Music for Deckchairs

"In shadowy, silent distance grew the iceberg too": an Australian blog about changes in higher education


Because work

At this time of year, many of us are dreaming of lying on a quiet beach under a palm tree … . Instead, we are more likely to be watching the sun shine down from behind the office window, while staring obsessively at our computer screens and becoming consumed by our overflowing inboxes.

It seems that Australia isn’t the laidback nation it’s perceived to be.

Aussies: reluctant to take annual leave, Big Fish Global Consulting Group, back in 2012

Summertime in Australia, and the sharks are tweeting.

When I first came here in the mid 1990s, Australian universities still operated like the television industry in the expectation that everyone went on holiday for the whole of January. Academics didn’t need to book leave; under the terms of a “deeming provision” in the employment agreement, it could be taken for granted that we were all at the beach because that’s what January means in Australian culture. So the legal fiction of annual leave could be maintained without much admin overhead, while the actual practice of leaving work and doing something else with your time was gradually being washed out to sea by sector-wide changes to the way universities operated in the summer period.

Realistically academics have always used January to write, setting up exactly the conditions for other kinds of work bleeding into their personal time. But now there are more and more administrative deadlines, including those related to grant-getting and grant-acquitting, that require a more routine kind of work through January. It’s also peak hunting season for potential undergraduates who have better or worse than expected high school results.  And the ferris wheels of shared governance all started to turn at the beginning of the month, even if some academics might still be choosing to protect themselves from knowing how any of these work.

So Australian universities now recognise that if they need to stay open for business all year, then the deeming provision that writes everyone’s leave off in January is fraudulent to the point of risk. Even though some of the cultural expectations about January still apply, the practical change is that academics now get to apply for annual leave, which means that someone has to approve it, and then the whole system spends the rest of the year auditing, worrying and auto-generating emails about the fact that what we have here is a burned-out profession sitting on a huge stockpile of untaken time away from work.

To this extent, despite the popular caricature that we barely show up at all, academics turn out to be pretty much the same as any other salaried workers in a churning economy, with Australia coming fifth in 2012 in a global survey on “holiday deprivation in developed nations“:

According to the survey, we are only taking fifteen of our twenty entitled annual leave days. Therefore we’re waving goodbye to a whole working weeks’ worth of holidays. As a nation, this leaves us with over 118 million days of annual leave stockpiled; or in other words: 350,000 years of holidays and $33.3 billion in wages.

Although 70% of annual leave stockpilers acknowledge that taking time off to recharge does wonders for your work/life balance, many also say that personal or work-related barriers are holding them back. Concerns regarding money, failure to plan, deliberately saving for emergencies or not being able to coordinate leave with a partner’s availability were cited as major reasons for not taking leave. A further 57% of stockpilers blame work-related barriers for their inability to take holidays, including; separation anxiety from work, lack of cover, negative reactions from employers and difficulties of being granted leave in the first place.

So there’s that. But let’s look at this another way.

Paid leave is the privilege of a minority of those who actually teach in universities. It’s part of the package of privileges that come with salaried, permanent academic employment, including sick leave, carers leave, bereavement leave, sabbaticals, paid leave for long service, superannuation, access to retention and attraction bonuses, access to research grant funding etc. But wait, there’s more: a permanent salary also underwrites your credit standing in relation to other middle-class institutions (banks, real estate), gives you a professional identity, and sustains a general ability to plan for your future. So even where it doesn’t come with healthcare, a salaried job is the golden ticket in an economy characterised by precarity, underemployment, unemployment, and the vast shadow economy of informal work.

In Australia, the compensation for being excluded from the privilege of security is a loading that nominally treats casual academics as self-managed contractors who fund their own entitlements. On paper, this looks OK. But while we still systematically underestimate how long the institution’s teaching work actually takes to get done—because the same calculations feed into the very, very sensitive matter of staff-student ratios—then we not only reduce their hourly rate, but also drag down with it the significance and real value of their compensatory loading.

There are two problems here. One is that we still base most measures of teaching work not on outputs but on the fiction of the contact hour, which is recognised as not quite belonging to the temporality of corporeal life but to some weird metonymic calculation where the hour in front of a class implies the other hours required to enable that contact hour to happen. Only the contact hour is measured in the tick of a regular clock and the others are calculated according to a piecework formula which amounts to however long a piece of string happens to be. It’s a mess, because it’s a gross effort to discipline 21st century university work, which is asynchronous, virtual, global and multitasked, in the name of 14th century scholarly practices.

The second problem is that the variables in how long teaching actually takes are among the most politically sensitive in higher education. Topicality and currency of teaching materials, building and equipment maintenance, variability in student preparedness, professional development for teachers, health and accessibility considerations—these are all topics that make higher education institutions wince because they’re in the cost planning side of the strategy. This is the bit the institution uses to try to manage the risk of volatility on the revenue side as students and families weigh up the prospect of college debt v. college premium. So institutions underinvest a little bit in all these things, and try to calculate how much they can save without introducing reputational risk, which is of course risk to revenue. That’s how both salaried and hourly paid academics end up having to contribute their own time to the enterprise, whether they’re supposed to be off the clock or off on leave, to cover this gap.

