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)

 

Language & Culture: Laos (& workplace communication)

Language & Culture: Laos  Background notes for teachers in the Adult Migrant Education Program by Jean Brick (1984)  

Book produced by the NSW Adult Migrant Education Service (borrowed from Deakin University Library)

Interesting reading!  Clearly some changes may have happened in the 30+ intervening years but I imagine that knowing the older or more traditional forms of address and a bit of history remains useful.

Some items of particular interest to me in regards to cultural expectations and relationships – I am somewhat nervous about establishing relationships with my work colleagues as I have a fundamentally (privileged) Western ideal and expectation that hierarchies and level of respect ought to depend on actions rather than given titles, which can of course take some time.

An interesting aspect relates to obligation and use of please/thank you, that helps to make sense of why my automated sense of ‘manners’ – ie everyone deserves to be thanked or spoken to politely – is not directly translatable in other cultural/ethnic contexts.

When speaking to shopkeepers or market sellers it was usual to say ‘Get X’, omitting pronouns and using command forms.  Respect was not necessary as payment was involved (p28)

The concept of obligation plays an important part in determining the level of politeness used in speaking.  Children are bound to their parents, students to their teachers and employees to their employers by a network of reciprocal obligations which are continuously renewed and reinforced.  Words such as ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are seldom used in such relationships as services rendered or accepted are part of the network of obligation.  This obligation must be discharged by service or payment of respect and support.  Thanking in this context would appear insincere.  Nor is thanking appropriate in situations where service is part of a job, for example, in a shop.

Lao students may find the Australian system of politeness which is largely determined by the degree of difficulty or disruption involved, difficult to master.  They may unwittingly give offence by omitting polite forms or ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ when speaking to younger people, subordinates, Australian friends or people whose job it is to serve because in Laos such forms would sound insincere.  

Conversely, when speaking to older people or people of higher status, (eg teachers, employers, managers, etc) they may sound obsequious or over-polite because they attempt to translate Lao respect into English politeness.  (p40)

I found this section particularly interesting because I’d just read an interesting article Cultural orientation to Australian workplaces by Dr Lynda Achren (fine print vol 36#2 2013) in which she discusses the ‘hidden hierarchy‘ in Australia’s apparent egalitarian workplaces, and how CALD learners [culturally and linguistically diverse] find this aspect of Australian culture very difficult to understand unless taught/explained quite explicitly.

The problems for CALD learners in Australia seem very relevant to the problems I envisage in working within a more overtly hierarchical society where lines of command are far more clearly delineated and performed.  “where superiors are treated with deference and addressed verbally in terms that demonstrate respect and mark their place in the hierarchy” (p13) which does not sound like my ‘natural’ way of doing things(!)  Problematic issues may result in discomfort, cultural confusion, loss of face, misunderstandings, unclear roles and responsibilities, knowing how to ask questions or give instructions, appropriate levels of in/directness…

Gaining greater awareness of our own culture and how our language reflects our culture, helps us to recognise that there are other, equally valid cultural perspectives, equally valid ways of thinking and doing.   Being equipped with tools for noticing cultural difference, for being aware that ‘something cultural is going on’ helps provide all language learners and trainees with the intercultural communication skills required for a multicultural society and its multicultural workplaces. (Achren,2013, p16)

The section of the Language and Culture book on Laos entitled Politeness, respect and obligations is of course of particular interest to me.  Not that I’m reading it to learn the ‘rules’ of this society (the book is, after all, 30 years old) but in effect, the author Jean Brick articulates more general ‘cultural’ differences I’ve always been aware of through teaching and intercultural communications, but never quite been able to articulate, and all too often, to understand the whys behind the differences.

As this book was published in the 1980s, it is interesting to recognise that a lot of my TESOL training around this time, and after, has taken a different turn, towards non-essentialising discourses, avoiding cultural generalisations and stereotypes, and the integration of differences within and across, rather than just ‘between’.  One of the consequences of this (I think) was that everything became that little more vague, and less specific.  Many of my students have struggled with what they call my ‘refusal to answer questions directly’ or too much ‘abstract thinking’/unclear instructions (oh how I love student evaluations).  So when Achren (above) mentions ‘explicit instruction’, and this book lists quite explicit functional expressions, I am a little hesitant (but surely all Lao don’t do it this way?  And surely I don’t have to do it that way because someone 30 years ago wrote it in a training manual?) but at the same time, who wouldn’t want some insight into how the following functions may be performed in different and/or more appropriate ways in different contexts?

Part B:  FUNCTIONS

The following sub-titles here include:

  • Harmony,
  • Loss of Face,
  • Feelings …

INFORMATIVE

  • Confirming
  • Predicting
  • Correcting
  • Describing

INSTRUMENTAL

  • Advising,
  • Complaining,
  • Requesting,
  • Giving instructions,
  • Ordering,
  • Promising,
  • Seeking Permission,
  • Suggesting,
  • Warning,
  • Refusing

AFFECTIVE (Expressing)

  • ambition
  • surprise
  • anxiety
  • pleasure
  • anger
  • wants, wishes and needs
  • likes and dislikes
  • preferences
  • satisfaction and dissatisfaction
  • sympathy
  • good wishes

INTELLECTUAL

  • ability/inability
  • opinions, agreement and disagreement

INTEGRATIVE

  • introducing
  • asking for repetition and clarification
  • attracting attention and interrupting
  • greetings, leave-taking
  • apologising
  • complimenting
  • congratulating
  • inviting
  • offering, accepting and refusing
  • thanking
  • exchanging small talk

Some interesting excerpts (to me! – my highlights):

the establishment and maintenance of social harmony is very highly valued … and all things that potentially threaten such harmony are discouraged.  In their dealing with each other people are expected to be respectful, considerate and cheerful.  the overt display of emotions, especially anger or irritation is frowned on.  Given direct opinions or openly disagreeing are also discouraged as they can lead to disharmony (pg41)

The concept of ‘dignity‘ or ‘face‘ is extremely important … avoided by conducting arguments or disagreements at length by giving reasons and by avoiding direct statements of opinion … stress is put on appearing cheerful at all times, regardless of mental state.  Smiling is, therefore, an appropriate reaction covering a wide range of emotions from happiness to anger, embarrassment and sadness … strong displays of emotion, especially negative emotions such as anger or irritation are taken as lack of discipline and can cause loss of face … (pp.41-2)

Laotians tend to avoid correcting others in all but extreme cases …when correction is necessary it will be given in a softened form, roughly translated as ‘I think this is better’.  Alternatively, it can be appropriate to offer to do something for a superior rather than point out his mistake (p 44)

Making complaints is rare… The high status of teachers means that complaints about schooling are avoided.  In Australia, students are likely to drop out of class rather than complain … In general, complaints are avoided because they create disharmony and because it is usually felt that nothing can be done to alter the state of affairs and complaining is a waste of time (pp47-8)

It is rare to make a direct request … A request from an older person or a superior sounds very brusque if translated into English.  Requests from subordinates or younger people are frequently implicit rather than explicit …If the request is made explicit, the reasons for making the request are always given first… (pp48-9)

Commitments to do something are often not seen as binding and time limits are very seldom put on expressions of willingness to do something.  If a person says that he will do something is usually means that if he can, he will and if he cannot, he will not.  If a person, having said that he will do something, subsequently fails to do it, then he might say:  ‘I’m sorry, I forgot’ and this would be accepted as an adequate reason for failure to do the promised action.”  (pp50-1)

While it is possible to refuse a request, the way that this is done varies according to the strength of the ties of friendship or obligation that exist between the two people…  might suggest a later date on which the person making the request could talk to him [which is] understood as a refusal.  … For small things, such as being asked to a party, it is usual to refuse by citing a prior engagement.  (pp53-4)

Expressing anxiety … There is no distinction between fear and nervousness.  Expressions of pleasure are muted and are primarily conveyed through intonation … it is not usual to open gifts in front of the give or to express pleasure … A gift produces an obligation which will be repaid at a future date … Pleasure [in relation to food] is shown by eating the food … (p.55-6)

Rather than stating boldly that something is liked or disliked, it is usual to approach the subject indirectly.  The reason for linking or disliking something is stated rather than the fact of like or dislike … others will remain silent rather than disagree … People seldom talk about their personal likes and dislikes because it is felt that such things are of no interest to others (p.57)

People usually tend to downgrade their abilities and achievements as to do otherwise would be interpreted as boasting or immodest behaviour and as such would be severely criticised … It is rare to state opinions or to agree or disagree directly.  Instead, reasons are given for or against a particular opinion and the listener is left to draw his own conclusions … On all occasions, being forced to admit fault involves loss of face.  People avoid putting themselves or others in a situation that involves admitting being wrong … The appropriate response to the query ‘do you understand?’ is to smile and say nothing. (pp59-63)

In general, Laos do not apologise as much as Australians, especially for minor offences.  For major offences, restitution is expected… Relative age and status is more important in determining the depth of the apology than the degree of the offence… It is very rare to pay anyone a compliment [or to congratulate] … People never comment on how beautiful a baby is.  Instead it is usual to say that the baby is ugly as this discourages the spirits from taking the baby[!]  (p.66-8)

It is not normal to offer either food or drink to a visitor; rather it is assumed that a visitor will drink and it is automatically provided.  The guest would be asked, ‘have you eaten?’  It is usual to give a negative answer, and it is expected that the guest would then either join the family in eating or if the family had already eaten, to eat by himself…   (p.69)

And finally …

Exchanging small-talk

In general, people tend not to talk about themselves, their own activities or problems.  It is also unusual to ask people about their interests or to talk about personal interests as the assumption tends to be that personal interests are of no interest to others.  People do, however, talk about other people’s activities, often in a critical way.  This acts as an important regulator of social activity as people are often reluctant to do things that might result in others criticising them.  …  questions on age, marital status … number of children and whether or not contraception is used[!] …

People also talk about jobs but mainly in relation to wages and promotion prospects … common to ask about the cost of an item … An account of the cost of various things bought for children can function as a way to showing degree of affection for the children 

Educated men might talk about politics but few women would do so.  Sport is a popular topic among men but not women who tend to talk about traditional women’s concerns – fashion, cooking, handicrafts and the family.  … It is not polite to express lack of interest in a topic of conversation nor to attempt to change the subject.  Both can be accomplished by falling silent and not commenting on what the speaker is saying.  (pp71-2)

Wow, it will be really interesting to reflect back on this further down the track.  I suppose I’ve highlighted (without commenting ‘directly’ as such – see, I’m learning) particular points that I envisage having some personal difficulties with.  As I stated above, my own fundamentally (privileged) Western ideals and expectations, combined with a feminist and (I hope) socially just perspective, may well have to take on some new forms of agency and performance over the ensuing 12 months!

References:

Language & Culture: Laos  Background notes for teachers in the Adult Migrant Education Program by Jean Brick (1984)  Book produced by the NSW Adult Migrant Education Service (borrowed from Deakin University Library)

Cultural orientation to Australian workplaces by Dr Lynda Achren (Fine Print vol 36#2 2013)

Updating TEFL/TESOL

 

The last time I taught English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) was in the early 2000s – after qualifying I taught adults, youth and children English in a range of contexts.  Adults who came as refugees and wanted English for survival, English for further study, English to rebuild their lives in a foreign country.  I taught youth who needed English language skills to complete their schooling, to improve their prospects, to access the opportunities available in Australia and the wider English speaking world.  I worked with children who were struggling with the expectations (and too often ignorance) shown by teachers who expected them to know the same world (and ways of thinking/knowing) that all the other kids were familiar with having grown up in an English speaking country.

So I have been a bit concerned about ‘updating’ my knowledge as to what might have changed since this time in terms of what and how to work with those for whom English is an additional/other language.  I’ve asked about ‘new’ ideas, strategies, theories, techniques.  And I’ve been shown (basically) the same materials and theory that I learnt in my TESOL studies of the 1990s.  I went to the library and checked out the resources.  For goodness sake, what has changed?  Where have we got to?

Since I was a TESOL practitioner, I have worked in Curriculum and Pedagogy.  My initial TESOL training has been crucial to my pedagogical approach – that is, learners are all different, learners all come from a particular time/place/context/background.  I took on a critical perspective – English as an ‘international language’;’formal’ English as a tool of discrimination and of imperialism; English as communication over accuracy; literacy skills being quite different from English language skills; and the importance of languages other than English in terms of identity and culture.  Good pedagogy is about effective communication across differences, and no single teacher will be the one to succeed with every student individual.

Constructivism is a concept that not all educators will align themselves with.  But for me, constructivism means building on what one already knows.  Learning a foreign language is about building on what one already knows – learning other ways of expressing what you know, and using this as a form of communication.  Learning through doing, learning through play, learning through purpose and shared interests – is this so radical?

Maybe I’m deluded, but I can’t see a whole lot of ‘new’ out there in TESOL/TEFL land.  Love to know what others think…  And of course, look forward to seeing how my ideas might go down in Laos… First I have a lot of listening/observing/reflecting to do…  I’m recording my thoughts here for the purpose of revisiting this once I become immersed…