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A (Selfish?) Life in Savannakhet, Laos. (+addendum…)

I just came back from a party to farewell another fabulous human being I have met here, Michael.  He originally came here as a Fulbright scholar, and stayed for longer than he was contracted to… I mean, who wouldn’t?

It was a fabulous party.  Held at mutual friends’ house, ‘Pot luck’ – bring a plate.  Fabulous food, fabulous company, great conversations, music, shared interests – new faces, old faces, local people and expats.  Michael is a sociable person who has worked at a range of different places, and he invited them all!  He is around half my age, but his playlist was excellent – huge range of music from different places and eras.  This epitomizes a very different life to the one I lead back ‘home’.

People who had seen my recent facebook posts asked me about my plans for when my contract expires, at the end of August.  For the first time I needed to articulate something I’ve been putting off, what am I going to do?  It is June now, my contract ends in three months.  I don’t want to leave but I need to go home.  I want to come back.

I talked with my 85 year old father today.  He said something like “So you’re looking forward to coming home, because I miss you and many other people miss you too…”  My immediate thought was no, I’m not looking forward to coming home.  My ‘home’ is a miserable place, a job in which I am devalued and constantly on edge, never knowing whether I’ll have work for the next semester, no chance of achieving an ongoing position.  Children who I adore but I cannot continue to be their all when living a life of discontent.  A complete lack of ‘community’, where I sit at home on my own and wallow in my misery.  A lack of meaning and feeling as if I am contributing to the world.  Here I feel as if I am on my way to contributing.  To helping others achieve, to inspire, to educate, to share my knowledge and be a part of improving the lives of others.  I don’t want to go home.

Is this selfish?  Am I only thinking of myself?  Or does a meaningful life actually matter?  It seems to matter to me.  I have worked hard for a long time to develop the skills that I want to share with others.  I have tried to do that in my ‘home’ context, in working with students in Australian universities to inspire, to provoke, to work towards a better future for their students and the world.  Sometimes this feels like an achievement, as if I’ve made a difference.  And then I get my student evaluations, I get rejected for ongoing positions, I feel like I’m not inspiring, or achieving, or doing anything of any value to anyone.  I feel like a failure, with nothing to offer. God I hate that feeling, but it’s real, and it hurts.

So I leave Australia, I work here as a volunteer, supported by the Australian government.  I feel as if I have some purpose to what I’m doing.  I feel as if people appreciate what I’m doing.  People seem to acknowledge and recognise that what I’m doing is selfless – this is not for me.  I have knowledge and ability and I can share it unselfishly – I simply need enough money to live, and beyond that, I will give what I can.

This is the dilemma I find myself in.

Addendum:  a year later, another volunteer position in a different country…

The dilemma is still with me.  Again I find myself in a position that feels right – in a position that welcomes me and my skills, where I feel I can make a difference, where I am challenged every day.  As I leave home, my father hugs me and every time it feels like the last goodbye.  My children hug me as I farewell them, and I assure myself that my discontent presence is more damaging than my content distance – that technology provides a channel for more communication than would be possible with my presence.

I was asked by a friend why I didn’t look for the same work in my own country – out of respect for being a closer part of my kids’ lives, and (presumably) to work for the betterment of my own country rather than overseas.  It is difficult to articulate why I do not have any desire to work in my own country, but I think I have expressed this in many ways over many years.

Professionally, there are people who have training and experience in my profession who can certainly do these (local) jobs and who I would have to compete with based on questionable measures of competence.  I am tired of battling to prove myself, to present myself in an ‘acceptable’ manner, to write and to speak in a way that is not true to myself and has nothing to do with what I want to accomplish and how I want to work with others.  Or how I can draw on a life-time of experience that doesn’t ‘fit’ in my ‘3 page max CV’ and certainly isn’t mentioned in job interviews.

For a long time I have just wanted to work at my best, to meet challenges head on and to use my ‘big picture’ thinking to work on immediate issues … I don’t have as much energy as I did 20+ years ago when I started on the desperate journey through academia so I’d rather put the energy and passion into the work I have, than into getting my foot in the doors that remain closed to me.

