Thursday, 4 October 2012

Getting the Drift of Things

I'm sorry I haven't written very much for a while.  The NTEU casuals Connect magazine published a brief article of mine last month on their last page.  I don't know who selected the image to go with the article, but I loved it!  I thought it captured exactly what I had been trying to express in this blog in one thoughtfully selected image.. so thanks to whoever chose that image.  This isn't the image exactly, in fact the image in the magazine is much better, but this is the basic gist of it - an overgrown pathway.


I have had a couple of good things happen at one of my workplaces over the past couple of months.  I'm now on roll over pay which means getting paid is easier and faster with less paper work (I received my first pay 6 weeks after commencing, which is much better than previous semesters) we have a few desks - with two computers to use on campus - oddly positioned, but it's a start!  I've had paid training, I've even been on a paid trip to present a paper at a conference interstate.... I mean things are really looking up!  Our Vice Chancellor promised to make things better, and well look, things are starting to get better.

We are heading into that time of year where work ceases, or slows down for many casual academics.  I'm not too concerned as I'm not as invested as my colleagues who are employed as casual lecturers.  For me, as a tutor and RA, I still have time to have my pinkies in one or two pies that allow for some income over the break.  This is not the same for my colleagues who are casual lecturers and have to invest all of their time and energy into teaching throughout the semester, only to see their work evaporate very quickly over the break and then they are left wondering what to do, trying to scrounge at what ever work they can get for 4 months before they disappear into the academosphere again for the year.  It's a vicious cycle for a few who are not also undertaking HDR, that limits their prospects for advancement into permanent positions.  Some of whom are great teachers that have a lot of practical advice and knowledge to offer and are well liked by students, but just can't translate that knowledge into a value that the university is interested in.  The universities really get their pound of flesh out of these guys as well - only employing them for about 60 - 70% of the year compared to their full time counterparts and getting the same amount of work out of them.

This time of year is also the time for applying to study overseas for which students require an academic referee.  This weekend I have six academic references to write for students for their applications.  This is of course outside of my role, I'm not paid to do this, but I don't mind, I'm more than happy to write a few words to help a student experience the world.  Moreso, I wonder if students didn't have tutors who they would ask to write their references?  Who would they talk to about their careers, their studies, their ambitions if it weren't for the humble tutor?  So while I am starting to understand the trend towards blended learning techniques, I see its value and understand that students do learn a lot from their peers.  I just think we are overlooking a very critical human factor here, that relationship between student and teacher, emerging professional and mentor..... I really think our students will miss us and I hope that universities are thinking about this as well.

So thanks to my uni for making things better, but don't keep cutting us out of the classroom.  While I have had other financial benefits from my uni, my hours are still cutback from when I first began tutoring and will probably continue to be into 2013.            

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Whackademia - Richard Hil

I'm sure most people have heard of Richard Hil and his book Whackademia.  If you haven't heard his interview on ABC it's up online here and definitely worth a listen! 

Inger Mewburn has written a critique on this book which I think has valid points, although I do disagree with some of Inger's comments.  I graduated from my undergraduate studies only five years ago and I did engage in debate and intelligent conversation, I did feel well equipped for the workplace and this was because of a few passionate, talented, highly intelligent teachers (and not because of some teaching and learning program, or a first year experience survey).  I got a lot out of my lecturer's (even the odd ones who hadn't updated their slides for decades) because I could engage with them and draw from their knowledge.  I now tutor students who sometimes surprise and delight me with their work because we can engage in higher order thinking, but this is only the experience for a few students who have this capacity to engage on this level, the others miss out (as it sounds as though Inger did) because we suffer teaching cutbacks that reduce the time that I have to deliver content. 

This is indicative of the different experiences of working within the tertiary sector in Australia.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Nepotism (and other networking strategies)

