Hello and welcome to this week’s higher education news with a focus on the casualisation of Australian university work. If you’re new to CASA, you can read a bit about how we got started in an article here. If you’d like to join us, or you’d like us to look at something specifically, please do email: casualcasa at gmail dot com.
What’s happening in Australia?
Taking a pause from adding to the speculation about the Federal reform agenda for higher education, this week we’re having a think about the intersection of casual work and education technology. Both in the northern hemisphere summer break and down here in the wintery gap between Australian semesters, it’s education technology conference season: instructurecon, ISTE2014, CETIS14 all rolled around in the last couple of weeks, along with quite a few smaller events.
Education technology conferences are a little weird, often having more in common with tech conferences than scholarly conferences or even academic management conferences. There are more vendor booths, more prizes to be won, fancier food, and more live entertainment.
But what all these kinds of conferences share is their tendency to overlook who does the actual teaching in universities, and a pricing structure that makes it more or less impossible for casuals to show up in person and put the picture straight.
This week Australia’s annual Moodle Moot (one of the more affordable events, but still well out of the reach of casuals) is running in Cairns. The official hashtag is #mootau14, and like many 2014 university conferences the focus is on thinking about the future of education, this time through the theme evolution.
With lovely timing, this week CASA writer The Smart Casual emerged from the primordial swamp of online grading to call out the invisible labour of casuals that sustains technological innovation:
The labour of monitoring Twitter timelines, or checking the timestamps of blog posts, or reading comment threads, or bringing stressed students up to speed with technology they may not be familiar with, is not always acknowledged as marking, but it is also not acknowledged as part of teaching, it is just one of the many things a sessional academic is expected to do in silence if they want to continue working in higher education. People with permanent hours and office space (complete with a computer and internet access) come up with wonderful and innovative ideas concerning the use of technology in higher education. Ideas that casual staff then need to help implement, that casual staff need to support the students in achieving, and that casual staff commit their labour to, labour which happens behind the scenes, late at night or early in the morning, our faces reflected in the glow of our monitors and our mobile phone screens.
Do read the whole post, perhaps while you’re in the line up for the buffet at this week’s edtech extravaganza.
What’s happening elsewhere?
Like The Smart Casual, US historian blogger Jonathan Rees is not at all opposed to using technology in teaching, even though he’s written critically about MOOCs and fully online programs. This week he has a powerful post up about how higher education came to believe that the campus-wide LMS was an essential aide to institutional efficiency, which proved to be a bit like inviting a guest to the party “who decided to monetize the punchbowl.”
Rees’ post is a useful illustration of the different working conditions of US adjuncts, compared to the majority of Australian casual academics who are hired to teach subjects developed and coordinated by permanent academics. In the Australian situation, casuals have very little choice over the technologies they use, and very little chance to contribute their experience to ensure that features like online grading are well set up. Rees suggests that in the US, adjuncts had more to do with LMS uptake by permanent faculty:
The same way that adjunct faculty can’t pick their textbooks in many cases, perhaps they were the natural beta testers for learning management systems – particularly in online settings where the regular tenure track faculty was likely not paying attention. Once they became hooked on doing things through an intermediary, regular faculty joined along because that seemed like the right thing to do.
Critical reactions to the recent MLA report into graduate education continued to focus on the organisation’s failure to situate PhD training in the larger context of academic hiring.
At Fugitive Faculty, Miranda Merklein republished a short piece by Marc Bousquet, author of How The University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation, calling for a takeover of the MLA Executive Council by more representative university teachers than the current “gerontocracy”.
Inside Higher Ed published a follow-up post by “10 Humanities Scholars” pushing back on the MLA’s suggestions for reforming the US PhD in relation to time to completion, and teacher development:
Behind the question of whether Ph.D. programs can be said to “devalue” teaching is the link between graduate teaching and labor practices. While we agree that it is crucial for graduate students to be well-trained teachers, this aspect of graduate training cannot be severed from academic labor conditions. Too often the instrumental use of graduate students as teachers is pushed by (the ever-growing ranks of) senior administrators to justify expenditures in the form of stipends and tuition remission and to provide cheap labor in the place of full-time faculty.
The Good Enough Professor asked what the MLA would look like if it more closely resembled the working lives of adjuncts in the disciplines it represents: if it was strung between cheap motels, and depended on rented tech equipment and fast food.
The MLA convention, held under these conditions, would be unpleasant and inconvenient. Energy for discussing research and networking would be dissipated into the challenges of trying to be professional in unprofessional circumstances.
But then, that’s the reality of teaching modern literature and language for most of the people who actually do it.
Noel Jackson put forward suggestions for imagining a future served by a better professional organisation than the MLA:
From adjunct unions to other forms of direct action on the part of students, teaching staff, and university employees, we see that organizing and outreach works. If the MLA is not the professional organization we want or need, perhaps we need to invent another (or many others).
And in a bold and very practical move, a team of high profile adjuncts are now nominating for MLA Executive Council positions, detailed in this change.org petition from Marc Bousquet, and well explained by Rebecca Schuman here and here.
Bits and pieces
Adjuncts at the private Hamline University in Minnesota joined the national SIEU unionisation campaign coordinated by Adjunct Action.
Canadian educational television broadcaster TVO ran a half hour discussion program on the plight of the hidden academics in the Canadian higher education system.
And closing on this week’s theme, Chronicle Vitae published an alt-ac narrative about Alyson Indrunas, a former “freeway flyer” who traded up her adjunct experience for a career in instructional design, rising to her current role as an elearning director. It’s probably worth thinking about how many elearning directors there are in Australian higher education before everyone rushes to this pump.
Have a good week everyone,
@acahacker and @KateMfD