So the ‘dilemma of selfishness’ remains but …

Deliberating inside my Cave…DSC_9022-Optimized

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Pakse Trip 1: Bolevan Plateau and Waterfalls, Champasek

When the internet / wifi doesn’t work and your phone is kaput, thank god for cheap beer, food and cigarettes.

We had a fantastic day today, a minibus tour around the Bolaven Plateau in Eastern Champasak province.  Thanks to Debbie and Al for helping to arrange it all!

( – from Pakse, 150,000 kip, booked through Khem at Lao Adventure Travel, ph: 02095775785 – there are a broad range of tours to take, or travel independently).

Pakse has so many more international tourists than Savannakhet – and it is easy to see why.  So much more development, more built up, more investment, and by far, more natural sites to visit.

But the flipside of that is, tourists are not so friendly (or desperate?) to talk with another falang, and the local people are far more used to foreigners.

We set off sometime after 8am, and picked up others on the way.  The ‘planned tour’ we were sold wasn’t quite the way it eventuated, but no problems (boh phenyung), it was an adventure.  All those on my bus just happened to be Germans, but spoke English well – lucky me!  (oh never forget the privilege of being born into a majority English speaking country!)

First stop Tad Fan and Mr Coffee.  Brilliant waterfall dropping far down into the abyss from two different rivers.  Not sure how the valley was formed but really spectacular, photos could not do it justice.  Coffee plantation was fascinating, seeing the beans on the trees, the spiders doing their business, and bees producing honey as well.  Sample coffee was delectable, had to buy myself a supply to take back with me.  Tea plantation a little further on also had delectable teas so I finally managed to get some black tea for my new teapot (Thai – Muktahan).

The stops at ‘Ethnic villages’ are always a little discomforting.  You have to wonder how the people feel about these strangers wandering around their homes, taking photos and trying to be friendly – but understanding that our tour pays a fee for the privilege, and  recognising the little signs of how these proceeds are spent such as a very decent little outdoor toilet that I was much relieved to find!  This wonderful woman sitting on the step chatted away to us in indecipherable language (ethnic minority groups have a range of languages different to the more common Lao – by her body language I could only think that she was telling us about her sore head, her sore eyes, her sore legs…  I asked for a photo – it was still quite unclear what she was saying, but she was so delightful and animated I had to give her some money – she took my hand in response and seemed so happy, aside from all her aches and pains… again, my interpretation!

Another woman sitting in a doorway had bags of roasted almonds she wanted to sell.  They were actually very good, reasonably priced, so Debbie and I agreed to buy two bags.  She was particularly interested in my rings (what she wants my rings as well as my money?).  I went over and showed her my hand – she seemed interested in my mother’s wedding ring (a diamond), but also a ring made out of tortoise shell from the Solomons.  She wanted to take them off – luckily they are pretty well jammed on my fingers for good!

The stop I most enjoyed was the two hour lunch/waterfall/swim stop.  I had my stash of fruit with me for lunch and after taking some shots of the spectacular waterfall, took off downstream to the little shelters by the swimming area.  Ah, the water was so cool and delectable, all so serene and refreshing.  The sand underfoot is apparently volcanic residue, ground down to a silken consistency.  I investigated the little river side bungalows – 50,000 kip / pp – what a wonderful place to come back to with my family!  I wandered through part of the village and met these wonderful girls, Anny (13) Tookrok (13) and Daowan (15) at the little ‘free school’ there – most entertaining and friendly!  I only got their ages because Anny wanted to know mine!  Daowan didn’t know how to write her name in English so I gave her my approximation.  Tookrok – I think her sister, wrote it on her hand for future reference.  They all wanted to take photos with my camera of us together – that was fun!  Very friendly and welcoming people here.

Final stop was yet another waterfall/ethnic village/museum.  Again, spectacular, with a swing bridge constructed to walk across, and an amazing wooden structure that composed restaurants, viewing areas and accommodation.  Not a long stop but I could also imagine spending more time here relaxing and enjoying the atmosphere, and the lovely people too.