Like so many other casual academics I'm becoming frustrated enough to vocalise my concerns.  I am fully aware that I am entering very dangerous territory, previously chartered by so many other casuals, that will probably relegate me out into a situation similar to Alanna's.  We have now lost all of out facilities at our school - no desk, computers, phone or anywhere to complete our work and I have been making my thoughts on this situation known.  The last time I saw my Head of School he hardly made eye contact with me - after years of working together on projects for the school it would appear that my requests for a desk and computer are going to break that bond.  Fair enough, I'm sure he's under some pressure further up the chain to spend money on more 'visible,' or perhaps marketable facilities within the school (why bother with the teaching and research staff, you can't put photos of them on brochures or television ads).  Interestingly, this was brought up by two students from the University of Sydney on last week's Q&A program (you can click to the chapters on the right hand side of the video panel titled 'Value for Uni Fees' and 'Sydney University Cutbacks').  I thought Michael Spence's responses were very careful and he obviously is very suited to the role of Vice Chancellor - pleasing everyone and no one at the same time.  His answers only indicated that universities are large complex organisations that cost a lot of money to run and failed to answer the two students' questions.  However, Nicola Roxon's responses were the most disappointing - one student complained about increasing class sizes and she brought up the well-trodden statistics about increasing student numbers and first generation students.  Aren't you listening?!  We know the numbers are increasing - so how are you addressing this situation?  How are you improving standards to assist first generation students to graduate from their courses; by uncapping places and increasing class sizes?  I did, however appreciate Simon Sheikh's comments :

The fundamental challenge we face here is that we're corporatising our universities. Now, when you have a look at a university, if you’re an administrator like Michael is, he has to look at that and say, well, where’s my largest costs. The largest costs for almost every university in this country is still the staff base, so there [they] look. You know, let's get rid of the casual teachers teacher, let’s get rid of the markers. Problem is you then have your best and brightest academics spending less and less time doing what we want them to do and that’s research and teach not get stuck in these administrative questions. Now, there are some moments in life, some moments in public policy, where if you spend just a little bit more you get the gold plate version. You spend just a little bit more and you unlock the value of what you have already spent. So my view on this is that while I’m not sure about some of the changes Michael is making my view is that it really shouldn't be just up to him. We should be funding our education system more broadly, more adequately, so that we can unlock those returns on investments in the Asian century, a century where our skills an skills based economy is going to be absolutely crucial.        

Now, back to my original point - those furrowed looks from my Head of School.  In my particular school I think nepotism is rife.  Maybe this is the case for most schools?  Our current Head of School is a really nice person - a good person - mostly makes time for students and staff and will partake in a drink with anyone!  His only downfall is in his scholarly track record.  He has limited publications, no books and only a couple of projects that aren't necessarily 'significant.'  In comparison to his predecessors he has a lot less to stand on when it comes to representing the school at the Faculty or University level.  There is speculation that he got to his role (promoted from level C to E overnight) through his networking (...drinking) skills.  It is unlikely that another university would give him a Professor job title and therefore he is in some way indebted to the university... in other words, he is in no position to rock the boat.  Therefore, my rocking the boat does not bode well for him - he is left between a rock and a hard place and it is unfortunate that a desk (or lack thereof) is going to cause so much trouble.  For me, as well, my lack of engaging with the unspoken protocol of 'keep stum' (put up and shut up) is probably going to see my hours dwindle... like Alanna's....

I thought I was good at networking but networking in academia is a whole other complicated system - I guess it's just a reflection of the university's larger complex organisation.        

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Some Thoughts About Teaching Evaluation

It's been a long break between posts.  I've been caught up in the mayhem of end of semester panicked emails from students and then.... marking, marking and more marking!  Amongst all of this the students' evaluation of teaching are also released.  I generally perform OK with student evaluations - not brilliantly - I tend to polarise students, in that they either rate my teaching very highly or very lowly, giving me a solid statistically 'average' score overall.  Student evaluations, while undoubtedly flawed, are very valuable to my career.  Firstly, they are as close as I get to genuine feedback on my work and secondly, good results in student evaluation help me to secure work in future semesters.  Around my school it's a known trend that student evaluations of tutors and evaluations of the unit go hand in hand, therefore unit coordinators tend to look for tutors with good scores.  I have learned a lot from students' evaluations about my teaching over the years, once I have recovered from the initial shock of some of the more abrasive remarks.  I have also seen good friends completely demoralised by the hurtful comments students write under the safety net of anonymity (she writes as an anonymous blogger).  If we have to provide feedback and grades to our students face to face, why can't their feedback be provided in the same manner?

While I can't rigorously ground the argument I am about to present, anecdotally, I suggest that student evaluations may impact how critically we mark students' work.  For the majority of students the only method for them to evaluate their education is by the grades they receive - the better the grades they attain the better they feel about the quality of their education.  Therefore, I think, there is an undercurrent here to dish out better grades in order to receive better teaching evaluation scores.  I am always made aware of this when I work with first time tutors who grade students' work so harshly.  Although it does also take a while for new tutors to understand the university can't simulate the complexities of practice and therefore students can't respond and produce the same level of work.    

