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.

Indeed.

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:

Just not that into you

New Faculty Majority Board Member Jack Longmate, writing in the NFM blog this week, thinks that there are fresh signs of “potential for traction in public policy thinking” in relation to the conditions faced by academics working off the career track in America’s higher education system.

His optimism has been sparked by Robert Reich, Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, who’s been speaking out against “casino capitalism”.  Reich was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration, and he writes on the multiple conflicts of interest between public policy and the freewheeling trade of paper assets for short-term gain. Specifically, he’s suggesting at the moment that there’s something wrong with a vision of economic recovery that doesn’t include some means of valuing and protecting fair distribution.

For graduate students and others who are trapped in the adjunct/untenured/casualised/precarious/what-have-you economy, the prospect of impact on public policy is a far horizon. The fairness or otherwise of the deal on offer is much more directly affected by swamp level policy, made by those who manage the divisional budget out of which their wages are paid. This is where it can look as though Jack Longmate is right when he says that the calculation of risk to the employer goes like this:

… if we can sucker people into taking a bunch of part-time, temporary jobs, with lousy pay, working conditions, no offices or professional development (because let’s say we don’t consider them professionals) and spotty benefits on a permanent basis, let’s go for it

Ouch. If you’re an administrator who sets the terms for pay and conditions for the casually hired, please don’t write in. Sadly for everyone, it doesn’t matter how nice you are, or how hard this is for you. None of these actual thoughts need to have been said out loud in an actual policy-setting meeting, for it to feel this way to someone on the sharp end of a decision to cut hours or courses, or redefine tasks, in a way that leaves them doing more for less.  In a really tight budget, your needs and theirs seem pretty irreconcilable.

But it’s not all about the money. The part that I think will resonate with Australian casual academics relates to the times that hiring practices and working conditions send the strongest possible signal that universities “don’t consider them professionals”.

This might not be a public policy matter just yet, but is it good institutional policy? Institutions that are comfortable outsourcing core customer relations work to casual workers have made a three-part risk assessment: firstly, how low can service costs go before they flow through to customer satisfaction?  secondly, how much additional management work can the minority permanent staff pick up without negative impact on other business? and thirdly, how reliable is the locally available supply of suitably qualified replacement workers, if morale drops below a level that the current workforce will tolerate?

The risk for Australian universities is that their casual academics are among the most skilled and educated in the workforce. Unlike university students, who really are stuck with low-paying casual work because they aren’t yet qualified to escape, casual academics are at minimum degree-qualified. They’re experienced, informed, adaptable and exceptionally professional; they’re communicators, researchers, writers and project-managers; they have excellent teamwork skills; they’re used to working without supervision; they can handle difficult people and challenging situations, and they’re legislation compliant; they can lead and they can support; they deliver on task, on time, every time; and they’re really smart. Oh, and they’re also experts in their fields, some right up to the level of being PhD-qualified.

But they don’t leave.  Why is this?

I’ve been thinking about this since I got caught up briefly this week in a brisk and difficult exchange of views between Amanda Krauss (“Worst Professor Ever“) and Karen Kelsky (“The Professor is In“), over whether or not the current adjunct culture in the US is a “martyr culture”, or whether adjuncts are genuinely “oppressed”. Both are recovering academics who’ve gone on to start different businesses on the basis of their experience and expertise, and both offer the advice that “it’s OK to quit”. Both are active in commenting on the state of higher education in the US.

The exchange also pulled in Cedar ReinerLee SkallerupMelonie Fullick and Vanessa Vaile of the New Faculty Majority. I’m sure Jonathan Rees was in there at one point. The gist is this: despite the fact that many academics with tenure are lobbying hard to improve the working conditions of their untenured colleagues, some are also wondering how to ask: what if it would be better for you to walk away?

The answers are consistent, and sad.  Here’s my observation from conversations with casually hired colleagues in Australia. They’re accepting long-term but perversely insecure work on the off-career track for a mix of three reasons: they’re asked to stay, and this feels good (especially at times when PhD progress doesn’t); they’re calculating that their commitment will somehow pay out in the end; and they feel that there’s nowhere else to go in the local job market (this is especially tough for casual academics supporting families and dependent children).

