Category: ECR life
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
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.
Please 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.
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!
School’s out for summer?
It’s Friday, 21 December 2018, and here at the University of Wollongong the corridors are very quiet indeed. I have not seen anyone all day down my end of Building 19, a notorious rabbit warren where usually at least a few lost souls are wandering around hoping to find a printer, a kitchenette, a classroom, or maybe just a way out. Office doors are closed and locked (I assume; I haven’t been randomly testing doorhandles). The classroom opposite my office is, for once, quiet. The only person to make tea today in the kitchenette nearest me is, well, me—this entry is brought to you by my fourth pot for the day of T2’s Morning Red blend.
So, clearly, people have already skedaddled for Christmas. But what does summer and the holiday season mean for ECRs, especially historians in Australia? I put out a call for comments on Twitter a couple of days ago and solicited a few more from colleagues not on that platform. I have not been able to name everyone personally, but all the responses on Twitter can be read through the preceding link.
Overwhelmingly, it appears that summer is writing season. If even half the ambitions expressed come to pass, there ought to be a bumper crop next year of journal articles from our emerging historians. Jillian Beard notes that her first summer post-thesis is a busy one, with two journal articles and a fellowship application on the go. For some, the writing projects are even larger, extending to book manuscripts. Ben Wilkie, our most recent Q&A participant, is one of them. Ana Stevenson, another Q&A veteran, also has a book on the go, but she highlights one of the challenges for historians with appointments in the Global South: the holiday season gives her the opportunity to read books inaccessible in South Africa.
Working (no exclamation mark)
We all have our rent and bills to pay—indeed, for those without the security of an ongoing contract, this is probably the overriding concern. Will there be tutoring work next semester? Will funding applications be approved? The stress and anxiety of wondering where the money comes from is acute for many at this time. So it is unsurprising that some respondents are only taking a few days off before returning to teaching summer courses, or have lined up contracts to perform research assistance (RA) over the holidays. Poor Mahsheed Ansari mentions that there is still marking to do! Chelsea Barnett, whose Q&A went live in September, has RA and admin work because, as she puts it, there is “No rest for the wicked… or for ECR academics, apparently.” Speaking personally, before I began my (fixed-term) appointment here at Wollongong, I spent my summers at the University of Melbourne performing as much RA as possible. Let me tell you, being in the old Arts West, now replaced by an inferior modern showpiece, on New Year’s Eve was even more surreal than being in UOW Building 19 right now (somebody just walked past my office! What is happening!).
Summer, hopefully, is not all work. Many respondents have carved out at least some time to rest—”rest, rest, and rest”, as Kim Kemmis says. Anne Rees is spot on about the need to resist “academia’s busyness culture” because “good scholarship requires a fresh mind”. But Anne also highlights that the ability to take leave and refresh the mind is a privilege of employment that not all ECRs possess. For people with appointments such as mine or Anne’s, we can take leave if we want, knowing that we will still have income over summer. For casuals, this season is often a poor one: every day taken to recharge the batteries is a day’s pay foregone. It speaks poorly of the modern university that the demands for greater productivity are not coupled with the means for a large portion of the academic workforce to have the rest necessary to produce quality scholarship.
But enough critiquing the modern university; we will all keep doing that in 2019, no doubt. It appears that those of you who are taking time off—by whatever means you have managed to secure it—are really looking forward to some solid reading. More than one respondent remarked on the opportunity to read fiction as a startling novelty. Ben Wilkie quips that he will be “reading a fiction book for once”. Effie Karageorgos, another past Q&A contributor, is keen to sit down with some Agatha Christie. I have been waiting to read Claire Coleman’s novel Terra Nullius since October: I took it on a flight but spent the whole trip writing, and have not had another opportunity to pick it up until this week. I have just reached the twist, and I can say that this book is a treat.
I am not travelling for the first Christmas in years—I’ve talked some of my family into visiting me. But many of you are off to see family. Others have foreign holidays lined up. Hannah Loney, a historian in Melbourne who is not on Twitter, wrote to me to describe two glorious weeks in Indonesia: time to read, to swim in the ocean, and to enjoy good food and drink. And now she feels refreshed, able to take on journal article submissions, book proposals, and teaching preparation. She notes that although it’s not great to lack paid leave, one perk of casual appointments is being able to just book the tickets and go. Certainly when I was at Melbourne Uni I did similar, making trips to New Zealand during quiet periods of employment without needing permission from anyone. Having paid leave is a delight, something I scarcely believe I am entitled to after years of casual contracts, but the associated paperwork is not a thrill.
It would be remiss of me if I wrote this entry without dishing out some congratulations. You might recall the recent call for applications for the Australian Historical Association–Copyright Agency ECR Mentorship scheme. All the applications received were of high quality, attesting to considerable talent, insight, and ambition. The panel of judges were delighted to award the six mentorships to Jillian Beard, Margaret Cook, Nicholas Ferns, James Keating, Mia Martin Hobbs, and Ryan Strickler. Some of them gave comments in reply to the summer activities tweet—it sounds like they will soon be getting stuck into the articles funded under the mentorship. I, for one, am really looking forward to what they produce. With any luck I might be able to shine a spotlight on it during 2019 with this blog.
Speaking of this blog, if you are interested in participating, please get in touch. I want to hear from you whether you would like to do a Q&A (either the series for ECRs or that for established scholars), write a how-to guide, describe a book or other object that changed your life, or propose a new feature. A number of people have suggested that a series on Academics With Children would be welcome, so I am keen to hear from scholars at any stage of their career, with children of any age, who would like to discuss experiences and issues facing parents in the tertiary sector. I am also interested if any reasonably well established scholar would like to write a “how to survive your first academic conference” guide for our newest historians.
Contact me, André Brett, at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re keen.
It might be the holiday season, but email now if you wish; you won’t get an out-of-office reply. I will only be taking off the public holidays because I actually like working through summer. Heat is unbearable, the sun is not my friend, and I did not become a historian to spend time outside. You will find me tapping away on grant applications, book manuscripts, and book reviews—but, as a sop to the season, I might be doing it from my desk at home with the pleasant hum of cricket on TV in the background. I like my office in Building 19, rabbit warren though it may be, but installing a television might be excessive.
All the best for the holiday season. Go crack open a beverage of your choice (a beer for me), grab a good book (because it seems that’s what all of you want to do), and settle down somewhere comfortable (even if it’s outside). See you in 2019!
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