Category: Australian history

Against Oblivion: Producing Pasts in Precarious Times

Today, History Australia has published a forum entitled “Doing History in Urgent Times”, guest edited by Yves Rees and Ben Huf (Yves has written for this blog before, most recently here). This forum was meant to be accompanied by a roundtable discussion at the Australian Historical Association’s 2020 conference, but that has been cancelled on account of the covid-19 pandemic. Michelle Arrow, one of History Australia’s editors, has organised an alternative: a series of blog posts responding to the forum. You can read the forum here—it is free for the next month—and the AHA ECR blog is very proud to host the first response by two ECRs affiliated with the University of Melbourne: Shan Windscript and Jimmy Yan.

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Shan Windscript, PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne in modern Chinese cultural and political history.

As we reflect on the state of academic precarity in the COVID-19 pandemic, the position of graduate and early career historians within the university remains increasingly tenuous. In Australia, as elsewhere, universities are rolling out COVID austerity measures, using the pandemic as the latest pretext for cuts to wages, conditions, and research positions. Precarious staff and graduate students, having long been the invisible backbone of the university, now face protracted unemployment. Our prospects for securing even casual contracts, let alone entering academia, are rapidly fading. Many of us have, in our double life as sessional tutors, now taught the last classes of our careers. Not everyone will make it to the end.

There has never been a more urgent time for historians to reckon with precarity in the neoliberal university. Yves Rees and Ben Huf’s newly-published article in History Australia, “Training Historians in Urgent Times,” offers a timely intervention on the possibilities for challenging academic precarity at the level of postgraduate history pedagogy. Drawing on Nicholas Bourriard’s relational aesthetics, Rees and Huf argue for the making of “micro-utopian” spaces as a means to “prefigure better academic worlds in the here and now” (21). Built around the principles of “inclusivity, collegiality, interdisciplinary and public mindedness,” these prefigurative micro-utopias can, as Rees and Huf argue, provide localised, everyday spaces of refuge from the effects of pervasive precarity. And within these temporary structures of care, new cultural narratives can emerge as new “historical storytellers” are cultivated and nurtured (7).

As precarious historians nearing the end of our PhD candidatures, we welcome Rees and Huf’s article. Yet these viral times have thrown up new questions about the capacity for prefigurative spaces to generate the collective political power needed for challenging a university sector reliant on precarity. In this response, we argue for the possibility of “solidarity in precarity” grounded in a contestation of power from the bottom up.

Multiple precarities 

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Jimmy Yan, PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, researching the transnational and imperial dimensions of the Irish revolutionary period of 1916–23.

PhD students who begin their candidatures with aspirations of entering academia sooner or later become “experts of precarity”. Most, and particularly those without stipends, spend the next few years struggling below the poverty line while trying to satisfy pressures for “timely completion.” To survive financially while continuing their research, they rely on periodic income from casual and fixed-term employment, taking whatever they can to pay their bills. Within the university sector, this often means shouldering mountains of unpaid labour hidden beneath an ostensibly attractive hourly rate. And such harsh conditions are further compounded for graduate researchers who experience discrimination, bullying, and sexual harassment in a sector well-known for its toxic workplace culture.

If, as Judith Butler holds, precarity is a condition constituted within a proximity to vulnerability, academic precarity particularly affects groups already made vulnerable on multiple other levels (Butler, 2009, p. 25). For women and racialised people, migrants, queer and trans people, people with disabilities, and Indigenous people, staying in academia means facing not only economic insecurity but also the day-to-day emotional, social, and physical challenges engendered by interconnected systems of violence. Tellingly, many Australian universities offer no Indigenous history courses.

At some point, usually in the dark hours before mental breakdown, many graduate students invariably confront the twin questions of “Why can’t I finish my thesis?” and “Why am I still poor”? This persistent anxiety over a future that may never come, a condition decades in the making, is now the norm. While some senior staff have characterised precarity as a baptism of fire, any ECR can testify that this condition in no sense disappears at the PhD finishing line.

The coronavirus crisis has exacerbated every facet of postgraduate precarity. As universities prioritise budgetary restraint, many students have suffered through the crisis without adequate support. At the University of Melbourne, postgraduate students have repeatedly been told to keep up with deadlines or restructure their research plans in the absence of universal extensions. International graduate students are particularly vulnerable after having been told by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to “go home.” Many have, without access to the government’s coronavirus relief packages, been left in financial and housing limbo. Australian universities have offered them little more than good wishes.

Yet, in the face of a persistent onslaught over decades against the democratic university, an alternative future feels increasingly unimaginable. Precarity, as the dominant condition of our time, collides with a sense of political fatalism and temporal contraction. As Enzo Traverso poignantly argues, the twenty-first century is a melancholic world of ruins where “concrete utopias of collective emancipation” have all but collapsed (2016: 7). It is now, to paraphrase Fredric Jameson, easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the neoliberal university.

Against this backdrop, Rees and Huf’s proposal for “building and participating in micro-utopias” as a pedagogical challenge to precarity represents a timely attempt to enact “the possibility of the world being otherwise” in the everyday’s “here and now” (20). Yet, as personal, professional, and disciplinary futures rapidly disappear alongside the contraction of history departments, the possibilities for such micro-utopias are themselves increasingly precarious.

Urgent history blog entry image 100763941_103551768052751_9087632202509844480_oAgonistic worldmaking

The neoliberal university is not insurmountable, and precarious subjects are not passive victims. As managements everywhere prepare to impose austerity, there has been an upsurge in grassroots activism led by insecure workers and students against cuts to jobs and conditions worldwide. Many salaried and precarious academics, including in Australia, have responded to the crisis by organising mutual aid programs for vulnerable colleagues.

More conventional forms of collective power and organising, including grassroots unionism, remain effective avenues for contesting precarity. By bringing precarious university staff together, union meetings provide spaces to speak openly about conditions, to vent concerns, and to articulate new forms of solidarity. At the University of Melbourne, the NTEU Casual and Sessional Staff Network, formed in 2018 and led by rank-and-file union members, has mobilised hundreds of casual workers and graduate students around campaigns for pay and conditions. Far from powerless and atomised, casuals have shown that small victories, such as over marking back-pay for tutors, are entirely attainable. Similar networks have mushroomed across the country, despite and against appeals by the NTEU national leadership to trade away jobs and working conditions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Postgraduate students, all but forgotten by their universities during the pandemic, have also found a sense of power in their shared precarity. At the University of Melbourne, PhD students, many of whom are also casualised workers, have been working closely with student and staff unions to fight for 6-month universal extensions. Their open letter has received over 600 (and counting) signatures, including from 80 supervisors, sparking similar campaign initiatives at other campuses across the country.

Solidarities forged ‘within’ precarity can facilitate the dissolution of supposed divisions between graduate students, casual academics and ongoing university staff. Although such solidarities are by no means automatic, the conditions of casual staff and the workloads of ongoing staff are far from counterposed. Staff at RMIT, the University of Sydney and the University of Melbourne have recently passed “solidarity pledges” against the re-allocation of work from casuals to already overworked permanent staff. And casuals, graduate students, fixed-term staff, stood-down workers, and permanent staff spearheaded a successful “Vote No” campaign that defeated the University Vice Chancellor’s proposed variation of Enterprise Bargaining Agreement.

This revival of grassroots organising has brought together and consolidated an assemblage of precarious subjects ready to fight. Our prospects for arresting the downward spiral of the neoliberal university are tied to forms of collective power engendered not in spite of, but because of, our precarity. If Rees and Huf propose a praxis of prefigurative worldmaking, the realisation of these post-neoliberal futures is contingent upon taking back the university “from below” through a contestation of power. Perhaps what we need is agonistic worldmaking.

Conclusion: Precarious Utopias

Utopia is, as Thomas More envisaged, a non-existent place constituted within a lack in the present. Perhaps we are, within our precarious subject-positions, speaking from a location of non-being. There is, as it stands, no “tomorrow.”

As producers of the past in a precarious present, we need to (re)politicize the future as a horizon of collective possibility. Our predicament calls not for a retreat from “the political,” but for a continued de-naturalisation of given historical categories. As statues fall and sea levels rise, we have a responsibility to foreground narratives systematically excluded from the neoliberal university and its narrowing intellectual boundaries. We have already seen that the shrinking of the humanities threatens to close off the possibility for the emergence of these urgent critical historiographies.

What might new histories in these precarious and insurgent times look like? Perhaps our historical narratives themselves will become more precarious. Histories of fractured subjectivities and difference are as crucial at this moment as the more conventional concerns of identity and belonging.

Our utopias lie not within any optimism for the institution as it exists, but within a contestation of its terms. A challenge to insecure work and casualisation through new forms of collective power is well within the realms of possibility. Such contestations may allow us to generate transformative visions of postgraduate history training from within the ruins of the corporate university.

References

Butler, Judith. Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, London: Verso, 2009

Traverso, Enzo. Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History and Memory, New York: Columbia University Press, 2016

Rees, Yves and Ben Huf, ‘Training Historians in Urgent Times’, History Australia 17:2 (2020), https://doi.org/10.1080/14490854.2020.1758578

We would like to thank Max Kaiser for reading through a draft of this blog post and providing helpful feedback .

Shan Windscript is a final-stage PhD candidate in History at the University of Melbourne. Her thesis examines unpublished personal diaries written in the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-76) – a period marked by widespread violence and popular political activism. Her research interests lie in modern Chinese cultural and political history, in particular the relationship between personal writing, revolutionary subject formation, and state formation. Her most recent article was published in January 2020 in Modern China, titled, “How to Write a Diary in Mao’s New China: Guidebooks in the Crafting of Socialist Subjectivities.”