Does their situation amount to exploitation, abuse of trust, or codependency? Amanda Krauss’ tough love position is that “people with choice need to stop feeding themselves into an exploitative system”; Cedar Reiner takes a different view: “how do we choose not to do what we love?” I’m not sure what I think, but I do know that every time I’ve found myself justifying something in terms like these, the situation I’ve been in hasn’t really been all that healthy for me.

But how do you judge, in the middle of the push-pull self-esteem mess you find yourself in, whether or not things might really be about to get better? Here’s a test casuals might like to apply. Does the institution asking you to come back have a strategic planning document in which it sets out its institutional aspirations for doing things well and enhancing its reputation, and does this include a clear plan for the development and career management of its academic and professional staff?  That’s not the question, though. This is: does this same strategic planning document, which will have gone through multiple working groups and committees and consultation processes and been signed off at a high level, also explain how it intends to support, develop and respect your professionalism as a seasonally hired academic worker?

If it doesn’t, then you can make your decision to stay, go, or try to achieve a better deal on an informed basis, because now you know one thing (and so do your tenured allies): at the highest level, where resourcing decisions are aligned to the institutional strategic plan, they’re just not that into you.

That’s the part that it will help us all to change.

Precarious

Truth is forever twinned as having an incidence and carrying an import.  Even sciences like medicine and chemistry so physically concrete carry significance for the soul. … Microscopes become tragic in what they may reveal.

(Kenneth Cragg, The Order of the Wounded Hands, 2006)

Well, here’s something concrete that has import for the soul.  Higher education systems around the world have become dependent on the availability of a large pool of cheap labour who are prepared to teach students for a fraction of the cost of salaried and tenured employees.

The recent report by the Grattan Institute on the state of things in Australian higher education, for example, suggests that “Half or more of the academics students encounter may not have permanent academic jobs”—although it does then conclude a bit tactlessly that “Australia does not have a crisis in higher education.”

But the details of this not-crisis are now demanding to be seen. The bitterness, defensiveness and scorn, for example, in the showdown between tenured and untenured academics in the comments to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on tenure-related depression are really startling.  A gulf is opening up between those who accept that there’s an unfixable structural dependency that’s closely tied to the other problems facing higher education in relation to tuition fees, infrastructure costs, toxic student debt, and the serious risk of declining demand for college level education—and those who don’t.

There are tenured and adjunct academics on both sides of this divide. There are those with tenure who are turning two blind eyes to the fact that we work in institutions that wouldn’t be open for business at all if our adjunct colleagues didn’t show up.  It’s hourly-paid labour that holds open the door to our salaried careers; we really didn’t get here all by ourselves, even if it was hard to get here.

One of this reasons why the fantasy of deserving status can be sustained is that managers are often secretive about their budgets; and in return, many of their top-tier employees can trundle along in a state of ignorance about how the whole thing is financed, at least until they take on an administrative and staff hiring role.  (The other reason is role vanity, and we should just give that up.)

But this innocence is the same reason why people can lobby seriously for tenure track opportunities for all adjuncts. It’s an important goal, just an impossible one.  The tough fact is that we can’t afford the staff that we need to teach the students we just recruited. How we got here is anyone’s guess, but here is where we are.

Then there are those who believe the problem is very serious, but know it can’t readily be fixed without taking the whole system offline and trying to come up with a better one. Many scholars in positions of responsibility are now campaigning to fix the most damaging elements of the situation. Michael Berube, for example, is the current president of the MLA, and attended the recent summit on adjunct issues held by the New Faculty Majority in Washington (if you missed this really inspiring event, it was covered by an excellent social media team, and #newfac12 will take you to links).*

Like other high profile bloggers, he has written up the event; he also has a position of significance in the academy, and his support is important. Here’s his summary of the American version of the problem, the scale of which is really sobering:

