A Slow Death: The Ills of the Casual Academic

Any sentient being should be offended. Eventually, the
casualisation of the academic workforce was bound to find
lazy enthusiasts who neither teach, nor understand the value
of a tenured position dedicated to that musty,
soon-to-be-forgotten vocation of the pedagogue. It shows in
the designs of certain universities who confuse frothy
trendiness with tangible depth: the pedagogue banished from
the podium, with rooms lacking a centre, or a focal point
for the instructor. Not chic, not cool, we are told, often
by learning and teaching committees that perform neither
task. Keep it modern; do not sound too bright and hide the
learning: we are all equal in the classroom, inspiringly
even and scrubbed of knowledge. The result is what was
always to be expected: profound laziness on the part of
instructors and students, dedicated mediocrity, and a
rejection of all things intellectually
taxing.

Casualisation, a word that says much in of itself,
is seen as analogue of broader outsourcing initiatives.
Militaries do it, governments do it, and the university does
it. Services long held to be the domain of the state,
itself an animation of the social contract, the spirit of
the people, have now become the incentive of the corporate
mind, and, it follows, its associated vices. The entire
scope of what has come to be known as outsourcing is itself
a creature of propaganda, cheered on as an opportunity
drawing benefits rather than an ill encouraging a brutish,
tenuous life.

One such text is Douglas Brown and Scott
Wilson’s The Black Book of Outsourcing.
Plaudits for it resemble worshippers at a shrine planning
kisses upon icons and holy relics. “Brown Wilson
deliver on the best, most innovative, new practices all
aimed at helping one and all survive, manage and lead in
this new economy,” praises Joann Martin, Vice President of
Pitney Bowes Management Services. Brown and Wilson take aim
at a fundamental “myth”: that “Outsourcing is bad for
America.” They cite work sponsored by the Information
Technology Association of America (of course) that “the
practice of outsourcing is good for the US economy and its
workers.”

Practitioners and policy makers within the
education industry have become devotees of the amoral
dictates of supply and demand, underpinned by an insatiable
management class. Central to their program of university
mismanagement is the casual academic, a creature both
embraced and maligned in the tertiary sectors of the globe.

The casual academic is meant to be an underpaid miracle
worker, whose divining acts rescue often lax academics from
discharging their duties. (These duties are outlined in that
deceptive and unreliable document known as a “workplan”,
as tedious as it is fictional.) The casual academic grades
papers, lectures, tutors and coordinates subjects. The
casual provides cover, a shield, and an excuse for a certain
class of academic manager who prefers the calling of
pretence to the realities of work.

Often, these casual
academics are students undertaking a postgraduate degree and
subject to inordinate degrees of stress in an environment of
perennial uncertainty. The stresses associated with such
students are documented in the Guardian’s Academics Anonymous series
and have also been the subject of research in the journal Research
Policy
. A representative sample of PhD students
studying in Flanders, Belgium found that one in two
experienced psychological distress, with one in three at
risk of a common psychiatric disorder. Mental health
problems tended to be higher in PhD students “than in the
highly educated general population, highly education
employees and higher education students.”

This is
hardly helped by the prospects faced by those PhDs for
future permanent employment, given what the authors of the
Research Policy article describe as the “unfavourable shift in
the labour-supply demand balance, a growing popularity of
short-term contracts, budget cuts and increased competition
for research sources”.

There have been a few pompom
holders encouraging the casualisation mania, suggesting that
it is good for the academic sector. The explanations are
never more than structural: a casual workforce, for
instance, copes with fluctuating enrolments and reduces
labour costs. “Using casual academics brings benefits and
challenges,” we find Dorothy Wardale, Julia Richardson and
Yuliani Suseno telling us in The Conversation.
This, in truth, is much like suggesting that syphilis and
irritable bowel syndrome is necessary to keep you on your
toes, sharp and streamlined. The mindset of the
academic-administrator is to assume that such things are
such (casualisation, the authors insist, is not going way,
so embrace) and adopt a prostrate position in the face of
funding cuts from the public purse.

Casualisation can be
seen alongside a host of other ills. If the instructor is
disposable and vulnerable, then so are the manifestations of
learning. Libraries and research collections, for instance,
are being regarded as deadening, inanimate burdens on the
modern, vibrant university environment. Some institutions
make a regular habit of culling their supply of texts and
references: we are all e-people now, bound to prefer screens
to paper, the bleary-eyed session of online engagement to
the tactile session with a book.

The casual, sessional
academic also has, for company, the “hot-desk”, a spot
for temporary, and all too fleeting occupation. The
hot-desk has replaced the work desk; the partitions of the
office are giving way to the intrusions of the open plan.
The hot-desker, like coitus, is temporary and brief. The
casual academic epitomises that unstable reality; there is
little need to give such workers more than temporary,
precarious space. As a result, confidentiality is impaired,
and privacy all but negated. Despite extensive research showing the negative
costs of “hot-desking” and open plan settings,
university management remains crusade bound to implement
such daft ideas in the name of efficiency.

Casualisation
also compounds fraudulence in the academy. It supplies the
bejewelled short cut route, the bypass, the evasion of the
rigorous things in learning. Academics may reek like
piddling middle class spongers avoiding the issues while
pretending to deal with them, but the good ones at least
make some effort to teach their brood decently and marshal
their thoughts in a way that resembles, at the very least, a
sound whiff of knowledge. This ancient code, tested and
tried, is worth keeping, but it is something that modern
management types, along with their parasitic cognates,
ignore. In Australia, this is particularly problematic,
given suggestions that up to 80 percent of
undergraduate courses in certain higher learning
institutions are taught by casual academics.

The
union between the spread sheet manager and the uninterested
academic who sees promotion through the management channel
rather than scholarship, throws up a terrible hybrid, one
vicious enough to degrade all in its pathway. This sort of
hybrid hack resorts to skiving and getting casuals to do the
work he or she ought to be doing. Such people co-ordinate
courses but make sure they get the wallahs and helpers
desperate for cash to do it. Manipulation is guaranteed,
exploitation is assured.

The economy of desperation is
cashed in like a reliable blue-chip stock: the skiver with
an ongoing position knows that a casual academic desperate
to earn some cash cannot dissent, will do little to rock the
misdirected boat, and will have to go along with utterly
dotty notions. There are no additional benefits from work,
no ongoing income, no insurance, and, importantly, inflated
hours that rarely take into account the amount of
preparation required for the task.

The ultimate nature of
the casualisation catastrophe is its diminution of the
entire academic sector. Casuals suffer, but so do students.
The result is not mere sloth but misrepresentation of the
worst kind: the university keen to advertise a particular
service it cannot provide sufficiently. This, in time, is
normalised: what would students, who in many instances may
not even know the grader of their paper, expect? The
remunerated, secure academic-manager, being in the castle,
can raise the drawbridge and throw the casuals to the
vengeful crowd, an employment environment made safe for
hypocrisy.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth
Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT
University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

ends

© Scoop Media

Article source: http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL1906/S00087/a-slow-death-the-ills-of-the-casual-academic.htm



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