As a tutor I receive plenty of feedback throughout the semester informally, through conversations and emails with students.  These conversations are frank and helpful to my developing teaching style.  The problem with the anonymous student survey is that a student who has hardly attended a class can use teaching evaluation forms as recourse for a grade they are unhappy with, rather than discussing the mark face to face.  My suggestion is that teaching evaluations shouldn't be anonymous.  I do value students' feedback on my teaching but I think the manner in which it is delivered is unfair to teaching staff.  David Holmberg wrote about the pain of student evaluations in an article titled 'Student Evaluations' in the New York Times magazine in 2007.  He wrote:

"A journalist-professor friend who is less than enamored of teaching caustically refers to them [student evaluations] as 'customer service.'  Translation:  He has been burned by his students.  But his larger meaning is that higher education..... is increasingly market driven and by his jaded reckoning a student and his parents are not markedly different from Harry the Striving Suburbanite roaming the aisles of Home Depot"

I think this is a fairly uneven criticism of evaluation systems (although I know many who would agree with Holmberg).  I think his comments on the market driven premise to teaching evaluation are spot on.  On that note, I wanted to finish this post with a quote by Chris Hedges on education. 


Friday, 1 June 2012

Uni Casual Survey Results

The National Tertiary Education Union survey results on Casual Teaching and Research Staff 2012 are now available online.  I think NTEU and Uni Casual have put together a great publication from the survey results that highlight a number of issues for casual higher ed workers in Australia.  The summary of the results written by Jeannie Rea outline that casual staff experience stress as a result their insecure employment, work significantly more hours than they are paid to and lack sufficient access to resources to assist them in their role.  All of these points I have written about throughout the short history of this blog.  On the one hand I find this almost comforting and re-affirming that my experience is the normal, on the other hand I'm disappointed that universities are unable to provide adequate, basic conditions for their casual staff.

The stress associated with insecure work I have briefly touched on previously through the Howe Inquiry and perhaps I will write more on this next week.  I have also written about the impact of technology on managing contact time with students.  In the survey results over 80% of respondents (p.9) responded to emails or received calls on their own equipment after their contract had ended and they were no longer receiving payment.  Unfortunately, I have recently found myself being very selective about which student emails I will respond to, so that I can manage my time.  I recently received an email from a student who was disputing a grade and in the midst of replying to the email I was told I had to move from the one hotdesk that is shared between sessional teaching staff, casual research staff and one administration staff.  I'm not sure how many casual academics work in my school but we are a school of over 1000 students, so there's quite a number of casual staff and, frankly, one computer to share between all of us just doesn't cut it.  I asked for some more time to reply to my email, as it was from a Maters student who needed their mark clarified as soon as possible and was offered a computer in the student labs!!  I explained that this a totally inappropriate proposition for me to respond to a confidential email from a student whilst surrounded by students - eventually, I was allowed to finish my email.

Out of all the points raised by the casual staff survey, I personally think the lack of access to resources is the most pertinent.  If I was provided with adequate resources it would probably save me considerable time in performing my job - it would most likely reduce and simplify some of the out of hours work we are expected to do.  About 90% of my personal internet data usage is for my work at the university along with the majority of the usage of my phone and personal computer.  This problem could so easily be addressed if universities could simply provide access to phones, computers, internet, photocopying, printing and scanning freely and easily.  Access to these resources would seem like basic rights to an employee, wouldn't it?  According to the survey only around 50% (p.8) of respondents had access to space for student consultation, a phone and/or a computer.  This could be a relatively easy way for universities to improve conditions for their casual staff.         

Monday, 7 May 2012

Precarious Precariat

I have to admit up until a few weeks ago I had never come across the word precariat.  This term might be associated with the low skilled workers, but if you were to ask any casual or sessional academic at Australian universities, they would probably also classify their employment situation as precarious.  Considering most casual and sessional academics require at the very minimum an undergraduate degree, most likely though, a postgraduate qualification or in the process of completing one, the precariat then extends to highly skilled workers as well.  The precariat is you and me.  Is the sessional academic a precariat by choice or as a result of the way in which universities employ us?