Adjunct, contingent faculty members now make up over 1 million of the 1.5 million people teaching in American colleges and universities. Many of them are working at or under the poverty line, without health insurance; they have no academic freedom worthy of the name, because they can be fired at will; and, when fired, many remain ineligible for unemployment benefits …

The problem that realists face is this: to try to ameliorate this bad situation can look like a half-measure at best, and collusion at worst. Can any version of the adjunct career can be reconstructed as a professionally rewarding path, and one that is not sealed off from the tenure track? Trying to improve the status of work that has no prospects, no rank, and no resources is a really tough call, and it’s made worse by the fact that the existence of this second-tier of employment is actively covered up in university marketing.

Compare this to edtech, another polarising feature of the higher education landscape. You can at least find people who will put a positive spin on edtech, and on the ways in which it offers transformative learning experiences that are Open, Free, Easy and Amazing (what happened to OpenClass, by the way?). So even if you suspect that your institution is interested in an LMS with all the user-friendliness of an aircraft carrier because somewhere down the line it will save them from the cost of a new building, at least edtech has its advocates, and there’s something to debate. And there’s sure to be a photo of a student with a laptop in your marketing literature.

By contrast, there is nothing whatsoever said in public about the merits of adjunctification. It doesn’t feature in university marketing at all.  And as universities are currently prepared to promote the way the grass grows on their campuses, you can be sure that this silence from marketing is pretty significant. There is no good news story here.

So it’s about time each of us with tenure stops avoiding what the microscope will reveal. We should know the details that marketing prefers not to promote: the tenure-to-adjunct ratio in our own Faculties, schools and departments, or the calculations used to pay our colleagues. How long is an adjunct hour? (Most will tell you that in Australia it’s currently three times as long as the normal ticking-clock hour, because of the other elements bundled in with the contact hours, including preparation and consultation, and some marking). What kind of resources are available, including professional development? Are our hourly paid colleagues fairly represented and respected in all the committee and decision-making processes that affect their working lives? And what support can we offer, in practical ways, to create better professional opportunities if this is what they’re seeking?

And if we’re told that it’s not our business, then we should ask again.  Because we’re not in this anywhere near equitably, but we are in it together–even in Australia, where there is no crisis, if they don’t show up, we can’t manage on our own.

*If you’re an hourly paid academic and want to contribute to a crowdsourced document on working conditions in Australia, a model is Josh Boldt’s blog post and associated Google doc where US adjuncts are collecting data on their pay and conditions. It’s truly astonishing how little is known about this.

Is it time?

A few weeks ago, Professor Frank Larkin reported for the L H Martin institute that staff-student ratios in Australian higher education are a bit worse than are commonly claimed.

What makes this sensitive is the government’s ambitious target of 40% of 25-34 year olds being degree qualified by 2020. There’s some debate about the viability of this target, and the details are vague on exactly how this will raise national productivity unless we’re really prescriptive on what those undergraduates study, and what they go on to do. But for the time being, this is the cunning plan to keep Australia economically fabulous, and its success depends on Australian families believing in the value of supporting their adult children for a further three or four years while they struggle up the final stretch of the education mountain, acquiring a hefty personal debt as they go.

The complicated strain this places on families is significant, given that so many Australian undergraduates live at home, while their friends start working, or travelling, and generally getting on with their future lives. University students often talk about feeling stuck in a failure-to-launch scenario, going through the motions of something that feels too much like high school, while balancing part-time, seasonal, insecure employment with the social constraints of life at home with the parents.

As families are right now in the process of deciding whether to not to go through with this, the risk is that public debate over staff-student ratios is like the ongoing PR crisis about unflued gas heaters in school classrooms: even if your children and their teachers aren’t personally exposed to this problem, repeated discussion of it does wear out your confidence in the overall system. Primary school? Isn’t that where the heaters make everyone sick? University? Isn’t that where they’re all sitting on the floor and no one knows their name?

This seems to be why there’s been a strong counter attack this week, in the form of a background briefing paper issued by the Group of Eight.

What’s the real difference of opinion? Professor Larkin’s position is that the dramatic increase in student numbers since 2000 hasn’t been covered by an increase in permanent academic positions, but rather by a diversion to research-based appointments matched with a supplementary hiring of casual teachers. According to his altered formula, staff-student ratios are now at 1:34.1 across the sector, and the assumption is that the quality of the undergraduate experience is therefore also declining.

The G08 position is, more or less, “Oh no it’s not.”

Larkins asserted that universities have been pursuing their own research interests above all else and students are being short-changed as a consequence. He alleged that universities have been reclassifying academic staff in order to game assessments of research quality. He claimed that “the coursework student to T&R + TO staff ratio was concerningly high at 34:1 in 2010”.

The available evidence does not support his claims.

At 16 pages of charts and graphs, you can see how this could drag on.  In terms of reassuring the primary audience who might have been fooled into believing Australian undergraduate education is going to hell in a handbasket, the Go8 paper is at particular pains to point out that if there has been a tiny shift towards research only (RO) positions, matched by a really minuscule increase in casualisation to take up the teaching shortfall, then this is because a) research is very difficult and b) there’s more research being done, especially by G08 universities who win all the grants and c) there’s more emphasis being placed on research by rankings, and altogether, this may result in

the offer of RO appointments [as] a mechanism for attracting and retaining academic talent in the increasingly competitive environment, even though it may not align with the raison d’être of a university.

Well, no kidding.

The second part of the PR struggle over whether or not Australian universities are adequately staffed is casualisation. The Go8 euphemise this as “university staffing flexibility in times of intensifying competition”, and find it to be at surprisingly low levels, a fact they attribute to stroppy unions. Using a different formula, they find the overall staff-student ratio to be 1:16.8 in the G08 and 1:24.4 out in the wildzone where the rest of us work.

The confusion for those of us trying to figure out which of these sets of numbers is right is that university calculations don’t count “actual casuals” (this is the strangely poignant technical term) as actual people, but as fractions of imaginary full-time staff positions. Both teaching load and teaching labour in higher education involve smallish chunks of discrete human activity: a student sitting in a lecture here is a fraction of the nominal time allocated to a class which is a fraction of that student’s imaginary full-time student life; a teacher grading papers for a different class over there is also a nominal fraction of something.

All these bits and pieces are reaggregated into full-time equivalence in order to be able to tallied against each other, and it’s on this basis that we reassemble the founding myth of full-time students taught by full-time staff. But in reality, students are radically economising on the time it takes to be taught (and lecture attendance is the blunt measure of this), and both permanent and casual academics are volunteering more and more of their own time to compensate for this. So the myth of full time anything doesn’t seem like a solid starting point.

However, beyond the practical consequences of casualisation for institutions, and even beyond the impact on individuals whose personal and professional lives are being bonsaied by this strategy, there’s another economic factor that doesn’t get the consideration it deserves.

Our growing contingent workforce includes those who represent the apex of government investment in education. They are in every other respect the stellar success stories of higher education retention, having stuck with us all the way up to PhD level. Now they’re mostly not living at home (although some are), but they’re trying to raise families of their own, and the more teaching they do to help universities maintain their flexibility “in times of intensifying competition”, the worse their real career prospects become.

So while we’re making charts, perhaps we could apply some scrutiny to the fact that higher education’s current structural dependence on flexibility is confining many of its own most successful research trained alumni to the prospect of long-term job precarity as casual teachers—or to costly retraining for a whole other career. This seems like the exemplary case of a bad return on investment for all concerned.

(The posts that this week that have got me thinking about all this come from Dean Dad on course overloads, Ferdinand von Prondzynski on the business principles of retention and attraction, Lee Skallerup on the need to take action for adjunct colleagues, Jonathan Rees who is as worried as anyone about the structural problems of the academic labor market, and Stephen Matchett on the Go8’s dispute with Larkin’s report. But there are now plenty of others calling for advocacy on this matter, including the excellent New Faculty Majority.  I think, to use an Australian phrase, it’s time.)