Reflecting on changing roles and conditions of 15 years’ tertiary teaching work: 2006-2021 (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.
Summing up back from the mid 2000s to the early 2010s, we can synthesise the following to transition. In 2006, lecturing was done by long-time lecturers, and tutoring by tutors. Both roles were academic and pedagogical, and neither involved an onerous burden of co-ordination or fraught, high volume administrative work conducted online. Work was held together by tradition, enculturation, hierarchy, deference, and symbolic and cultural capital. A lecturer’s role was just about curating and assembling syllabi and readers, delivering weekly lectures, and meeting tutors for a coffee once a week. Assessments were questions dreamt up by lecturers and written as open questions with only light proof reading (and sometimes typos); clarification was minimal, and didn’t substantially intrude into tutorials. At Sandstone in the 00s, there was very little remedial English, communicated personal hardship, documented disability, or mental health triage in response to an email signalling distress. For lecturers and tutors at Sandstone (always a place of privilege) it was in every way an easier role, and cohorts were in every way less demanding and needed and asked much less of academic staff.
By 2014, in contrast, Excel-based spreadsheets were becoming necessary to deal with the numbers; marking was all conducted digitally; grades and comments were closely scrutinised by an increasing percentage of students, some of whom required scrupulous, kid gloves handling, and extensive deliberation, often involving intervention by lecturers, who were also thrust into these new disciplinary-administrative and pastoral-triage roles. By 2014, two years after places were uncapped with the introduction of the demand-driven system, core undergraduate courses had enrolments over 200; at Redbricks (of which more in the next post), for first year students, this hit numbers over 1000. Most subjects had been sessionalised and were now co-ordinated and taught by senior PhD candidates and ECRs (early career researchers) trying to make rent while looking for ongoing work, and tutored and marked by junior PhD candidates to supplement their scholarships. This group, collectively, were now called sessionals. In these precise years, most senior and ambitious academics had bought out of teaching and were off chasing ARC grants and accruing frequent flyer miles.
From the pencil and whiteboard marker (chalk last spotted in 2007) to the laptop and email; from the tutor and prof to the sessional and pdf; from enculturated transmission and deference to high volume professional handling – outside of classroom hours.
In hindsight – for the (latterly acknowledged) wage theft scandals of those years, which was also 2012, the year that the demand-driven system was introduced – what’s obvious is how the old administrative procedures and cultural norms were still being used expediently to order this new pattern of labour. However, entirely new roles and authority and a new mode of relation had emerged, with boundary, role, labour, and handling implications that were wilfully unrecognised. At the precise moment that so much more was being asked of tutors – the moment they became sessionals – recognition, resources, and support were withheld. A group being asked to do something unprecedented and difficult were gaslit on the difficulties they experienced, the time it took, the money and headspace it destroyed, how it felt in the mind and the body. So it was the first four years of the 2010s that were the crucial interstitial period. The wage theft scandals in universities across the country – only recognised in 2019 after litigation – were emblematic of this.
During this interstitial period of the early 2010s, when more junior and precarious people needed guidance and support more than ever, senior academic staff were mostly deaf or indifferent to the new political claims of overwhelmed sessionals. In comments I noted from one or two senior professors, sessionals’ claims of exploitation were read back as those of uppity, complainy millennials shirking hard graft or lacking gumption: in the old days, it seemed, people would just ‘do what it takes’, and not complain. At Sandstone, senior professors with good publications and recent or current ARC success were effectively absentee landlord rentiers, entities naming doors along corridors, handing out co-ordination and lecturing opportunities to their favoured tutors. They could not teach, they were in London or the Hague, on email and Twitter, not in their office, not on campus, not teaching. I did not see this as clearly at the time, but most of this group of successful beneficiaries abdicated any practised obligation for intergenerational responsibility. Of course they handed out good teaching work opportunities to their pups, but they had too, because they were away, and they did so to the people they knew because it was still an established cultural norm, and because it was less work than needing to advertise, interview, and hire, based on deliberation over merit. My sense is that most had internalised hierarchy as a mark of their own individual merit, and were totally wrapped up in career success, or terribly afraid of failure, ageing, and so imminent future irrelevance. So they were deeply insecure, and almost completely preoccupied with grant applications, failing marriages, teenage children. This meant that, beyond giving sessional opportunities, they were not structurally or emotionally available to my generation, or those coming up.
Further down the hall were the new petty sovereigns, the school managers: among this group, some were being aggressively restructured, while others had new offices behind swipe-access plate glass (again, installed between 2012-14). This latter group were the new de facto bosses running things for management in the absence of the professoriate: they squeezed labour and juked stats using spreadsheets, fiat, and the tacit understanding that they had the full and unquestioning support of the executive. It was known they had the power to quietly blackball those uppity tutors who were foolish enough to complain or try to organise.
Note the shift: sessionals now directly faced school managers as moat and castle; professors still conducted sessional labour hire arbitrage in the background, but their role in teaching work faded away almost completely. For precisely my generation, this also carried a benefit, as those fortunate enough to secure sessional co-ordination and lecturing opportunities suddenly got experience and had responsibilities up to level B. Although we were not paid for this, it was effectively an invaluable professional internship that served some of us well when we became applicants for lectureships. I was surely one such beneficiary. But if I can distil it down to one word emblematic of the early 2010s, it is ‘sessionals’, as new category of precarious person. There were no ‘sessionals’ in 2006… they only really appeared as social fact and category of person by 2012.