Academic allies

I am so cheered by the fine and honest reflections going on at CASA, an online home for casual academics and those connected to them.  Having my experiences reflected back to me only gets a tiny bit less amazing with each repetition.  Gradually, other feelings also arise: such as hope, maybe.  My anger moves beyond its circuits in my brain.  I feel fury that these things happen to others also.

I have been thinking about the strategy, and the emphasis, of not pitting adjuncts/casuals versus our tenured/continuing colleagues.  Yes.  Most movements need solidarity.  Ok, to say it in a non-Marxist rally kind of way: numbers, support, groundswell.  The system that produced casual tutors and research assistants relies on atomisation of individuals and encouraging the competition between them.  It isolates them in their precarity.  (Spell check changed this to precocity, which is also true: the old tactic of depicting complainants as childish is alive and well).

So, it’s really clear that there are huge systemic problems, and many of us are aware of them.  There is another way, however, that individual – and interpersonal – experience really matters.

I’m talking about subject co-ordinators.  Project leaders.  Researchers looking for assistants.  If casuals are at the coal front then we meet these people at the … mine, or something, as they call out that they have a session’s work.  We hear they are looking for someone to teach through the tutors’ Facebook message grapevine.  We spruik ourselves to them, bug them with emails.

These relationships are important.  They make such a difference to the casual experience.

Being inspired by the very, very Smart Casual, I will expand on their positive suggestions of ways that academic staff can interact with casuals by, ah, emphasising what not to do as a subject co-ordinator.

Don’t: refuse to put the readings on the online subject site for the students.  Or, if you do, provide them with a printed reader.  Or, if you don’t do that, make sure that they can actually be accessed through the library databases and/or Google Scholar.  At least.  Or, if you decide that you are helping the students with their ‘research skills’ by making the weekly set readings hard to find, set up that expectation clearly at the beginning of the subject, not halfway through.

Why: 36, no, 38, no 45 emails and complaints will come to the tutors which point out that the readings aren’t accessible.  This is wasted, unpaid work and time for the tutor and, really, for the students.  If the tutor wants to teach well, and wants students to learn something in tutorials, we literally need to be on the same page – to have access to the learning materials.  To me, this is such basic pedagogy.  Students are paying to study.  They are paying for a course.  Preferably a well-organised one.  If they don’t get it, they will complain.  Sure, students can be lazy, but they can also see when you are not providing the basics.  It is not the tutors’ job to co-ordinate the subject.

Don’t: make it opaque how the lecture connects to the readings.

Why: this makes it hard for the tutors to prepare and teach a tutorial, confuses the students, and also hinders the task of students figuring out how to write weekly blog posts or design a research project on topics that are unclear.  What happens then?  The tutor tries to come up with a strategy to help the students, like ‘pick an aspect of the topic and find some examples from there’.  I know university study is not about spoon-feeding, and yes, student initiative can be encouraged.  However, if you do not have clarity about the basics, such as what are we talking about, the learning is going to be an uphill battle.

Don’t: tell students that you always post the lecture slides in the subject site within a day of the lecture, and then not post any for three weeks.

Why: where do the students go to address this?  Tutor.  What can the tutor do with these complaints?  Diplomatically bring them up with the subject co-ordinator.  If they are re-buffed, then what?  Well, in my case, I am now just encouraging the students to complain by any means possible: to the subject co-ordinator, through the university website’s ‘feedback’ button – but not to me.  Because I am not getting anywhere with it.  My care for the students does not, in fact, make a difference.

Don’t: omit to say that the reason you pulled back your last minute offer of more tutorials to a tutor is that you gave them to someone else.

Why: We find out.  And, possibly, that’s fine.  But tutors aren’t just ‘floating heads’: we do talk to each other.  Sometimes, we even share and try to make sure that we are all getting at least some work.  In any case, tricksy secretive games do not make for a good teaching ‘team’.

Don’t: Share the role of subject co-ordinator without making it clear how this will work.

Why: Who do I contact about … failing students?  Attendance?  The readings and lecture slides not being up?

Don’t: Omit all of the other assessment details that students will ask about.  What time is the online submission deadline?  Can we use the set readings or not?  What is a ‘substantial deduction of marks’ for a late blog post?  If you are going to produce (and, presumably, get approved) a subject outline, put the details in there.  Again, some students won’t read it and will still ask the tutor.  But some will.  Perhaps you don’t like being quantitative and giving a time for the files to be uploaded, or the exact word count required, or how the marking penalties work.  Some students will ask though: it is one approach to learning.  These details also help the tutors with their marking.  Anticipate the questions and head them off.

You get the idea.  There is clearly a theme.  This is basically a version of the change one thing suggestion by Natalie Osborne on CASA: make the roles and responsibilities clear.  These experiences are examples of the responsibilities of the subject co-ordinator role not being realised, or, in any case, not being communicated clearly to both students and tutors.  What follows is frustration and disengagement from students and, even though they might care so much, from the tutors as well.

I hope this can be heard as not only a frustrated rant that widens a divide between permanent and casual staff.  Yes, clearly, this behaviour by subject co-ordinators results in huge frustration for me as an individual (and, if I guess correctly, for any other tutors that experience this kind of thing).

But I want to add: the difference when striking work with a researcher or subject co-ordinator who is an ally is remarkable.  Their awareness of my frustrations gives our interactions a completely different quality.  Hearing that we don’t have easy access to printing and photocopying, they copy and leave piles of sheets for tutorial in their pigeonhole.  They respond, and clarify to all of the students in the course the assessment requirement that has been causing the emails to the tutor.  Not that they expect no work or no student consultation from tutors. More that if they see a problem with the subject that can be clarified – for fairness across the subject – they do so.  They ask for the thoughts of tutors who have taught the subject before, even as they change it.

In my experience, those who do care about teaching, ‘learning design’, and higher education are the same people who care about tutors.  Perhaps they don’t always go together.  And if caring is too warm and fuzzy for you: let’s talk about fair play.  These allies have a sense of fairness and clarity, while they are also being squeezed in an unfair system.  They have a sense that they are the ones who receive employment benefits to co-ordinate the subject.  If they are strategic in the amount of work they can give to preparing a subject, at least they do not re-buff the concerns of students and tutors.

I know, to the extent that I can, about their crazy workloads.  I get vague intimations of the politics and machinations that means that they got stuck with this subject, or that they can’t offer us many hours.  I get a sense of how their lives and health are affected by their work.  So this is not to needlessly criticise those who are already harangued.  I am not looking for pedagogical perfection.  But I do want to keep in the conversation the difference that individual behaviour in these roles can make to the casual experience, because this can be a part of building bridges. Yes, our problems are much wider than interpersonal difficulty.  And the difference when working with an ally is palpable.

 

2 Comments

  1. So much useful and *practical* information here for building strong connections between tutors and convenors so that students can navigate a subject.

    I too can tell from the get go when a new convenor colleague is an ally – it’s all there in that first meeting you have with them. Probably not coincidentally, these allies have also been the best academic managers and leaders, and not just regarding their casual and sessional colleagues.

  2. * Don’t have compulsory meetings with your casual team each week unless they are getting paid for them.
    * Don’t ask your casuals to enter in the assignment grades to the online system – as a unit coordinator – you do it. After all we are the one’s on an hourly wage and we don’t get paid for admin.
    * Don’t email your casual tutors a handout to be printed and distributed in class time. Print it out for them. For some casuals it can be a big deal getting access to a printer and photocopier without paying for it themselves.

    No doubt others can think of many more. I think unit coordinators just forget that casual academics don’t get paid for all that extra stuff.

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