than an institutional concern. The scheduling of events is understandably not around my timetable. If I happen to know about an event in advance I usually find that I will be teaching when it takes place or often I’ll be buried under a pile of marking. I simply cannot afford to sacrifice my teaching income in order to attend. Traveling off campus seems fanciful, if not delusional. I’ll be busy, like my casual colleagues, keeping things ticking along.
Well then, there are the breaks between teaching sessions, right? Wrong. These are the limbo periods where the distinction between full-time and casual academics is punctuated most openly. At my workplace and elsewhere casual academics lose their staff identity during these breaks. We become unemployed orphans of the institution. So there may be a few internal courses on offer but it makes no difference, only current staff can apply to attend.
And the method and the manner of communication about such events reads as though directed at others, not the casual underclass. Email notifications occasionally land in my inbox as if by accident. Since I’m not supposed to think I work here, should I know about this? Sadly it’s not a foreign experience to show up at unpaid meetings, having made complex transport and costly child care arrangements, only to learn that the meeting or event was cancelled but only the permanent staff were advised.
Nevertheless, like many casual colleagues, I have successfully completed courses during my time as a casual academic. I also acknowledge that access to training and education is a challenge to many people regardless of their profession. But I spend so much of my time in casual academic inertia – waiting and wondering if a contract will materialize, feeling unable to make plans – and this state of unknowing often prohibits me from enrolling in courses that occur during session and during the breaks. I don’t know when, if, or what I’ll be invited to teach, and this is debilitating. My income is not guaranteed, and it seems a frivolous investment for someone on a shoestring budget to pay an application fee or enroll in anything when I have no idea what I’m developing myself to do. If I sacrifice teaching opportunities in order to educate myself I might be out of sight, out of mind, out of work and out of money.
What about less formal channels? I’m truly thankful to the atypical academics who extend rare invitations to join projects, attend events or even their social gathering. Anything really. At the same time my gratitude for these small inclusive gestures somehow reaffirms my position as one of the oft overlooked: the underclass of workers who are distanced from peers via eroded conditions and attitudes.
The segregation of casual academics represents tremendous opportunity lost. We miss out on the opportunity to learn from and with each other formally and informally. We miss out on professional relationships that can extend across institutions as we move into other areas. We can work with great minds and be oblivious to their achievements or potential. We can have a lot in common and have nothing to do with each other. We can mentor and encourage our students but shut out other staff. We can dedicate years of our lives in a workplace that has no collective memory of our existence.
I really want to better myself, continue my learning, collaborate with colleagues and become an even better teacher but paradoxically the largest stumbling block to this appears to be that I work casually in higher education.
This is exactly the situation, and well done for putting it so eloquently. Without the sessionals, university teaching would fall in a heap, and continuing academics would have no time for research. Together, we are powerful. It starts, as you say, with realising our value and not buying in to the idea that we’re somehow lesser beings.