So thinking about the complexity of all this, here’s a New Year message to our colleagues in edtech.  As you’re making your 2014 to-do list, please make sure that you’re really well informed about the labour market conditions in the sector you’re promising to disrupt. We’ve had two years of listening to you about the democratisation of student access to education, and the efficacy of student management; now let’s hear your thoughts on improving the human experience of work in higher education—and not just for the handful of mostly male tenured celebrities at top-tier US institutions you’re using to promote your brand.

Because until you really understand the rapid, serious deterioration of work in higher education, your chances of achieving sustainable change, the change that you want to be part of, are nil.


Health update: Thanks so much to everyone who’s written and asked, brought meals for us, and hung out our washing. Recovery was quite tough this time because of a second general anaesthetic quickly following the first, but I’m up and about, and waiting for results from the second surgery at the end of this week, before moving to the next stage of this thing. I heard Shane Warne say yesterday that the Australian cricket team is essential to the idea of Australian culture, and I can see why he thinks that, but for me it’s Medicare. Australian public hospitals and the people who work in them are facing the same underfunding and casualisation as us, the same mad search for efficiency, but as Mary-Helen Ward pointed out to me this week, what they deal with is beyond comparison.


Ratfarming: let’s not

But in our minds the answer to the question “Should I blog?” is now a clear and resounding “Yes”, at least, if conventional indicators of academic success are your aim. Blogging is now part of a complex online ‘attention economy’ where social media like Twitter and Facebook are not merely dumb ‘echo chambers’ but a massive global conversation which can help your work travel much further than you might initially think.

Inger Mewburn and Pat Thompson, “Academic blogging is part of a complex attention economy leading to unprecedented readership” (LSE blogs, this week)

Now that I’m on sick leave, the question of what counts as work has slanted a bit. Academics are chronically prone to working while sick. Often this is accompanied with a little self-justifying jig in which we explain that we love to do our research/teaching etc so much that it doesn’t count as work. But it’s just as often the way deadlines don’t wait, and what we do is essentially contract project work that’s hard to pass on to others. Lying in bed staring at the ceiling, we all feel the pressure of the snowcave of email in which we’re slowly being buried. And so we chip away at it anyway, because it’s easier to maintain an airway of sorts by tunnelling constantly, than to have to dig yourself out from six feet of snow at the end of it.

This is fantastically good news for universities, who couldn’t stay open without the human chain of volunteer labour that extends from graduate students and other adjuncts working well beyond their paid casual hours, to salaried workers taking their email, grading, peer reviewing and online teaching into doctors’ waiting rooms, hospitals and bed.

But the funny thing about cancer is that it seems so extreme, that everyone is advising me to make sure that I’m not working. So I’ve had to think again about what counts as work, and figure out what it is that I want to protect during this confronting, confusing time.

It turns out that I don’t think of either blogging or Twitter as part of my paid employment. Quite the opposite: I started writing online secretively in 2011 because I was looking for somewhere to think for myself. I didn’t want a platform; I didn’t want to promote my research or improve my profile. I didn’t even want people to know who I was, in case this troubled my employer. I wanted to make a bower for collecting things of value to me: thoughts, information, other people’s words that would amount to a better grasp of why higher education felt like a difficult place to be.

A whole lot has changed since then. Academics are now being advised and trained to blog; and as Inger and Pat suggest in their thoughtful discussion of the impact of blogging profile on journal article downloads, it may be that they will eventually be considered delinquent if they don’t.

As it happens, I don’t dispute the utility of blogging in the “attention economy”.  It does work, if that’s what you’re after. And I really can see why people get into Twitter for its amplifying capacity. We’re all unsettled by the way that academic publishing encloses writing that was already paid for by a public that then would have to pay a second time actually to read it. As citations are becoming both the carrot and the stick for survival then it makes sense that research managers are becoming more interested in the way that academics could deploy social media work to make themselves more upworthy.

But I have some serious reservations about hitching public online conversations to the pseudo-productivity of formal academic publication. It’s not about the impact of social media on the academy, but the reverse. Academic publishing is collapsing as a meaningful forum for the circulation of ideas precisely because its true function is now to maintain the scarcity of repute, in an economy that trades individual reputation for institution reputation, all of which washes back to the journals themselves. Journals pride themselves on equating difficulty with quality: how hard it is for anything to be published, and how long it takes. They do this because they need to maintain their own business models and market value; these are very hard times for them too. So for prestige to attach to publication, a huge volume of written work that has already gone through many drafts and redrafts has to be rejected.

The squandering of human time that closed, peer-reviewed academic publishing represents is truly astonishing. It’s a similar in scale, nature and damage to the other competitive systems on which higher education stakes its claim to excellence: hiring, tenure, grant-getting, ranking schemes. For all of these to be meaningful in the current scheme, they require massive failure rates. This required failure ratio then expresses itself as a kind of personal shame that works as an inducement to further overwork, which is exactly how the human cost is becoming so significant.