Dropped back at guesthouse, happy and contented after a day’s adventures! 🙂

 

 

 

EPIC JOURNEY HOME from 4,000 Islands

Home again after a 12 hour epic journey from Don Det, surrounded by 4,000 Islands, back to Savannakhet.  We had a pink piece of paper that said 3 pax, from x bus station to Savannakhet.  To get to the bus station, we needed to wait for a ‘ferry boat’ that left at 11am.  Rani had his own pink ticket, that took him from the bus station, to Pakse airport, ready catch a flight to Luang Prabang, and then on to Van Vieng the next day on a bus.  Luckily, after most of our cash was stolen, even though we had to be very careful to make it last – 800,000 kip ($AUD140) between all of us didn’t go far!  (OK, in hindsight, a lot further than it would have back home in Australia!)

So with Rani phone-less (didn’t survive being dropped down a toilet), Caroline also phone-less (got stolen along with our kip), and about 7 bags between us, we waited in a queue of about 30 other falangs going to various destinations, on the same (rather small long) boat, at the same time.  Then the wonderful refrain that you hear when travelling with a gorgeous 7 year old, “aaaahhhhh, Tilly, you come with me, yes, all of you, come and get on this boat!”  Ah what a relief, she’s certaiDSC_7247nly made herself known on this little island haven!

So we managed our way onto the boat with our luggage, Rani doing the heroics carrying most of it with him, got to ….  Remembered where the bus had dropped us off days before, and walked the 500metres or so, to find the bus was there ready for us.  We got ourselves on – yay, good seats, lots of space, air con… luxury.

After a couple of hours, the big bus managed to get us up the side street in Pakse where our amazing travel agent Khem was waiting for us.  As we got off the bus (hoping to get ourselves some food for the rest of the trip) a savage tuk tuk driver got on the bus saying “Pakse airport, Pakse airport”.  Being tired and not thinking I said to Rani, quick quick, follow him … quick hug, kiss, best wishes for the trip, that was the last I saw of my son … Found Khem who said “where is your son?”  She had been ready to get him to the airport herself, and I realised it was just an opportunistic tuktuk driver who had taken him … god only knows what he charged him but he’s gone now … no phone or way of contacting so just hope for the best, once again.

 (In general, don’t trust tuktuk drivers in Laos – rip offs!  A 10 km trip that costs a local approx. 10,000 kip or AUD $1.65 will be bumped up to around 50,000 kip for a falang – find out what it should cost and offer them that – be prepared to barter or walk away, and agree before you or your bags are on board).

We got to have our lunch – a case of going to a restaurant, asking if we could have baguettes rather than bread sandwiches, and that we only had 5 minutes before our bus left, and smiled at the restaurant owner as she took off on her motorbike to go and buy the baguettes … 10 minutes later, back to our luggage at the travel agent, and onto a tuktuk arranged by Khem, with two Israeli guys with very limited English, and who didn’t seem to know the name of the place they were headed to.  The tuktuk stopped in what seemed a rather random location, on the side of the road next to a little portable shop that sold watches – we thought maybe he needed one because he didn’t seem to know what time the bus was due to leave.  Amazingly, up drives a bus, stops on the side of the road and he tells us to board it.  Um, ok!

Luxury comfort, leg room, air con, music video playing, bags loaded, and off we went.  We didn’t know if this was just the bus to the bus that we were taking or what, so we sat ready for the next off-loading, but no, on we went and we were all very happy with that!  Bus stopped a number of times for toilets and food (wow!) and random monkeys in cages.  Now this is good travelling!  Until … a horn, a bump, a scrape, bus slows to a stop, a smash, metal crunching … immediate thought, we’ve hit something … the crunch and the smash under the bus, OMG, we’ve hit a motorcyclist, they are under the bus, Matilda whimpering, what’s happening mummy?  We stop.  We wait.  No one speaks English.  Most people stay on the bus.  We wait.  They clear a space in the luggage area and my mind makes up the whole scenario (loading the body and wreckage into the bus hold…).

 

We wait.  Finally I climb out of the bus to see what’s going on.  No sign of smashed motorcycle.  No sign of blood or dead animal.  There is a little crowd at the front of the bus so I go to investigate.  I see that the window in front of the driver is smashed, a small hole with shattered but intact windscreen.  People standing around discussing … um, whatever.  A woman talking urgently on the phone.  OK.  I take the opportunity to have a wee on the side of the road.  End up sitting down so that the passing traffic doesn’t have to be upset by a view of my big white ass.  Goddamned it, prickles – why do I always seem to land in the prickles?

