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Reflecting on changing roles and conditions of 15 years’ tertiary teaching work: 2006-2021
Sandstone, ‘06-‘14: from pencils, paper, profs, and tutors to email, spreadsheets, sessionals and school managers
When I returned to study in 2006, all my lecturers were senior staff with ongoing positions, teaching subjects in their own field, to cohorts of roughly 30-40 people. Each week we commuted to attend a room, took notes on paper, went to the library to get books and make photocopies. Our professors had tutors help with marking; this tutor was invariably that professor’s PhD candidate. Accessing journal articles from online journals and collecting them in folders of PDFs was still not yet the norm: the readings were poor photocopies taken from books, bound in very thick, heavy readers. The work comprised the reader, the classroom discussion, and the essays we wrote.
There was no online contact: in 2006, when we got to about week eight, one tech savvy professor wondered why we hadn’t been checking the messages she’d been sending us via our uni email. We vaguely knew we had an account, but most did not routinely use it. It was expected that students attend each week, having done the readings. The professor was not really seen as a co-ordinator exercising an administrative-disciplinary role. Academics were not expected to offer any pastoral care or mental health triage, but nor was any needed – to the best of my limited knowledge. Academics’ function was pedagogical, and classes were almost entirely given over to substantive discussion of the readings, the ideas, examples and implications arising from their close examination, and arguments between students over the class’ subject matter – which continued over coffee and beer. There was very little time given over to clarification around assessment; again, this was not expected or demanded.
In 2007, I began tutoring while still an honours student. The latter was technically forbidden but de facto possible as there was no centralised or automated vetting process, nor any onerous ‘onboarding’ data entry. Professors just chose tutors based on their networks, or on recommendations from other academics, and I had the chutzpah to get in contact for the work, and was given the nod based on my membership of a reading group. This kind of soft nepotism was unquestioned, because typically, each senior academic had a few of their own PhD candidates. Thus the semi-automatic selection of a tutor for that work was usually appropriate, as professors taught subjects they had conceived and articulated, within active and longstanding fields of expertise and interest. Tutors needed to do very little preparation, as subjects didn’t vary much from year to year, and most of the readings were classics that anyone with that cultural capital would have been expected to have already read. Each year, perhaps a few readings would be added or deleted, new essay questions iterated from last year’s, lectures amended. In the case of two of my lecturers, lectures were still written documents read aloud, accompanied by one or two overheads, or they were points extemporised spontaneously. Automated course feedback forms had already been a feature in the late 90s, but in the mid 00s they were still given on paper. During these years, all students completed them in a tutorial around about week ten. The tutor would leave the room, and instruct one student to take the completed form in a closed envelope to the School office. In certain circumstances, there were tutors who were unskilled or had poor teaching abilities; in such cases, there was very little recourse for students, or, at least, there was not a felt expectation that one could or would complain or even know who to complain to, or how.
Throughout the latter half of the 00s, as a tutor of undergraduate courses I taught typically three to four, and seldom more than five tutorials. Each group comprised, as memory serves, a maximum of 20 people. Notably, this was already a considerable increase on late 90s numbers from a decade earlier, where tutorials comprised between 6-16 people (largely contingent on how convenient the time of day was for each slot). Undergraduate courses that were considered large had roughly 70-80 enrolled: only big first year core courses were given in the big lecture theatres to audiences over 100. There were many electives, and fewer students enrolled in Arts overall due to capped places and the high ATAR at Sandstone, thus the group was spread across disciplinary fields in Arts.
Enrolments were stable. Students who self-allocated to tute groups in week one – via a pen sign up on the hall noticeboards in Old Arts – typically attended from week two, and did not withdraw. Dropping out was something stoners did. This meant that ‘class’ had a stable set of faces every week. We got to know one another, learned how to argue with one another, sometimes became friends. It *was* a social experience of enculturation. As I recall, requirements did come in and out. The bare majority did tend to attend, though, then as now, attendance declined steadily throughout semester.
