Careering at the Periphery of Academia

Fabian Cannizzo, Monash University:

Everyone I know is becoming a labour scholar. This is partially my own fault – I compulsively stir the pot of discontent among my friends who work among shoppers and clients as much as those who work with students. But part of the blame also lay with the company that I keep: most people I know work on casual, sessional, seasonal, or more broadly project-based contracts. Everyone among this group of workers has at least a nagging sense that there’s “nothing really to be done” about the insecurity of work: that the issue is structural and managerial, rather than about their own choices. The more optimistic among them talk about unionism and the 2019 Australian election. In many ways, I am an optimist and I would like to share some optimism about developing a (limited) sense of security at the periphery of academia. I will leave it up to you to decide if this optimism is a desirable attitude.

On 13 December, I was featured in the Sociologists Looking for Work segment of the TASA e-newsletter – a thoughtful initiative led by TASA’s digital media portfolio leader, Brady Robards (view the registry). The segment alerted TASA’s membership to a (growing) cluster of doctoral and post-doctoral scholars seeking work and career opportunities in the competitive landscape of the academic job market. I describe this initiative as “thoughtful” because, while there are formal job advertisements accessible to anyone who sets up an email alert at Jora, it seems that most work contracts in academia are not formally advertised. The Sociologists Looking for Work segment offered a reminder to organisational allies and colleagues that for many, the job hunt does not end. The Looking for Work segment was thoughtfully directed towards the dynamics of the secondary, informal job market. I consider this initiative optimistically, alongside previous TASA initiatives that ask scholars to become cognisant of the informal job market and its consequences for those doing most of the teaching work. The Responses to contingent labour in academia: TASA Working Document (Natalier et al. 2016) is one such initiative, which has had an impact on the practices of at least a few sociologists for whom I have worked.

A second source of optimism has emerged from finding a schema to communicate what I value about my own work. When I entered academia, I was ritualistically implored by course coordinators and advisors to “find your passion” (see Cannizzo 2018) or otherwise seek out a research interest that would “sustain” me. This was helpful motivational advice, but perhaps something that I and other creatives/professionals might take a little too close to heart. To have passion for a practice, skill or hobby is not the same as entwining your sense of self with a labour relationship. If labour is the instrumentalisation of human effort, then to identify with your labour is to see yourself as an instrument. Academic managers (including course coordinators) model “passionate” attitudes to hopeful junior academics and students alike, helping to reproduce the expectation and performance of an authentic academic. Presenting an authentic self may hence involve what Arlie Hochschild (2012) describes as “deep acting” – that is, masking our feelings to produce appropriate emotional responses through “deceiving oneself as much as deceiving others” (p. 33). I still recall seeing my first inspiring Introduction to Sociology lectures and implicitly understanding that this enthusiasm that scholars express for their work was reflective of their devotion.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that passionate lecturers and professors are masking some underlying sense of irritation, boredom or existential dread. The relative stability of pay, performance expectations and admiration from their colleagues and students offer many intrinsic and extrinsic motivators to work. Academics who do not share these working conditions – those employed on project-based, short-term, sessional or funding-contingent contract – and who have little or no wealth do not share the conditions for the production of authentic expressions of passion either. They may be members of what Christian Mauri once jokingly called a “precognitariat”: “those clever people who foresee a precarious future and pursue it nonetheless” (2015, p. 5). Laura McKenzie has identified how this precarity has produced resentment among precarious academics who have come to depend on the advocacy of more securely employed senior academics (McKenzie 2018), and whose “passion” is at odds with their work instability (McKenzie 2017). Authentic expressions of passion are more readily available to those for whom the expression of passion (or the failure to do so) is not a job-risk and who are themselves role models for appropriate behaviour. For others, deep acting can quickly become an expectation or assumption of sustaining a precarious career.