The NTEU estimates that 40.2% of the Australian tertiary workforce are currently employed on a casual basis.  This has increased only gradually since 1996 when 34.1% of the tertiary workforce were casual employees.  A publication on teaching in my profession (being architecture) estimates that this figure is much lower, for our particular discipline, at between 24% - 29% although this publication suggests that this is quite high in comparison to other courses that are affiliated with professional organisations.  Australian courses in architecture, in particular, have experienced a constant increase in student numbers from around 1124 students nationwide in 1988 to 4248 students in 2008.  Why then am I tutoring courses that are increasingly cutback?  Why do students have less contact time with me as a tutor than I did with my tutors when I was part of a much smaller cohort?    

Students are aware of the raw deal they are encountering in their studies due to ongoing staff cutbacks at Australian universities. Today, students protested at the University of Sydney.  If students are standing up to the universities - why aren't the staff?  The casual academics who are directly affected and the permanent staff who can't justly employ tutors or research assistants because they will wait weeks for appointment or payment.  I described this situation to a Human Resources Manager for a consultancy firm at a social outing on the weekend and they couldn't fathom that I would wait up to eight weeks to be paid by my employer.  There are serious conditions of employment that the university is freely breaching here.  Moreso, is the unpaid time that universities can squeeze out of the precariat as Professor Guy Standing writes, "The precariat do excessive labour, including taking on several jobs at the same time or doing more unacknowledged 'work for labour' necessary to find or maintain a job,"

 On a final note, the precariat suffers wholly from employment insecurity, it impacts on all spheres of life.  If the federal government is calling for uncapped university courses who will tutor all of these students - the precariat?  Shouldn't this be a case for increased security for casual and sessional academics? 
' describe the precariat as those who feel their lives and identities are disjointed, who cannot build careers or incorporate leisure into their lives in sustainable, meaningful ways. Youth, women, those with disabilities and migrants are most affected, but almost everybody is at risk.'  Professor Guy Standing

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Let the assessment stress begin!

I've been marking furiously over the last couple of weeks, it hasn't been so bad, the good thing about tutoring subjects over a couple of years is that you get very efficient at marking.  You know exactly what you're looking for, you know the content inside out, and it's easy to make value judgements on the quality of the students' work.  Although I feel for my colleagues who are teaching subjects for the first time around, some of them take three times as long to mark the same amount of work and will still only be paid for the one or two hours allocated for marking.  Of course the stress associated with assessment is mostly an issue for the students.

It is very difficult to see students struggle with their workloads, but there are those wonderful moments when you can help a student overcome their struggles and successfully submit their assessment.  Sometimes you can build a relationship with a student and its easy to work through their problems, however there are students who you can't help out.  They're usually the students that have been absent throughout the semester, struggling at home - maybe for very legitimate reasons they haven't been able to attend class - and now that it's come to the crunch, they turn up to a tutorial and melt down.  With these students I never know how to help them.  I don't know how they've been coping with the content, I don't know their situation at uni or outside of uni, I just don't know them.  This means you and the student enter into this awkward conversation where they want to tell you an elaborate personal story about their situation, even though you're mostly strangers, and you have to try to digest this information in relation to their assessment.  Even worse are the emails from students who are stressed about their assessment and confess to having never attended class (generally these emails make me incensed!  I have to wait a while to respond to them)- how do you respond to these emails?

Last Friday I had one student attend their first class, a tutorial in which assessment was due, and the student burst into uncontrollable tears.  I spent about an hour with the student to talk through how to strategise their work for the next piece of assessment.  There are those standard processes you go through, suggesting the student go to counseling, apply for extensions and make sure they communicate their problems as soon as they arise and not let it build up.  Although these responses all seem very cold and not very sympathetic to the student.  Basically I'm ill-equipped to handle these situations - I've had no training on how to help students handle these stresses, especially when I don't know them well at all.  The other thing this issue brings up is the value of face to face teaching.  I couldn't find any literature on how more contact hours might alleviate the stress of uni - but I think it would be an interesting study.                      

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Overload and the fear of saying no.

