Category: ECR life

Chronic Illness and Research: Some Strategies for Co-existence

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!

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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.

A Conversation About Casualisation, Part One

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.

Emerging Historians—Gwyn McClelland

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Gwyn McClelland, National Library of Australia, 2015.

The latest participant in the Emerging Historians Q&A series is Dr Gwyn McClelland, whose doctorate was conferred by Monash University. He is currently an Associate, teaching at Monash and in 2018 at RMIT Universities in Asian and trans-regional History, Education (Bilingualism) and Japanese language.

How did you come to be a historian?

A few years after I had completed a short thesis in theology for my Master of Divinity, I remember meeting my supervisor-to-be for a coffee next to the library at Melbourne University and discussing my ideas for a PhD project, which I had developed to take my previous research further. I had not really thought hard about which part of the Arts Faculty it would be in, but my supervisor was very encouraging of my proposal. I vaguely thought I would be in Japanese studies. Only when I was accepted into my program did I realise my work would be (had to be) in History! I realised how appropriate this was and quickly began to enjoy the opportunity to enormously widen my understanding of historical methodologies and approaches in research. I am thankful for Monash University researcher Beatrice Trefalt’s encouragement of me to pursue the path of an historian.

Tell us about your PhD research

I utilised an oral history methodology which involved interviewing 12 survivors of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, including 9 who are Catholic. I interviewed around 10 other community members as well, to gain a broader insight into the modern community. I remember one interviewee invited me to his haircut – so I sat behind him, while he talked, and the hairdresser listened in too, to his discussion of his memory of the atomic bomb! Then we caught a taxi to his retirement home. Elements such as this part of the research process didn’t make it into my thesis, but it was moments like this I will never forget! I also appreciated the opportunity to meet like-minded researchers in Japan, including one who had in 2015 published a book about the Catholic narrative of the bombing, from the written record, rather than the oral.

I employed a theological framework that engaged with the testimonies shared with me, ‘dangerous memory’, as conceptualised by German post-war Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz. Various aspects of the interviewees’ memories of trauma at the time and after the atomic bombing suggest their memories are ‘dangerous’ for the status quo, in the US, in Japan, for the Catholic official Church and so on.

Why does it matter?

The Catholic narratives of the bombing were sidelined, or silenced for a number of reasons. Around 70% of the Catholic community around Ground Zero were killed by the atomic bomb, so one reason for silence has been the fracturing of this community. Another was the silence of the official church in Nagasaki. A third is the situation of double and triple marginalisation in which the survivors found themselves after the war (eg. ‘Worshippers of an enemy god’, irradiated and socio-economic prejudices). The research contributes to histories of marginalisation and shows the complex but significant results of atomic warfare, even for those who experience them as children. I contribute to a better understanding of the narrative of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, and how the Catholic community who were to be found around Ground Zero experienced this bombing. As well, over the past seventy years, a plethora of research about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima has been produced, while Nagasaki has been relatively neglected.

What are you researching now or intending to do next?

I am presently writing a book out of the thesis, to be published by Routledge later this year in Mark Selden’s ‘Asia’s Transformations’ Series. The book will be titled Dangerous Memory in Nagasaki: Prayers and Protests within Catholic Survivor Narratives. Con-currently I am continuing my search for a position as a post-doc, researcher and/or teacher.

What do you love about being a historian?

It may be clichéd but I love the experience of discovery – my time at the National Library in 2015, where I was supported by a ‘Japan Grant’ was essential to my PhD thesis, allowing me the time to read in Japanese and to discover some of the nineteenth century narratives of the community I was researching. For an oral historian, finding supporting documents, including secondary sources and images is a great way to back up what you find in an interview. Oh, I have to mention another thing I really enjoy – in oral history it is a lot of fun to meet people and to talk with them.

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

The financial stresses for my family and I, which mean at the moment I am not sure about future holidays and keep putting off home projects. It is very difficult not knowing what will keep us going over the next university holidays, nor knowing with certainty how many contracts I might be able to land in the following semester.

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

I would like to go back to pre-1780s Australia, to see this continent as it was, especially the Birrarung (Yarra) river and the Woiwurrung region (now Melbourne). I think it would have been an amazing and beautiful area at the time.

AHA casualisation survey and other items of interest

The Australian Historical Association is currently conducting a survey on casualisation in the History discipline, and its effects. The survey, which will be open until 31 March 2019, is open to members and non-members. We hope to get a wide range of responses and experiences.

abandoned antique architecture buildingPlease note that in the survey, “casual position” is understood broadly, so to encompass all employment that is not ongoing/permanent/tenured. This encompasses fixed-term, full-time, and hourly employment, and all other forms of precarious labour.

The survey is available HERE. Please feel free to distribute the link to other casuals working in Australian tertiary institutions. The more feedback, the better!

Your responses are, of course, anonymous. We anticipate that the survey will take 5 to 30 minutes depending on the level of feedback you wish to provide.

A report based on the survey results is anticipated to be delivered to the AHA executive committee in December 2019 for release in the new year.

Other updates

Don’t forget that abstracts for the Australian Historical Association annual conference are due tomorrow, Tuesday 12 March. The conference is in Toowoomba, hosted by the University of Southern Queensland, and it runs 8–12 July 2019. All information, including how to submit an abstract, can be found on the conference website.

If the prospect of presenting a paper fills you with dread, have a look at our recent blog entry by Lyndon Megarrity with tips on presenting at conferences. Hopefully it will be the encouragement you need to join us in Toowoomba. I promise we’re a friendly and supportive bunch!

If you are unsure whether to submit to a specific stream and your paper has an economic slant, remember that the Economic History Society of Australia and New Zealand offers a prize for the best paper by a postgrad or ECR that is presented in the conference’s economic history stream. The paper must be submitted before the conference, but you’ve got until 17 June to do that. The important thing right now is marking your abstract submission as relevant to the economic history stream.

Other prizes and bursaries are available; see the website. ECRs should note the Jill Roe Conference Scholarship Scheme, applications for which are due today, 11 March. Good luck to those of you finalising your applications!