Casual exploitation

Dear colleagues,

Casual teachers are essential to Australian universities today. Without them, teaching loads for permanent staff would skyrocket; alternatively, cutbacks in general staff would be needed.

Although they are essential, casual teachers frequently are treated poorly. They may not know what or how much they are teaching until shortly before classes begin. They can carry substantial loads at a fraction of the pay given to regular academics. Even those with years of faithful service have no guarantee of ongoing work.

No matter how brilliantly long-term casuals do their work, there is little hope of getting a continuing appointment. It is well known that new lecturers are hired largely on the basis of research. Being a loyal casual teacher is a one-way street: the institution has no loyalty to even the most outstanding, long serving and accommodating casual teacher.

From the point of view of employers, using casuals is entirely logical. If people want the jobs, they have to accept the conditions offered. This is the neoliberal ideal of a totally flexible workforce adapting to the demands of the market.

However, there is a contradiction in the operation of the market for casuals: the existence of permanent appointments. A casual teacher might be doing a much better job than a permanent academic, but there is no possibility for the supposedly flexible labour market to lead to a change in roles. Anyone with a regular staff job needs maintain only a minimum level of performance to retain their job, even though there might be dozens of aspiring academics (and general staff) with equal or better capabilities.

These reflections are inspired by the recently published book Academic Apartheid. The editor, Sylvia M. DeSantis, has brought together a collection of short pieces by current or former casual teachers, telling what it is like on the other side.

Academic Apartheid is primarily a US book, and the terminology is different. In the US, regular academics are called the faculty; contract and casual teachers are called adjuncts. The US higher education system has a greater diversity of institutions than Australia. At lower-tier institutions, teaching loads are two or more times as high as at research institutions. Salaries vary dramatically between disciplines, with English literature being towards the bottom end.

The personal stories in Academic Apartheid are alarming and at times astounding. Many adjuncts work incredibly long hours, sometimes at several different institutions, for pitiful levels of pay, often ending up below the poverty line for the equivalent of full-time work. Many adjunct jobs come with no health insurance. In the US, without any equivalent to Australia's Medicare, private health insurance is very expensive; being without it is very risky.

Conditions of work range from decent to pathetic. Many adjuncts have no office, not even a desk in a shared office. Some have no access to phones, so they give their students their mobile numbers and pay the costs themselves. Some pay for commercial copying because of long queues at university photocopiers.

Just as serious as the material and financial shortcomings of adjunct life are the emotional hurts. Judging by the contributions in Academic Apartheid, many adjuncts feel neglected or worse. Some are not eligible for teaching awards. Many are not informed or consulted about policy affecting them: they are left off relevant email lists. There is little or no professional development.

One contributor described how the faculty (the academic staff) in a department decided that adjuncts could attend meetings but not vote, and how this demoralised the adjuncts. Pam Whitfield writes,

"Job equity is an ongoing issue and does contribute to the demoralized status of adjuncts everywhere. But the more insidious form of discrimination stems from attitudes of condescension and disdain with which many adjuncts must cope on a daily basis. Having job equity is good, but feeling equal and respected for that work is even better." (p. 107)

(This example illustrates a gulf between US academia, where many departments operate using voting and related democratic processes, and Australian academia, where academic democracy is attenuated or nonexistent.)

Most of the contributors to Academic Apartheid are women. The majority teach, or taught, first-year composition. Why do they put up with the terrible conditions? Some hope to obtain a tenure-track position, though the chances are small: when these positions become available, they are advertised widely and research records weigh heavily.

Mostly, adjuncts continue their labours because of the satisfactions of academic life, especially teaching. As contributor Lisa Wenger writes, "Why not try a different career? Because even as adjunct faculty, I love the subject I teach, and I love teaching. There is nothing more rewarding than having students compliment me at the end of the semester, even if it's just to say 'This class wasn't nearly as bad as I expected'." (p. 35).

Writing about difficulties as an adjunct is potentially risky. Some contributors are former adjuncts who somehow made the transition to regular academic posts. (They note that academics seldom mention previous experiences as adjuncts, due to the associated stigma.) Some contributors use pseudonyms, including the one Australian contributor. Why haven't there been more exposés about exploitation of adjuncts? Two key reasons are that they are worn down and that they are afraid to speak out because they might lose what little they have.

To these many stories of frustration, despair and resentment, there are only a few indications of hope. Anne Canavan writes about the satisfactions of being an online adjunct. J Shantz writes about a lengthy and successful strike by adjuncts at York University in Canada.

Most of Academic Apartheid is about the problems. There is very little analysis of stratification in academia, little on collective strategy and little on visions for an alternative. Academics and administrators have little incentive to question their privileges and adjuncts are so marginal and divided and exploited that they have little time to imagine a different world. Furthermore, many of those who are most enterprising either get out or are elevated into the ranks of regular academics.

The most radical voice in the collection is that of Robert W Fuller, a former college president from the 1960s, who wrote the foreword. He likens the situation of adjuncts to that of groups exploited on the basis of "race, gender, age, disability, and sexual orientation". He says "In the same way that the work of slaves subsidized the nation, adjuncts are forced to subsidize the university ... Honor requires that we examine the practice and take steps to grant equal status and equitable compensation to those who, for whatever reason, are classified as adjunct faculty." (pp. ix, x).

If the treatment of casuals is as serious an injustice as Fuller suggests, the question is, who will take the lead in promoting change?

Sylvia M. DeSantis (ed.), Academic Apartheid: Waging the Adjunct War (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2011)

Brian Martin
11 December 2011

I thank Sylvia DeSantis and several casual teachers for helpful feedback on a draft.

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