We were probably there for an hour – after some time we gathered that the bus had actually hit a buffalo, buffalo just wandered off, window smashed, four hours still to go to get to Savannakhet, darkness.  Then suddenly everyone gets back on the bus and it sets off slowly, cautiously, and we wonder what time we are going to arrive home at this pace, if at all.  It’s night, can’t see a thing … we are crawling along.  Next thing, the bus stops again, and I hear “Savannakhet” and the bus man gestures to us to get off the bus.   Just as I was finally getting comfortable enough to sleep.  Oh.  Caroline (speakers back on, settling back into sleep mode) we have to get off!  Mad scramble for our multitude of bags, and I look around – this sure doesn’t look like Savannakhet to me!  Bus station, lots of market stalls open, but absolutely no idea where we are!

A man with no English is gesturing and petting Matilda, touching her face, trying to get her to sit with him.  Who is this man?  Where the hell are we?  Why did they make us get off this bus in this strange place?  I walk around and say to everyone, “Savannakhet”?  I can’t work it out because they say “boh” –  no – so why the hell are we here????  I come to my senses and remind Caroline that it all seems to work out in the end … they seem to know what they’re doing, so we can only play along, and keep the faith.

Amazingly, a minibus appears and we are ushered into it – crammed full of non-English speaking refugees from the previous bus, presumably heading for Savannakhet, we manage to squeeze in – Matilda on my lap in the front seat with our creepy sleaze-man, we set off again.  Along the way, I finally start recognising the ‘free economic zone’ on the outskirts of Savannakhet, and Matilda was the first to  spot the familiar dinosaur roundabout.  They dropped off some passengers at their hotels (how did they know that?) and we just kept the faith.  I asked our sleazy friend if he knew Savannakhet (yes) and did he know the Avalon hotel (yes) and tried to have a conversation and then he said he was Vietnamese, hence the non-understanding, and as we soon found, he had no idea where the Avalon was – once we got to the bus station, he virtually pushed us out of the bus, with no intention of dropping us anywhere near our destination.

Well, we managed to get a tuktuk back to the Avalon where we had a celebratory and very relieved Beer Lao – 12 hours after leaving the island.  Wow, another adventure…. Xox  The moral of the story was, for me, is keep the faith… If you have been promised to be transported from point A to point B, you will probably get there … eventually.

Communication in Laos

Whenever I go out in Laos, I talk to anyone who is willing to talk back (and some who aren’t, it’s true).  The bigger the population of falangs (white people), particularly those just passing through, the less people there are that seem willing to chat.

As an English teacher, students often ask how they can improve their spoken English – without a doubt, having the confidence to talk with a falang is a great start, and a great opportunity to practice listening and speaking skills.  But it takes a willing falang, an ultra confident Lao, and often a certain ability to get past the inevitable misunderstandings that occur.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, but that of course involves too much shame, or too much effort for many people to even try.

Trying to get past misunderstandings is also the responsibility of both parties; it takes an effort, practice, and some interpersonal/cultural skills.  These are ones that come to my mind, as both a current English teacher and a Lao learner – but also keeping in mind that some contexts will change the dynamics, that hierarchies (age/status), respect and culture also play a part, and the purpose for the conversation is another potential form of misunderstanding – I just wanted to practice my (limited) English/Lao and here you are asking me questions???

