Thursday, 30 May 2013

Wish you were here?

I'm still at UCU Congress in Brighton. I keep getting texts asking me if I've been to this or that tourist attraction, restaurant or beach.

The answer to all of the above is 'no'. It's very much not like this:

Even though my hotel is on the sea front. I don't even have an external window: mine looks out to the lobby. And the conference venue has no windows either. I could not tell you what the weather has been like today.

So what do we do all day? Well, I've done a lot of marking, and I've been alternately bored, angry and frustrated. Some of this is good. I went to the anti-casualisation meeting, for instance. I knew the situation was bad, but not this bad. Students should be outraged that so many of their teachers are on hourly-paid and zero-hours contracts. I did it myself for 6 years, in seven different departments. The teaching was fun but the students were short-changed to some extent. I was expected to be an expert but I was only paid for the hours in the classroom. No holiday pay or sickness pay. I would often wait 6 months to get paid £300, surviving in the meantime on a huge overdraft and family bail-outs.

Casual staff are expected to be as good as their salaried colleagues, and as learned, but they only get paid for a few months of the year, which seems utterly dishonest to me. One of my colleagues teaches more than any of the full-time staff. She also works at another university 60 miles away, on another crappy contract. She has published multiple papers and a book, which the other university wants to claim for their REF submission, despite not helping her do that research at all. We have a policy of fractionalising contracts to regularise long-term visiting lecturers, but it appears to have been abandoned. We'd rather just exploit the skills and hard work of such people like parasites.

Apart from anything else, it seems short-sighted and self-defeating of the university system. All that time and money spent producing highly-qualified intellectuals who we then abandon or treat like dirt. And yet we've all accepted it as a rite of passage. Except that it isn't: I heard from someone today who has been on casual contracts since 1973. Two years before I was born. This is one of the dirty secrets of the global education system: it wouldn't run without the systematic exploitation of insecure, often young workers. I believe it's called 'McDonaldization'.

So meeting other people to plan how to resist this kind of rubbish is great. What's not so great is spending hours on motions nobody in their right mind would oppose ('Comrades: it's our duty as Trades Unionists to condemn cruelty to kittens'), and the even longer hours spent either (depending on your perspective) as HQ plotting against the rank and file or the rank and file plotting against HQ. There are also plenty of people with whom I agree on principle, but who spend the time making grand speeches that get us absolutely nowhere, or angling for cheap applause.

Ah well. It's the formal dinner tonight. I think I'll skip the 'disco', on the basis that I'd rather not dance to anyone who thinks a disco is still a thing. I accidentally bought some more books from the conference stall, so I might settle down with some Badiou or Baudrillard. Or some other French philosopher whose name starts with B. And of course there's marking to be done… I'll always have the marking.


Kate said...

This is a great post, thank you. I'm thinking of Vanessa Vaile's suggestion that there are emerging "practices of refusal" coming from people who recognise that casual academic work isn't a rite of passage at all, but a destination. The only way to shock the overall system into reform is for the supply of cheap labour to be a bit less available. That's hard enough on individuals, but we have a new problem emerging, that really does change this calculation: the appearance of fully rendered online courses that can be completed without having to pay a human even for #markinghell.

These are really difficult times.

AnnaD said...

'full-time hours across two universities' - not too bad. Yet I agree, all casual/hourly-paid is inept in terms of employment equality and career-development, but some of us would might welcome more causal hours which is reflective of what you say -casual is better than nothing when that salaried post is ever more elusive. I have publications - essay, article, two edited collections and now, as of this week, a contracted monograph- and much teaching experience. But in my east Midlands university, casual teaching is allocated unequally. Departments need to look closer at what ALL their causal staff are producing in terms of research and successful teaching.

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