Jimmy Yan is a PhD candidate in History researching the transnational and imperial dimensions of the Irish revolutionary period of 1916–1923. His thesis examines the cultural translation of ‘Ireland’, radical political networks, and settler-colonial imaginaries in Australia during and after the Great War. His research has appeared in the Australasian Journal of Irish Studies, Labour History, and on the Irish public broadcaster RTE’s ‘Century Ireland’ page. Last year, he was the Seymour Summer Scholar at the National Library of Australia.

Q&A on “You Matter”, the AHA’s casualisation survey

Today I would like to welcome Romain Fathi and Lyndon Megarrity to the AHA ECR blog. Lyndon and Romain compiled the report You Matter: The Australian Historical Association’s Casualisation Survey, which was released last November. We’ve been meaning to sit down for a chat for a while, and I must confess it has been mainly my fault for the delay, but the upside is that the report could scarcely be more topical right now.

If you want to read the full report, please view it here.

N.B. This interview reflects the opinions and perspectives of Romain Fathi and Lyndon Megarrity regarding casualisation in the history profession, based on questions framed by André Brett. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Historical Association.

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Dr Romain Fathi (Flinders University)

Let’s cut directly to the chase. One respondent to the survey, who you quoted in your report, wrote “Our university is currently experiencing broad curriculum changes that are sudden and brutal, taking even the academics by surprise. When such restructuring occurs, casual staff and prospective students hoping to obtain scholarships are the first to be struck off the list as the money dries up” (p.23). Little could they have imagined the situation that the entire higher education sector finds itself in as a result of COVID-19 and the federal government’s refusal to allow public universities to access the JobKeeper scheme. What does this crisis mean for ECRs? How can they be expected to survive?

Romain: ECRs are certainly the most vulnerable in this context. They no longer have a PhD scholarship and a contract to protect them. Given the current restrictions, they can’t travel to conferences to present their work, network and become better known, they have little institutional support and perhaps not many “left over” copies of archival documents from past research trips that would enable them to sit down and write while the storm passes. In the best of times casual academic work is a precarious condition that Covid is making even worse, as universities brace themselves for significant revenue shortfalls that may or may not last. I’m afraid this isn’t a positive story for casuals in academia (or elsewhere) and I believe that like other Australians they should have been part of the JobKeeper program.

In fact, beyond everybody’s good health, I have two concerns with the sector’s response to Covid. First, as a non-native, I am surprised by the attitude of the Australian Government toward the education system: it appears to have a kind of ‘tall poppy syndrome’ that is unhelpful. Education is a major resource for any nation, let alone for top-ranking OECD nations who need a highly educated population to further enhance their development. Coal will run out eventually and brains – or their lack thereof – is an asset that will remain. They might as well be strong ones, well-educated, well-informed and, dare I say, independent. Therefore, the argument that a government shouldn’t come to the rescue to one of the nation’s most important resources is beyond my understanding. As a historian, however, I can see that this shift isn’t new and that it is underpinned by a financial approach to education that several governments, left and right, have encouraged in the last four decades. My second concern is that some business-oriented universities may use this crisis to impose strategies that might succeed in attracting more dollars to the coffers momentarily but will significantly downgrade the quality and content of the education received. Tertiary education should be our most prized and valued institution, a public good worth cherishing. Petition your MP, our votes count.

Lyndon: The impact of COVID-19 on the university sector and the ECR employment situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. Those are the hard facts of the situation and I wish that I was in a position to offer more hope and guidance. However, at some point, and it may be sooner than we imagine, there will be an improvement in job prospects for ECRs. It is at this very moment that the ECR and the job selection panel will have to meet each other half-way. The ECR must continue publishing and researching during this difficult period, but job selection panels also need to take into account the academic disruptions of COVID-19 when considering the skills and attributes of ECR applicants.

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Dr Lyndon Megarrity (James Cook University)

We will return further to the COVID-19 crisis during our chat. Let’s talk a bit about preparing your report. Did any responses to the survey surprise or even shock you?

Lyndon: No. The survey mainly confirmed what I already know, partly through my own personal experiences of casualisation. The relative invisibility of casual academics compared to permanent academics, the lack of status within the profession regardless of years of casual teaching and research, and the precarity of casual work are themes which are familiar to most of us in this position.  I was not so much shocked but inspired by the resilience and continued enthusiasm of our survey participants for their chosen field.

Romain: As with Lyndon, sadly the responses neither surprised nor shocked me. I’ve been there myself and the worst part (I felt) was the isolation of not being able to speak your mind. If you criticise things too much (even if things are wrong) then work relationships may suffer and academic opportunities may vanish. So it’s like being stuck between a rock and a hard place where you can’t complain, which is all the more alienating as you may end up thinking that something is wrong with you. The level of resilience one can observe in the answers provided by participants to the survey is admirable. It is also saddening, because a nation should not treat those among its most educated citizens this way. Beyond the human aspect, from a purely economic point of view it’s not rational to train someone for 20+ years and let an industry casualise them. Some respondents had positive stories, for sure, others heartbreaking, but overall, the survey presented a fairly sombre picture. And that’s disheartening because we deserve better and we can afford to do better for casuals. What shocked me in fact wasn’t the type of responses to the survey but the level of relative indifference (beyond casuals themselves and the AHA) once the report was released.

Is there anything that, in hindsight, you wish you’d asked?

Lyndon: It was a fairly comprehensive survey, which covered a large range of economic, social and cultural issues surrounding casualisation. If it was being conducted today, the impact of COVID-19 would probably be the focus of some questions relating to employment options. However, what I am pleased with is the extent to which over 150 casual staff expressed their views, shared their experiences, and offered suggestions for improvement.

Romain: The survey’s questions were discussed at exec level and every member made useful suggestions. Of course, retrospectively, you always wish you had asked such and such questions. But we had to be mindful as well: casuals are asked to do so many things for free – subjecting them to a very long survey would have been dishonest, eating up more of their time. Some certainly wrote well over a page of comments. I wish we had asked them about the impact of casualisation within their family and social lives, and if they felt understood by others, non-academics in particular.

Another “in hindsight” question. Writing these reports is always an exercise in selection, so is there a topic or theme you wish you had emphasised more? Are there any points that missed the final cut that you’d like to share? Any great quotes from respondents that you simply could not fit?

Lyndon: One piece of advice from a participant that didn’t make the cut was the notion that one should “Live in a large city with several universities rather than a provincial town with only one university”. This is a legitimate perspective, because those lucky enough to live in capital cities have greater potential to secure contracts at multiple universities. But Australia is a large country, and moving from the regions to the cities is not easy unless you have secured employment first. Furthermore, the students from regional areas who want to learn a range of history subjects, and research regional themes, deserve to have those opportunities. Convincing business-oriented universities of that argument is an important task for the profession in general.

Romain: I believe Lyndon and I tried to provide a digestible synthesis that covered most (if not all) aspects of what respondents had discussed. Of course, we had to present the view of the majority and find a way to present it – just like the work of the historian, this selection can’t be perfect. But we did it with honesty and tried to present divergent views on some matters when they were expressed. You know, presenting the information in a “some said… while others said… but in general terms, the picture is…” kind of narrative format. Providing a broad picture of the casualisation experience was important and the quantitative part of the survey allowed for this to happen. One thing we had to be mindful of was protecting people’s identity – some respondents went into a lot of personal/situational details and it’s a small world. Sharing too personal a story could have, inadvertently, revealed someone’s identity, so we paid attention to that.

There are sometimes tensions between casual historians and their securely employed colleagues, with claims that each does not understand the conditions under which the other group labours. Is this fair? How can we ensure solidarity among historians to build better communities and workplaces for everyone?

Lyndon: I think our report indicates that casual and permanent academics are so far apart in terms of their conditions and status that misunderstandings and tensions are bound to occur sometimes, unfortunately. An egalitarian environment, in which casual, academic and admin staff gather together socially, at least for weekly morning tea, is a step towards building better communities and workplaces. Some of the older hands will “hold court”, of course, but morning tea (perhaps attached to a regular seminar series) can also become a forum where the achievements and work of casual academics are acknowledged formally and informally. A culture in which the teaching and research expertise of casual academics is valued should be fostered.

Romain: Some casuals said they felt truly supported by permanent staff and others, not so much. This is a space which clearly wasn’t black or white and very much depended on peoples’ situations. What is clear, however, is that permanent staff can make things better if they wish to, by making sure that casuals are paid for what they do and treated as well as possible, as well as being included in meetings or being provided with a desk/office.

This report and its recommendations are a positive step in the AHA’s advocacy for its casual members. But what, realistically, can an association like the AHA achieve? Is advocacy enough? How can we gain meaningful action on the recommendations?

Romain: The AHA is an association that doesn’t have coercive powers. It also has an executive with a healthy variety of views. I feel that this fight is far from over and I do encourage casuals and ECRs to run for election, be part of the AHA executive and create change, little by little. Lyndon and I will be putting to the vote a motion at the next AGM to reduce the membership rate of casuals of 15%. We hope that the next Executive will continue to work with historians in casual positions to ensure cheaper access to the conference as well.

A perennial source of complaint from casual and postgraduate members is the cost of conferences and memberships in Australia, a complaint not confined to the AHA. Are these complaints reasonable? Why are costs so high, and can they be reduced?

Lyndon: Membership rates reflect the large range of activities and goals pursued by the AHA, including the journal and support for conferences. Conferences are expensive to run and cater, and the conference dinner costs reflect the desire of the restaurant or caterer to make a profit on a three-course meal for, say, 80-120 delegates. I think we can acknowledge that while these various fees may be reasonable for full-time academics, they are less affordable to casual academics. In terms of conferences, I think it is important for conference convenors to consider ways of making AHA conferences more accessible and inclusive for casuals, and it is certainly an issue I intend to pursue if re-elected as a member of the committee.

Let’s now talk about the broader sector—what should universities be doing to ensure we do not have an entire lost generation of scholars?

