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Events, Experiences, Research

The new naive?

Following on from last week’s report on the BLASST summit, we’re delighted to welcome new CASA writer Dr Gail Crimmins, Associate Lecturer from the University of the Sunshine Coast, whose verbatim theatre research project on the lived experience of women casual academics was shown at the summit. Gail was one of two keynotes to suggest that if casualisation is to be the new normal, policy and strategy on the management of teaching should respect this, rather than treating casual staff as exceptional, and here she reflects on the dilemma this presents. – Kate & Karina

At the recent BLASST Summit, I presented a keynote focusing on the lived experience of women casual academics. I did so in an attempt to humanise the discourses around casualised labour in the Australian higher education sector; to draw attention to the fact that most casual academics in Australia are women, and to consider how to best support casual academics based on an understanding of their lived experience.

But before I offer a brief summary of the work I presented at BLASST, and the questions/reflections it provoked, I want to acknowledge the shoulders on which my work stands.  My research is built on a strong legacy of work generated by academics such as Dr. Robyn May, Associate Professor Suzanne Ryan, and Dr. Marina Harvey, and others too many to name. Thank you to the people out there researching and writing about the casualisation of academic labour, your work is important.

We need academic research into the casualisation of academia as much as we need a space for casual academics to share their experience, perceptions, frustrations and collegiality.  Indeed, we need to use every means of communication available to us to expose the realities of higher education employment processes, to provoke conversation and change, and to support casual academics.  And that’s my main message in this post.

We need to use all means available to provoke conversation and change, and to support casual academics.

My presentation at BLASST was based on an arts-informed narrative inquiry into the lived experience of women casual academics, and the six short videos that were created to illuminate the stories of six women casual academics across three universities in Australia.  Here’s the first video, and it will take you through the rest in sequence.

In keeping with the focus of BLAAST, I used excerpts from these videos to ponder questions: what does the experience of these women tell us about the recruitment process, professional development, and pay and recognition of casual staff? What do these scenes demonstrate about casual academics’ relationships with senior staff and with colleagues? And if the casual academic is the new norm around which policy and practice needs to form, what new policy and practice needs to develop?

Yes.  I’ve said it.  I based the presentation on the premise that the casual academic is the norm around which policy and practice needs to form.

But this is not a norm I want. Indeed, I fight as hard as the next wo/man to buck the trend of casualisation. I believe passionately that casual academics deserve the right to financial and emotional security, and the self-efficacy that ongoing employment can bring. But whilst over 60% of the academic population are casually employed, should we not try to improve the working conditions of our casual colleagues?

Do we have to have to adopt an either/or approach on the casualisation of labour issue?

Do we need to either rail against the damage of casualisation, or just focus our efforts on ensuring casual staff have an office space in which they can prepare tutorials, consult with students, enter into professional conversations with colleagues; liaise with HR to provide long-service leave for casual colleagues who have been engaged in sessional employment for over 10 years; provide professional development opportunities including access to research grants and Graduate Certificate in Higher Education (or similar)?

My approach is to try to do both.

I resist the casualisation of academic labour by exposing the human cost and damage caused by it, but I also look for ways to support casual academics to develop a career profile that will mean that they are well-equipped and ‘competitive’ should an ongoing academic post become available.  As I’m in a position of relative privilege (I have a fixed term full time contract) should I not also use my privilege to try to improve the conditions in which my colleagues work?

Yet there is an inherent tension in my two-pronged approach.  I question whether I naively propagate casualisation by trying to improve the working conditions of casual academics. Indeed, it’s a dilemma many of us are now facing in our everyday working lives, as we are repeatedly asked to contribute to policies or their implementation that will have significant—and usually unintended—impact on those working casually.

Should we radically resist, or liberally work to improve a flawed structure?

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