I tutor at the same school as where I studied.  Most of the lecturers know me well as when I was going through they were my tutors, so I have no problem with picking up subjects each semester to tutor.  My only problem is when I am overloaded and I have to say no to a job offer, I probably won't be offered that subject again.  I know, poor me, too many subjects to choose from.  But it happens every semester, the budgets come out too late and there is this scramble by lecturers for tutors, the phone rings the emails come in and you draw up a weekly timetable to work out your availability, prioritising those subjects you enjoy or have expertise in.  If I can't accept an offer to tutor I usually recommend a colleague, one from a long list, who are keen to tutor.  Of course, when I see this colleague at the end of the semester (they're probably still waiting to be paid and don't know how to get their password, staff card or access their email), they possess a slightly more cynical outlook towards tutoring, but if the offer comes up again next semester of course they'll say yes.  And this is the problem, how do you say no to tutoring offers without a convenient excuse of subject clash or lack of expertise?  I struggle with this and by this time of the semester (week 6/7) realise I am overloaded.  My fear is that if I say no to a subject, I will have less and less offers each semester and when tutoring is your staple income and that only comes in 26 weeks of the year, you need to feel certain that there will be work next year.  So I feel some pressure to say yes to every offer and agonise over the ones I say no to.

Somewhat like call centre workers who fear saying no to a shift in case they are never offered another shift.  Well, it's not as bad as it is for call centre workers, one of the stories that came out of the Howe Inquiry was from a call centre worker who witnessed other workers wetting themselves as they were too afraid to take toilet breaks.  So while it's not great being a casual worker in the tertiary sector, it could be so much much worse!  This inability to say no to work is not restricted to casual workers at universities either, I see lecturers involved with numerous projects, unable to keep up with their workload.  We have a host of academics at our university who pride themselves on waking up at between 3am and 4am to get through their workload.  When I was working in practice I was proud that I had reached the point in my career where I could negotiate reasonable timeframes and requests for work from employers and clients.  Now I'm back to the early days of my career, saying yes to everything, working seven days a week and limiting my social life.  I have no problem with that as I am the bottom rungs of the academic career ladder, my concern is that there is no cessation of this work ethic throughout the academic career track.  And for what?  Some profound research finding?


Monday, 2 April 2012

Day of Higher Ed

Today is the day of 'Higher Ed' a day for those involved with higher education to blog, tweet and post their higher education opinions and experiences.  I look forward to reading what amounts as a result of this activity.  I am learning so much from other people here in Australia and from overseas, especially the U.S..  My background is in architecture and I have limited knowledge in the fields of politics, governance and humanities.  I can only really comment on my own experiences and try to contextualise them... as best I can.  So blogging (and this is also my first blog) has provided this platform for me to connect with other people in higher education from Australia and abroad.  I am very grateful for these new connections and happily the spruik the potential of the day for 'Higher Ed'.

Pay and Hours Worked
This week's ponder is based on how sessional and casual academics are paid in Australia.  I tutored a theory subject today for two hours and was paid around $112 for each hour.  That sounds like a great rate, doesn't it?  But that pay rate covers my preparation, meetings, outside consultation with students, emails and (although it's not supposed to) marking.  On average I spend one to one and a half days on this subject, working out to about $22 per hour - about the equivalent of a fast food chain worker in Australia.  Now, coming from a background in architecture, I am not going to complain about low pay, it's all I've ever known!  My gripe here is about how we are paid.  Why aren't we paid in a way that represents the hours that we work instead of these ridiculous hourly rates?  There are a few reasons this concerns me, firstly because it is difficult to cry 'hard done by' when you are paid at this rate, which is in no way a representation of the work involved with tutoring a two hour class.  Mostly, though my concern is in the way that employment is measured in Australia, in that employment is measured by how many hours worked in a week and not the amount earned (which makes sense, I'm not arguing that it doesn't).  I currently work around 45 - 50 hours a week as a tutor, but I am only employed by my university for 9 hours a week.  This becomes an issue when applying for loans from banks and in means testing for welfare.  For example, if a woman employed in the manner that I currently am were to apply for the Australian government's maternity leave they wouldn't qualify.  The maternity leave scheme requires that the mother has worked for 330 hours over the last 10 months (that is working for just over one day a week).  Working these limited hours per week and only for the appointed period of between 7 and 13 weeks, someone like myself could not qualify, even though I work more hours than required to satisfy a full time week.  I am interested then in why we are paid in the way that we are and if it could be changed to more suitable model?            

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Counting Myself Out of the Statistics

As with most tutors, I also work as a casual research assistant.  The project I am currently working on is an ARC linkage project looking at equity and diversity in my profession, especially in relation to gender and women.  I am in the middle of a task trying to count how many women are employed in my profession including researchers and academics.  It was decided last week that it would be too difficult to count casual academics in the statistics as universities tended to not effectively record their positions as their numbers are too great and constantly changing.  My heart sank at the realisation that firstly, universities do not warrant my contribution enough to keep a record of my position and that, secondly, I would fall outside of the statistics of my own profession after 10 years of contributing through my work and involvement with my professional community.  One of those moments where you realise you've made a poor career decision. 