Lyndon: A number of things come to mind. After a few  years of teaching and/or publication, casual historians should generally be given the status of adjunct lecturers. Not only that, but such adjunct lecturers should be given the capacity and support to apply for small grants. Too much emphasis is placed on large expensive ARC projects: more money should be spread wider among the historical profession to encourage individual research, especially among casuals. Universities also need to invest further in the publication process (e.g. subsidies to university-based publishers) to ensure that good research among ECRs and Mid-Career academics gets published and recognised. Finally, universities must recognise that the concept of “subject-cutting” is a self-defeating form of cost-cutting: amalgamating a large number of subjects into a small number of broad, hurried overviews is a recipe for fewer students, less scholarship and less employment for the next generation of historians.

Beyond the Covid-19 crisis, talking generally, are universities shirking their responsibilities to casuals?

Romain: Well that’s part of the problem and why universities use casuals: to have limited contractual obligations toward them. One avenue is to work on the terms of the contracts at University level, imposing better practices through the Enterprise Agreement of each institution. The survey has enabled me to see that things change here as well. Little by little, university by university. These improvements range from better rates for marking and teaching to conversion of repeated casual contracts to permanent positions. Advocacy and seeking representation are working. Slowly, but it is working. Historians know that social change takes time, but it’s no reason to be standing by.

Some of the advice in the recent blog post on job interviews emphasised that applicants need to explain why they want a particular job. Selection committees are well justified in making sure that an applicant will be an engaged colleague who is pleasant to work with. The reality for casuals, however, is that jobs are so scarce that many talented people will take any job to pay the bills, and they will make great colleagues. Nobody is holding out for the perfect dream job—we do not have the sort of job market where people can pick and choose where to apply. Do selection committees need to be more realistic about the context of their applicants?

Lyndon: I think that the selection criteria for academic jobs need to be rethought: the expectations for “leadership”, “publication in leading journals” and “innovative teaching” are such that many casual staff are unable to compete because their contracts do not allow them to develop those skills compared to long-term permanent staff. The pressure on PhD students to publish and teach well before they have submitted is becoming pedagogically problematic: the postgrad’s focus should be on learning and growing through developing the best academic thesis they can. The quality of the resulting thesis should guide employment and postdoc opportunities more that the quantity of publications, in my view.

A lot of recommendations for casuals suggest the importance of building community—not just for advocacy, but for mental health, connections, and sociability. Your recommendation 9(iii) suggests this. Many casuals, however, are already working lengthy hours for inadequate payment, trying to advance their own (unpaid) research, and have significant other responsibilities such as childcare or barriers such as disability. These networks can be great means of support, but they require even more unpaid hours and energy. Is a solution truly a solution if it just asks casuals to find even more hours in the day to add another commitment? How do we save casuals from burnout?

Romain: I think there’s no definitive answer for that one and this very much depends on peoples’ preferences. Networks, while they take time, are worth building. There is immense comfort in knowing that you can turn to several colleagues that genuinely care about you, your research and how you are going. Finding out who these people are and nourishing these relationships is so important – perhaps not so much for the career but to feel good about one’s community, feel engaged with the discipline and getting honest feedback or support. There are colleagues that have become friends and that I could call virtually any time to talk about anything and they really make my academic world a better place. But again, everyone is different and while I enjoy being part of a community of historians, some people prefer finding a community outside of their workplace.

Time to be frank: how long should casuals stick it out? Do you think there is a general rule of thumb? I ask this question not to suggest that it’s a failure to choose a non-academic career path—it quite obviously is not, and some graduates have no intention to enter academia or they find an academic career not to their liking. But, for many, it is the goal, and it is what they have trained to do. No amount of extolling other career paths can change the fact that they might consider it a failure to leave academia. What do you say to these people?

Lyndon: There is a difference between leaving a physical institution of employment (i.e. the university) and leaving academia. Many independent scholars are able to do good solid historical work outside the system through books, journal articles and other means. If you have fire in the belly and have something to say, you will find an audience for your work.

Romain: The survey suggested that the majority of respondents did not continue in casual academic work after three years post conferral. That’s what the data clearly showed. But data doesn’t talk and unfortunately the reason “why” is unclear because this wasn’t one of our survey questions: the finding was an observation based on respondents’ year of PhD conferral versus the number of years during which they have been a casual. After 3 years, there is a significant drop. I suppose that after several years, it becomes financially untenable to remain a casual in the academic sector. But I can only speculate. Some will get a full-time job or a postdoc in academia but those are the minority. You asked us to be frank so I’ll try to be just that. A PhD isn’t a thesis anymore, whether we like it or not. If you haven’t published articles in top journals, been to conferences, networked, taught, organised one or more conferences and done “all the things” by the time your PhD is conferred, your prospects may be limited, even more so if you are an international candidate because your Confirmation or Enrolment expires when you hand in your (unexamined) thesis, so you are no longer invited to stay in Australia. So in many ways, honest conversations about academic jobs need to happen from Day 1 into the PhD program and here academics have a role to play.  Most graduates with a PhD in history will end up in other sectors of the economy, and a good deal actually choose this and live a happy professional life.

I think it would be interesting to conduct a a “5-year post PhD” survey to see what people do after a PhD in History, where they live, if they use the skills they refined during their candidature, if they are happy with their non-academic job, how much they earn etc. I suppose – at least from what I have been able to observe around me – that the majority don’t stick around academia and settle for a stable job where their skills are valued. In this sense, the picture is perhaps less dark than we think. But for those who remain in the game, the pressure is there because it’s like gambling: the more you have invested, the harder it becomes to turn away from the card table. Overall, I recommend to any casual (and PhD candidates at an early stage of their candidature) to fully read our report and make that assessment for themselves, as there is enough data and views expressed within it for everyone to weigh up for how long they should pursue in the sector post PhD conferral.

We’ve talked a lot about the position of casuals and the challenges they face, but are all of our proposals and schemes really a desperate dance around the obvious—the only real solution for casuals is meaningful job security?

Romain: Yes it is. But it may have to be in another sector. There is a finite number of students per year, one has to be realistic. The major issue shown in our report is the way casualisation has become systemic rather than a positive variable of adjustment for each party. By this I mean that the experience of being a casual worker can offer benefits (training, money, flexibility – often something pointed out by the “newest” casuals in the survey) but when it becomes the only prospect, the negatives accumulate, as also pointed out by the respondents. Clearly, where there is proven recurrent work, casual positions ought to be converted to full-time positions. Overall though, if one looks at the amount of PhD graduates coming out of Australian universities, it is clear that there isn’t an academic position for each of these graduates and that seems to be the norm in other countries too. And this is why I believe that universities ought to develop a responsibility toward their PhD candidates: right from the get-go they should tell them that the likelihood of securing a permanent academic position is very, very thin. They may be scared to say that because they need PhD recruits to receive funding, but I think that’s an excuse not to actually address the issue and train PhD candidates for alternative careers.

Lyndon: In an ideal world, I would agree that meaningful job security is the solution to the problem of casualisation. Unfortunately, in the real world, it is clear that until politicians and more university leaders value the cultural and social benefits of social science and the arts, casuals in these areas will be the first to go and the last to be rehired in difficult economic times. Gaining wider awareness of casual circumstances, alleviating hardship, and celebrating academic achievements are all important elements of improving the plight of casual academics.

Romain: Graduates with a PhD in history have valuable skill that many workplaces look for: research skills, project management skills, organising skills, writing and presentation skills, interpersonal skills, resilience, etc. In other words, they are highly employable. Yet, at the end of the PhD, or even as an ECR, it seems that many find themselves wondering whether they are going to have a job at all – this wouldn’t provoke such fear of the unknown if graduate schools were providing professional training and preparing PhD candidates for post PhD life. Some of them are starting to do this, so here as well, change is coming.

So, you’ve got an academic job interview…

It’s well past time to kick the AHA ECR blog back into life. Back in February and March, I collected advice from historians in Australia on two topics for early career researchers: how to approach academic job interviews, and tips for your first honours/research higher degree supervision. The COVID-19 crisis rapidly overwhelmed all other business, and some of this discussion felt a bit on the nose to publish. Perhaps it still does. But sooner or later (very later?), this will regain relevance. So, let’s do job interviews first. I post this as a reference for the future, as few jobs are being advertised right now. Please note that all of the content below was written before Covid-19 seriously affected our universities and the academic job market.

Most people find job interviews pretty intimidating. It’s hard enough just to get on the shortlist, especially when history positions at Australian universities get so many applications. And once you’ve made it that far, what do you do? This entry is especially for those of you who are preparing for your first interview, and for people who feel like they’ve not performed well in interviews so far. There is no magic trick to make a selection panel fall in love with you—as will be clear from some of the respondents differing with each other on a few points—and there will often be preferences and institutional politics you cannot possibly know. But with any luck the comments in this entry will help you build confidence.

Stuart Macintyre (Emeritus Laureate Professor, University of Melbourne)

Much depends on the composition of the selection committee, though the applicant can hardly be expected to know that in advance. It is likely to include academics with a direct interest in the field advertised, but also others who might well be looking for greater versatility.

It is common for selection committees to prepare and allocate generic questions on teaching experience and approach, research record and intentions, etc. These questions are likely to be formulated using the selection criteria; but it means the person asking the question is not necessarily the person with the greatest interest and understanding of that aspect of the duties. Accordingly, responses are best directed to the committee at large, as opposed to concentrating on the questioner. It is always helpful to elicit follow-up questions, these helping to go beyond the generic nature of the interview. I think track record (and indications of the trajectory of the applicant’s career) take precedence over ‘fit’ – but it is helpful to spend some time looking at the school and program’s curriculum, research interests, etc. and to light upon distinctive features. That way you can show you have given thought to fit. I think video interviews make it harder to establish rapport, though a good chair should assist.

I think it is helpful to prepare notes in advance, formulating the salient aspects you want to emphasise; though using these notes can make for a somewhat wooden self-presentation. The key phrases will stick in your memory. Similarly with questions: formulate them but don’t force them on the interview and be prepared to take up any signals during the interview.

