A warm welcome to another new CASA contributor this week, with a report on the OLT 2014 Conference that many of us followed on Twitter. There’s an accompanying Storify of the exchanges between those who were there, and those watching from home. We really welcome comment, especially from anyone who was there.
This past week, I attended the conference of the Office of Teaching and Learning, “Learning and Teaching for Our Times: Higher Education in the Digital Age”. As an ECR in a professional teaching support role, I felt quite out of place: most of the other attendees were senior academics, managers, directors, and DVCs from across Australia. I doubt many casual teachers were present in the room. (If any casual colleagues did attend I would love to hear from you!)
The event was focused on the “big picture” issues, particularly the deregulation of higher education, and learning analytics. There was not a single session or paper specifically on casualisation, which many of us would agree is the most pressing teaching and learning issue facing universities. I would like to acknowledge, though, the poster from the BLASST project and the transnational teaching teams project which explicitly supported sessional staff (as mentioned by Kate in a previous CASA post).
But overall, it was the way sessionals were not discussed that says everything about how invisible they are.
Take the keynote, for example. Andrew Norton from the Grattan Institute discussed the effects of deregulation, with slide after slide on how more expensive uni fees would impact teaching (not much), how research output relates to quality of teaching (doesn’t help), and how teaching qualifications impact student satisfaction (no correlation). There was an offhand remark about “some tutors without degrees”, which both tacitly acknowledged the casualisation issue and ignored that many casual academics are now PhD qualified and highly experienced.
On Twitter, a conversation was brewing under the hashtag #olt2014 on how casual teachers fit into this “big picture”. I took the bait and asked during the question period about how casualisation related to his comments on teaching quality and qualifications. As 60 percent (or more) teaching is done by casuals who don’t have access to professional development, is this is a factor in why there is no measurable difference on student satisfaction by teachers with teaching qualifications?
His response: “I have no data about that.”
I sat down.
— Allan Christie (@ns_allanc) June 10, 2014
A later panel session included a presentation on “The academic workforce 2020” by Professor Richard James from the University of Melbourne. He discussed casualisation more explicitly, and talked about how the uni workforce would become more and more stratified if it continued along its current path. His suggestion was to create a Higher Education Academy model, similar to that in the UK, designed to support all educators at universities, starting with the most marginalised. By mentoring and supporting casual teachers (which he called “para-professionals”), universities could provide better access to pathways to career advancement.
— Agnes Bosanquet (@AgnesBosanquet) June 10, 2014
Several presentations followed on teaching standards, recognising teaching and rewarding good practice, and so on—none of which mentioned how casual teachers fit in to these frameworks. The real awkwardness came during the question period. A member of the NTEU stood and said, “I was sent to ask the unpopular questions” about casualisation. Panel member Belinda Probert replied:
Probert: Casualisation is the sleeper in the room. #OLT2014
— Katie Freund (@katiedigc) June 10, 2014
The panel only vaguely addressed the question, but essentially said the same things as Andrew Norton said to me, “We don’t know.”
Then another person stood and repeated the question, indicating their answer had not been satisfactory. The response from the panel was, “We’ve already discussed that. Please sit down.”
It’s quite clear that the panel doesn’t really know/want to talk about casuals. That was really awkward. #olt2014
— Katie Freund (@katiedigc) June 10, 2014
It was such an awkward and painful moment, noticed by all the 300 people in the room, if their murmuring was any indication. That moment, the “please sit down” moment, says it all, really. It’s the sleeper in the room, but we aren’t going to talk about it. No one seems to know what to do, so it’s best to ignore it and hope it goes away.
Throughout the rest of the conference, casuals were invisible in all the conversations about teaching and learning, academic staffing, learning technologies, and the future of higher education in Australia (with the two exceptions mentioned above). All the plans and projects to improve student engagement and teaching quality ignored the teaching that is done by sessionals; none of these projects will be truly effective until casualisation is addressed.
The discussion on Twitter was lively and engaged in the topic, however: many of the attendees, even if they weren’t speaking, were asking the right questions. I’ve collected many of the Tweets about casuals into a Storify for reference.
But what can we do about it? I have a few thoughts, ranging from easy to much more difficult to implement:
- Begin addressing the lack of knowledge of the issue by collecting and promoting all the existing research on casualisation in higher ed. That way, when people respond with “I’m not sure”, we have evidence we can provide to address the issues.
- Highlight and support the good practice work already being done on casualisation and supporting casual teachers, such as the BLASST project.
- Include Twitter feeds on the presentation screens in conference discussions. Casuals and their allies are active on Twitter; this is where the best conversations happen and casualisation is discussed openly and productively.
- Submit more papers and panel topics on casualisation to conferences like this, so that we can be included in the conference program and share with those who might not want to bring it up.
- Arrange a subsidy fund (possibly crowd-funded?) so that more casual university workers and casual allies can attend events like this, and continue to ask the “unpopular questions”.
- Stage a parallel session or conference which is directly focused on casualisation and contingent academics, similar to the MLA subconference. Host in the lobby of the conference centre!
- Organise a free conference on casual teaching, either held simultaneously in different locations (and engaging through video conferencing) or hosted online to allow as many to attend as possible without paying for travel fees.
I would love your thoughts on these suggestions, or to hear your perspective if you also attended this event or participated in the discussion on Twitter.