You are here: Home > i'm not saying that we should all be mad-crazy-mr-chips hippy teachers

October 29, 2008

i'm not saying that we should all be mad-crazy-mr-chips hippy teachers

Posted by dogpossum on October 29, 2008 2:15 PM in the category teaching

So I've been thinking a lot about sessional teaching and it's advantages/disadvantages. On one hand, I'm utterly convinced that it's exploitative - it is the grape picking, the piece-working of the education industry. Working conditions are not good. The pay-per-hour rate seems good, but isn't really a return due the vast amounts of time tutors spend preparing for classes. While there's the argument that repeat-teaching is more cost-effective for tutors, in practical career terms, there is no reason beyond professional networking to teach a subject more than once - it's not going to look terribly good on your resume. Most tutors don't have an office on campus - they usually share space with other tutors. I use a conference room. This has some serious drawbacks: students are less likely to drop in for assistance (an advantage for full time staff, but no good for students). Staff are unlikely to drop in for a chat, to foster collaborative relationships (a topic of great issue to employers) or to provide a little incidental mentoring. Most sessional tutors, though they may take the time to peruse and pilfer the departmental stationary cupboard (I wish I knew where mine was), are more likely to spend their money on printer toner, photocopying paper, pens and bandwidth on teaching. We shall not even begin to discuss the computer facilities available to sessional teaching staff. And let's not even approach the difficulties of working in an industry with mentors and employers and full time colleagues who are increasingly depressed, frustrated and angry with their own working conditions (I have a theory: sessional staff are mentored in dissatisfaction as much as teaching techniques, particularly as most out-sourced tutors are hired by the most desperate and overworked staff).

So sessional teaching is not a particularly excellent position for the tutors. I'm not even sure it's a good deal for employers: casual staff who may at whim depart for sunnier climes, casual staff who, while experienced in sessional teaching may not have the research skills, interests or CV of more permanent teachers.

I have heard a number of arguments for sessional teaching - casualised teaching.
1. One can depart for sunnier climes on a whim. Hm. I think that I would trade secure employment for the suspect advantages of uprooting and repositioning.

2. One can pick and choose staff members to teach with, thus securing some sort of professional network which extends beyond one's supervisor or even one university. Again, I'm not convinced. Most of the 'early career academics' in my position teach - or have taught - at more than one campus, in one city or more. This does give you the opportunity to meat more staff, but it also usually means that the staff you're meeting are incredibly stressed and have little time or energy for mentoring or ... whatever else it is you're supposed to get out of networking. Teaching across universities also prevents you digging in at one institution - making a little nest, really cultivating proper, working mentoring relationships and contacts and perhaps setting yourself up for collaborative research projects or even - gold of golds - research funds.

I can't really think of any other reasons which are even half as convincing.
I have been trying to convince myself that there are avenues for some sort of tactical exploitation of my own exploitation. I'm not really buying it, I'm afraid. But what have been the advantages of teaching across so many universities and departments?

1. I've been able meet and work with some amazing staff. All of these, but 2 (in the four universities I've taught at) have been middle aged woman who I have admired, respected and ultimately wanted to be. But I've also seen how gender works in university heirarchies. It is women (and the odd reconstructed bloke) who end up with the stooge's share of heavy-teaching loads. And while they've been wonderful to meet and work with (and certainly fabulous in terms of the old girls' network), I often wonder if it might be a good idea to attach myself to the types of academics whose ambition and general cutthroatedness have helped them avoid the need for sessional assistants. But then, would I want to work with that type of person?

2. I've learnt an awful lot. I've taught pretty much the same topics and readings and ideas, and had taught the same stuff across the five universities I've been involved with. But each department has had a different name: English department; Cultural studies program within an English department; Media Studies program; Communications program; Media within an English, Media and Performing Arts program. It's been fascinating to see how each of these programs borrow from the same pool of ideas to produce and construct a 'program' - an ivory tower, a network of ideas, an ideology (both research and pedagogic) - which is quite unique. And reflects the professional, personal and intellectual interests and needs of the staff involved.
I am utterly unconvinced that all that institutional positioning and course restructuring makes any difference. People like me are still teaching the same things to young people, no matter what the name of the subject/course/degree, the CVs of the convening staff or the publishing profiles of the departmental heads. While the course convenors might intend a new and interesting and cutting edge subject, in practice their financial and employment restrictions necessitate using the same sessional stooges. And it is these stooges who actually do most of the teaching in universities. And course convenors beware: we are constantly negotiating our relationships to what you're teaching, and there's a very, very, very good (as in 100%) chance we're adjusting and tailoring your subject to meet our own intellectual, personal and political goals*.
And it is these stooges who are steadily acquiring mad teaching skills (well, hopefully, but certainly not definitely. Or even possibly), but who ultimately regard sessional teaching as a step to somewhere else, a momentary aberration from a 'professional' career in academia. One which does not involve teaching.

