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French lessons: a story

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.

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Discussion

5 thoughts on “French lessons: a story

  1. Unfortunately, the situation described in this posting is more than common, it is the norm today in language departments. In 2011 Elizabetta Ferrari and John Hajek conducted a survey of casual academics in tertiary language departments at the Languages and Cultures Network for Australian Universities inaugural international conference. The findings were reported on it in ‘What place for sessionals in languages and cultures education in Australian universities? A first national report’. The statistics are concerning. Whereas sessional work was once an apprenticeship for academics, universities are now relying on sessionals in languages as a strategy to reduce their teaching costs. The survey found that casual teaching academics are very well qualified: more than a half have a masters degree, 10% have a PhD degree and more than a third of pursuing postgraduate qualifications. Of those currently not studying 50% were considering pursuing further studies and this suggests a further factor ensuring the continuation of the situation: casual language teachers are a possible source of future research students for language departments (25-26). While the majority have been working for less than five years, approximately a quarter have been working for more than five years and 10% have been working for more than 10 years. The majority, 80%, are women and although the age group is relatively evenly spread from low 20s to 60, most are in the 30-49 age bracket (24).

    While I do not want to buy into the debate about whether university should be deregulated or not, it is clear that universities are responding to reduced funding from the federal government. Ferrari and Hjek also examined the number of subjects that are taught exclusively by sessionals, that is where casual academics teach and coordinate subjects as in the case described above. They conclude this practice is of great concern because sessionals do not receive mentoring or supervision in their teaching practice and the majority received no advice on career paths. The reliance on sessionals is the pendant to a paucity of higher level appointments (Associate Professors and Professors) in language disciplines (Nettelbeck, Hajek and Woods, 38).

    The creation of teaching intensive or teaching focused positions at some universities may offer a solution, albeit a contentious one. Teaching intensive positions recognize the teaching expertise and strengths of tertiary academics, and sessionals should have acurriculum vitae to match the position’s requirements. These positions are however contentious because of concerns that the conditions for tertiary academics generally will be reduced. Moreover, without policies that ensure teaching intensive academics have a career path that offers the opportunity for promotion to higher levels, then teaching focused academics will be condemned to remain on the lower employment levels.
    Research Cited:
    Elizabetta Ferrari and John Hajek. ‘What place for sessionals in languages and cultures education in Australian universities? A first national report.’ The Next Step: Introducing the Languages and Cultures Network for Australian Universities. Selected Proceedings of the Inaugural LCNAU Colloquium. John Hajek, Colin Nettlebeck, Anya Woods (Eds). 2012. 21-33.
    Colin Nettelbeck, John Hajek and Anya Woods, ’Leadership and development versus casualization of language professionals in Australian universities: Mapping the present for our future’. The Next Step: Introducing the Languages and Cultures Network for Australian Universities. Selected Proceedings of the Inaugural LCNAU Colloquium. John Hajek, Colin Nettlebeck, Anya Woods (Eds). 2012. 35-45

    Posted by Kerry Dunne | April 3, 2015, 11:27 am
    • Thank you for this reply to my post which shows in detail that my case is not unique. Indeed the situation is the norm not only in language departments, but across Australian universities, as was shown by Loren Gottschalk and Steve McEachern in 2010 in their (aptly titled) article ‘The frustrated career: casual employment in higher education” Australian Universities Review, vol.52. no.1,2010, They state that the profile of casual staff has changed and that, since there are no longer any restrictions placed on employing casual staff, universities now employ casual staff for work that was previously permanent . However the majority of the casual teachers interviewed for the study would prefer full-time work and consider their casual work to be a ‘stepping stone’ into an academic career . The study shows that my experience of disappointment and disillusion is common, since most long-term casuals remain casual. The university clearly uses casual employment as a cost-saving measure. What is perhaps new is that in some teaching-intensive disciplines like languages, it is too costly ( about $20/hour more) to employ PhDs. People like me are now being penalised for having a PhD.

      Posted by kelc15 | April 7, 2015, 2:21 pm
  2. Kathryn, thank you so much for this post, and for spelling it out so clearly. If what Kerry says is right, and “casual language teachers are a possible source of future research students”, it’s especially galling that departments having harvested the PhD income then say that it’s too expensive to hire those who have upgraded their qualifications.

    I have a question — if this data about the nature and scale of casual hiring in languages had been made more visible to you earlier on, how would it have made a difference to you?

    This is really a question about sustainability: how long can universities rely on casual staff showing up? And what do universities lose when long term, experienced casuals give up hope?

    Casualisation is a situation in which hope itself can quickly become toxic. I’ve been wondering whether part of the problem that needs to be addressed is to give much more candid information about the state of the academic job market, so that at least those who continue do so knowing that it is what it is.

    I’d really like to know what you think.

    Posted by Kate Bowles | April 8, 2015, 6:48 pm
    • I think it’s true that it was never made clear to me by the university that my casual position would not lead to anything more. It is difficult to know whether I would have made different decisions if I had known from the outset that it was a dead-end. My circumstances changed over the years, in both the personal and the professional domains. The flexibility I needed when my children were small was not so necessary later on; in the meantime casualisation of teaching developed rapidly. In the early nineties when I started teaching I was the only casual in my department, over 20 years later most of the teaching in languages is done by casuals, as was mentioned in the study cited by Kerry. As to why people continue to want to do this casual work, I think it would be true to say that most of the teachers I’ve worked with really enjoy their work. For me, as far as the actual teaching goes, it is really gratifying work and, despite the fact that students are increasingly demanding, it is ideal. That is what keeps many teachers there and why, unfortunately, the University knows that it can count on a constant supply of sessional staff.

      However the lack honesty or transparency in dealings with casual teachers does lead to discouragement and I’m sure you are right, Kate, and that if universities were more up-front about the fact that there is no job at the end of the tunnel, this would affect people’s decision on whether to continue.

      Posted by kelc15 | April 9, 2015, 2:46 pm

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