It is perhaps a little cheeky to borrow a blog title from Robert Graves’ autobiography, but after all the complimentary things I’ve said about I, Claudius over the years, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.
This will be a relatively short piece, as I am currently mired in essay marking, while also preparing a lecture for next week. My recent television viewing has therefore been restricted to ‘comfort’ TV: Silent Witness, Death in Paradise, Midsomer Murders, and lashings of Father Brown. Actually, that sounds like the makings of a corking blog, but there’s no time. This flurry of work-related activity has, however, prompted me to offer an alternate perspective on the life/work debate recently sparked by Cathy and Karen. As yet, I’m not in a position to comment as a full-time lecturer, but have a few thoughts to share based on over two years’ experience as a temp teacher.
The life of a non-salaried tutor essentially consists of working as many hours as are available during term time, in order to save enough money to survive during the holidays. Over the last few years my hourly teaching income, which is inclusive of preparation time and essay marking, has usually ceased by the end of April, and I have subsisted on whatever post-Easter teaching and additional marking I’ve been able to pick up until June. The summer months typically see me return to my former job as an EFL teacher, either providing sickness cover or taking on short-term contracts. This period is also the only time I really have free to conduct research and write articles; a pattern that is only now (given the time it often takes for submissions to go through the vetting systems of peer-reviewed journals) beginning to bear visible fruit in terms of publication – an increasingly important factor when it comes to obtaining a full-time post. Despite such efforts, I have usually found my (not insubstantial) overdraft being stretched to breaking point by the time teaching recommences in October, and my finances have seldom been safely in the black again much before Christmas. Were I not lucky enough to have that EFL experience to fall back upon, I would have genuinely struggled to make ends meet over the three-month recesses, a problem many of my fellow casual staff also experience. Some take on second and even third jobs which, while earning them enough money to live, inevitably take time away from their (preferred) academic work. Little different, you may say, from the challenges faced by self-funded PhD students, and I quite agree; the difference is that many of us have now qualified, yet still struggle to make ends meet. This is an issue focused on by the USS’s recent online survey (now closed), which featured some questions that should give genuine pause for thought: Have you ever experienced difficulty paying for food? Heating? I’m happy to say not, though it isn’t often I take a trip to a new exhibition, film or play without someone treating me.
As anyone who doesn’t have their head firmly in the sand will be aware, it is not uncommon in modern universities for casual labour to help out with the teaching workload, often leaving permanent staff free to pursue the research projects and publications so valued by the REF process. This is a situation of which I have taken full advantage in order both to improve my CV and of course to pay the rent, but it does create the (worrisome) possibility of a two-tier Higher Education system emerging, in which part-timers shoulder what is seen by some (though not me) as the burden of teaching work, while permanent staff spend a larger share of their time on research. In the last year of my PhD I was frequently encouraged at preparatory workshops (How to Go Out into the Big Wide World-type seminars) to be an all-rounder. Well, that’s fine; most of us actually enjoy our research as much as we do teaching, and have no intention of sacrificing one for the other. The problem is, we’re not paid for the former, and it’s the latter that brings in the money.
Frustrating though this situation might be, I can’t complain too strongly; this reliance on casual teaching staff has given me the opportunity to acquire extensive and varied experience as a seminar tutor, lecturer, dissertation supervisor and module convenor; all boxes that need to be ticked in terms of ‘essentials’ and ‘desirables’ on job applications. This could even be seen as a form of apprenticeship, or paying of dues, and for the most part I have thoroughly enjoyed it (though the initial thrill of marking huge batches of essays based on someone else’s lectures admittedly begins to pall after a while). I have, on the whole, been well-treated by employers, despite the frankly ludicrous job titles they sometimes saddle us with. Sessional Lecturer I can live with. But Teaching Assistant? I’m the one who’s actually doing the teaching; I’m not assisting anyone (except, hopefully, the students). Visiting Tutor? Well, fair enough; but I do visit every week during term time, in case you hadn’t noticed (and I’m actually on campus more often than some of the full-timers). Then, of course, there’s my personal favourite: Non-Established Teacher, or NET for short. A full-time colleague once told me that he spent his first year in the department wondering who the mysterious Annette was:
‘I’m on sabbatical next term, can anyone cover my second year module?’
‘Oh, we’ll get Annette to do it.’
Annette = a NET. Get it?
Oh, well; let’s hope she gets a bonus for all the work she’s taking on.
It’s not so bad. I’ve been immensely lucky in terms of the subjects I have taught and the students I’ve worked with, and have generally returned home after a day’s labours with a warm (ish) glow of satisfaction. The fact remains, though, that we temps are more often than not inheriting someone else’s didactic cast-offs, which we accept because there is simply no other choice; a NET would be nuts to say no. Even when we do get the chance to prepare our own modules from scratch (a heavy though pleasurable investment in terms of time), there is no guarantee we’ll be given the same opportunity the following year, as such things are largely dependent on the changing schedules of full-time staff. Not all temps are as fortunate as I have been in this respect, and the fact that fractional contracts are sometimes not offered even for fairly substantial workloads can leave the temp worker feeling neither valued nor secure.
The real soul-cruncher is that, while one is in the midst of it, there’s little light to be seen at the end of the tunnel. Colleagues are often sympathetic, offering a mix of advice, encouragement and retrospective tales of woe: ‘Don’t worry; you’re doing all the right things. It took me three interviews before I got my first post…’ That’s lovely of them, but isn’t much solace after the fourth rejection. A wise old friend once likened the experience of applying for full-time posts to being on a bus: ‘At every interview you see the same faces, the same passengers. One by one you watch them get off the bus when they get the job you wanted. And eventually you get to your stop.’
Personally, I detest bus travel, but it’s very apposite. And after failing to obtain a permanent post last summer (my second disheartening year ‘on the market’), I began to feel as though I was trapped on some Kafkaesque ring road. I gave myself one more year; if I didn’t obtain a ‘proper’ job by September 2015, it would be back to Rome with my tail between my legs, ready to resume teaching uninterested Italian businesspeople how to answer the telephone in English.
That will not now be necessary, thankfully. After two and a half years in the wilderness, I will shortly be taking up a full-time, permanent lecturing post, which I accepted with no small amount of gratitude and, I must admit, relief. I write this neither to brag nor invite congratulation – though I’ve already done plenty of both in private, believe me – and from recent postings I’m quite aware that I’ll soon have a whole new set of challenges to meet as a full-time member of staff. In the meantime, though, I’d like to try to reassure the many, many temp teachers out there who are currently beavering away simply to get by:
You WILL get off that bus.
And I apologise heartily for the fact that my saying that is absolutely no consolation.
Dr Richard Hewett will shortly be taking up the post of Lecturer in Media Theory in the School of Arts and Media at the University of Salford. He has contributed articles to The Journal of British Cinema and Television, The Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Critical Studies in Television and Adaptation. Full publication details can be found here.