But I have learnt a lot. I've seen some very good teaching in action, and I've seen some very bad. I've done my share of each (though I'd hope for a little more of the former, it's impossible to gauge my own professional development in such an impermanent and constantly-shifting context). I've used some excellent readers (most of which could simply be reproduced as some sort of 'cultural studies in Australia bible', with a few addenda for localised interests or nods to administrative reshuffles and demands for 'more digital content' or 'more practical applications'). I've also managed to keep up with current research - filtered down through the staff I've worked with, and occasionally stimulated by a particularly interesting lecture or 'optional reading'.

3. I've had the chance to work with hundreds and hundreds of really bright, really motivated and interested students. Just when I think I hate teaching and never want to do it again, I have a class where someone says something so interesting it's on my mind for days. Students bring fresh minds to familiar readings, they bring fresh ideas to familiar discourses, and they bring - in many cases - young approaches to increasingly older institutions. Many of the assumptions staff make about viewing habits or media consumption practices or just plain everyday activities are critiqued and challenged by students simply describing what it is they watch on television, where it is they go to eat and how it is they communicate with their friends, families and teachers. I love them.
I'm also struck by just how much many of the overworked staff I deal with love them. They just plain love their stoods. And they take their teaching responsibilities very seriously. Perhaps the hardest thing to see is a staff member bitching about their work load on one hand, and revealing committed, passionate caring for their students and delight in the teaching process on the other. I think that many of these people feel, quite profoundly, that teaching is important, an idea which is particularly unpopular in academia these days.

I would, quite happily, commit myself to a couple of years of doing nothing but teaching undergrads. I'd like to be set up in an office with a computer and a library and a bunch of stationary, and told to teach a bunch of subjects. It'd kick my arse, but I'd really like the opportunity. Even though - as a friend said half in jest the other day - [expressing that desire] 'is career suicide'. I think that this is perhaps the saddest part of sessional teaching - seeing people who love teaching, who love sharing ideas and listening to students develop an interest in - and passionate attachment to - ideas feel guilt about or some sort of reticence to admit this. I'm not saying that we should all be mad-crazy-Mr-Chips hippy teachers. But I am saying that it seems the worst thing about sessional teaching is that you are faced with learning that teaching is a waste of time, is frustrating, is miserable and just plain bad news. Not terribly encouraging when you're trying to bust on into this industry.

4. My teaching has inspired new ideas and new plans for papers and research projects which other forms of academic engagement (of which I have precious few) do not. I'm simply inspired by the process of reading and re-reading canonical texts, and then having to find ways of letting students find their own ways to fall in love or in fascination with these ideas. It's challenging to find class activities or interesting learning and teaching games which make these ideas a) relevant, and b) just plain fun.
I think that the most important part of teaching media and cultural and communications and gender studies is to help students find a way to make this material relevant to their own everyday lives, and to find ways to just plain enjoy playing with it. I mean, de Certeau is fun. He's dodgy, and his stuff falls, down, but it's fun to find ways to explore and apply his ideas. And it's also really, really fun to see students then test out the use-value of this stuff, and to begin to articulate their reservations about concepts. I think this stuff should have some sort of use-value, even if that use is only as an intellectual game, just for the sake of playing.

... but, anyway, I have to end by saying that I'm not terribly hopeful about my future in academia. There aren't enough jobs. I can't publish a book (I amn't really convinced it's actually all that useful a process anyway). No one gives a crap about dance. Working in universities is generally pretty shit. Perhaps it is better just to stick with sessional teaching, rather than committing myself - so emotionally and so finally - to a full time career in it?

* Some of us are not ready to be postfeminists just yet. Nor are we convinced that newspapers, television, magazines and radio are 'heritage' media.

Posted by dogpossum on October 29, 2008 2:15 PM in the category teaching