To give one concrete example of how this labour divided at course scale, the first course I tutored in (large by 2007 standards) had something between 120-140 students divided between two tutors. The lecturer’s workload required no marking labour, only double marking and moderation. Moderation was all done in person in the lecturer’s office, and informally week to week over a coffee with the other tutor. As tutors, our role was to frame and clarify what had been said in the lectures, apply interpretations of the lecturer’s clarifications, and then lead discussion around the readings. Most students brought their reader to class; it was the heaviest thing in everyone’s bag, why you needed a backpack. Then as now, many students did not do the readings, and only a minority had done all the readings very closely, though this minority was always there and drove questions and discussion. However, the situational definition was importantly different, as it ensured most students behaved as if they ought to have done so, or felt the need to excuse themselves for not having done so. There were two rounds of assessment, never three; both were essays or critical analyses, framed by open questions, with very minimal and elliptical clarification given by the lecturer at the end of some of the lecturers: the questions were intended to remain somewhat enigmatic, and much of the skill lay in puzzling out what the lecturer was getting at and how this could be framed to hit the mark, given the tutor assessing it. It was a dark art. Students submitted printed work to a physical drop box by 5pm on the due date. There were no rubrics.
In practice, the marking work in the 00s was far more physical. Like the readers, the pile to be marked was cumbersome enough to need a sturdy bag or box to carry home, its heftiness a key factor in the organisation and clearing of the workload. Tutors would come in to campus to pick up their piles, typically on over a few rounds if on public transport, or even by car if the whole pile was to be gathered in one hit, as it was too big to fit in an ordinary backpack and too heavy to comfortably carry on one’s back on a bicycle, or on foot. At home the marking was likewise very physical, as it involved closely reading printed submissions and annotating with pencils, one after the other. Many of us developed carpal tunnel, in rooms so filled with papers that one or two were usually temporarily misplaced. ‘Notes’ and ‘spreadsheets’ comprised a piece of paper in a manila folder with student numbers and grades on them. As late as 2010, or even perhaps 2012, students still did an ‘exam’ for the second assessment, hand written in pen. In this mode, the biggest challenge for assessors was deciphering students’ handwriting. A lot of fuzzy logic, guestimation, and generous interpretation ensued, based on triangulating what was approximately visible against student’s attendance and engagement in tutorials. No feedback was given nor expected for this second ‘exam’ assessment, and I do not recall any complaints or requests for clarification via email. In one or two cases I would catch up with a student for a coffee if this kind of clarification was required. Requested re-marks were just as rare.
Sometime between 2009-11 this pattern of work began to shift noticeably. As I see it, the biggest difference was induced by the introduction of email as a fraught – unpaid – new administrative task that fell to tutors. Email was both the message and the messenger, and it changed the role, the risks, and the relationship. Most significantly, I see looking back from a decade later, it demanded a new disciplinary-administrative role for tutors as well as opening an avenue for clarification and complaint for students that had not existed until this point. Moreover, students who would never have dreamt of directly addressing these queries to their tutors in person now did so via email: something about the medium and mode of address disinhibited students who would have felt too shy or too impertinent to say in person what they volubly addressed in these new emails – often over several embroiling rounds. In hindsight, email enabled a style of communication that enabled people to address new claims in a new way: routinely, this meant needing to clear a large volume of claims by applying administrative procedures; occasionally, but every semester, it involved embroiling work that tended toward escalation and, in my case, claimed enormous headspace.
Yet for the first couple of years of the 2010s (2010-11), email responses were still mostly perfunctory, appeared to have been composed on a desktop computer, and tutors still replied in the mode of the slightly imperious mentor-senior who barely had time for such claims. So although a new role emerged for co-ordinators, in the early 2010s it was still not quite necessary or expected that tutors play a day-to-day, routine administrative-disciplinary role over email, handle it very sensitively like a public servant, or do mental health triage with a young person whose face they would not be able to match with the name on the address. By the late 2010s, all these roles were routinised and normative – though still unpaid and unacknowledged by universities.
As I recall, the changes which lead to this had already substantially become visible as early as 2012. In terms of the new work that appeared for tutors, most noticeable difference was the effective introduction of a new style of email from a new type of student, writing to directly question the tutor’s judgment over assessment. In the early 10s at Sandstone, this still usually involved meeting the student for a coffee and walking back through the task, instructions and expectations, then going over the comments on the submission, still on paper and marked up with pencil. But it also began to involve a new, substantial tranche of re-marks, which usually required informal conferring and sometimes formal handing back to the co-ordinator. It’s worth noticing that this style and type requires very judicious relational handling, scrupulous attention to procedures, and unstintingly cautious wording. Lapses here could result in going through several rounds of fraught and fruitless arguing and potential escalation: as complaints might mean the arbitrary denial of future sessional employment, this could be very stressful work.
