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CASA weekly news: 10/14

Welcome to CASA’s weekly news round up. If you see something we should include, drop a line to casualcasa at gmail dot com, and if you’re on Twitter, #auscasuals will put your posts in the CASA timeline.

What happened this week?

Australian higher education stayed focused on the upcoming Federal budget. Minister Pyne’s excitingly titled Launch of the Diamond Deposition Suite Speech at Monash sketched a two-storey system of universities and higher education colleges, designed in the interest of fairness to both taxpayers and students.

About fairness to university staff, not so much was said.

There was also a startling comparison between the regulation of Australian universities and “the Soviet system”—one for fans of hyperbolic historical allusion (see below).

The proposed freedom-focused reforms are likely to encourage universities further towards the freedom of using hourly-paid teaching staff, casual researchers, and casual project and admin staff funded on soft money, while it’s not clear to us how higher education colleges would be staffed at all.

So the most relevant aspect of this week’s coverage of higher education is the continuing silence about casualisation. Politicians, university leaders and lobbyists continue to talk in abstract terms about the interaction between “universities” and “students”, keeping the actually more messy practices of staffing and teaching well out of sight.

Staying visible in the UK and the US

In the much larger systems of UK and US higher education, casualisation now has mainstream media attention.  Doing the rounds again this week, for example, an article from the San Diego Chronicle from December 2013 on the adjunct labour crisis as “Academia’s Dirty Little Secret“, while this week the Boston Magazine looks at “the army of part-time professors .. the working stiffs at the bottom of an enormous and lucrative enterprise.”

Mainstream media attention is pushed along by adroit online organising. This week adjuncts in the US came together for a day conference at Berkeley City College for #BCCAgora, on outsourcing education, higher education culture and adjunctivism, including an online live feed and Twitter timeline.

Social networks are also enabling adjuncts to get their stories out directly, including to their own students. Adjuncts at the San Francisco Art Institute, for example, are using their own blogs and a Tumblr with a petition to raise the profile of their campaign to join their local SEIU, and counter the comments made about their actions by administrators. Elsewhere in a moving post on the personal impact of long-term adjunct work, Arik Greenberg tells the story of his fight for union membership against the background of his parents’ deaths.

Meanwhile, as academics in the UK accepted a pay deal and called off their marking strike, the UK University College Union (UCU) Anti-Casualisation Committee led a national day of action: “We Need to Talk About Casualised Staff“, and are now working towards a Training and Organising Conference on June 5. For a sense of the day itself, here’s #anticas14 on Twitter, and the UCU’s piece in The Telegraph, focusing on the impact on students of the “culture of casualisation“.

When is it ok to do it for love?

The “Do What You Love” mantra has been strongly criticised as a wedge for uncompensated exploitation, especially by casualised university staff, so it’s interesting to read Laura Gibbs’ post on Summer and Work. Commenting on her long-term experience as an adjunct, she puts her choice to develop course materials on her own time in a wider context:

I see constantly that the Internet I care about, the learning space which I value above all other learning spaces (even above my beloved UCBerkeley), is a space created in large part by volunteers. By uncompensated labor. By the generosity of strangers. All the people who proofread at Gutenberg. All the people who edit at Wikipedia. … With very few exceptions (Dan Ashliman from University of Pittsburgh, for example), most of the individuals whose work I benefit from online are NOT academics. I find that shameful; public universities, in particular, should be leading the way in sustaining and expanding the open educational Internet. IMHO.

Which brings me back around to not being compensated by my university for the work I do creating online resources. I don’t take it personally; my university does precious little to support the open educational Internet, and their failure to compensate me is just one more missing drop in that very empty bucket. It’s not about me at all; it’s about my university’s failure to understand the value of the open Internet as an educational space.

The flipside of this choice is being perfectly demonstrated by MOOC operators Coursera, who are currently recruiting volunteer translators so that they can expand their global market share of the Internet as an educational space. Geoff Shullenberger summarises what’s awful about this in “Volunteerism, Deskilling and Profit at Coursera“, and the rest of his blog is really worth reading for his focus on the rise of unpaid labour in the digital economy.

For a look at what lies beyond even uncompensated work, check out Audrey Watters’ keynote at #BCCAgora on the cultural history of robots and the automation of educational labour.

A painful conversation continues

The history of uncompensated and insecure labour in the US generates many of the metaphors used for adjunct university work, including the very controversial metaphor of slavery. Victoria Hay, who has a book coming out using this metaphor in the title, unsurprisingly takes this view:

We have exploitation of a specific population whose members have or perceive they have no other job choices; we have stigmatization of this population; we have a workforce laboring for pay that often amounts to less than minimum wage after the number of unpaid hours required for course preparation, student mentoring, staff meetings, and grading are factored in; and we have a practice that is harming the institution that uses it.

The similarities to slavery as it has been practiced around the world since the dawn of humanity (not just in the United States) are unmistakable. And, in my opinion, those similarities are solid enough to justify the metaphor.

But Tressie McMillan Cottom, in “Slavery Should Never Be a Metaphor“, knocks this back, to put it mildly. Calling the constrained career choices of adjuncts a kind of slavery, she argues, “does a disservice to history, political action, and common sense”.

We may not use this exact metaphor in Australia all that much, but it seems we do know about exaggeration …

… back here in post-Soviet Australian higher education

Are teaching-intensive positions a substantial solution to the problem of casualisation in Australia? Southern New Hampshire U is experimenting with the creation of 45 full-time positions on the basis that these might improve student retention in its large online program. In a smaller system, it’s not clear how many of these positions can be created, relative to the actual casuals working across our sector.

The other question is the career barriers teaching-intensive positions introduce if not handled well. This is critical for anyone with carer’s responsibilities—not just women, and not just parents, but anyone whose career path has to take family caring into account. This week, a Chronicle article provoked about career discrimination against female science academics who take adjunct jobs while raising their children was widely shared. Article author Denise Cummins is blunt about career mobility in two-tier systems:

I served on faculty search committees when I was on the tenure track, and I know the drill: Someone whose work experience is limited to contingent positions—or worse, who leaves a tenure-track position to become an adjunct for family reasons—is not considered a credible candidate. … As teaching and research budgets tightened, the term “adjunct” became synonymous with “inferior academic whose duties should be restricted to ancillary teaching staff.”

This isn’t a problem that will be easy to resolve.

That’s it for this week. Hello to our new subscribers, and thanks to everyone who reblogs this and passes it around on Twitter—particularly for sharing it on Facebook, where we aren’t.

@acahacker and @KateMfD

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About Kate Bowles

Education technology, shared governance and casualisation in Australian higher education

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