TASA’s Working Document on contingent labour clearly identifies issues and proposes strategies for academics who employ staff and as such it is welcomed by those who face the never-ending search for work every semester.
The anxiety over whether I’d get work in 2017 settled in a month before Christmas. I’ve been living without an income and off my savings since June, and while the time freed up by unemployment had suited the final stages of my PhD, the unemployment itself was ultimately due to a lack of suitable teaching work. By ‘suitable’ I mean work that did not require the unpaid overwork that is so often required to ‘just stay ahead’ of trusting students, as I teach them material that I am at present entirely unfamiliar with. How many of us are acquainted with the imposter syndrome that accompanies such circumstances? For my own part, I once did an embarrassing job teaching 30 third-year students in an entirely unfamiliar course – ostensibly because I ‘needed the experience’ to ‘become more competitive’. While I have since realised what a quintessentially neoliberal rationale that was, now, at the dawn of a new year and the bottom of my savings, I find myself wondering if I would do the same thing again.
I’ve already cast my lines into the pool of potential proxy-employers. The timing here is difficult: some coordinators have no idea if they’ll need a teacher right up until the beginning of semester. Many of those who work as benefactors might not yet know if their scholarship-salaried PhD students will want the work. Both of these potential proxy-employers typically prefer to be contacted between mid-January and Week 1. While the ‘first come, first served’ coordinators should be contacted early, the meaning of ‘early’ depends on the institution, the course, and the rapport. ‘Out of Office’ email replies can alternatively be interpreted as ‘Try Again Later’ or ‘Next Time Try Sooner’.
As something of an experiment, the emails I sent out this time were no longer those lengthy ones that remind the recipient who I am, where I’m at and how they might know me. I have not attached my CV, Academic Vitae, student reviews or letters of recommendation from past unit coordinators and Deans. Instead, I’ve simply written that I would ‘like to open a dialogue about potential teaching work this coming semester’. I have done this for two reasons: 1. Experience has taught me that, at least so far as the informal academic job-market is concerned, credentials don’t really matter at this stage. 2. I am increasingly aware of the amount of unpaid work-for-labour that I do, and, with the prior point in mind, I am trying to reduce this.
It was to be expected that the teaching positions in my own area had already been promised to the unit coordinator’s new PhD candidates (for such is the culture here). While other emails have not been responded to, the recipients that I have seen on campus tell me that they are very busy and that they will respond eventually. On this note, I must point out how frustrating it is when the secure academic uses busyness as an excuse for ignoring the work-searching emails from sessional academics. After all, we are trying to determine if we will have paid work for the foreseeable future; sometimes, we need to know if we should accept the unsuitable job, or wait for the word about teaching in the unit which covers the topics in which we are actually educated and experienced. Coordinators who do not to respond to emails of such real-world significance for weeks and then explain that they are busy demonstrate a lack of both empathy and respect (let’s be honest: ‘busyness’, praiseworthy as it may be, is often at least a bit of a fib). More significantly, it demonstrates the multifaceted systemic gap between sessional academics and their potential, current, and potential again proxy-employers.
Given that the situations and concerns that I have described here are reflected in the peer-reviewed literature on the experiences of sessional academics around Australia, I hope that my words are not dismissed too easily. Indeed, going by the fact that such moral (or was it “strategic”?) conundrums and material situations directly relate to the structural and cultural conditions of our universities, I’d wager that many members of TASA will have experienced something similar within their own milieu. On this final note I am reminded of C Wright Mills’ distinction between personal troubles and issues of social structure:
A trouble is a private matter: values cherished by an individual are felt by her to be threatened. …… An issue is a public matter: some value cherished by publics is felt to be threatened. … An issue, in fact, often involves a crisis in institutional arrangements, and often too it involves what Marxists call ‘contradictions’ or ‘antagonisms’.
At the start of another academic year, I think it is worth considering what these cherished values and contradictory institutional arrangements might be, and what it is that we might do (or not do) to engage with them – and thus, by virtue of those social extensions that define our discipline, with each other.