Friday, July 24, 2015

Dear Lecturers: Letter From a Casual Academic

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In time for the start of semester across Australian universities, we have an open letter from a new contributor with some practical advice for supporting casual tutors.

Dear Lecturers in the Australian tertiary system,

I am a casual tutor, who has worked in four universities in New South Wales since 2009. I am writing to share my experience and to offer four suggestions for fellow casual and particularly, full-time, academics.

Most lecturers I have worked under are aware of the increasing casualisation of Australian universities. At the same time, the practical effects on the education that casuals are delivering to the majority of students in this country remain unacknowledged or invisible to most full-time faculty and, obviously, to university authorities.

These issues are important for full-time faculty to acknowledge and act upon because they are our direct supervisors and the people who directly decide our renewals every semester (an eternally mysterious process, which is a major problem in itself).

I believe it would be productive to offer casuals and the lecturers hiring them four straight points; four practical instances where the neoliberalisation of the Australian educational system is truly lived. They might seem minuscule issues, but they are both daily experiences and consequences of a system that, as ABC’s 4 Corners reported, is in dangerous decline in terms of quality and purpose.

So, for casuals and lecturers, here are four points you could discuss in your first meeting to set up the new semester with my additional comments provided beneath: 

Clearly state and pay for student consultation times

Time given to face-to-face student consultation must be fully and exactly accounted and paid for. If face-to-face consultation time is not paid for, then consultation should be restricted to email with very specific guidelines (i.e. students cannot write more than one paragraph and can expect only a very short reply). Or all student questions should be sent directly to the course convenor.

One university where I have worked has the most ambiguous wording around consultation times that I have ever seen. There is a ‘choice’ between face-to-face and email contact, which is far from clear. The duty of consultation is vaguely mentioned in the enterprise bargaining agreement as included in the paid hour of teaching, without mention of percentage or timings.

Many students demand frequent and long replies by email (especially about marking) stating they cannot meet in person. If they are not happy with the responses by email, they go to the school authorities or lecturers to complain that tutors are not giving them time, or worse. 

Extend marking deadlines

Many universities have an ‘official’ two-week period for submitting feedback and grades, which lecturers demand consistently. This is a big problem for tutors who might have up to 10 tutorials; are not employed (paid) full-time; and who have outside lives as carers for children, etc.

The number of tutorials taught by a casual in one or more universities (10 tutorials is around $25,000 a semester, or $50,000 a year, before taxes; is that middle class in Australia? I don’t know. I became a permanent resident 18 months ago), should also not be an issue in hiring and there should be no expectations of the same effectiveness of a full-time permanent employee with a much better defined workload. 

Restrict the reading time needed for class preparation

Weekly reading materials set by lecturers should be brought down to one mandatory article, maximum. If lecturers put in more than one reading/article a week, students don’t feel obliged to do them all or they choose different readings, and tutorials are much more difficult to run. Optimistic lecturers also keep adding readings through Moodle or Blackboard online systems.

The point is that tutors have to read them all (which I always do, religiously, of course). This extensive time for class preparation, again, is not often specified, acknowledged or paid. Tutors also can’t solve the fact that students stopped reading in the 1990s (regrettable as that might be, but illiteracy is the price paid if the system wants to continue the exploitation of casuals). 

Extend basic academic freedom to casuals

Last but not least, tutors should be able to explain every one of these issues (or related ones) in tutorial times, to all students, especially if students are not happy that a tutor cannot meet with them or if they receive late marks.

Fact: I let my students know all this and I was told by university authorities that it was forbidden for me to talk about casualisation in tutorial times. Academic freedom is usually guaranteed through bargaining agreements, but casuals are disposable, so our academic freedom doesn’t matter.

My main point is that all these issues can be explained by and through casualisation. Students are directly affected by them. However, because these problems are not discussed openly, students are oblivious to the systemic problems in the higher education system and quite often complain and evaluate tutors badly at the end of the semester (unless we soft-mark - an endemic issue in Australia, and another by-product of casualisation).

Tutors usually are the only faces that students see regularly and directly at university. Thus, we should be able to give an explanation to students for these issues, in class time. It is their education (and ‘their money’, in neoliberal language).

I had no idea what else to do besides putting this in writing and then trying to discuss it with lecturers next time I get hired. If tutors would put together basic practical demands to lecturers and use roughly the same voice, all academics could acknowledge much further the most serious problem in university education today in Australia: casualisation and who exactly is paying the ‘price’.

This is a problem that if not addressed in practical and everyday terms, Australian education will implode. Where? In our ‘small’ tutorial rooms, that’s where.


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