I’m most impressed when a candidate engages my attention. (Along with other members of the committee, a day of interviews can become wearisome, and it is sometimes hard to maintain concentration.) Without overselling yourself, try to communicate why you think this particular appointment attracts you and why you think you would make a good colleague.

Andrea Gaynor (Associate Professor, University of Western Australia)

Panels for academic teaching and research positions will often ask for an example of a unit you would like to develop and teach, so it can be worth fleshing out some possibilities that would work in the context of the institution you are hoping to work for. Panels will also want to hear you convey the excitement of your research, and may also want to know how you go about combining the demands of teaching and research. You would definitely want to be able to explain why the position is attractive to you and how the role fits with your career plan – the panel will be looking for a candidate who genuinely wants this particular job, and not just any vaguely relevant post. Astute panels will also be looking to hire people who are not only excellent researchers and/or teachers, but also great colleagues, so they may ask how you have managed disagreements, and how you go about working in a collaborative environment. It’s useful to be able to provide particular examples (without naming names!). Every selection panel I have been on has asked candidates whether they have any questions and I think it is a good idea to have some of these prepared, if there are indeed things you might reasonably want to ask of the panel. The panel’s answers can help you decide whether you really want the position, and your questions can help to reinforce the impression that you have taken the time to really imagine yourself in the position, as an ongoing commitment rather than a remote prospect. Do also come with a clear idea about when you would like to start.

Katie Holmes (Professor, La Trobe University)

Expect a question about why you want the job and what you have to contribute – try and make it clear why your track record and research fits with the institution. If it’s a teaching and research position, you will get questions which cover both areas. Consider how you’d answer a question about your most difficult teaching experience, or what some of your main teaching challenges have been and how you addressed them. What are your research plans and your research trajectory: where would you like to be, research wise, in five years? Take the opportunity to sell the importance of your research and why it matters. Universities like to hear about research impact so think about that, although as an ECR no-one will be expecting your research to have had major impact yet.

If you possibly can, ask your peers and/or supervisor and/or experienced staff member, to give you a mock interview. Take this seriously and use it as an opportunity to practice how you respond to questions. Ask for critical feedback. If you are going to be interviewed via a video link or phone, practice that mode. In both face to face and video interviews, be conscious of your body language and what you are conveying. Watch this TED talk for some really interesting ideas about ‘power poses’ to help get your energy flowing ahead of the interview.

Do your research. Know what the job will be, what you might be teaching, where the synergies are with other staff members, what the university demographic is (and if you can’t find that out easily, ask it in the interview). Make sure you’ve looked up who the panel members are and, in a face to face interview, make sure you look at them all and don’t focus too much on one person. One of the key challenges of remote interviews is that it’s harder to ‘read’ the room. Don’t make the mistake of talking too much. If you have a half an hour time slot, practice within that time and don’t spend too long answering a question when you know that the committee will have other things they want to ask you. For a remote interview, dress as you would if it were face to face – it helps get you in the mode.

Always have at least one question prepared that you want to ask – it shows you’ve thought about the position and are genuinely interested. Don’t ask about workloads unless it’s a question about the teaching/research workload balance.

The most impressive interviews are the ones where the candidate is well prepared and conveys energy and enthusiasm for the position.

Frank Bongiorno (Professor, Australian National University)

I wouldn’t claim to be a very accomplished interviewee, but I think I’ve generally done best when I’ve had time to prepare thoroughly, and when I feel that I’m a pretty good fit for the job and the department. I also suspect I tend to do a little better when I rate my chances poorly, as I relax more and find it easier to articulate my case.

I’m more often on the other side of the table these days, and I’d say there’s nothing more important than being able to explain why you want the position. It will often be the first question you’re asked and, if you can’t answer it, it will likely create a poor impression. It’s the equivalent of an introduction to an article, or perhaps an abstract: if you can’t manage it, that usually means you’re not really sure of what the research you’ve done is really about.

There’s no harm in trying to anticipate the questions in your preparation, and in having a practice session with a friend or family member using those questions. Remote interviews will have their own challenges, such as the technology and the general difficulty of reading the room. If that’s what you face, it would be best to practice that way. I was part of a panel a while back interviewing an overseas candidate remotely and I was surprised when he asked for time to consider each of his answers – I suppose he sat silently, taking notes, for 30 seconds or more after each question before answering. It seems to have worked because we gave him the job!

I’d also do whatever you can to uncover local knowledge. If you seem to know nothing of the institution, including what the staff – possibly your future colleagues – are researching, an interview panel might read a career of future disengagement into it. For similar reasons, make sure you know what courses are being offered in the department, so that you can make a case about where your expertise might fit in – and also, again, so that you look interested. We all like to have people show interest in what we do, and members of job panels are no exception. Remember, you’re being interviewed for a position that, if it’s continuing, could be for a long time for all concerned, and those interviewing you will want to be assured that you’ll be a good colleague. Yes, they want to hear about your research, and your teaching plans, but they’ll also be looking for signs of flexibility and proportion. Your research is important but it’s not the only game in town!

Simon Ville (Senior Professor, University of Wollongong)

As a committee member I have frequently found that my view of who is strongest on the shortlist based on the CV does not turn out to be the preferred candidate after an interview. Do your home work on the organisation – check their website, then take any opportunity to have a discussion with the contact person. This gives you a closer idea of what sort of person they are really looking for; this is not always self-evident from adverts.

During the interview, ensure you make regular eye contact. Don’t rush your answers or speak too quickly – appear thoughtful in the way you respond. Try to be the most positive, enthusiastic person in the room but don’t overdo that. While addressing questions to a reasonable degree, ensure you slip in points that you really want to make – treat it a bit like a media interview. Be honest about something you don’t know the answer to rather than stumble or struggle.

Make sure you know who’s on the committee and what their interests or perspective are likely to be. Expect the normal opening question: why are you interested in the position, what would you bring to it, what do you know about us. Do ask your own questions at the end – not too many – and take this as a further opportunity to reiterate your enthusiasm and to demonstrate your knowledge of the place.

Last: let your referees know you are being interviewed in case you are asked if it is okay to approach them.

COVID-19 and the Australian Historical Association

This is the entry I did not want to write.

It is with great disappointment that the Australian Historical Association must announce this morning that our annual conference will not go ahead on the dates scheduled, 29 June to 3 July 2020. The AHA will provide further details soon about the scheduling of the conference.

The organising committee at Deakin University has put in a great amount of work already. The conference was shaping up to be a lively event at the Geelong Waterfront campus and I hope you’ll join me in praising their efforts. They are grappling with a situation unprecedented in the history of our conferences, which began in 1981.

You will be pleased to know that our prizes, bursaries, and scholarships will be awarded as usual. The announcements will have to be done virtually. The prizes to be awarded are: the Kay Daniels Award, the Magarey Medal for Biography, the Serle Award, the WK Hancock Prize, the Jill Roe Prize, the Allan Martin Award and the Ann Curthoys Prize. The bursaries and scholarships to be awarded are: the Patrick Wolfe Early Career Researcher Conference Bursary; AHA/Copyright Agency Early Career Researcher Mentorship Scheme; AHA/Copyright Agency Postgraduate Conference Bursaries; AHA/Honest History AHA Conference Teacher Scholarship; NAA/AHA Postgraduate Scholarships; Jill Roe Early Career Researcher AHA Conference Scholarship Scheme.

The AHA’s annual general meeting normally occurs at the conference. This will, of course, no longer be possible. We must, however, hold our AGM and it will run online, with details to be confirmed in due course. This year is an election year: we need to elect the President, Vice-President, Treasurer, Honorary Secretary, five Ordinary Members, and PhD and ECR representatives. A call for expressions of interest will be circulated in April. Our constitution provides that if there is only one nominee for a position, that person is elected automatically.

ECR representatives have so far served for only one term each and I don’t plan to break that tradition. If you are interested in nominating for the ECR position, please feel free to get in touch with me if you’d like to chat about the role. You can send a direct message to me on Twitter (at either the AHA ECR account or my personal one) or email me at abrett@uow.edu.au – I’m more than happy to answer any questions you might have. This is not a requirement: you can nominate without saying a peep to me! But I want to be clear that I’m available for anyone who’d like to discuss the role.

I’d like to quickly open a more general COVID-19 discussion. This is a challenging time for everyone right now. Please be thoughtful and compassionate and keep washing your hands. I say this as someone who might outwardly appear an active, healthy, (relatively) young man—but one who ticks multiple high-risk boxes. Every action you take to limit the spread of the virus is valuable.

The people who run our universities face great challenges, and there are no easy or straightforward solutions. I grew curious about whether people at Australian higher education institutions think their universities have reacted adequately to date, so I ran a series of polls on my personal Twitter account for 24 hours from Monday evening to Tuesday evening (15–16 March). It’s a self-selecting sample, but the results are interesting.

The first poll got the best exposure: out of 105 voters, 46.7% are dissatisfied with their institution’s response, 19% are somewhat dissatisfied, and 34.2% are satisfied or somewhat satisfied (17.1% each). I then ran polls for staff, divided into permanent and precarious, and for students, undergrad and postgrad. All are more dissatisfied than satisfied. Undergrad students had the best rate of satisfaction but the sample size is too small to draw conclusions. Precarious staff are the most likely to be dissatisfied, which is unsurprising as too few universities have given clear indications of support for casuals. Interestingly, those respondents who consider themselves more “at risk” from COVID-19 than the general population were more likely to be satisfied with their institution’s response than those who do not, although both groups have a majority dissatisfied.