What's in a Name?

The Howe inquiry into casual workers and the impact of insecure work conditions on the community concluded last week after holding hearings in 23 locations around Australia.  While the hearings were not specifically related to casual staff in higher education, hopefully some attention will be brought to the tertiary sector by the casual academics who spoke at a number of the hearings.  A recent article in the Australian also indicated that the increasing casualisation of the tertiary workforce was threatening teaching and learning quality at Australian universities,  Hopefully though, I've already established how Australian universities undervalue their teaching and research staff, my concern is how bad is it going to get?

Adjunct or Non-Tenure Track verse Casual or Sessional
Well, my concern is that the situation gets as bad as things are for casual academics in the U.S..  Recently on twitter I've been part of a conversation on the various names for casual or sessional academics (credit for this topic goes to New Faculty Majority and Daniel Maxey!/danmaxey).  In the U.S. these positions are described as 'adjunct' or 'non-tenure', translating to a position description for someone who is 'not essential' to the organisation and not permanent.  I would think that both of these terms are problematic and this is apparent in the current poor conditions for casual academics in the U.S..  I recommend reading some of the comments from The Adjunct Project Blog and then also read comments from uni casual website's Casual Voices page .  Between the two pages you will read a number of parallel stories and while I think 'casual' or 'sessional' academic is the lesser of the two evils for a name, the situation is much the same.  I think the challenge here is to seek a better term for casual teaching and research staff - what is a title that sets us up for a greater, more secure position at our universities?  Something more specific, with agency and meaning about the contributions we make to higher education.

Suggestions welcome!      

Long Break Between Drinks

It's now week five at my university and I am still waiting on three contracts to be processed so that I might be paid sometime before week 8 - maybe....hopefully?!  This is nothing new in my experience as a casual/sessional academic, I've always seen it as a forced form of savings.  Although I have friends for whom this is a serious problem and waiting for the income that is owed to them is a very stressful situation.  What I didn't realise, until this week, is that receiving my contracts in week four meant that I was not covered by the university's insurance in those first four weeks of teaching.  The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has negotiated rights and terms for sessional and casual academics at each Australian university, you can download a copy for your university here:  I also recently learned about what the NTEU had negotiated (most of which aren't in place at my university for sessional staff) through completing the online survey here:  While I'm sure this survey will serve a greater purpose, it is also a great five minute tutorial in what you are entitled to as a casual or sessional academic.  Unfortunately, I can't see where the agreement covers contracts that arrive some weeks after we the semester has commenced - especially now I'm aware that I may not have been covered by the university in the weeks before my contract arrived.  In comparison to my professional office job, the classroom can be a little more risky, for good reasons and for not so good reasons!

This problem is not unique to my university as I found this article on Swinburne university's failure to pay its casual staff .  This would be unacceptable practice in most industries and yet seems to happen so often for casual staff in higher education - why?       

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Wheels In Motion

Today has been very eventful.  I've made some great contacts from the U.S. who've been active for some time, they are New Faculty Majority () and the adjunct project () as well as some Australians who are already active as well.  This presents a great opportunity for an ongoing collaboration on how to approach the increasing casualisation of teaching staff in Australian higher education.  I also attended my university's sessional academics meeting at which the lack of access to basic facilities was brought up.  At our university we are not provided with a safe place to store out belongings, a computer, printing facilities or a private space to meet students outside of class time.  I've heard that this is also the case at other universities?  Frustratingly, the building in which we met has recently been re-furbished with new carpet, paint and furniture, yet seemingly the university cannot afford to provide sessional staff with a secure work point (not even a shared one).

The Castor (Caster) Wheel Revolution
This brings me to the topic on the commercial properties and aesthetics of new university spaces.  I like to call this the 'Castor Wheel Revolution,' where innovation in teaching spaces comes in the form of two forked wheels fixed to the base of every piece of furniture and equipment.  It is the ubiquitous space for teaching that is so nondescript that if all the furniture were wheeled away it could easily become a shopping centre or an office building.  This extends to the offices for academics who work on castor wheeled desks and chairs in open plan white laminate planar deserts in the same insular manner as accountants or marketing staff.  Your position reflected in the mobility of your furniture as only the Vice Chancellor has furniture of solid timber, heavy enough to represent some sense of permanence.  The casual staff are so temporary that they are not provided with a desk at all.  The marketization of the university is manifest in its architecture and spatial arrangements, its furniture and equipment.