  • Slow down!  Speak clearly!  Enunciate every word!  (Whether English OR Lao).
  • Use Gestures!  Sign language, point to objects, count on your fingers.
  • Be patient.  Be kind.  Smile a lot!
  • Ensure time to formulate answers.  Try counting slowly to five after asking a question – feels like a long time but often what is needed.
  • Remember that often Lao students only hear English from their Lao speaking teachers, including any mispronunciations.  As much as possible, speak English with a Lao accent!  Listen to the way they say the words themselves – that is what they will be more likely to understand.
  • Falangs also have accents!  Be conscious of your own accent!
  • Lao speakers often leave off the end of the words when speaking their own language as it is not always required for understanding.   However in English the ends of words are necessary for communication (plurals, tense, meaning).
  • Tone is another key area of difference – Lao is tonal, and the tones will change the meaning (quite dramatically) of the words spoken.  Whereas in English, our use of tones is more likely to change the meaning of the phrase or sentence – eg. whether we are asking a question, making a statement, being sarcastic or making a joke, etc.  And don’t think that the Lao speakers don’t also have their fun with tones and misunderstandings – just that often it is only one side of the conversation that ‘gets’ the joke.  My strategy is hey, just laugh along!
  • Many Lao learners of English will basically learn the same structured conversations that depend on both speakers giving the standard answer or asking the question in the same order and structure it was taught!
    • Greetings and Introductions  (Hello!  How are you?  I am fine thanks.  And you?)
    • Where are you from?
    • Occupations/workplaces
    • Family
    • Food/drinks/colours – like/don’t like …
    • Less experienced (ie most) students will know little else beyond these basics.
  • A Lao conversation is more likely to be along the lines of Sabaidee, are you good?  Where are you going?  Have you eaten? (in my limited understanding! – and I often get it wrong, or can’t understand anything after the 1st question…)

Most Useful words/phrases to learn in Lao:

Hello  –  Sabaidee

Thank you  –  Kawp jai

No worries!  –   Baw pen nyang

Remember too that there is no agreed upon phonetic spelling for English pronunciation for Lao words.  Primary complications are the tones that change the meaning of words, and sounds that have no exact English equivalent.  Phonetic spelling of sounds may well be pronounced differently depending on your first language/accent..

Most importantly, have a go!  Lao people are, on the whole, very very friendly and appreciate a ‘good heart’ that shows in your actions

(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

Declaration of human rights in Lao

Sample text

Transliteration
Manut thuk khôn kœ̄t māmīkẏat sâk sī, sitthi, sēlī phôp læ khwôm smœ̄ phôp thàw thẏam kân. Thuk thuk khôn mīhēt phôn læ khwômkhit khwôm hian swàn tôw khɔ̄̄ṅ phai khɔ̄ṅ mân, tǣ̀vồ manut thuk thuk khôn khwan paphʉt tàṁ kân khʉ̄ kân kâp pianốy nɔ̄́ṅ kân.

Translation

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

http://www.omniglot.com/writing/lao.htm

This life and that one.

This life and that one.

Two Months Left … Not ready to leave!

I left that one for a multitude of reasons:

  • Working as a sessional academic in a university for 15 or so years, and still be a lowly kicking ball is demoralising and ultimately soul-destroying.
  • Turning 50 was life-changing – time to live my dream.
  • Becoming a volunteer overseas for the second time in my life was that dream.
  • Living, working and learning in a new country/culture was also part of that dream.
  • My older son needed to find his own way in the world.
  • My younger daughter has a father who loves and looks after her, and a life in which she is happy, living, learning and thriving.

But overall, I didn’t feel wanted, needed or appreciated in that life, but in this one, I do.

I feel as if I’ve been on my way to turning 50 forever.  I went back to higher degree study in 1999 after finding out that my Graduate Diploma of TESOL did not entitle me to teach in Victoria.  I eventually completed my Masters and then my PhD whilst working as a sessional academic in 2011, aged 44.  At that time I had a 2 year old daughter and a 15 year old son.  My CV was pretty good; I have never stopped working, always being independent and thirsty for new knowledge and experiences.  I had been interviewed for a few academic jobs (tenured), but at that time the message was always … finish your PhD first.  I still remember how at that time I felt invigorated and energetic, hopeful and happy to become an ‘expert’ in whatever it was they considered necessary in order to give me an ongoing position.  And as anyone who has also been through the gratuitous process of applying and being knocked back, that energy and invigoration is likely to soon get sucked out of you.

I finished the PhD and found that my university faculty no longer had any work to offer me.  I seemed to have reached a dead end there – after 12 years or so of studying and working in the same faculty, I got to one of those low points between contracts and had to accept that I had been labelled something along the lines of ‘troublemaker’ and that I would just never be good enough.  Yes, I’m allowed to feel disappointed … (see below).

And the rules had clearly changed along the way, not just ‘finish your PhD’ but ‘finish your PhD and a mass of publications in highly ranked journals to show you are serious and publishable’, ensure your work ‘fits’ the current milieu, and that you are already ‘known’ as one who will succeed within that …

Where/when do you realise you have left your run too late?

