If you have read this blog for a while you will know that I did 11 long years as a sessional lecturer in various architecture schools before scoring my current job as Thesis Whisperer (for those in the US, this is the Australian equivalent of adjunct professor). I never had trouble getting classes, but the steady supply of ad hoc teaching work was a trap; it seemed to hold the promise of leading to a career, but never really did.
Not to put too fine a point on it, sessional teaching was badly paid. One year I kept a careful count of my hours inside and outside of the classroom, divided my taxable income by the total and worked out I was taking home $17 an hour.
As it turns out, being a casual lecturer paid less than all the part time jobs I did while studying for my undergraduate degree – including washing dishes in a restaurant. To rub salt in the wounds, I was getting about half the pay of a level A academic and working twice the number of hours in the classroom.
This made me angry. The good kind of angry. The kind of angry that made me want to change my life. I took up post graduate study and, through a series of happy accidents, hard work and the support of Mr Thesis Whisperer, ended up with a permanent academic job that I love.
The path to academic nirvana was not easy, in fact it was ridiculously hard. So when @sarahstow showed me the blurb for ‘Whackademia: an insider’s account of the troubled university” I immediately left the office to buy a copy, solely on the promise in the title. Academia IS whacky. I’ve sold stuff in supermarkets and book stores, dabbled in the music industry, washed dishes in restaurants, driven courier trucks and cleaned houses in addition to working in architects’ offices. Academia is, without doubt, the strangest place I have ever worked.
I read the book quickly; in just two sittings. The first thing I want to say is this book made me angry. I was angry when I agreed with what it had to say – and even angrier when I disagreed. When I put it down I had conflicting feelings, but the over riding sense I had was disappointment.
Dr Hil introduces the book well. He criticises academics for succumbing to a ‘culture of complaint’ about the way universities run and their individual workloads, and for not suggesting viable alternatives. He also highlights the parlous working conditions of casuals. So far so good; I found myself nodding in furious agreement. Hil then goes on to give an amusing account of his own university days, stumbling towards knowledge.
On reflection, I would have been much happier with this book if it was just presented as the memoir of a grumpy old (academic) man. Dr Richard Hil, like me, is a first generation academic. Unlike me he had the good luck to go to university in the 1970s and didn’t have to pay for his education. If we are to believe Dr Hil, Things Were Better Back Then and it all went to hell in the 80s when the government had a neo-liberal makeover. Suddenly academics were accountable to taxpayers for the money that was spent on higher education and fees were re-introduced for students, in the form of higher taxes for graduates. To top it off, the government encouraged – with more sticks than carrots it must be admitted – universities to start selling education to students from overseas.
This all led, according to Dr Hil, to the sad situation where students no longer are trained to be good citizens, but are treated like ‘shoppers’ who have: “come to expect a product – a degree, diploma or doctorate – that will equip them for jobs in the employment market place”. Campuses, Hil claims, have become more like shopping malls, complete with cafes and shops. I found myself wondering: what is so bad about that? I started my undergraduate education in 1989, the year fees were introduced. I remember boring, irrelevant lectures from professors who had not changed their slides since the 1960s and you certainly couldn’t get a decent coffee on campus for love or money. I’m not at all sure my undergraduate education was value for money, perhaps Dr Hil was happier with his because he didn’t pay for it?
Dr Hil argues that the problem with students being treated as shoppers is that academics are not trusted to do their job, which Hil believes is to produce engaged and informed citizens. I do think Hil is right that it’s a mistake to see tertiary education as purely vocational. My job didn’t exist back when I was in uni, neither did my husband’s, sister’s or my brother in law (who trained as a photo journalist and now works in writing internet standards). While we can’t predict the future, we can help students to be critically aware and ethical professionals, and this does not have to be at odds with ensuring quality.
In my opinion, regulation to improve and ensure teaching quality is necessary. I have the dubious pleasure of working in the most lightly regulated part of university teaching: research education. Until recently, PhD degrees didn’t even have time limits, let alone statements of outcomes and expectations. Working without much regulation creates problems – for students and for staff.
In fact, in my opinion PhD students would be a whole lot better off if they were treated more like shoppers. If I buy something that doesn’t work as advertised I can take it back. Universities sell the opportunity to gain a degree, but some PhD students find all sorts of barriers are put in the way of taking advantage of this opportunity. I don’t write about poor supervision in my insitution, but that’s not because it doesn’t exist. Most of the problems I see occur due to lack of oversight and rules, not because of them.
Although Dr Hil complains at length about the ‘paperwork’ which follows regulation of teaching quality, he gives very few tangible examples. I deal with a lot of paperwork in my job, and some of it is annoying, but it doesn’t take over all my working hours and leave me exhausted. What can leave me exhausted is my ambition: to write this blog and a book. These extra writing tasks will not, despite my best efforts, fit within my working week. But here’s the thing: there’s no real consequences if I don’t do this extra writing. Sure I might not get promoted, but I wont, at least at the moment, get fired.
The most disappointing aspect of this book for me is its failure to live up to the promise of being a resistance manual. I agree with Hil that there are problems in our academic workplaces, especially with the vast numbers of marginalised employees, but the list of tactics he offers at the end are not very useful. Academics without the benefit of a permanent position (tenure) would probably find themselves without a job next year if they followed them.
Hil’s suggestion to pretend to listen to, but basically ignore, those like me, who work in improving teaching quality is, frankly, arrogant and uninformed. In my view, academics who are overwhelmed by their teaching load should seek advice from specialists like me and my colleagues in learning and teaching units about how to make changes to the way they work. If the advice we give isn’t good, then give constructive feedback to make it better. It’s dangerous for any professional to assume they have all the answers and only need to be left alone to do their job; constant learning is part of being a professional in the first place.
So – should you buy this book? If you want to read a well written and entertaining critique of higher education, you should definitely buy it. In the end, although it made me angry, it was a good kind of angry; the kind of angry that made me think deeply about what we might be able to do to make academia a better place – for everyone.
I know many of you who read this are teaching – either as casuals or in permanent positions. What do you think? Do you think there’s too much regulation on academics? Are too many talented people left to languish in marginal employment? Do you think your workload is impossible and/or unreasonable? If so, what do you think we can do about it?