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The Ethics of Casual Teaching Contracts: how we are all implicated in selling out academia and exploiting our students

January 13, 2014

For the last few years in particular, there has been a marked increase in the number of sessional, casual, teaching-only, adjunct, fixed term, temporary job ‘opportunities’ listed and circulated in the usual IR job venues. These various titles and categories point to one reality: precarious labor is a permanent reality within academia. The trend has been quantified and well documented: in US in the last 30 years the percentage of positions held by tenured or tenure-track faculty members fell from 56.8% to 35.1%. In an excellent post in the Chronicle, Peter Conn declares “Full-time tenured and tenure-track jobs in the humanities are endangered by half a dozen trends, most of them long-term.” The trend is not new; however, as the race to the bottom with regard to casual labor hits a new low, what is missing from the discussion is (1) the ways that permanent staff reproduce/support casual labor and (2)the myths associated with the ‘opportunity’ of casual labor for PhD students and unemployed academics.

First, let’s talk about the new low. Each casual job posting seems to outline more and more unreasonable and unrealistic requirements: for example, a recent post for a year-long contract asks candidates to teach 8 courses; others ask candidates to teach a range of political science/IR topics that span nearly every sub-field; while others expect individuals to relocate for 4 months, 6 months, or only for the academic year. Universities are capitalizing on the growth of several categories of vulnerable individuals, including poor PhD students who are without scholarship or who have run out of scholarhsip funds, and academics who have been unemployed or underemployed- all desperate for experience and the prospect of a job that might lead to something permanent. Yet this exploitation narrative/depiction of the problem only goes so far. There is a need to reflect on where the accountability lies in relation to precarious labor and what can be done. This requires academics to ponder several questions, including: in what ways are secure tenure and tenure-track positions dependent on precarious/insecure/exploited labor?; what are the ethical obligations of secure staff when it comes to resisting or reacting to the casualization of academic labor?; can/how can those in secure tenure or tenure-track positions work to reverse these trends and/or support those working as precarious labor within the field? Below I list the top 4 myths associated with casual ‘opportunities’ along with the top 4 ways that permanent staff might work to acknowledge and reverse the trend.

4 (of many) Reasons Why the Casual ‘Opportunity’ is a Myth and a Trap
1. The Poverty Trap
No one becomes an academic because they want to get rich quickly, yet the financial compensation associated with most casual contracts is not only pathetic, it is unethical. Many posts don’t specify the exact amount of compensation- and for good reason. A best case scenario is a fixed-term (year+) salaried contract, but many of the positions available pay on a course-by-course basis. Either way, the compensation is light years from what permanent staff receive. How can an individual plan, budget, live on the (approximate) $5000 they are getting paid for a course? Moreover, compensating for a year or per course doesn’t take into consideration the hourly commitment required for the position. For example, if one were to take a position teaching 8 (NEW and DIFFERENT!!) courses, by the time you figured out what your prep time, teaching time, office hour commitments were, I would be surprised if the compensation amounts to minimum wage.

2. The Experience Myth/Trap
Many PhD students or early career-unemployed individuals take on teaching contracts because they think it will boost their cv and give them necessary experience- but how much teaching experience is necessary? While teaching experience is beneficial, there is a point of diminishing returns that most casual staff surpass. Most hiring committees would only expect early career academics to have taught one or two courses (typically in their specific field) to demonstrate a basic ability to teach. Individuals who end up teaching courses unrelated to their field aren’t doing much to ‘boost’ their cv. Also, those candidates who have spent time as a casual employee teaching the (typically) most undesirable/labor intensive first year courses are more likely to be assigned these as new permanent staff- continuing to make it difficult to pursue their research. In turn, the ‘experience trap’ leads to a continued ‘teaching focused’ track/trap. *note: as someone who loves/values teaching, I resent and resist depictions of teaching as a trap; however the reality is that most universities largely reward research, not teaching