I’m allowed to feel disappointed…

[…] I shared my experience with students, colleagues, and friends—anyone who asked me how I was doing got a real answer to that question. I made things very uncomfortable for a lot of people, especially my institution or anyone who couldn’t handle my public airing of feelings or the reality of academic labor practices.

(from:  https://theprecariatandtheprofessor.wordpress.com/2017/06/14/im-allowed-to-feel-disappointed/ 1Jul17)

Luckily, I was able to get sessional work at the university just a little lower on the ranking scale, and a little further from my house.  Some more insufferable job interviews for the work I was currently doing as a sessional, an underlying sense of humiliation and failure, and my 50th birthday looming closer.  Four years spent doing the work, walking the walk, talking the talk, improving my practice and knowledge and learning ways to ‘suck it up’ as required for a sessional who wants more work for the next semester.  My writing was often focused on my experiences working as a sessional and teaching/lecturing in the areas of Curriculum and Pedagogy, with a primarily critical sociological viewpoint.  At that time I wrote about the ‘problems’ of diversity and social justice, critical thinking/teaching/reflection, student evaluations, the precariousness of sessional work and mental health implications.  And lived it.

*     *     *

I began looking for overseas volunteer work that matched my credentials, preferably in South East Asia.  I found a job and had a phone interview in which I was able to draw from all of my experiences, the good the bad and the shocking, along with how I learnt and what I learnt from these, and how this experiential knowledge would be useful for working in a place where the challenges are not simply theoretical, but which impact on every aspect of your life, every day.

It was my first successful job interview in around 20 years.

And now I am in my last 2 months of my assignment.  Wanting to do more.  Wanting to come back and continue my work.  Applying for such positions and being told my years in academia, whilst useful for knowledge and theory, do not cut it against those who spent the last 20 years of their career working in ‘development’.  And at the age of 51, what do I do?  Where do I go next?  How do I find the equivalent to that appreciation and meaning I have in my life at this point?

DSC_9303-Optimized

 

That steep slippery slope of insecure employment

(Originally written August, 2015 for Eric Grollman’s blog https://conditionallyaccepted.com   – with thanks to Eric for suggested changes)

In Australia, we are not called ‘adjunct professors’ – a term commonly used in the United States.  Rather, we are called  ‘sessional’ or ‘casual academics‘.  And, as I understand it, these positions may include research, teaching, planning and coordinating units, supervision, student consultations, marking – yes, all the work of a ‘real’ (tenured) academic without the security.  Of course our CVs will say ‘academic’; our insecure employment status is not how we label ourselves or what we do.

 I am given a ‘contract’ of sorts, that over the 11 week trimester, I will be paid for teaching time, meetings and marking.  We can claim nothing during the 2-5 week ‘break’ when students are off on their placements.  The ‘breaks’ between trimesters means a break in income, unless, as often happens, the marking extends over this ‘break’, but that really is just stretching what we are entitled to.  My annual income can easily fall below what might be considered ‘poverty level’ and I am never sure that I will be granted any work for the next trimester.

Just back from my psychologist – first appointment I’ve had for around a year.  Because I was doing ok.  Or was it because I was doing ok for a while, and then as I sunk down lower and lower into depression, I just couldn’t even pause for a minute to even consider how I was doing?  I have written before about sessional/casual/insecure employment in academia, and links with mental health.  I want to share some of this story while it is fresh, and while I’m feeling better, and the way seems a bit clearer.  Should I use a pseudonym?  I won’t because I want to say it how it is, to make it as real as it is to me, and not pretend we can protect ourselves with some hidden persona – because that is part of the mess I continue to get myself into, by being myself, and by being as absolutely honest as I can, as me, Annabelle.

I realised I needed to seek help (again) because I was so, so angry.  I have worked so hard for so many years, studying, teaching, writing, preparing applications and for (the occasional) interviews granted for those ‘real’ positions that offer some kind of ongoing job security, to do the job(s) I am already doing.  I was working days, nights, and weekends, on preparing, reading, writing, marking, planning.  I was working so damned hard, that my house was an absolute mess, my health was suffering, my diet abominable.  I didn’t eat, I didn’t have time to eat!  I was angry that I was putting in all this work, and yet was still not achieving any recognition (beyond the pay, when I had time to work out and submit my pay claim for each hour worked, in each category – as long as it was within the limits set by my initial contract). And, no matter how much my students appreciated the time and energy I put into teaching, my employer had no clue.

