A warm welcome to a new CASA writer this week. At CASA, we’re committed to keeping the human stories of casualisation front and centre. This one raises many questions about the casualisation of language teaching in Australia, as well as the fine-tuned cost cutting that’s going on in casual teaching budgets. And it’s a courageous look at the way that casual academic work can become a long term trap for women with families. — Karina & Kate
My case may be a little different in that I have been doing it for such a long time
My case may be a little different from that of many casual teachers in Australian universities in that I have been doing it for such a long time – 24 years in two different universities.
After I completed my undergraduate degree I went to France to work as an English language assistant in a school. What was supposed to be a year in France turned out to be over 14! I loved working in Paris as an English teacher, and during my time there acquired qualifications in teaching French as a foreign language and I also did a Masters in Comparative Literature at the Sorbonne.
It was after my first child was born that I decided to come back to Australia. I worked for a year as an ESL teacher in TAFE, but I missed using French too much and decided to apply for work teaching French at a university here. I did not have much idea about the way the university worked and was happy to take the hours I was offered as a sessional teacher. Initially, the flexibility suited me as I had a young child, but I had to supplement this work with teaching in language schools and private tutoring since, as everyone knows, it is not easy to survive on a few hours’ sessional teaching in universities. In November every year there was the usual anxiety about securing work for the following year. I subsequently enrolled to begin work on a PhD and continued working as a sessional French teacher. By the time I completed my PhD in 2002 I had already been employed as a casual teacher for 12 years.
I applied for positions but was told I did not have enough experience
I applied for positions in my department when they came up, but was told I did not have enough experience in coordination. In the following years I was given the opportunity to coordinate. I was offered a full-time contract for a semester in 2004 to replace an absent staff member. Naturally, I assumed I was building up my profile and I continued with my research and work towards publications. On three other occasions I was given coordination duties and also worked on collaborative projects with staff members, all of which led me to believe that I was well-placed in the department and that eventually I would get that longed-for position. But, it turns out that recruitment of staff depends not only on experience and qualifications, but on many other factors, such as networking, politics and personality….
In 2009 I had a part-time position in the department which was undergoing a huge crisis. Three full-time staff had left the previous year and, as a transition measure, three casuals were given contracts. At the end of that year I applied for the positions which came up, but was unsuccessful. In the meantime, circumstances in my family made it absolutely impossible for me to leave the city to try to get a position elsewhere. So I decided that casual work was going to have to be the end in itself … my ‘career’.
The School could no longer afford PhDs
So, you can imagine my shock when, at the end of 2013, I was informed that the 12 hours per week teaching that had been offered to me for semester 1 , 2014,was being taken away, as the School could no longer afford to employ PhDs who are paid a higher rate. Instead they hired French postgraduates with no experience teaching in Australian institutions and therefore little idea about who was sitting in their classrooms, or other postgraduate students without the language proficiency that comes from many years of exposure through living in the country and/or teaching. Naturally, the students pick this up and, very quickly realize who is ‘important’ (the coordinator) and who isn’t (the tutor). If the tutors are not treated with respect this carries over to students. Ironically, in languages, it is often the tutors who have more teaching experience than freshly-minted lecturers who are recruited on the basis of research rather than teaching.
After 18 years of sessional teaching in the same department, I lost the chance to work, simply for having a PhD. And I did not think this should go unnoticed. I found it very difficult to accept that I could be dispensed with so easily and made a huge fuss. I still had no work in semester 1, but the department agreed to give me work in semester 2 in 2014. However, considering the circumstances I found it difficult to put as much into my teaching. 2015 – again no work. Who can continue on this basis: a few crumbs thrown your way now and then, when it suits the coordinator?
You are on the edge with no idea of the decisions that are being made
What I find really hard about being casual is that you are not integrated into the School or department you work in. I have experienced being on the inside as a coordinator, and being on the outside as a casual. You are on the edge with no idea of the decisions that are being made in the department or the School, and you have to try to glean information through any source you can to understand how various decisions will impact on you.
You believe you are contributing, teaching at a high level and you certainly have no idea of the way you are perceived by the permanent staff. On the contrary, you are led to believe that, because you have been given work as a coordinator, or have been asked to give lectures, that this is because your work is valued or because you might have some expertise that others don’t have. So you carry on under the delusion that you are building something for yourself in the department.
Until you are employed one day and not the next
It turns out that everything you have done was simply because it suited the people you worked with at the time to pass the work on to you. In any other field, years of experience are grounds for seniority and are rewarded in some way. For casuals, not only is there no reward or acknowledgement, there is invisibility and lack of respect. The arrival of new staff who do not know you means that you are just as expendable as the recently-arrived graduate with no teaching experience!
I found out about CASA in 2014, when I joined the NTEU (I have been a member on and off in the past). Through the NTEU journal Connect I saw there was a website for casuals which I visited, and signed up to receive the CASA blog which I get via email. I see that there are many people in this predicament, that it is a huge problem, both in Australia and overseas, and I think it is important for people to share their experiences.