These are trying times to be stuck in insecure work and I’ll do what I can to promote fair and equitable treatment for casuals and ECRs. Universities talk a good game about how inclusive and community-oriented they are; we are going to find out who is actually serious. I do not envy senior management as they try to plot a way forward through profound uncertainty. But trust in university leadership is notoriously poor right now in much of our sector and the decisions in coming weeks will do a lot—either to regain that trust or damage it irreparably. Casuals must be treated generously. Postgrads, research grant recipients, and fixed-term staff, to name just three groups, will need requirements waived or altered, deadlines pushed back, and contracts or candidature extended. These circumstances are new, so the solutions must be original.

Please, everyone, be good to those around you. Our health is the most important thing.

Kia kaha (be ever strong),
Dr André Brett, current AHA ECR representative

The illiterate decision to shut down UWA Publishing

The University of Western Australia this week announced plans to close its esteemed press. Dr André Brett, the current early career researcher representative on the Australian Historical Association executive, addresses this news. The views below are mine, not those of the AHA or its executive—but I emphasise that I am making them in a representative capacity, because this press matters to early career historians.

UWAP logoUniversity of Western Australia Publishing (UWAP) is one of the most significant university presses in Australasia. A book published through UWAP is a mark of esteem for historians. Its catalogue makes Western Australian histories prominent among a diverse selection of publications so deep and rich that choosing to name a few luminaries feels invidious.

UWAP is also important to the life of other disciplines and literary scenes, not least poetry, for whom this publisher has been a standard bearer. It has made a point of telling indigenous stories and bringing diverse voices to wider audiences. It prints Western Australian narratives that east coast publishers often disregard. It has high production standards, and high standards for creativity and scholarship. Suffice it to say that the awards won by UWAP books each testify to the quality of its whole list. UWAP is an essential part of Australia’s literary landscape.

And yet, this week, the University of Western Australia’s deputy vice-chancellor (global partnerships) Tayyeb Shah issued a memo announcing that the press, in its current form, is to be shut down.

Shah’s memo is couched in managerial jargon about “strategic vision” and output alignment. It makes perplexing claims that suggest UWAP is not valuable because too few of its authors or their topics “relate directly to the university and its work”. This is specious. The cultural capital that UWAP accrues for the university is vast, unquantifiable—and, most importantly, irreplaceable.

You would think a DVC (global partnerships) would recognise that an esteemed publisher puts a university on the map. Evidently not.

We cannot let UWAP be dismantled quietly. UWAP is important to early career historians: not only does it publish so much of the scholarship that influences us, but it is also a prospective outlet for our own research. Publishing through UWAP is, for many new historians, a sign that they have “arrived”. For historians of Western Australia, it sits at the very heart of their work.

Sign the petition calling for this decision to be reversed. Share it. Tell your friends and colleagues to sign it. Make representations to senior management at the University of Western Australia, if you feel in a position to do so.

Few universities in Australasia can boast a press as respected as UWAP. To cast it aside is incomprehensible.

Emerging Historians Q&A—Thomas James Rogers

It has been a little while since we’ve done a Q&A with an Emerging Historian: our most recent participant was Gwyn McClelland in April. To revive the series there are few better than Dr Thomas James Rogers. Over to you, Tom!

Rogers - Tom June 2019

Dr Tom Rogers, AHA member since 2011.

I received my PhD in history from the University of Melbourne in late 2014 and am currently a historian in the Military History Section of the Australian War Memorial. I am towards the middle of my third twelve-month contract in this position. I’m very fortunate in that this is a full-time role, and I’ve had two extensions, but the contract uncertainty is still there. Hopefully it can be extended again!

How did you come to be a historian?

For as long as I can remember, I have had an interest in history. I blame medieval- and pirate-themed Lego, and the computer game Wolfenstein 3D, which I first played at the tender age of 7. I believe it was the original first-person shooter. Set during the Second World War, you play an American POW imprisoned by the Nazis in “Castle Wolfenstein”, and you need to break out—it’s extremely violent, and great fun! I know my dad regretted allowing me to play it at such a young age, but it actually sparked an interest in the real events of the Second World War, and I learnt a great deal in my school and local libraries.

History became an academic interest for me in Year 10. I was living in New Jersey at the time, and I had a fantastic US history teacher by the name of Douglas McKenzie. He encouraged us to think about the link between ideas and actions, something that has fascinated me ever since. It’s very easy to think of ideologies as things that other people have, but he forced his students to examine our own ideas about how the world works, and the individual’s place in society. This approach was an excellent way to enter into discussions of revolutionary-era and nineteenth-century US history. It has also served me well in studying the Australian colonies.

Then I went to university and didn’t want to leave. I had the usual blinkered undergraduate view of academic staff: they appeared to be living in a wonderful utopia of research, writing, teaching, and discussion. I was very fortunate to have three semesters’ worth of learning about the ancient Mediterranean with Professor (now Emeritus) Ron Ridley. At some point I visited the Old Treasury Building in Melbourne, and realised that nineteenth-century Australian history wasn’t boring. When I went into Honours, I did something that had been unthinkable just three years earlier: I wrote my thesis on an Australian topic. Well, a British-in-Australia topic: the Rum Rebellion of 1808.

Tell us about your PhD research.

My PhD was entitled “The Civilisation of Port Phillip”, and it was about the British settling in the Port Phillip District from 1835 to 1851. I began by thinking about how free settlers in the Port Phillip District had argued for separation from the colony of New South Wales, something they began agitating for very soon after first settlement. What a ridiculous topic! My education to that point had made me think that colonial political history was a story of white people. The Rum Rebellion that I had studied in Honours had not changed that view—legitimately, because it would be very hard to find or resurrect an Aboriginal view of the Rum Rebellion.

A few months in to my PhD, I realised that the real story was in fact the settlement itself. Settlement was an inherently violent process, one that was underwritten by a whole universe of tropes about Aboriginal people, free settlers, and convicts. That was where the story actually lay—Separation was barely even a sideshow in this reading.

My thesis therefore examined the rhetoric of free settlers. I came to see how the apparently benevolent words that free settlers used actually justified violence against Aboriginal people. A discourse about stages of civilisation justified taking the land from Aboriginal owners. It also justified beating down ex-convicts and importing poor “respectable” Britons to take their place. I had identified a conflict that echoed in the present, instead of a nineteenth-century version of the tedious Melbourne–Sydney tension I had started out to trace. That struggle was only the most superficial part of the story, of very little importance, merely the conquerors arguing about how to divide the spoils.

My thesis showed how the language of the settlement project was woven into everyday life in Port Phillip. At every turn, you could find settlers in fear that the settlement project would fail. Indeed, many settlers did fail, and many schemes to improve either lands or peoples failed. This is where I began to get into some really interesting work on these themes in other parts of the world, especially books by James C. Scott and Pierre Clastres. They fitted what I was seeing into a European intellectual history that was familiar to me.

I also started to understand postcolonial writers, like Edward Said and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, whose work I had read in various undergraduate classes, but had not really “got”. And that’s key isn’t it—I didn’t get it as an undergraduate because I had been surrounded totally by the settler colony and never considered “the other side of the frontier” in an intellectual sense. I hadn’t needed to, because I’d grown up as a white boy in a country explicitly founded for white men. Bruce Pascoe’s book Convincing Ground—taking its name from a massacre site in Western Victoria—was key in opening my eyes to this other side.

The term civilised kept coming up, in opposition to savage. Other terms also came up a lot: respectable, hostile native, friendly native. Often settlers could be seen using self-serving rhetoric, but what I found was more than simply opportunistic off-the-cuff statements. Instead, I found patterns of settler rhetoric that seemed humanitarian but actually justified the settler project. In some cases, settlers openly accepted the frontier killing of Aboriginal people. In other cases, their rhetoric justified what the late Patrick Wolfe called the “elimination of the native”. This was not necessarily killing, but the physical removal of Aboriginal people from their lands, and then the deliberate suppression and destruction of their cultures.

The thesis was passed without revisions, and went on to win the 2014 Dennis–Wettenhall Prize, awarded by the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne.

Why does it matter?

There are many fundamental misunderstandings about this country’s past. That is especially true of its nineteenth-century past. If my work can act against some of those in some small way, that would be a good thing.

Modern-day settlers no longer use the same words that free settlers used in the 1830s and 1840s. The basic settler project, though, hasn’t changed. If we want to understand modern Australia as a settler-colonial country, we need to look its foundation in the nineteenth century.

What are you researching now or intending to do next?

The thesis was revised and published as a book in February 2018 (The Civilisation of Port Phillip, available from MUP). So it has been some time since I have had a “big project”, but I have a few ideas!

At the Memorial, I have continued to research frontier violence in Australia, and I also work on research projects relating to Australians in the South African (Boer) War and the First World War. I have published on a number of topics: Aboriginal military service prior to the First World War; British Empire loyalty amongst Australians who went to the South African War; and the Coniston Massacre of 1928. One interest that I have been able to pursue is to show the links between the Australian colonies of the nineteenth century and the early years of the Australian federation in the twentieth. I think we often artificially separate the two, when in fact the links are quite strong.

What do you love about being a historian?

I am now a public historian, so in addition to producing peer-reviewed publications, I have had to hone my skills in writing for a wider audience. I am on the editorial committee of the Memorial’s history magazine, Wartime, and also write articles for it. I’m enjoying things that I didn’t do enough of as an academic historian: finding images to accompany text, doing media appearances, and acting as a historical advisor on exhibitions.

But I suspect your question is broader than that. Historians are keepers of knowledge about the past. My curiosity about the world is what keeps me going as a historian.

What’s the one aspect you find most challenging about being an ECR?

The ability to plan my life. And it’s not “challenging”, it’s downright soul-crushing. I am only able to do it because I have a support network. I am eternally grateful to my partner Jo, especially, for her unending support of my career choice.

Come on, were you expecting any other answer? “Flexibility” is a neoliberal con. It works for hobbyists and near-retirees who own their own homes and have financial security. It doesn’t work for young people. Universities in particular have been guilty of outsourcing the bulk of teaching to casuals. I did it for nearly seven years, before I was lucky enough to find employment elsewhere, and only then because I was able to move cities to do so.