3. The Road to a Permanent Job Myth/Trap
Why would any academic want to largely set their research to the side for a temporary contract with terrible wages and variable and unrealistic expectations? So they can get a permanent job, of course. But does casual work lead to permanent positions? To my knowledge there is little research or knowledge about the number of new hires that come straight from the PhD program versus those that have contract experience. Maybe moving home with mom and dad/or getting a loan to and just getting a publication out is better than taking a teaching position- it seems like a question we should answer before labeling casual labor an ‘opportunity.’ For most permanent positions, the main criteria is- and always has been- research output. Given this, casual labour that forces individuals to park their research for semesters or years at a time (who has time for research when they teach 4 courses a semester??!!) hardly seems like an avenue to secure employment. Another key to getting a job is networking. Casual laborers are less likely to have the time and the funds to attend conferences or participate in seminar series at various universities. These activities are key to making oneself ‘known’ in the field and helping one’s cv stand from the masses. Rather than the road to permanent employment, all-too-often casual labor is a dead end leading only to more casual labor.

4. They Myth of Employment Meaning Being Part of a Department
Individuals taking casual work should assume that they will be treated as a member of the larger department; however, casual staff face several obstacles that often ghettoize them. First, they are not typically included on staff mailing lists, which means they miss out on important information about seminars, meetings, other employment opportunities etc. Second, casual staff are often excluded from ‘regular’ staff meetings. This means that even though they are teaching large numbers of students, they don’t get a voice in decisions regarding teaching (or any other aspect of the department). Finally, casual staff don’t always get an office in the department. This means they are out of sight (and sometimes out of mind) for ‘regular’ staff. It also means individuals have to find alternative (and often less ideal) spaces to work and hold office hours.

4 ways that permanent staff  can work to change the two-tiered system

1. Permanent staff need to be honest with their PhD students and recent grads about the myths of casual labor. Academics should be cautious in recommending that PhD students take on sessional teaching that will extend their time as a student, keep them poor longer, take time away from publishing, and may not give them the experience they need on the job market.

2. Academics should ask questions about the conditions under which sessional/casual teachers in their own department operate. Getting teaching buy-out is sometimes seen as the holy grail for academics seeking to finish research projects. Those ‘blessed with the buy-out’ should see it as their ethical duty to question who takes on their teaching. Similarly, department members should closely scrutinize calls for employment for casual labor within their department. Staff can push back, question, or- at the least- refuse to distribute job advertisements that outline unethical working conditions. It isn’t enough to blame ‘the university’ for casual labor. Permanent staff ARE part of the university and research-only or teaching-light positions depend on insecure labor.

3. Teaching experience and casual labor should be valued in job candidates. The following paradox must be resolved: universities expect individuals to take on 8-course teaching contracts, but then choose to hire permanent staff with a couple of great publications and little/no teaching experience. This creates two classes of academics- expendable and permanent. Also, it perpetuates- from an early moment- a two-tiered system in which students with scholarships and at top universities (who are often discouraged from teaching and encouraged to publish) get permanent jobs, while students at universities with less resources (and forced/encouraged into casual work) get forced into the casual labor trap.

4. Treat casual staff like a member of the department. If someone is going to work for next to nothing under insecure conditions, the least fellow permanent staff members can do is treat these individuals like members of the department. In fact, permanent staff should feel a moral obligation to get to know casual staff and to mentor and help them in any way possible. This could include sharing teaching notes, inviting staff to important dinners, meetings, or networking opportunities, supporting them when and if they apply for permanent work within the department, and passing on (good) job opportunities.

Casual and precarious labor might be here to stay, but it doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for discussions about accountability and opportunity for support and resistance. We especially need to think about the types of individuals that are more likely to get caught into the casual teaching trap, including those who rely on part-time work during and after the PhD like parents, or carers. Blaming an abstract ‘university’ for the problem without considering our own role within systems of exploitation is too easy and inherently anti-political and naive.

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Megan MacKenzie is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney in Australia. Her main research interests include feminist international relations, gender and the military, the combat exclusion for women, the aftermaths of war and post-conflict resolution, and transitional justice. Her book Beyond the Band of Brothers: the US Military and the Myth that Women Can't Fight comes out with Cambridge University Press in July 2015.