I was first made aware of the commercialisation of university spaces at a conference in Auckland in 2010 by Sean Sturm and Stephen Turner in their paper 'Crystal Capital: the Business of University Building':    

"There, everything communicates psychically with everything else in the code of capital:  the language – the logo-rhythm – of the academosphere is encoded according to the design drive of econometrics, namely, in terms of economic calculability and accountability. And the mission of the University is growth, a mission that transcends its onetime imperative to educate and demands a glasshouse of industry: in Sloterdijk’s terms, an “immaterialized” and “temperature-controlled” enclosure.......The danger of this disclosure of the one space of the transcendental university, a space that grows in us and in which we grow as teachers and learners, is that it closes out the many human foibles by which education flourishes: just talking, being idle, sharing, charity, invention."        
Sean Sturm and Stephen, University of Auckland, at Interstices 2010 (

If you have photos or stories of teaching spaces at your university - I would be really interested in hearing from you.

Saturday, 17 March 2012


I decided to write this blog to reflect on my experiences as a sessional academic in an Australian University.  I titled the blog, 'Hyperlink Academia' in reference to a conversation I had with a lecturer and good friend of mine who described the teaching in her theory unit as the 'hyperlinked' version of modern history and theory.  I thought this a very astute observation on the contemporary university classroom, where the role of tutors is not to assist students to thoroughly examine ideologies and test their own thinking, but rather to give them the links to the content and focus on strategies for them to achieve their academic goals.  The university class room has become an almost a content free zone.  It's not all bad though - students, I am told, gather content outside of the classroom from their peers, the web, social media etc..  These are anonymous or un-knowledgeable sources of content, they are difficult for students to contextualise or place in a framework of knowledge for themselves.  Technology undoubtedly plays an important role in the modern classroom, but how does a first, second or third year student know how to make value judgments on the quality of the data they collect?  How can they evaluate these sources?  Their tutor is the first port of call of course to assist students in this kind of evaluation - but there is so little time in the classroom - I am personally tutoring a subject where I see my class of 16 students for only seven hours in the entire semester.  Obviously this is an inadequate amount of time to assist students with the content and their assessment, so they either miss out or we rely increasingly on technology.

It's a Sunday and I have an email from a student in my inbox that reads, 'I feel as If we didn't get a chance to discuss my ideas with you and I want to make a good start on the design for next Friday,' this is now the normal method for communication with my students, it's either email or Facebook because the classroom doesn't cater for learning.  None of my time spent online emailing, Facebook-ing or Skype-ing is paid work, it's not even considered by the university as part of teaching.  Teaching isn't aligned with the marketable aspects of the university, it's the 'University for the Real World', 'The University of U,' or the 'The World Standard University,' not the university where you learn and think - that's got nothing to do with it!  I know I'm not saying anything new.  Like most industries, the tertiary industry has been subject to cutbacks and I understand this is why I tutor subjects where I'm only paid for seven hours of contact or have classrooms with 30 - 40 students, however the tertiary business is booming with enrollments up by 24% in the 2007-2012 period (  So why are there teaching cutbacks?  Why are universities giving their students such a raw deal?

Each year my appointments for tutoring (sometimes teaching the same subject for the third or fourth time) are reduced, and as a result of this, this will be my last semester of tutoring.  I am very sad about this because I am genuinely passionate about the content that I teach, I like working with the students but the university itself seems to the barrier between me and teaching.  Senior staff are only interested in the numbers generated by student surveys and attrition trends and not the content being taught in the classroom.  The purpose of this blog is to have a place to share some of these experiences and to hopefully ignite some activism amongst Australian universities both by students and sessional academics.  Most of what I have written today has been anecdotal, I'll do a little more of that but also over the next few weeks I'll write some more articles based on existing research on the lack of support for sessional academics by institutions, a few interviews with long-standing tutors (those ones who've been involved with the university for 20 or so years), comments from students and the commercialization of university teaching spaces.  I would really love to hear other people comments, I have a twitter account here:!/SessionalAcadem and will get moving on a Facebook page in the next couple of weeks.  I'll also share any news I hear from other organisations, a good place to start with is the uni casual survey here: