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 Y.
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.
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.
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.
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 Y 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.
Today’s entry is by Tamara Cooper. You might remember her from a previous blog entry on chronic illness and research. Even before the covid-19 pandemic began, Tamara considered the nature of work within the higher education sector and decided to pursue a career elsewhere. In this entry, she explains why—and emphasises that we need to think in different and healthier ways about the employment options and career goals of higher degree research students.
Recently there has been a lot of discussion about the future of the academy and the job prospects of current PhD students and recent graduates. Blog posts like @thesiswhisperer’s glorious anger at the need to reform the PhD and the academy, and @colourful_hist’s eloquent expression of the disruptive effect of the pandemic on career plans have been making the rounds. I have also seen numerous twitter posts wondering if now is the time to jump ship to other sectors such as education. About halfway through last year I made that exact decision, to re-train as high school teacher, and it seems like a good time to reflect on the reasons why.
Firstly, and I must stress this, I made this decision pre-pandemic, COVID-19 did not exist. I made the decision because I saw the university sector becoming more and more casualised, I was hearing stories of people spending ten years plus on casual contracts before landing a permanent job. I decided I didn’t want to do that, I was sick of being poor, I was sick of having to lean on my parents for financial support (though eternally grateful that I had that option). I had done the casual thing for years in retail and I didn’t want to go back. So, I made the decision to train as a high school teacher, I liked teaching and it seemed like a good fit for my personality.
At this point it would be best to tell you that when I left high school, teaching was always the plan. I took the advice of my godfather who was also a trained teacher. He told me to do my bachelor’s degree first, really get to know my teaching areas, and then complete my Graduate Diploma of Education. So that’s what I set out to do. But than I did my honours year, then I, out of curiosity, applied for some PhD programs and, to my surprise, won a scholarship to complete my PhD. At this point it seemed that I was bound for a career in the academy.
However, after a slightly traumatic run up to the end of thesis, I still shudder thinking about it, I started to wonder if I really wanted to stay in the academy. There seemed to be something toxic about the attitude to work, the style of work didn’t suit my personality, and I wasn’t enjoying it. Now don’t get me wrong, I love research and I love writing about history, but the metrics around how to do that in the academy seemed, to me, to sap the enjoyment out of it. That, coupled with increasing precarity, meant it just didn’t seem worth the effort to break into the industry. So, I made the decision to go back to the original plan, though I think I was the only one surprised by this decision. When I told my mum she just gave me that smug all-knowing look that mums do so well, and dad just nodded his head.
While I understand that training to become a high school teacher is not everyone’s cup of tea, I think there is merit in considering industries and sectors outside of universities for potential careers post PhD. There seems to be this prevailing idea that pursuing a career outside of the academy means you failed, or you somehow couldn’t hack it. Indeed, for some time I kept my decision quiet because of that reason; while I don’t agree with the idea, I simply didn’t have the energy to argue the point. Keeping quiet seemed like the least exhausting option. However, this thinking is ludicrous. We know that universities produce way more PhDs than there are positions for, even without all the challenges facing the industry. Yet, we continue to berate and downplay the achievements of those who seek careers outside the academy, we even call their career paths ‘alt ac’, like the academy is the only ‘real’ option.
I have heard of academic historians that look down on history teachers as not real historians, they deride academically trained historians who become teachers, but then turn around and complain that high school students are not being taught history properly. That old myths of history are being perpetuated within the school system, yet, they still refuse to engage with the system. It is the same logic that sees academic historians complain about the inaccuracies of popular histories while at the same deriding the efforts of historians who try engage with popular audiences. That said, the ability of historians to engage with popular history is hampered by a metric system that privileges elite journals over popular outputs while still insisting on public outreach (a rant for another time). However, I digress; my point is that we cannot continue to maintain this snobbery over the careers of PhDs.
While I recognise that I have only been involved in the education sector as a student, I have noticed a distinct lack of the competition that seems to colour the academic industry. In the lead up to making this decision I reached out to a couple of old friends who were teachers to discuss the day-to-day realities of being a high school teacher. They could not have been more helpful: they discussed the realities of their jobs, answered my somewhat stupid questions, and were all willing to help me with resources. My fellow education students in my classes are willing to share resources and help answer questions; there seems to be a sense of collegiality, despite the fact we are all going into the job market together. Don’t get me wrong, I have met some very nice and incredibly supportive people in academia, and have been incredibly privileged to have excellent mentors, but the conversations and interactions were always tinged by the fact everyone was competing for same amount of scarce jobs with very similar CVs.
The other thing I have noticed about the education sector, is the growing awareness of the fact that teaching is a JOB. It is something you do that pays the bills. Yes, it does attract a certain type of personality giving it the feel of a vocation and you may enjoy it a lot, but it is a JOB. In one memorable podcast I listened to for an education subject, the lecturer was discussing time management as being one of the biggest challenges for beginner teachers. She emphasised the importance of scheduling time in for relaxation, the importance of having time for yourself, and that by living and breathing the job you won’t be a better teacher. In fact, you will burn out, and you and your students will suffer. I have never seen this attitude in academia. There has always been this underlying attitude that you need to be constantly working to be a success, that taking time out is detrimental to your career. This seems contradictory and weird when you consider the wellness trends currently rife in academia.
And I know the education sector isn’t perfect. I too have read the reports about overworked teachers who are underpaid and not at all appreciated. People have told me the horror stories of the marking that teachers do. I do wonder if they have seen the marking I have to do as a casual tutor at universities; I wager it’s probably the same. But to me it comes down to this, life is full of stress, that’s the twenty-first century, you have to choose the stress that suits you. I know this the stress of academia does not suit me.
There is much more I could say on this topic. Before I made the decision, I did a lot of research on the topic, including job opportunities, wages, growth of industry etc, however, this is already longer than I planned so I will end on this note. I’m not trying to say we should all jump ship and become high school teachers, it’s not for everyone. However, neither is academia. We should be making decisions based on what is best for ourselves and the lives we want. The academy is in dire need of a shake up and it is exhausting to be searching for a job and financial security during this time. If you decide that you don’t want that exhaustion in your life, then so be it. There are plenty of viable and credible careers out there for PhD graduates. If you decide to jump ship you haven’t failed. It isn’t a sign you couldn’t hack it. You simply decided that you wanted something different in life. If you do stick it out on the casual contracts for years and then finally land the permanent job, good for you! I’m ecstatic for you. However, those who stay in academia don’t have more stamina than those who leave, and those who leave aren’t smarter for getting out. The only thing happening here is that people have made different choices, there should be no hierarchy of validity.
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com – 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
Today, Tamara Cooper reflects on an important topic: chronic illness and disability in academia. Positive talk about accommodating chronic illnesses and disabilities often runs well ahead of tangible actions—your ECR rep, André Brett, is legally blind and knows this all too well. Tamara draws on her experience of endometriosis to give suggestions to those postgraduate and early career historians who live with chronic illness or disability and work within a system that is not always sympathetic.
When I submitted my PhD thesis in March this year I found myself both mentally and physically fatigued. While some of this fatigue could be put down to the insanity of my rush to the finish line, on reflection a fair chunk of it was caused by endometriosis. Throughout my PhD candidature I was under the impression that my endometriosis had no tangible effect on my ability to write and research; it was only in the last six months or so of my candidature that I realised this was not the case.
For those who don’t know, endometriosis is a chronic, incurable disease that affects approximately one in ten women of reproductive age, though some suggest that this figure is well underestimated. The disease occurs when cells similar to the lining of the uterus grow outside of the uterus and on the surrounding organs and tissue. The main symptoms of endometriosis are severe cramps during menstruation and prolonged and heavy menstrual cycles. Unlike many diseases, the severity of the symptoms does not necessarily reflect the severity of the disease. It has on average a seven to ten-year delay in diagnosis from the onset of symptoms and the only way to diagnose it with any certainty is through surgery. For myself, I started showing symptoms at the age of twelve, but I was not diagnosed until I was twenty-three years old. This diagnosis and excision surgery was six months before I commenced my PhD studies.
This was not the end of my journey with the disease as anyone living with a chronic illness will tell you. The next step is figuring out how to live with the illness. Chronic illness does have an effect on the way you live your life, but it does not need to dominate it. Below I wanted to share with you some of the things that helped me to live with this illness while completing my thesis. It is by no means a comprehensive list of strategies but rather a start to the conversation of how to accommodate research and chronic illness.
Know your symptoms: While this seems straightforward, many chronic illnesses have wide and varied symptoms that manifest differently in different bodies. You need to take your time to learn how the illness is affecting you. For instance, it took me three and a half years of my four and a half year long dissertation to learn that fatigue is a major symptom of my illness and that I need to watch for and manage the signs of fatigue before it wipes me out.