I don’t know where I’ll be living twelve months from now. I don’t know where my income will come from. And because I am the less-employable one, my partner is also caught up in this limbo, and so is my son.

If you could go back to any historical period, where would you go and why?

Er, any time after the invention and widespread availability of antibiotics. Or, maybe a visit to Genghis Khan. Either would be good, though I suspect the second one would end in me being killed.

 

Researching the Tariff Board: Finding Culture in a Surprising Place

Today we have an entry cross-posted with the blog of the Economic History Society of Australia and New Zealand (EHSANZ). It is by Henry Reese, a newly-minted ECR who picked up two awards associated with the AHA’s recent conference at the University of Southern Queensland. An AHA-CAL travel bursary supported his attendance, and he won the EHSANZ Postgraduate and ECR Development Prize for the paper he delivered. He describes his research and the challenges and rewards of working in an interdisciplinary setting—a cultural historian in the field of sound studies finding himself making a mark in the AHA conference’s economic history stream.

parlophone

Source: Australasian Phonograph Monthly 1(7), January 1926, 2.

I was honoured to discover that I’d been awarded the 2019 Economic History Society of Australia and New Zealand Postgraduate and Early Career Researcher Development Prize. Like many others who were trained — and have long understood themselves — as cultural historians, I have been thrilled to integrate the material and economic into my understanding of the Australian past in recent years. The economic history stream at the 2019 AHA conference, deftly coordinated by the great Claire Wright, was a fantastic place to tease out the historical links between culture and economy in a constructive and warm intellectual environment. This session was a masterclass in how to fruitfully bring disparate fields of scholarship together. As you can read here, the stream’s panels were diverse, fresh and (for me) often downright thrilling. Presenters engaged with multiple facets of economic history from a slew of methodological standpoints. Postgrads and early career academics featured prominently, a good sign of the healthiness of the discipline.

The frisson of interdisciplinary is something that most postgrads face, for better and worse. It is the cousin of the perennial imposter syndrome that obtains in an academic environment in which we are expected to know everything. It’s something I’ve had to engage with plenty throughout my academic career. As a historian whose work is informed profoundly by the emerging field of Sound Studies, itself an inter-discipline, I have often felt the apprehension that comes with interdisciplinarity. A few years ago, I presented my work at a Sound Studies conference at Stony Brook, New York, where I found myself rubbing shoulders with a motley group of musicologists, anthropologists, literary scholars and even the occasional scientist, all concerned with the same big questions. It was an eye-opening experience. Everyone was equally a fish out of water, and this made for an open and exploratory intellectual space. One lesson of this experience is that, if efforts are taken to foster a respectful and reflexive environment, where multiple viewpoints and levels of expertise are welcomed, then the discomfort that comes with exploring a fresh area needn’t be a problem; rather, it can be productive. Conference organisers, consider this a challenge: be open and respectful of diversity. Postgrads, it’s worth remembering: we can’t know everything, but our views are valid and we’re much more competent than we might think.

The paper I presented at the AHA was entitled ‘Protecting the National Soundscape: The Gramophone Industry and the Nation in the 1920s.’ Whereas I had previously only ventured ankle-deep into this topic, now I had the chance to throw myself headfirst into the deep end of public battles over trade policy in the tumultuous interwar period. This was a paper I had looked forward to writing for several months as I polished off my PhD. My thesis, entitled ‘Colonial Soundscapes: A Cultural History of Sound Recording in Australia, 1880–1930,’ is the first cultural history of early recorded sound in Australia. Combining business history, the history of anthropology and sensory history with the close attention to context, performance and thick description that are the bread and butter of cultural history, I explored settlers’ changing relationships with the phonograph and gramophone over the first generation of this technology’s existence. By integrating recorded sound into the wider soundscape of Australia, I argued that the development of a modern outlook on Australian place developed in tandem with settler understandings of, and appreciation for, the fact of sound reproduction.

In my paper, I interpreted a 1927 Tariff Board inquiry into the duty on imported gramophone records as a cultural document, as well as an instrument of business policy. Perhaps this was one way of making the research task ahead of me tolerable. After all, it’s easier to read over one hundred pages of dry argumentation regarding recorded music imports if you understand the Tariff Board transcript as a document that was charged with the richness and spice of a courtroom drama! Here a small group of rich white men laid bare their prejudices regarding the gender, class and aesthetic tastes of the Australian consumer, which, I argued, were central to the eventual outcome of the inquiry. This was not just a debate over the value of imports compared to the locally manufactured product; it was an occasion when Australian business elites were called upon to adjudicate on the relative merits of musical taste in an anxious society. The bottom line: the Australian consumer, gendered female, was not to be trusted with the artefacts of mass culture; racialised American jazz music was an agent of cultural and musical decline; and compared to the older networks of wholesalers and music dealers preferred by the large gramophone importers, the modern, commercialised department store was no fit place to find musical uplift.

I had some firm precedents in my interpretation of the Tariff Board inquiry in light of wider debates about music, culture and Americanisation in Australian society. Kenneth Lipartito’s work on the expressive facets of business culture has been eye-opening for me, as has Toby L. Ditz’s artful interpretation of business correspondence, often a dry and formulaic tranche of source material, as evidence of the gendered performance of masculine identity. In the hands of both scholars, business is seen as influenced by, and productive of, wider cultural shifts in the society of which it is an integral part. In the Australian context, the work of Hannah Forsyth, Sophie Loy-Wilson, Melissa Bellanta and Julie McIntyre, among others, has been crucial in my thinking regarding the culture of business, and the business of culture, in a modern capitalist settler society. The gramophone trade, as a powerful axis of the so-called ‘culture industry,’ had an outsized impact on Australian tastes and patterns of consumption. It is worthy of deeper analysis using the powerful tools given us by such path-breaking business and cultural historians.

I was fortunate to receive an AHA-CAL Bursary for this paper. I encourage other postgrads to apply for the same at future AHA conferences. Through this scheme, each student is assigned to a senior mentor, who provides feedback on their paper. My mentor, Richard White, went above and beyond, and deserves credit in the shaping of my argument here. I am also extremely grateful to Hannah Forsyth and Jennifer Bowen for their generous comments on my paper at the conference. The final, and largest, thanks are due to Claire Wright, whose efforts to foster closer connections between economic and ‘other’ historians is paying fantastic intellectual and social dividends. Thanks all, and don’t hesitate to get in touch with questions or comments!

Henry Reese
University of Melbourne
henry.reese@unimelb.edu.au
Twitter: @HPReese

Trans and gender diverse inclusion in academia; or, why we need to get better at pronouns

Today’s blog post addresses an important topic for scholarly communities worldwide, not least our History community in Australia: how to turn stated commitments to inclusivity into real, meaningful inclusion of trans and gender diverse people. This contribution is by Yves Rees, a David Myers Research Fellow in History at La Trobe Recently, who was until recently known as Anne. It was under that name that they contributed to the third part of the recent Conversation About Casualisation.

For the past decade, I’ve been an active participant in Australia’s history community. I’ve worked or studied at four institutions across three states. This year’s conference in Toowoomba will mark my eighth AHA. I’m a former member of the AHA Executive. While cognisant of the many problems of corporatized academia, I also truly love the world of history-making. These are my people.

Over the past twelve months, I’ve also come out as transgender. I’ve lived as an openly trans person in my personal life for almost a year. At the same time, I’ve been slowly ‘outing’ myself in professional contexts. First I changed my pronouns on Twitter and in my academic bios. Then I started tweeting about being trans. This month I formally ‘came out’ at my university. I’m now using my new name for work email and Twitter. Yves has arrived.

This has been a terrifying process. Even despite my many forms of privilege, I still live in the shadow of the violent transphobia that pervades our world (and recent election campaign). Each step towards coming out has been a gut-churning leap into shark-filled waters.

In response, individual colleagues—both within my institution and around the country—have done their utmost to make me feel safe and supported. I’ve been showered with emails and messages containing heartfelt words that have given me newfound affection and respect for our community of historians.

For these gestures of solidarity, I am supremely grateful. (Though, it must be said, the vast majority of this support has come from women and fellow queers.)

But I’ve also come up against profound structural impediments to the full participation of trans peoples in the AHA and the broader academic community. Our conferences, publications and communication practices are all organised in a way that perpetuates cisnormativity and erases trans identities.

In 2019, this structural transphobia is no longer acceptable. As a community “committed to inclusivity with regard to … gender, gender expression and identity”, we can and must do better.

The costs of not doing so are grave. Entrenched stigmatisation and exclusion results in appalling health outcomes for trans and gender diverse (TGD) people. Recent Australian research suggests that almost half (48%) of trans youth have attempted suicide, while three-quarters have experienced anxiety or depression. Similar figures have emerged from overseas studies.

Last Friday was IDAHOBIT: the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia and Transphobia. In honour of this occasion, I offer a few suggestions for ways to challenge structural transphobia within the AHA and at our universities.

CONFERENCES & SYMPOSIA

  • Event organisers: request pronouns during registration and display pronouns on nametags

We already ask for dietary requirements and salutations; why not pronouns? This is a simple practice with multiple benefits. Most obviously, it ensures that all people are addressed using the correct pronoun. No less importantly, it normalises the idea that pronouns (and gender identity) can’t be assumed. By disrupting the structures of cisnormativity, pronoun signalling is an important way of destigmatising and including TGD people. To date, I’ve only been to one academic event in Australia that adopted this practice (kudos to Holly Pich and Marama Whyte here). We need to make this commonplace.

  • Panel/event chairs: check pronouns before introducing speakers

Introducing someone at an academic event generally involves using their pronouns. In doing so, we tend to assume that a ‘female’ name implies she/her pronouns, and vice versa. For instance, “Mary is a lecturer in History at Lonsdale University. She has written three books on comparative settler colonialism.” But is Mary a ‘she’? We actually have no idea until we ask. So ask. Either literally ask the speaker, or check their bios to see what pronouns they use.

  • Event organisers: ensure access to gender-neutral bathrooms

Many universities now have at least some gender-neutral bathrooms. Are there any at your event venue? If not, can you make a temporary gender-neutral bathroom—for instance, using a disabled bathroom? This is not a perfect solution, as it risks compromising the hard-won access rights of disabled people. If your event is likely to feature more than a handful of TGD people, I would strongly encourage that you secure a dedicated gender-neutral bathroom, distinct from disabled facilities. And can you identify all these facilities in the conference program? Everyone has the right to use a bathroom where they feel safe. Ensuring this is possible for TGD people is an essential part of gender inclusivity.

MORE GENERALLY…

  • Include pronouns in your email signature and Twitter bio

This is a straightforward way for cisgender people to show trans solidarity and disrupt the structures of cisnormativity. It will take two minutes and it will make life easier for TGD people every day. My La Trobe colleague Clare Wright took the leap on Friday; who else is game?

  • Do not question, refuse or remove ‘they/their’ pronouns in author bios

The use of singular they/their pronouns is not up for debate. They are part of our ever-evolving English language and have been in use since the time of Chaucer and Shakespeare. Yes, they can feel unfamiliar and hence take some getting used to. No, they are not ‘grammatically incorrect’. If an author has been brave enough to use ‘they/their’ or other gender-neutral pronouns, please respect their choice. Also ensure that copy-editors do not ‘correct’ the text to ‘she/her’ or ‘he/his’.

  • Recognise gender diversity on forms and surveys

Universities house a growing community of gender diverse people, who do not identify as either ‘male’ or ‘female’. These people are erased every time they encounter a form that adheres to a strict gender binary. We need to normalise data-gathering practices that recognise (and indeed, celebrate) the gender diversity that already exists in our world. In practice, this means including an open-text box in which people can describe their own gender (rather than being forced to tick either ‘male’ or ‘female’). It can also mean including gender neutral salutations such as ‘Mx’ (rather than ‘Ms’ or ‘Mr’).

A Conversation About Casualisation, Part Three

Today’s post is the third and final part of our series on a recent controversial article in The Conversation about casualisation. The first part, André Brett’s response to that article’s arguments, is here; the second part, Joel Barnes’s analysis of the underlying research, is here. All views expressed in this series are those of the authors and contributors, and do not reflect the views of their employers, the Australian Historical Association, or any other groups with whom they are affiliated.

Many casually-employed historians and early career researchers (ECRs) have strong opinions about an article by Dorothy Wardale, Julia Richardson, and Yuliani Suseno that suggests how to make casual academic contracts ‘better’. One problem, however, is that many casuals and ECRs have not the time to prepare detailed responses, especially when this labour will not be remunerated. Some fear that they will not receive new contracts if they speak out. This is why we so often do not hear casual voices in discussions of casualisation, or why those voices mainly appear on social media. There is a lot of anger and discontent about casual employment in academia, but those who are exploited the most are also those least able to protest.

For this reason, the third part of this series adapts an idea that emerged in a Twitter discussion between Effie Karageorgos and Imogen Wegman (follow the links for their previous excellent contributions to this blog). It is a compilation of short—or not so short—responses to the Conversation article by early career academics in History who are, or recently were, employed casually in Australian universities.

Effie Karageorgos:

The article claims that ‘many casual academics enjoy the flexibility of working across different institutions’. I now work at three different institutions. One of these is thankfully online, so the work can be done anywhere, but I often have to drive between the other two, leaving a class at one to quickly make my way to the other. I do not have office space at either institution, so I carry all of my class materials around with me during the day. One institution will not allow me to have a key to the classroom I teach in every week, asking me to call security every time I want to enter the room. I have taught at this institution since early 2012, and was trusted with a key until the end of 2018. I think fondly to the time when I had a desk at both institutions, but the demands on space have meant that I have not been attached to an office I can work in for a few years. I do not know anybody who enjoys this type of flexibility.

The article also claims that some ‘enjoy the flexibility of not having to fulfil service requirements such as attending meetings and annual performance reviews’. I have worked at all three institutions since early 2012, and feel that I am as much a part of those institutions as anybody else who has worked there for the same amount of time. I want to know what is happening in my workplace, and I want to attend meetings, but I need to be paid for my time.

When I am not teaching, I am researching, writing, collaborating with other academics, writing grant and job applications—the same things that any full-time or tenured academic does with their non-teaching time. The difference is I am not paid for that time, yet my publications will often be credited to the institution I work at the same way the publications of those who are paid for their research will be. A certain percentage of a full-time academic’s weekly load is specifically allocated to ‘research’ or ‘administration’. If universities are going to rely on casuals to teach many, or in some cases most, of their classes, they also need to truly acknowledge them as members of the academic community—as researchers—by including a number of paid research hours in every casual teaching contract. This would increase the already high publication output of casual academics and provide a solid basis by which the university could claim these publications. It would also—more importantly for the casual academic—demonstrate that they trust and value casual academics as much as they do other members of staff.

Kate Davison:

It’s hard to know where to start. It’s not simply a matter of poor conditions in an immediate and material sense (the kind that make it impossible to save, plan a holiday, plan to have children, pay rent, etc.) but the long-term slow burn psychological effect: having to explain to family members again and again why you still don’t have a permanent job, why you work on weekends and why this does not mean you are ‘disorganised’, waking up every day to give yourself a pep talk about why your research is important and worthwhile, but also—and perhaps more importantly—the gradual grinding down of your confidence in the eyes of your permanently employed peers. Relentless precarity makes me depressed.

Anne Rees:

In its attempt to be ‘balanced’, this article completely elides the violence of casualisation. The casualisation of university teaching is not a valid hiring practice associated with a mix of ‘concerns’ and ‘benefits’, but rather a system of exploitation inspired by profit-maximising logic that does great harm to academics and imperils the future health of teaching and research. I would urge the authors to take seriously the way in which casual contracts destroy the health and research capabilities of many of Australia’s (and the world’s) most highly educated individuals, who would otherwise have enormous potential to live rich lives and engage in knowledge production that benefits us all.

James Kirby:

This is a disturbing attempt to normalise casual labour in universities. The authors ignore that ECRs are particularly vulnerable to abuse under these contracts. I would agree that there may be some benefits; for instance, a semester of casual tutoring can be a good internship for a future career as a full-time lecturer. The problem is that full-time jobs have dried up in Australian higher education, especially for ECRs looking for postdoctoral fellowships and entry-level lecturing positions. Universities know that ECRs need job experience and are desperate to get anything teaching related on their CVs, so they can count on their unpaid labour and world-class expertise.

There are a number of holes in this piece, but I’ll note just a few:

1. ‘[Research shows that casual academics] regularly go beyond their contractual obligations’: This is an understatement. For a casual tutor to do their job, they must put in extra hours. A good example of this is where institutions pay tutors just 1 hour of marking for each student across a semester of work, including about 2 essays and maybe an exam or a class presentation. There is no way that all of this, including feedback and entering marks, can be done in that time. The same applies to provisions that allow just 1–2 hours of preparation time for classes.

2. Some casual academics ‘enjoy’ or ‘prefer’ having flexibility: I’m yet to meet an ECR who ‘enjoys’ their precarious work conditions. The authors confuse flexibility for inferiority—if casuals do not ‘have’ to attend meetings, it is because they are not invited or welcome in the first place.

3. Professional development opportunities are recommended: To be realistic, the only worthwhile professional development is proper job experience, including a full-time position allowing an ECR to focus on the course they are preparing and delivering. In other words, learning on the job, with an actual job.

Kirk Graham shared a document that he placed on record at the University of Queensland. It contains anonymous feedback from casuals that reveals the alarming conditions under which many have laboured. The below is a short selection of quotes, edited for further anonymity:

I received a very vague contract without hours or pay scales. I’d like to know why we’re being asked to sign vague contracts with no details and no clarity on how many hours and at what pay grade. Signing on the verbal promise I would get paid correctly felt pretty wrong.

***

My contract was incorrect, and this has remained ongoing. My pay situation has since been remedied, but it was a constant source of anxiety for the first eight weeks of the semester. I was frequently underpaid, despite numerous emails to staff; time and time again I found my bank account short. I often felt like I was ‘bounced around’ the office, so to speak, and nobody could (or would) help me. The School is becoming more and more reliant on their casual labour force but they seem to have a complete disregard, or a wilful ignorance, of the contributions we make and the work that we do to keep the School running.

***

We had to work without contracts for at least one subject, even though we repeatedly asked what was happening, with no response. [Three other problems listed.] I could go on. Everyone feels the same, but it seems I am the only one who has the guts to actually get angry about it. It seems nobody else will say anything because the job market is so competitive, nobody wants to jeopardise their career this early.

***

Casual markers and tutors are allotted hours of work at the beginning of the semester to which they must commit, but the School can reduce those hours arbitrarily. I think a lot of senior academics are simply blind to the material realities of precarity. Cognitive dissonance maybe, or a manifestation of survivor’s guilt?

Imogen Wegman:

For almost as long as I can remember, both of my parents have been self-employed. Throughout my childhood I learned a few key life lessons—take work when it is offered (even if you’re already busy), holidays are for other families, and if you get sick, that’s OK, but no one else will do that work so get ahead then catch up fast. Please don’t misunderstand, I experienced immense privilege in my childhood, love my parents dearly, and had a wonderful time. But I have always known the feast and famine of freelancing.

Today I, a self-professed genius (modesty is for the employed, not the jobseeker), find myself living in similarly precarious position. If I want a holiday, I will pay all the usual costs plus my own salary out of my own savings. If I get sick or am betrayed by my uterus and cannot leave the sofa for a day, I will not be paid. And if someone offers me work, I cannot afford to say no, because my contingency fund needs to be ready for the famine. There are few differences between casuals and freelancers, except the matter of choice. For most who have chosen to strike out alone, they have been allowed to balance out flexibility and autonomy, and all the pros and cons.

