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Autoethnographic poetry: On being a casual academic

Murphy, J. (2022) Autoethnographic poetry: On being a casual academic. The AutoEthnographer, 2 (3).

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The following autoethnographic poetry represents the experience of being a casual academic before the COVID-19 pandemic. The writing highlights the personal-professional challenges of negotiating employment precarity, organisational subjectivity, and performativity within the academic workspace. While personal, the situations and sentiments are shared across the casualised cohort. The collection forms a bell curve, highlighting one year’s experiences of changing employment conditions and engagement within the neoliberal university arena (pre-pandemic). The writing starts with emergent hope and shared understanding, through the realities of casualisation, organisational power, and draconian decisions, before gently finishing with loss, regret, and coffee. Early versions of Cap in hand, I ask, and Conversations appeared in Major Threat: Punk Rock Academia (A ‘zine).

In Australia, to meet the ebb and flow of student attendance and budget needs, universities employ teaching and research academics on a short term basis (semester by semester), colloquially referred to as ‘casuals’ or ‘sessionals’ (or ‘adjuncts’). Other terms within the literature include academic underclass, disposable academics, gypsy scholars, lost tribe, invisible faculty, and throwaway academics. This transient cohort is paid on a set hourly rate calculated and allocated by task expectations and student enrolment.

The stories and experiences of casualised academics are often unheard. This marginalised and transient cohort exists outside the formal university structure, without access to many of the resources required to perform tasks, including office/computer access, photocopying, and paid professional development. Many academics engage in casual employment hoping it will lead to permanent work (Brown et al., 2010; Davies et al., 2009). However, casual work does not provide the full range of skills required for ongoing academic employment (May et al., 2013). Casualisation of labour, especially within the neoliberal university, can alter an individual’s personal and professional perception of their abilities, further influencing their employment opportunities and sense of self-worth.

Government reporting requirements and university record-keeping make it difficult to accurately report actual casual academic figures (Baik et al., 2018; Dodo-Balu, 2017; Junor, 2004). Discrepancies are highlighted in the NTEU’s 2013 comparison between Government statistics showing 21.8% casual academics in Australian universities, compared to 61%, reported by Unisuper data. Four years later, Kniest (2018) reported that around 65% of university employees were precariously employed, with 43% on casual contracts and 22% on limited fixed-term contracts. While casual staffing models have become integrated within the university structure, there has been a lack of attention to the necessary infrastructure to provide support, training, and inclusion.

The pandemic has rewritten the priorities and role of all academics in universities and provided a catalyst for university staff reform. Initially, casual academics were the first to lose work, with over 8,000 job losses by May 2020 (Littleton & Stanford, 2021). Currently, work opportunities and conditions are changing with increased public scrutiny, legal action to redress wage theft, conversion of casual roles to ongoing/fixed terms, and changes to the Fair Work Act to define the role of a casual employee. Change is coming, slowly but surely.

Item Type: Journal Article
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Creative Media, Arts and Design
Publisher: The AutoEthnographer
Publisher's Website:
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