And the idea of publication as a means of making funded research genuinely useful has been substituted by the work of counting and factoring up research outputs. The classic story told about perverse incentives is ratfarming under colonial rule in Hanoi: in an economy where peasants are paid per rat kill, the sensible response is to farm rats to kill and turn in for reward. In other words, the rational decision that the system triggers is the exact opposite of the system’s goal. The hyphenation of citation to rankings means that higher education is very close to perfecting in its workers its own ratfarming calculation, and we all know it.

Sure, social media has versions of all this, but it’s still possible to make a space within its generous and substantially ungovernable folds for practices of thinking, sharing and listening that are self-managed, and that work just because they work for you. You can chase followers, or not mind at all.  You can spend all day listening to three people and no more.  You can maintain a valuable and engaging life on Twitter in the same way that you’re stimulated by listening to the radio in the car or having coffee with three friends: you don’t need the whole world in your ear at one time. And above all, you can do this without having to file an end-of-year report.

These not-work practices now need protecting against the seductive but ultimately quite sleazy pull of the attention economy. Surreptitiously joined up networks of people thinking quietly, on their own time, now offer higher education a whole range of models for learning and discovering that will still be here after the MOOC circus moves on.

That is, unless blogging becomes professionally compulsory, in which case we’ll all be in the ratfarm.

Thanks to Bon Stewart for the conversation today that got me thinking to write this down.

Also, health update: I’m off to hospital tomorrow for further surgery. Getting a big diagnosis as a higher education worker, and writing about it here, has taught me that there’s far, far more in this gift economy than the attention economy will ever offer.  Thank you.


Beyond a boundary

In baseball or football, the league lends stability to each team. Pro cycling, on the other hand, follows a more Darwinian model: teams are sponsored by big companies, and compete to get into big races. There are no assurances; sponsors can leave, races can refuse to allow teams. The result is a chain of perpetual nervousness: sponsors are nervous because they need results. Team directors are nervous because they need results. And riders are nervous because they need results to get a contract.

Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle, The Secret Race, (2012 p 35)

For obvious reasons, I’ve been wondering why academics overwork. Most of us in Australia are governed by an enterprise agreement setting out what we can expect in return for a very humane 37.5 hours a week.  The minutiae of what we get in each round of bargaining is scrutinized, haggled over and voted on; the fantastical proposition that what we give — even in average — is a regular full time week is waved through.

Let’s stop and think about this for a moment.  Imagine that the university offered to pay salary X, but in any given pay week, multipliers applied to X on the basis of worker need in the moment. Imagine that your employer could hike up your rate of pay on demand like this, without any need for forward planning or budgetary calculations.  Oh, you need more cash this week?  Sure. How much more? 

Because this is exactly what university workers offer in return.  It’s Thursday and you need this report by Monday but I’m already in meetings or teaching all day Friday and grading on Saturday?  Sure, I can offer Sunday, would that do?  And of course, I’ll spend most of Saturday night thinking about it because I’ll be at a Christmas concert for my kids so I’ll have some mental calculation time and could check an updated version if you email it to me, provided I’m sitting up the back. So yes, we can meet on Monday and you’ll have your report, because I ride for the team. Obviously, if I wasn’t doing your report I’d be trying to meet a publication deadline, so I’ve already more or less paid my weekend up front anyway, as a downpayment on something or other. Don’t worry about the publication though, I’ll make that up next weekend.

The question of why we do this is important to me because I’m wondering how come I spent 12 months not finding time for a health check that would have significantly changed the situation I’m now in. It’s three weeks since I discovered I have breast cancer, that is not entirely not-advanced. I’ve had surgery which has shown that the cancer has got away from its starting point, and now I’m waiting to see whether the next move is more surgery, before beginning chemotherapy early in the New Year.

Friends and colleagues have filled our house with flowers and fruit. In the days after surgery when we were bewildered and disoriented, people quietly delivered meals and left without a word, which was exactly the thing we most needed. Beyond this I’ve had astonishing, thoughtful support from people I’ll never meet from all around the world. My immediate teaching responsibilities have been taken up by a casual academic who is willing and available to work at an hourly rate through the summer, and who has gone out of her way to manage this handover, well beyond what she’s being underpaid to do. I’ve also had calm, practical assistance in relation to sick leave. I’m immensely grateful: nothing has been made harder than it needs to be.

But this doesn’t diminish the way this diagnosis has left my children angry and scared, when they have already given so much to the university that is so careful with its money and so reckless with our time. My three daughters are 8, 12 and 14. They have all grown up with a full-time academic parent. Every weekend of their whole lives has been framed by “yes, but we’ll have to be quick because I need to get some work done this afternoon”. Even with the generous maternity leave provisions available to academics, as a full-time breadwinner I was back in my office when each of them was under 6 months. I have stockpiled sick leave, not because I’ve never been sick, but because like all academics, when I’ve been sick, I’ve just sat up in bed with the laptop and carried on from home.

We all do it.*

And here’s the big thing: I’m not especially ambitious. If I was I would have made a different decision about becoming a parent. I would have found more time at evenings and weekends to focus on publications, and I would have spent less time engaging with students and colleagues, or pursuing curiosity about committee work and governance.  I certainly wouldn’t have written this blog, or explored the gypsy world of Twitter.

All of these activities have been really enriching: university workers are genuinely nice people by and large, and committee work is one of the remnant collaborative activities routinely undertaken by people who aren’t in it for their h-index.  The students who come to our university are straight-talking and funny.  My colleagues give the lie to the idea that high quality academics are only to be found in high-ranking institutions. And writing it all out in public has enabled me to think, listen and learn in a way that’s more congruent with things that are important to me than the messy practice of citation-farming.

So there’s an instrinsic reward factor that causes academics to work beyond the hours that we’re paid. In the NTEU Annual Lecture last week, Professor Marian Baird put it like this:

To return to my question about workload: apart from the difficulty in apportioning our workload hours to their various categories, there is the difficulty of limiting our workload. If we did actually work our hours, or ‘work to rule’, the university would come to a shuddering halt.  Not only that, there is the problem of imposing limits on ourselves. For those interested and invested in public debate and the social good, there is no doubt that we spend more than 37.5 hours a week on work. Our academic roles are two-edged swords – it is both a problem that our working time tends to be boundaryless, but also positive, in that we have considerable time and personal autonomy and can therefore spend time on issues at work and that go beyond work.

This is the story academics tell ourselves as we flip open the laptop on Sunday mornings: we tell ourselves that the boundarylessness of our time and service is a privilege and even a practice of freedom. Over and over I have heard academics say that they couldn’t bear to punch the electronic time clock as our professional colleagues do. But the alternative is the culture of deemed time: by flattering us with what looks like trust in the disposal of our modest obligations, the university displaces all responsibility onto us for the decisions we make about how much to give. There is the problem of imposing limits on ourselves.

This is why I’m finding Daniel Coyle’s book (co-written with pro cyclist whistleblower Tyler Hamilton) about the culture of doping such a thoughtful companion to this difficult time. In the past 24 months, armchair fans like me have asked why so many elite athletes took up performance enhancement, at such personal risk and cost.  The answer’s pretty simple, it turns out. In the Darwinian world of pro-cycling at the end of the 1990s, racing teams learned that the only way to level out competitive opportunity was to meet the standards set by the most committed. To ride within the limits of your own ability became naive, disloyal to the team, and uncompetitive. Young riders waited to be invited to join the inner circle who were doping, and accepted pills handed to them on the basis that it would make them healthier; team management understood and allowed this to happen, because results had become the currency for economic survival, not just for individual riders, but for vast whirling enterprises of sponsorship, employment and profit.

This book has made me think differently about the question of why academics overwork. I now think we don’t yet understand this as behaviour that is harmful to others, not just to ourselves. We overwork like cyclists dope: because everyone does it, because it’s what you do to get by, because in the moment we argue to ourselves that it feels like health and freedom.

But it isn’t.

*Update: it’s not just academics who work sick: all of our senior professional colleagues do it too, and even higher education workers on the electronic timeclock still check emails when they’re not at work, especially those working in service teams.


Irreplaceable time

Part one: the hamster wheel

The majority of Australians working extra hours or hours outside of normal work hours do so in order to meet the expectations of their job. Almost 60 per cent of respondents report this, with 45 per cent saying that this extra work is necessary often or sometimes. This represents 5.2 million Australian workers who are working extra hours to keep their workload under control and on target.

Prue Cameron and Richard Denniss, “Hard to Get a Break“, for the Australia Institute, November 2013

It’s the crazy time in Australian universities. Research grants are announced, thousands of student grades are being shovelled into student management systems, next year’s business plans are being drafted, graduation ceremony planning is at its fraughtest, and northern hemisphere visitors are showing up to give talks because they’re bundling the southern hemisphere conference season with side trips here and there to make it all more tax deductible.

Last week, the fifth annual Go Home On Time Day campaign pointed out quietly that if their survey extrapolates over the whole population, then half the Australian workforce are unhappy with the hours they work.  Both the overworked and the underemployed are becoming frantic in this economy of the hamster wheel.  2.8 million Australians may need more working hours than they can piece together from casual, seasonal employment, just to make ends meet; and both casual and permanent employees are now suffering from the culture of unpaid overtime:

More than half (54 per cent) of survey respondents report that working extra hours without pay is expected or not expected but not discouraged in their workplace. More than one in five (22 per cent) respondents say that it is expected and more than one in three respondents (32 per cent) say their workplace does not expect but does not discourage it. In other words, the practice and culture of the workplace make this the norm. This normative pressure is felt more by women .

Cameron and Denniss,  p 11

I’ve been thinking about this because on Go Home on Time Day this year, I was sitting in a surgeon’s office. It turns out that I have breast cancer, and I found out that very day.  And here’s the thing: I first thought about getting something checked out exactly 12 months ago. I found time at the end of 2012 to take a day off work, got a referral from my GP, and then the vague unease passed. So I didn’t chase it up.

Over a busy year being both a full-time worker and a parent to three school-age children, I noticed now and then that the unease came back, and I fought with it in the middle of the night, along with to-do lists and unsent emails and ideas for projects and the anxieties of my co-workers and all of my misgivings about working for an institution whose driving mission is to be in the top 1% of world universities, which seems to me as shallow and demoralising an idea as any I’ve heard since I started working in higher education.

And now here we are.

Part two: irreplaceable time

I have breast cancer. A week ago, I had breast cancer, and the week before that, and the week before that. Maybe five, eight, even ten years ago, the first bad cell split inside me, secretly. But I didn’t know. This is how I arrived at knowing.

Xeni Jardin, Diagnosis

It’s been just over a week since the Moment. A routine visit, friendly chit chat about Christmas shopping, and then suddenly a quiet chill in the room, professionals looking at each other but not at me, an emergency biopsy, a result. I’ve had a thyroid scan, a chest X-ray, a CT scan, and tomorrow I’m having a bone scan.

And through all of this I’ve been thinking back to a planning day that I recently sat through, that for all sorts of banal reasons left me feeling completely exasperated with the corporate culture of team-building that is so reckless with people’s time and trust. I followed the instructions, more or less, while thinking about how much I’d like to quit my job, and the thing that went round and round in my head as we were hustled through a series of exercises designed to show how perfectly team building is created from the will to win, was this:  you don’t have my consent to use my remaining time in this way.

Afterwards I puzzled about this a bit: why had it come to me so strongly that it was important to speak back to this kind of dispiriting and divisive activity, however well-intentioned it might be?

I’ve come to this conclusion: I really have a problem with the culture of work in higher education. Having this diagnosis doesn’t make me special, because it doesn’t make me differently mortal than anyone else.  We are neither vampires nor zombies, whatever the craze for playing with these ideas: we are humans, and we are all here together for a very short time, historically speaking. And so that being the case, the question facing us all is this: what do we do about work?

What do we do about the way in which overwork is the price that is now demanded for participating at all? What do we do about the thousands of higher education workers consigned to underwork that prevents them from making their irreplaceably good contribution to the mission of universities or the communities that they care about? Do we really believe that our colleagues in the precarity are there because they deserve it? Do we really think sustainable and healthy workplaces will result from us giving up all of our evenings and weekends just to keep up with the standards set by the most driven, or those with the fewest external ties or interests?

If we have created a culture in which only those who are most single-minded about work are applauded, promoted and respected, we have made something whose capacity for harm is pervasive and long-term. A couple of weeks ago I listened to a senior executive colleague talk in public about how our children value and respect the things we women achieve at work. I don’t disagree that our children recognise that we pour their time into the institutions we work for, but my three daughters are telling me clearly that they experience this as harmful to them and harmful to me. And for those of us who work as educators, this is the at-all-costs behaviour we’re modelling to students who will graduate into an economy that is fuelled on the empty-tank fumes of unpaid labour.

I’ve been thinking for several weeks about a comment Richard Hall made on Twitter, about the need for courage in higher education, not hope. After debating this with him a bit, and taking a while to reflect on my own situation, I’ve come to think he’s right. Hope is the alibi for inaction: what we need is the courage to put work itself at risk.

So this is the choice I’m making, in this irreplaceable time.

These have been part of my thinking this week:

Thanks to Pat Lockley who is far more sentimental than you might think, this lovely video has been as good a metaphor as any for how things feel:

And finally, personal thanks to Agent Zed, a stranger I know only from Twitter, who answered all of my frantic questions about cancer diagnosis while I was sitting in the surgeon’s waiting room and then checked in afterwards to see how things went.
Note: This is a longer than usual post, that was once much shorter. For the first time since I began blogging two years ago, I published something entirely accidentally before it was written. So if you came by this through an email subscription, I’m so sorry — that was only half the story, and as a result it’s been rapidly edited since then.  I guess this is one of the odd symptoms of trying to process the whole situation.  It’s finished now.  KB


In the pipeline

Adjuncts want, most immediately, more pay – a livable wage. They want space on campus in which to work. They want benefits, of health insurance especially, and a budget for essential work-related expenses (such as computers and support for their maintenance and repair). They want job security: renewable contracts guaranteeing long-term or consistently longer-term employment; advance notice for teaching appointments. They wish, most broadly, for equality: a role in faculty governance; a stake in the curricular or operational decisions of the department; the respect and support of their tenured peers.

Noel Jackson, “A brief dispatch from Boston’s Adjunct Action Symposium“, this week

The US Campus Equity Week has just finished highlighting the working conditions of the off-track teachers who keep America’s higher education systems running. There are tropes here that don’t translate easily into the Australian context—working for Walmart wages, qualifying for food stamps, missing out on healthcare—but Rebecca Schuman’s drive to show search committees how bad things are is pretty frank. And it’s just as obvious here as there that the idea of graduate student teaching as a rite of passage towards a tenured career has become a redundant fantasy.

I think we’ve been slow to recognise this in universities because we’ve focused inwards and backwards, in the naive belief that things could be made better now just because they were different before. But the reality is that universities didn’t just lose their way momentarily; they are changing in step with the broader workforce, where middle class contingency is expanding beyond the traditional freelancing professions.  As the 2010 Intuit Report intuited, it’s time to “imagine a world where contingent work is as common as traditional employment.”

Contingent workers – freelancers, temps, part-time workers, contractors and other specialists – are hired on a nonpermanent basis and don’t have full-time employment status. Yet these pseudo-employees increasingly work as if they are full-time.  … By contracting directly with a business or through an agency, these contract workers increase business efficiency, agility and flexibility. They also cost less and turn employment expenses into variable costs.


Two unflinching pieces on the adjunct experience really stayed with me:  the first, by Joseph Fruscione for Hybrid Pedagogy, argues that adjuncts should break with the omerta that keeps students (and by extension their parents) in the dark about who is actually teaching their classes; and the second, by Josh Boldt of the Adjunct Project, comes right out with it: adjuncts need to ask themselves whether they are addicted to the experience of being exploited.

As long as we refuse to admit we have a problem, we’ll never be able to change anything. Too many of us continue to sacrifice over and over again for this addiction. And why? For the students? They wouldn’t know the difference. For the institution? God, I hope not, because they obviously are not sacrificing for us. For ourselves? That doesn’t even make sense. For the craft? A romantic ideal, but the only craft you can eat begins with a K.

The fact of the matter is tens of thousands of us fall on our swords every year. Just like any good addict, we are expert manipulators—except we are the victims of our own justifications.

Elizabeth Keenan, in a guest post for the AAUP Academe Blog, “How to be an Tenured Ally“, gives ten suggestions for tenured academics troubled by adjunctification, who want to take a stand that falls short of breaking the system itself. Mostly, they’re common sense practices of fairness and professional respect: know who your colleagues are and what they’re paid, make sure they have the resources they need to do their jobs, and when you have the chance, lobby for their experiences to be taken into account when your institution thinks and plans. Like Noel Jackson, she also thinks that fuller inclusion of adjuncts in governance would be a good thing: participation at Senate and departmental meetings.

The problem with the strategy of making contingency better is that it’s exactly how we end up colluding with and perpetuating the new culture of pseudo-employment.  Increased engagement in governance matches the strategies the corporate world is using to get more out of their contingent workers. Today’s greasy takeaway came from a demoralising webinar on “Best Practices in Hiring & Onboarding a Contingent Workforce”.  Among its revelations: disengagement and poor morale among the casually hired can “have a negative impact on productivity and the value of the contingent workforce”—well heavens, who knew? The real risk of contingency is to the organisation.

But the bit that really made me want to bang my head on the keyboard was the display of a snazzy dashboard to help companies manage their onboarding online so that they can “maintain a pipleline of warm talent“. This avoids the messiness of bringing new employees up to speed with organisational culture after they’re hired, implicitly a waste of time on the company dollar. Pre-boarding shifts the time cost back to the employee, without the smallest amount of commitment from the employer.

When humans are reduced to human resources and their lives are calculated in this way, nothing can be said about the lived experience of being kept on tap. Instead, recruiters burble on about “finding people that can perform the job … that are actually engaged and actually interested in your organisation’s corporate culture and your goals”.  And as luck would have it, universities are filled with these actually engaged and actually interested pseudo-employees who now want to come to meetings and help run the institutions that can’t afford to invest in their careers, their hopes or their everyday wellbeing.

Changing this goes well beyond helpful tenured allies lobbying for a place for casuals in planning; it will involve senior managers admitting to an addiction problem of their own. Higher education is maintained by labour co-dependency that we cover up with strategic plans and marketing visions in which casualisation is airbrushed from view. Meanwhile our most skilled, experienced and highly credentialled colleagues keep churning through the pseudo-recruitment processes that we’ve installed as a quality assurance KPI, and manage like a really bad online dating experience. We keep the facts away from undergraduates and their families, and we downplay all this when we’re recruiting PhDs, because we need them to believe in academic career futures for just as long as it takes to sign them up.

And our radical new friends in Harvard, Stanford and MIT aren’t disrupting any of this. Whenever you see a celebrity online prof surrounded by her grad student teaching team, or wherever you read that MOOCs have given “the common person access to elite professors” and the result is “star-struck” students who show up like “groupies” and want their photos taken, you know that they haven’t the least interest in changing the model that reserves professorship for the few.

Quite the opposite.

and because you know you want to look:


Pieces of the sky

None of this is inevitable — not MOOCs, not funding cuts, not the death of the giant brick-and-mortar research university or the death of the small liberal arts college, no matter how gleefully the libertarians in Silicon Valley rub their hands as they craft their hyperbolic narratives about the end of the university and the promise of education technology — all their stories about innovation and doom and profit.

Audrey Watters,  minding the future, 15 Oct 2013

Normality’s threatened by the monster” movies sell us a proposition about the human response to threat. Whether we’re facing sharks, aliens or legumes, they tell us that the drama will be extended by people who don’t get it. Some fail to act because they find the risks too preposterous to accept; more venally they engage in a cover up in order to protect their own short-term business interests. Then there are crowds who get so excited and optimistic about change that they welcome the end of the world by partying on rooftops with placards.

Over the last couple of days I’ve found myself skirmishing with Jonathan Rees in a way that makes me wonder which of these groups he thinks I belong to. Round and round we’ve gone, more or less like this:

It’s the most we’ve disagreed since we first clashed over whether doing stuff online is the end of the world as we know it.  And if you’re called revisionist by a historian, you need to pay attention.  But I think what we disagree on is what we’re defending.  Jonathan and I both occupy tenured positions.  That we have jobs at all is thanks to the willingness of our adjunct colleagues to keep our institutions running. There’s so much wrong here I can no longer see the difference between Coursera and my local university. Both claim transformative effects, both seek to maximise market share using minimum labor costs. Jonathan, who is a labor historian and activist, takes a different view, that he expresses much better than I can. But the business bottom line is that he and I depend in our day jobs on labor that is exploited, and people that are harmed by this, in complex, awful, obvious ways.

So there’s that.

Then I went back to the post that Jonathan threw up as evidence that I’ve been some kind of MOOC apologist, and found there isn’t anything I’d say differently now. This is what I think:

  1. Sebastian Thrun’s argument that there will be 10 universities left in 50 years time reduces education to content in a way that fails to understand how limited and provisional content is proving to be. As Patrick Masson points out over and over, the Internet is the only MOOC we’ll ever need, if content is the thing.  Audrey Watters’ inspiring response to Thrun’s miserable vision also clearly explains why we should resist this banal reduction.
  2. Content is culturally distinctive and locally relevant, but neither of these make it economically sensible to produce locally. Sometimes I think you have to live in import-dependent cultural markets to get why this is so important.  Australian filmmakers certainly know a thing or two about Sebastian Thrun’s prediction. So we need to take seriously the public good arguments for the preservation of locally relevant educational content, but we can’t do this simply by forcing a diet of local produce on the consumer. Just as we have had to with movies, we need to plan for market failure, because anything else really does involve heads and sand.
  3. To preserve the opportunity to learn locally against the logic of market and massification, we need to co-produce regionally and internationally. Leading Australian universities who’ve taken the FOMO route and partnered with VC-funded providers suggest that Coursera has pitched its exclusive club strategy well; and FutureLearn is following the same path. But this isn’t the only model. It now makes sense to get together those who have most to gain if we change the way status itself is calculated and horse-traded: the world’s small-economy regional education providers.
  4. To understand what locally relevant learning could mean in transnational partnerships we might look at the ways in which UNESCO have framed cultural diversity as critical to the health of the world’s overall cultural system.  Of course, the US hasn’t lobbied enthusiastically for the protection of cultural diversity, but France and Canada have both played a leading role in encouraging us to think beyond the nation as the most important player here.  Let’s work together with people who think as we do.
  5. The world’s knowledge isn’t a resource, it’s the ocean that connects us. This means that it’s much more than just a source of fish for powerful nations to trawl and trade. We all share cooperatively in its health, and we are all responsible for its depletion.

To achieve most of the things that are good under these difficult conditions, some of the time we need to be online, because we need get out there to think together, and to find our fellow travellers. We do need to stop calling anything a MOOC, let alone everything.  This hopeless label now actively prevents us from thinking about differences between a whole range of things because they have “online” in common, even as we try to reclassify them with enigmatic qualifiers like “x” and “c”.  In this field, “x” really can be anything, so let’s just say that the problem is MOOC itself. It can’t be recuperated because in the past 12 months it’s been associated with too many toxic enthusiasms: educational colonialism, brand fetishism, and AI as a substitute for the subtle gift of time that humans share with each other.

Yesterday I sat outside watching smoke haze from catastrophic bushfires drift over the place where I live.  The fires are a very long away from here, but the burned gum leaves are falling in my yard.  They’re visitations from a terrible struggle that someone else just went through, somewhere else, not me.  But in falling here they make clear, like pollution or rising sea levels or global finances, that we’re in this time together.

I was waiting to connect to a small live online conversation with educators from Canada, New Zealand and the US, who are all working together in an online course for open educators that’s the first put out by a Canadian start-up, Wide World Ed.  It’s six weeks of talking and thinking, and it’s not all that M, nor entirely O. It’s also not necessarily C.  But it’s online, and that’s how come I’m in it.

Maybe in the rush to market we’ve all forgotten how to acknowledge that live online presence of other people still feels magical and strange, like falling leaves from somewhere else.  As I listened to the sounds of someone typing at a keyboard after midnight on the other side of the world, I realised that I’m still a believer in what this can mean for locally relevant education.

I just no longer think universities are the best or only way to let this happen.

This is written in gratitude for all the other writers like Jonathan who help me make sense of MOOCs, but especially Melonie Fullick, who was on it very early.


That was quick

In an educational institution, both the students and the staff have a choice of accommodating oneself to the existing ways of being and acting, trying to change them, or just deviating away from them, still staying in the community, but on the verges. When one is accepted inside an organisation, rules, policies and procedures are laid upon the person. Often the person is as if relinquishing the rights of acting certain ways while bound in a certain organisational space. Because of these particular processes and dynamics, how can promoting diversity ever be possible? Diversity might find spaces within small cracks, but what about as an organizational vision, as an underlying purpose?

Marko Teras, “Of Diversity and Hospitality

A win of sorts: FutureLearn have quietly amended their Code of Conduct (although they still have “spam” in quotes as though they’re holding it in chopsticks, and this still makes me giggle.)

The final three points now read like this:

  1. I will not share my contact details on the FutureLearn platform.
  2. I understand that I am a FutureLearner, and do not have access to the same resources and services as a student attending the university that is running my course.
  3. As the FutureLearn community’s first language is English, I will always post contributions in English to enable all to understand, unless specifically requested to do otherwise.

#11 is more specific, #12 is more elegant, and #13 has introduced a new slightly odd detail to the requirement to speak English.

Two days ago, #13 read like this: “I will always post in English to enable all to understand (the FutureLearn community’s language is English).” The new phrasing of the first half, that the community’s first language is English, takes the good step of acknowledging that there are other languages around the place. FutureLearn is after all actively courting markets in which these other languages may be more important to their users than the English they’ll have to use if they want to sign up. But this is also the compromise that most Anglophone universities arrive at, as they go prospecting in the same markets for paying guests.

The requirement is still there that learners will always post in English to enable all to understand, and I’m still stuck on hoping that FutureLearn could be a little less upbeat about the positives for all of having to learn in your second or third language. The puzzling new bit is unless specifically requested to do otherwise. So now I’m trying to imagine the circumstances under which FutureLearn might specifically request their communities to break out in Klingon. Maybe this was their concession to international Talk Like a Pirate Day?

But the most interesting thing is the fact and the speed of the change itself. This is consistent with their stated commitment to soliciting feedback and acting on it quickly. Doug Clow, who works with many of those involved in FutureLearn and was involved in the alpha testing, has written a constructive and careful post commending their decision to build a new platform from scratch, and their timely launch.  As he points out, it’s too early to tell whether this new platform or the learner experience is any good:

But they’ve leaped over some major hurdles already. More importantly, can it develop in to something really, really good? I’m optimistic – on balance and very cautiously optimistic, with many caveats and all that. We’ll see.

The evidence of the Code of Conduct changes is that FutureLearn are serious about progressive product development, not just in terms of the coding of their platform, but the overall cultural coding of the community they hope to build.

But I honestly don’t think they’ve fixed their problem with the assumptions and virtues they’re attaching to English, so in case they’re listening, here’s how I’d put it.

“The FutureLearn platform delivers courses developed and assessed in English. We appreciate that there are many languages used in our community, and we suggest that English is used as the common language for postings and discussion to enable us all to participate.”

Marko Teras, my Finnish collaborator in the project of thinking about how Derrida’s ideas about hospitality might work well in higher education settings, has written an outstanding critique of student diversity initiatives, that captures for me the ethically messy nature of the business markets in which we’re now working. In these market settings, cultural and language diversity becomes both an irritant, a compulsion, and a problem to be managed with soothing performances of inclusivity and celebration. Rustichello puts it bluntly:

Rarely, and only in the most infantilising circumstances, are universities interested in the knowledge that international students bring with them. Usually this will involve some kind of national costume, or culinary style, just to make it clear their knowledge is domestic, in both senses.

And this is what universities sell to international students; the opportunity to comply with an approved system of knowledge. Education, framed as empowering and respectful of agency, becomes an alibi for an ongoing system of superiority and exploitation. To say it even plainer: universities sell colonial discourse to the victims of colonialism.

As Rustichello points out, we typically talk about higher education in Australia as an export commodity, that outperforms even beef.  But what this means for our everyday practices is that we are competing to attract students whose presence then unsettles us and disrupts our routines. Under these circumstances we develop increasingly circumscribed rituals of hospitable welcome, in which the very first thing that students learn about us involves the rules that we impose on them to preempt their delinquency. In doing this we expose our hospitality for what it is: something closer to a kind of guarded hostility, a wariness of all the ways in which they’re different to us. Nowhere is this clearer than when we require them to write in English, and then penalise them for their expression, or demonise them for what we choose to call cheating as they struggle to make sense of the rules of our home. (And let’s not forget the drama that attended the accusations of “foreign students” “cheating” in US MOOCs last year. In fact, just googling “cheating in Moocs” makes for very discouraging reading.)

What practical steps can be taken to deal with any of this?


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