I was angry because I couldn’t remember what it felt like to be simply ‘happy’.  Because I had no ‘holidays’ due – in fact, I couldn’t even work out what to do if I had a true ‘holiday’.  I had lost sight of the difference between ‘work time’ and ‘holiday time’; either I was working, or I was worrying about whether I would get any more work.  I was miserable company, every conversation seemed to come around to how angry I was, and why.  Yes, I knew I had a point, but really, that’s just how things are … suck it up.  There were no ‘answers’ that my friends could give, or that could improve how I was feeling – it’s just the way things are.

As a critical educator, ‘that’s just how it is’ is not good enough.  I want to question why it is this way, how we could improve this, how ‘this way’ is making people feel, and is this how things should be?  I want to help people see that it has only become ‘this way’ in academia because we have let it happen.  Because we feel that we can’t raise these issues (i.e., insecure employment, overwork, power in the workplace, institutional priorities, economics) because of the way things are (i.e., insecure employment, overwork, power in the work place, etc.).

So I found myself sinking deeper into this angry pit of depression, and my marking was due.  And a job had been advertised for which I thought I had a good chance (actually for doing what I already do).  I prioritised the application and preparation for the interview.  I failed to impress – no job.  Dreams of getting a ‘real job’ shelved.  Again.  Marking still due.  Feeling miserable, incapable, and yes, angry.  I managed to devote myself for four days and nights, in silence, laptop on my lap, and I got that marking done, before the administrative cut-off, but after the turnaround for students to receive their feedback.  The story got around, “Annabelle – late for her marking – again.”

And I haven’t even mentioned my children.  My 20 year old son who has spent his whole life with his mother studying and working, saying that I need to do this so that I can get a ‘real’ job.  And him telling me he didn’t want his six-year-old sister having to hear the same story as I sat at the computer, days and nights, working and worrying.  His six-year-old sister now spends the week with her dad, who takes her to school and looks after her everyday needs, so that I can concentrate more on my ‘work‘ and have time for her on the weekends and holidays.

The job I had lined up for the next trimester was suddenly no longer ‘available’.  The students I’d worked with, and who expressly wanted to work with me again, had no say, and neither did I.  I managed to procure two teaching units, both of which I’d taught before, one of which I had chaired the year before.  In an 11 week trimester, students are off on their practicums for between 3 and 5 weeks.  Hence, no pay, no work for me.  No money puts my mortgage, my bills, my bare existence in limbo.

Being angry and depressed, my head was full of questions, accusations, frustrations.  What have I done wrong?  I’ve asked questions, I’ve let my frustrations be known, I’ve put myself out there.  I’ve tried hard, but maybe I really am just not good enough?  Why haven’t I published?  I don’t have time!  I don’t have support!  I am a sessionally employed teacher – my university has no support of, or even expectation that sessional teaching staff need to do research and be involved in research groups, conferences or discussions.  My student evaluations sometimes tear my heart out – but I tried so hard!  I have good pedagogical reasons for being a ‘hard marker’, for not giving straightforward answers to questions, and, at times, not responding ‘appropriately’ (an unfair accusation that I am unable to respond to in anonymous evaluations).  And the significant number of  good comments suggest that I’ve helped and/or supported my students more than any other teacher they’ve had, that they appreciated the challenges I presented them with, or asked whether I could teach them again.  And yes, the good comments mean a lot to me; they recognise and appreciate the effort I put in.  So why doesn’t my employer?  And why can’t I be ‘rewarded’ with prior notice about my teaching load for the next trimester?  Why do I have to wait and wonder, and worry, and beg, and plead for enough work to pay my bills and support my family?