Quality versus Quantity: On bad days I discovered I could achieve more in a focused three hours than in an unfocused six hours. So I would sometimes work intensively for a few hours without a break and then take the rest of the day off, instead of forcing myself to stay the computer all day. I also realised that on the really bad days that is was better to just take the day off to recover than try to push through and come up with material that I would only need to re-write later (after I had delayed my recovery).
Alternative Therapies: While pharmaceuticals are fantastic (you will never find me skipping a vaccine!) they are sometimes not enough to manage symptoms; when this happens, it is good to look at the alternative therapies that are available. I’ve found that regular remedial massages, as well as exercises like yoga and pilates, help me deal with the aches and pains of endometriosis. I know ladies who swear by acupuncture and Chinese medicine and others who use naturopathic remedies to compliment their medications. With chronic illness there is no one therapy to suit everyone, so try everything!
Diet: While it seems obvious, food can be central to managing chronic illness. One of the best things I did to help manage the symptoms of endometriosis was to pack myself off to see a dietician who put me on a Low FODMAP. This diet (when I follow it) has helped to drastically reduce symptoms like bloating and inflammation.
The culture of busyness: This is perhaps the hardest part of any chronic illness, juggling your medical needs with society’s constant pressure to always be busy. In academia, this is further exacerbated by increasing rates of casualisation and employment precarity. The simplest answer to this is to simply refuse the culture of busyness, schedule in time off, even days off. However, if you are casually employed this is not easy or even possible sometimes. But I still think it’s important to push back against this idea of constantly being busy even if it’s only small. Give yourself time to just be. This might mean taking a daily indulgent bath or perhaps making reading for leisure a priority. It might also mean taking some time to simply sit and let yourself breathe; whatever it means to you, own it and don’t let society make you feel ashamed for it.
As I said before this is by no means a comprehensive list of strategies – it is geared towards my own experience with endometriosis – but rather a conversation starter. Many people within academia live with chronic illness and many find it hard to juggle the demands of research against the demands of illness. I think the most important lesson that my thesis and my illness taught me is that I don’t need permission to be sick and that even though my illness may not be visible it is by no means less intrusive. At the same time, it does not need to define my life. To all my colleagues with chronic illness, we got this!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
In today’s post, current AHA ECR representative Dr André Brett responds to a controversial recent article on The Conversation as the first entry in a series of at least three about the effects of casualisation in Australian universities-—in general and in History specifically.
I have been considering for some time commencing a new blog series, “Thoughts from the Representative”, to discuss issues relevant to historians who are Early Career Researchers in Australia and to give my perspective. This post is not officially the first in such a series, but it is offered in the same spirit: my reflections on a hot topic relevant to ECRs. It does not express the views of the Australian Historical Association (either the executive or as an organisation), my employer (the University of Wollongong), or anyone else with whom I am affiliated. What it does express is my current thinking, which will no doubt be of interest to those I represent.
Many of you will have seen a recent article in The Conversation by Dorothy Wardale, Julia Richardson, and Yuliani Suseno about casualisation within academia. Its claims and recommendations have provoked strong responses. Insofar as I can tell, these responses from historians in casual employment have been almost entirely negative.
This post is, therefore, the first of at least three. It offers my reflections upon Wardale et al.’s article. The second post, by Joel Barnes, engages with the research underlying the article and interrogates its framing. The third, based on an idea from Effie Karageorgos and Imogen Wegman, collects short reactions from casual academics.
Casualisation a defining experience of ECRs
My term as the Early Career Researcher representative on the Australian Historical Association executive committee has run for about ten months now. In this time, it has become clear to me that the biggest issue facing ECRs is casualisation and the extreme degree of precarity that defines academic employment currently. My position is officially ECR representative, not casual representative, but the preponderance of casualisation and insecure work is such that I might as well be both.
Most concerns expressed to me by ECRs could be ameliorated significantly, if not entirely resolved, by stable and secure conditions of employment. It is galling, then, to read an article on The Conversation that focuses on the maintenance of a destructive model of casual employment—and indeed paints it in a far rosier light than it deserves, one that confers multiple alleged “benefits”.
Casuals: not going anywhere?
A major issue with Wardale, et al.’s article is its premise, as articulated in the title, that casual academics a). are not going anywhere, and b). that universities need to ensure this does not affect learning negatively. This suggests the problem is casuals, not those who choose to employ them casually or that casual employment is inappropriate for the delivery of higher education. It is telling that the authors make no attempt to interrogate the background to casualisation or to question the systems that reinforce it. Rather, they give blasé gestures about it being here to stay, which of course it need not be. Anybody familiar with global university rankings and other metrics knows they form an unhealthy obsession for many decision-makers; if the leading metrics were reframed to punish institutions that hired academics on short-term and insufficiently remunerated contracts, the number of exploitative positions would decline rapidly.