I began my career in academia attempting to reproduce the passion, dedication and good character that I admired in my lecturers and para-academic activists. Passion is seductive; in loving your passion, you reproduce the conditions of its emergence. The down-side of this emulation, as is often reported by contingent staff, is self-exploitation: the extraction of value from labour by labour. My optimistic moment has emerged from finding a limit to deep acting and the emulation of passion. This is not as simple as choosing “surface acting” (that is, masking your feelings while acknowledging them to yourself) over deep acting; it required time to develop a reliable network of more securely-employed colleagues to help me establish boundaries between my sense of job security and emotional labour. Here is a short list of ways that my collegial bosses have helped:

  1. setting clear guidelines around teaching etiquette, including email response times, delegation of duties and responsibilities, and offering information on who to contact when things go awry;
  2. selecting me for work based on my research experience and teaching skills rather than my teaching evaluation outcomes;
  3. trusting my input into course design (which has always been paid) and to make suggestions about the quality of potential tutors; and
  4. supporting union activism and protected industrial action, even when the manager is not a member of the union themselves.

There are many other ways that collegial bosses have helped, but what all these methods have in common are a recognition of the value of contingent staff, expressed through the delegation of responsibility that imply trust. Now, this implicit organisational contract does not mean greater legal or material security for contingent staff, but it does demonstrate a willingness to address contingency and it is from this willingness that my optimism arose.

I haven’t totally abandoned the need for deep acting. In a post-industrial consumer society, who can? But what I have found is a means of using different mechanisms of emotion management to produce a more sustainable contingent career (and again, the desirability of this optimism is left to you, reader). In my work planning, drawing again on Hochschild (2012), I minimise the emotional toll of working among people with different interest and opinions through “surface” working, but maximise the pleasures and gains through “deep” networking. In circumstances where I have limited control over outcomes (such as in the application of the “bell curve” to standardise marks, which I find arbitrary), I may supress my desire to protest the directive, which has often a futile act and a drain on my unpaid time. Universities evidently have command structures that are more resistant to change than I am employable.

But, in the process of job-hunting, a deeper form of acting takes place. I have often had afternoon cappuccinos and conference encounters where I have feigned some interest in work that was beyond my realm of familiar ideas. But, perhaps out of some sense of duty, I went on to read into their study or program and found myself becoming enthralled by their dedication and enthusiasm for their research. I describe this as “deep networking” because the work opportunities that have emerged from these contacts have come about because I have manifested a genuine interest in their work that is also a form of self-exploitation. I may spend hours reading in an analytic space between labour and hobby work. The positive aspect of this practice is that my research and teaching skills are more readily applicable to a range of phenomena (which I have now read into current research around). The danger is that the only means to distinguish between deep acting and genuine acting is to wait until someone stops paying you to do it.


Cannizzo, F 2018, ‘‘You’ve got to love what you do’: Academic labour in a culture of authenticity’, The Sociological Review, vol. 66, no. 1, pp. 91-106.

Hochschild, A 2012, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, Updated with a New Preface, Berkeley, CA, University of California Press.

Mauri, C 2015, ‘“The precariat, Ph.D”: Relating Standing’s notion to contingent academic labour’, in T Petray and A Stephens (Eds.), Proceedings of The Australian Sociological Association conference, 23-26 November 2015, Cairns, Queensland, James Cook University. Available at

McKenzie, L 2017, ‘A precarious passion: Gendered and age-based insecurity among aspiring academics in Australia’, in R Thwaites and A Pressland (Eds.), Being an early career feminist academic: Global perspectives, experiences and challenges, London, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 31-49.

McKenzie, L 2018, ‘Invisible anger: Intergenerational dependence and resentment among precarious academics’, in JM Puaschunder (Ed.), Intergenerational responsibility in the 21st century, Wilmington, DE, Vernon Press, pp. 33-54.

Natalier, K, Altmann, E, Bahnisch, M, Barnes, T, Egan, S, Malatzky, C, Mauri, C and Woodman, D 2016, Responses to contingent labour in academia: TASA Working Document, Hawthorn, Victoria, TASA. Available at

Share Button