Yes, there were moments when I felt as if the world was conspiring against me.  This is part of the downhill misery slope: no  matter how hard I thought about it, the only reason for not being given the work was that I had displeased someone, somewhere along the way, and this was their way of getting rid of the problem – me.  Don’t be so paranoid Annabelle!  This is not about YOU!  This is just the way it is, why it is called “insecure employment”.  There are reasons that have nothing to do with you personally.  Ah yes, perhaps, but they do affect ME personally, and I have no alternative avenue to take – aside from leaving academia?  Sadly, there are many who have taken that path after years of frustration (e.g., http://www.howtoleaveacademia.com/ ).   Leave and go where?  Ah that steep, slippery slope.

My numerous chronic, but invisible health conditions, my children, my mortgage, my advancing age, my single parent status – none of these are reasons to get any special treatment.  But I do find myself at times railing against how much I have to deal with, and yet how little recognition or reward I receive for what I put in to my work.  I know, of course, I’m not alone there.  But to just suck it up?  Not complain?  Not share my story?  Not imagine that something could be different?

Advice to Self:

Don’t ask difficult questions; don’t ‘rock the boat’; don’t bring up the issues that everybody just has to deal with; don’t remind those who manage to work with the system of how they’ve had to compromise their ideals; and just do the job you’re being paid to do.

Of course, my psychologist does not suggest that my ‘issues’ would all be fixed if it wasn’t for the conditions of my employment.  Perhaps my ‘choice’ of employment is a result of the ‘issues’ I have.  Maybe the ‘precariousness’ of my employment is a choice that relates to my inability to commit?  Perhaps my commitment to honesty and asking the difficult questions, and interest in critical consciousness in all that I do is also a precursor (or result) of these ‘issues’?  I have no idea, and will be going back to my psychologist to try to learn how to avoid tripping over into that pit of angry despair again.  But, unfortunately, the issues that I have raised here and elsewhere are unlikely to go away.  And I really hope that others are able to avoid the pit, and maintain a dignified and fulfilling balance in their academic and personal lives.  And to keep on talking about it.

(Advice to Self be damned!) 

 

Later…

I recently completed a course in ‘mental first aid training’, that I thought might help me with better responding to my students’ needs, and situations I seem to find myself in as a confessor and ear to students with various serious issues impacting on their studies and their lives.  As a sessional, I had to battle a bit to get accepted into the course, which was for ‘all those who have direct contact with students’.  Hmm, sounds like something helpful for we casual teaching staff that take on a huge amount of the face to face work with students.

I completed the two day course and enjoyed it.  I didn’t learn a whole lot I didn’t know about mental health issues, but I did learn a whole lot about myself.  I learnt that this is part of my calling, that being an ear and a consoler for those suffering mental health issues, and in helping to support and encourage them through their course, is a large part of why I do what I do.  And why I do it in the way/s that I do.  And why I pine for collaborative and supportive work environments, rather than competitive, dismissive and nasty ones.

As a sessional, I have been told – by union representatives and by sessional, contracted and tenured peers, that I am doing a disservice in spending my time with students when I am not paid for it, not expected to do it, and increasingly, not even entitled to do it.  This role belongs to those for whom it is written into their job descriptions, and no matter that they are overworked, have no prior or working relationship with these individuals, or do not have the personality or desire to take on this role, I should leave it to them.  Somehow this will show that sessionals should be paid for this responsibility if they take it on, that managers and unit chairs are somehow better at this role than sessionals, and administrators are cleared of responsibility because this is made clear to all involved.

Again, as a sessional, I want my story to be heard – that is, a huge part of my satisfaction from my job, and recognition that what I do means something to someone, is through my contact with students.  Yes, unpaid time that I put in responding to emails, meeting with students and staying after class, that give me an opportunity to use my skills and to help a student in their time of need.  This is time well spent.  And I can come home to my family and tell them about this, and they feel proud – that their mother/daughter really cares about who she is working with – they see that this is what gives me some feeling of worth, so different to the rest of the frustrations I come home with.

I have been teaching sessionally for a long time now.  I am no longer a poor student trying to support my way through to my PhD.  I am an experienced, thoughtful, critical and reflexive practitioner and I am able to use my life experience to both teach and support my students in their journeys.  I am not looking for more money, simply some recognition and security in continuing the damned good job that I am doing.  But most of all, I do not want my role as mentor, as a willing ear, as a supporter, advisor and voice for my students’ needs and rights to be taken away from me because I am not a ‘real’ or tenured employee.

(2,345 words)