Casual academics are at the coalface of academia. Undergraduate course tutors, who are typically casuals, have the closest and most sustained contact with students. What is their reward? They are treated as disposable. They receive poor conditions and disrespect. Pay is meagre and often late. Senior staff who must approve timecards often fail to do so before deadlines. The difficulties are legion—I have named just a few. The effects of casualisation on the quality of teaching are, of course, serious; Wardale, et al. are not wrong to be concerned about them. But the appropriate response is not to exploit casuals in a “better” way.
Benefits of casualisation?
I want to focus on the “benefits of casualisation” section because it is the most misleading. The authors appear to have assumed that the results of a very narrow ethnographic survey of a business school—one of the least representative of all academic environments—apply to casualisation and academia as a whole.
First, this section misidentifies the casual cohort. In disciplines throughout the humanities—and the sciences—casuals are not older industry professionals sharing their networks and offering students internships. They are younger academics who are vulnerable to exploitation and in a weak position to bargain for better conditions. Worse, as I have said before, appointments and promotions to more secure positions are rarely based on the work that casuals are actually doing: “To win grants or jobs, you need to work in your own time, for no recompense, to produce publishable research. The labour that pays your bills does not advance your career, while the labour that advances your career does not pay your bills. It’s a rort.”
Second, it is almost unbelievable that Wardale, et al. would describe it as positive that casuals go beyond contractual obligations routinely. This is negative: people are doing work and not being paid for it. The reasons for this are multitudinous. Marking must be done and insufficient remuneration is given for it. Personal pride is on the line: if a tutorial were prepared in the time allocated, it would be mediocre and reflect poorly on the academic, so they take extra time. Future job opportunities depend on good student feedback, and many students are unaware of the conditions under which their teachers labour (as an undergraduate, I assumed my tutors were paid at a level similar to their intellect, i.e. very highly). In part it comes down to the simple reality that some departments within Australian universities would cease to function if casuals worked only to the terms of their contracts. Casuals evince far greater loyalty to their students, permanent colleagues, and institutions than their institutions and some permanent colleagues will ever return to them. It is a disgrace.
Third, the authors suggest casuals enjoy not being required to fulfil service requirements within their departments. The reality is contrary. Casuals perform considerable service to their departments and disciplines, often for no recognition whatsoever. It is also clear that younger academics seeking a career and the security to achieve personal goals would readily attend meetings in exchange for better pay and conditions. I have never heard anyone say “I hate annual performance reviews so much that I would rather earn starvation wages”.
Fourth, I have to wonder if the sentence that “[m]any casual academics enjoy the flexibility of working across different institutions” is a joke. It is a sweeping generalisation presented without evidence, and it stands in contrast to the reality that anyone who works across numerous institutions finds their time frittered away with excessive commuting, convoluted online systems, multiple email addresses, divergent administrative expectations, and all the other problems that attend fragmented and insecure work.
Ask the wrong question, get unhelpful answers
Surely the core point should be that casualisation has created a large underclass of academics scraping together jobs simply to get by—bad jobs not designed with the best outcomes in mind for employees or their students. Casual academics work in a system that could remunerate them sufficiently to avoid poverty, overwork, mental health crises, and the like, but it is one that chooses not to. If employment is more stable and secure, academics can deliver better teaching and research. This cannot be achieved with a high level of casualisation. For universities to deliver high-quality education and fulfil one of their main purposes for existing, they must provide sufficient conditions for staff to deliver it. This is obvious.
It is perhaps telling that in trying to present the “benefits of casualisation”, Wardale et al. list a large number of disadvantages: casuals are excluded from scholarly communities, lack security or continuity, cannot access funds for conference or research travel, have no avenues for promotion, and struggle to obtain finance for mortgages and other purposes. Yet, even in stating this, Wardale et al. do not appear to appreciate the dire conditions that casuals endure. The article reads as “how can we best exploit casualisation?” rather than “how can we resolve the crisis of casualisation?” It has asked the wrong questions and, therefore, its suggestions are unhelpful.
Perhaps The Conversation should have commissioned casuals to discuss what might improve their situation and enable better teaching. Even though its business model emphasises connections between its articles and authors’ specific fields of research, a broader discussion of conditions within academia should sit within its remit as an outlet for insights on and from higher education. But I would not advise casuals to write for well-resourced publishers such as The Conversation that will not compensate them for their work. We all know that exposure does not pay the bills.