Casuals have not.

Let us not forget that in non-academic casual circles the precarity is just as real – I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard ‘I lost my job, they just stopped giving me shifts’. Many casuals outside academia work multiple jobs, or are doing it to support their studies, or are studying in their few spare hours to get out of casual jobs. In this discussion we must not forget that excessive casualisation is a blight across all industries. At least in academia we usually know we have until the end of the project or semester. But that doesn’t make it a ‘better’ type of precarity, just different. The casual academic will go home to continue the work preparing a lecture that has to be finished, paid or not, or to work on their ‘publications record’ despite being utterly mentally wrecked. We can adjust our work hours to suit our lives, but that just leads to working on three jobs in one day.

Something has to give, and it’s the quality of the work. Every week thousands of research hours are lost as eager and keen researchers divert their attention away from exploring and communicating new ideas to explain (again, and somewhat ironically) how they have demonstrated that they have excellent time management. I despise how mercenary this system makes me. If I can’t afford the rent, no one else will pay it for me. More than that, it affects my loyalty to projects or institutions—there is little point in getting attached when you are paid by the hour. My tenured colleagues express sympathy and fight for reasonable casual pay rates, but in the same breath mention that the powers-that-be are developing a ‘research expansion plan’ that includes no extra hires.

But my concern is about more than my personal life in the gig-economy, it’s about the intellectual void this system creates. Those of us in the early years of academia aren’t fools, we know the statistics on our chances of staying, and when we leave we take our knowledge and our experience with us. If universities don’t actively encourage and support proper positions for ECRs, they are failing to create a succession plan. When several key staff members retire within a few months and step off the ladder, the diversity of knowledge, methods and backgrounds on the lower rungs is narrow. At the bottom of the ladder are the PhDs, holding it up for everyone else, reaching to climb onto that first rung. But the next occupied rung is far off the ground. With every round of promotions the gap between the groundlings and their senior colleagues grows. It becomes further to reach, a larger knowledge and experience gap to fill. A boss once told me that I should be training ‘myself out of a job’ by raising up my team members to take over from me. In casual roles, we fulfil many of the ‘essential selection criteria’ of junior faculty members, but miss developing the ‘admin’ skills – designing units from scratch, involvement with research/teaching committees, supervising students, all the things the authors of The Conversation article thought we must be happy to miss out on. We are not being trained to take over when the time comes.

Despite all my negativity, for me the system often works. I know my mental limits, I like being busy, I enjoy change. I am healthy, I don’t have dependents, 9–5 does not agree with me. Some of my work is outside academia and every side of my brain gets exercised. But those are all very personal reasons for why, in April 2019, this system is ok for me. Those are all things I’m thankful for, but they don’t give me the stability to develop healthy relationships, get hobbies, or to adopt a cat, let alone make it a sustainable career.

This week has seen the publication of some other important pieces on casualisation and precarity. Fabian Cannizzo blogged on the problems of being a ‘good’ early career academic. In the Campus Morning Mail is a short report that almost all universities in Victoria are dependent on a highly casualised workforce. The Age followed this with an article that includes Shan Windscript’s experiences of working for starvation wages.

There have, of course, been some unpleasant responses. It is one thing when these are comments from people outside academia who believe falsely that all university employees enjoy highly-paid, cushy, relaxed jobs. It is another when fellow academics who have been through these experiences tut-tut and tell casuals that ‘I got through it’. If your response is an implicit ‘I suffered and so should you’ rather than a refusal to let anyone else suffer, this says a lot about you—and none of it is good.

A Conversation About Casualisation, Part Two

Today’s post by Dr Joel Barnes is the second in a short series on casualisation in academia. You can read the first post, by Australian Historical Association Early Career Researcher representative Dr André Brett, here; the third post, which collects reactions from multiple casual/ECR historians, is here. As with the disclaimer on the other posts, the views expressed below are those of the author and do not represent his employer or the AHA.

A recent article in The Conversation has been the subject of significant online criticism of its efforts to justify widespread casualisation as a legitimate labour practice in universities. Casualisation, according to Dorothy Wardale and Julia Richardson of Curtin University, and Yuliani Suseno of Edith Cowan University, is here to stay; it just needs a few tweaks to make it ‘better’. In this post I examine the research underlying these claims, and seek to explain some of the misfires in the extrapolation from the authors’ academic research to The Conversation’s more popular format.

The article follows The Conversation’s usual practice of bootstrapping its content to peer-reviewed research published elsewhere. In this case, the underlying study, written by two of the Conversation article authors and another of their Curtin University colleagues, was recently published in Higher Education Research & Development. A second study also drawn upon remains unpublished. The authors’ research is the source of the claims that ‘many’ academics ‘enjoy the flexibility’ of casualisation, and that many casuals are ‘industry professionals’ with links to the—ahem—‘real world’. The study published so far is hyperlinked in the ‘Benefits of casual academics’ section, but is not mentioned in the text. This failure to show one’s working has contributed to a general interpretation of the article as based not in evidence but in managerial self-interest.

At the outset, Wardale et al. identify three explanations for the growth of casualised labour practices in universities. One is that such arrangements reflect wider trends in the economy as a whole. Another is the ‘flexibility’ casualisation provides, which according to the authors might benefit universities and casual academics alike. Third, casualisation allows universities to reduce labour costs. The last of these explanations is surely essential to understanding the incentives driving casualisation, but Wardale et al. seem relatively uninterested in examining its implications too closely. Had they done so more fully, it would have been difficult to miss the internal contradiction between the recognition that universities employ casuals as a cost-saving measure and the proposals at the end of the article to improve casualisation by tacking on a series of expensive extras—systematic interviewing, proper inductions, and professional development. These proposals would obviate the chief managerial appeal of the casualisation model, namely that it’s cheap. Although the proposals for ‘improvement’ give the Conversation piece its headline and central argument, they do not appear in the study so far published. Presumably they are a focus of the unpublished research, but if so one wonders if the authors’ reading of financial incentives will be any more persuasive in long form.

Instead of financial considerations, Wardale et al. focus mainly on ‘flexibility’. This item of neoliberal jargon by and large signals a gig economy paradigm that privileges the just-in-time needs of employers over the rights of employees to stable work and income. That ‘flexibility’ is in practice a managerial alibi rather than a genuine two-way street is clear from the way it is made to do too much explanatory work in the piece. ‘Flexibility’ is useful when ‘enrolments are fluctuating’, the authors tell us, citing a federal government report showing a 4.6 percent drop in enrolments between 2017 and 2018. This is hardly sufficient explanation for the nearly 50 percent increase in Australian universities’ reliance on casual contracts over the decade 2008–17 (from 15,646 to 23,205 full-time equivalent positions), nor indeed for universities’ reporting of an expected further increase in these contracts—rather than a drop—of 10.5 percent from 2017 to 2018 (actual 2018 figures are not yet available). ‘Flexibility’ is not the real explanation here; the basic fact of the cheapness of casual labour is.

At the same time, Wardale et al.’s reading of ‘flexibility’ warrants some examination. Of the two underlying studies, the one that can be assessed is an interview-based ethnography that makes a qualitative analysis of the positive and negative dimensions of casual academics’ experiences. In the interviews, ‘flexibility’ was indeed a value that respondents highlighted. It is often paired in the authors’ discussion with ‘autonomy’, ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’, and in fairness one should acknowledge that these qualities of academic life are among its chief attractions for many.

The research, however, has serious limitations. It relies on interviews with just fifteen casual academics at two Western Australian business schools. The dataset skews decidedly mature: only five interviewees were under 40 (just one under 30), five were in their 40s, and five were aged 50-plus. A significant proportion of these interviewees were ‘career enders’ easing into retirement with part-time academic work, or experienced ‘industry experts’ working in universities alongside other careers. Such respondents understandably privileged ‘flexibility’ over stability. Only six of the fifteen interviewees were in categories of experience in which casualisation was felt in predominantly negative terms, such experiences being overrepresented among younger respondents. The research describes a qualitative spectrum of casualisation experiences but makes no attempt to assess their representativeness. Thus the bothsidesism of the language of the ‘double-edged sword’—positives and negatives exist as logical opposites rather than as quantitatively measurable phenomena.

Such research methods are fine so far as they go, but they are inadequate to support the extrapolation from nine interviewees with positive views of ‘flexibility’ to the pseudo-quantitative claim that ‘many’ casuals have the same experience. The anomalousness of the business school context and the maturity of the interview pool blind the authors to the reality of casualisation more generally as a practice of systematic exploitation of the cheap and precarious labour of mostly young postgraduates and early career researchers. Most casuals are not experienced ‘industry professionals’ who enjoy a side gig doing a little university teaching. The negative side of insecure work is also likely to be felt most keenly by those with carer responsibilities, those with disabilities, and those who cannot fall back upon personal, spousal or familial resources. Women are as likely as men to be on casual contracts across the sector as a whole (counting both academic and administrative roles), but are underrepresented in more secure senior roles, and overrepresented in teaching-only and research-only academic positions, most of which depend on casual and fixed-term contracts.

In this wider context, the arguments of the Conversation piece have appeared to many as strikingly tone-deaf. The problem is one of extrapolating from a small and unrepresentative dataset, and of attempting to build arguments upon methodologies that do not support them. Mistaking the exception for the rule merely provides cover for managerial cost-cutting at the expense of quality teaching and research, and of casual academics’ financial stability, health and wellbeing. I hope Wardale and her co-authors will read carefully the heartbreaking story published recently in The Atlantic on the death of Thea Hunter, a promising historian whose life was destroyed by a broken system. Hunter’s story represents a far more realistic picture of the cruel realities of casualisation.