Tonally, a new style of aggrieved-entitled email crept in among a minority of Sandstone students (this was absent from Former Technical cohorts at that precise time, where I was also working sessionally). At Sandstone around 2013-14 it became normal to receive emails from small but increasing numbers of students suggesting that (real eg) “I’m HD…”, implying the demand that tutors explain, and acknowledge some fault of procedural fairness and judgment, with the potential to escalate to the co-ordinator for a formal re-mark. These emails and those who sent them became tricky characters, often individuals who would pop up in a number of subjects, who required delicate and attuned handling every semester; very often, tutors ‘met’ this person without being appraised of their modus operandi. All this meant a new, high-level role as part of sessional work, for which nothing in the traditional enculturation or role as tutor offered any experience or guidance, and for which there was no training or support offered by the University. Certainly, if a student complained, this would probably end badly for the tutor.
With the shift to the demand-driven system in 2012, and the increase in cohort sizes and lowering of ATARs it meant, alongside questionable entry standards for full-fee paying international students, grade point averages instantly come to matter so much more. It was no longer good enough to have gotten in to Sandstone or carry the credential from there, what mattered was the grade point average and transcript. At the exact same time, there were also a large minority of international students at Sandstone whose written English was not yet at a level of proficiency that allowed them to grasp the lectures, readings, and assessment instructions being delivered, especially in Masters programs. As with the new style of litigious onshore student schematised above, there was no support or guidance given to tutors for these international students and their very real struggles.
In hindsight, the subtle emergence of the clarification-complaint spectrum email, and the co-presence of unsupported and struggling students with significant remedial needs was the harbinger of a major shift in relation. Its positive side was the emergence of students who felt empowered to question, get fair treatment, and have their needs met by tutors – something we never would have dreamed of from the late 90s to the late 00s because it would have seemed impertinent. So there was a move away from nepotistic opportunities and enculturated tradition, as well as deference to cultural and symbolic capital. The idea that tutors and professors knew better and shouldn’t be questioned, this just evaporated. There was a salutary loss in the arbitrary and unjust exercise of an individual’s will with no recourse; but there was a commensurate loss of the prestige, dignity and ‘face’ given to academic workers. Culturally, there was also a relative loss of humility and civility among some students. Outside, in the ‘real world’, it was more brutally hierarchical than ever; yet because students were now also consumer-clients who had paid for a service that had yet to be delivered, in a culture where having paid for a service entitles a ‘customer’ to behave like an asshole and be treated impeccably, there was an inversion of hierarchy. Tutors served the student-client-complainant, in precarious conditions where they lived in fear of being blackballed and losing all future semesters’ work. In such conditions, a pedagogical relation is necessarily fraught; wherever students adopted such a mindset, it was rendered impossible.
Tutors had become accountable to student-consumer-clients, especially for what they wrote to them, both in assessment and email, due to what they feared for their own future employment prospects. The pharmacological aspect of this is that tutors had to become much more careful in what they wrote and said: we learned to watch what we said and measure our responses, but only after a year or two of being burnt by students who read what we wrote to them so closely, often far more closely than they read the readings or instructions. We became far more polite and professional, and also developed the societally-advantageous skill for clearing huge volumes of email that included such correspondence, without mishaps. Clearly, however, the negative side of this new pattern of work and role is that students became the perfect avatars for the neoliberal-managerial University that was taking more and more of their money each year, while dealing them out less and less.
In the commodified, thingly culture encouraged for them, it was students performing as customer-clients vigilantly monitoring the service they’d paid for who destroyed the very possibility of their own learning, and perhaps of higher education overall. Sandstone took students’ money, built huge shiny buildings, ran expensive marketing campaigns, granted money to consultancies, and increased their already plump salaries, enough to pay for renovations to holiday houses in gentrifying coastal enclaves.
Next up, part two: Transition and interstice, 2011-14: the emergence of the sessional and the school manager and the abdication of the professoriate, demand-driven system, wage theft scandal.