Servant to the masses

By Legal Eagle

I’ve written before about how frustrating it is to be a sessional staff member at a university: I am an “un-person” without clear status and rights. “How long are you taking off on maternity leave?” asked one colleague the other day, and I fixed her with a wry glance. “Maternity leave? Um, this coming term, they’re just paying me on a lecture-by-lecture basis until I’m too enormous to teach any more (or I pop), and that’s it.” I hope to be able to make it to the end of the lecturing period, but I guess baby will be the one who calls the shots there…he’s due in the middle of the exam period.

I have yet again applied for ongoing employment, but given my previous experiences, I am not going to hope for anything…that way lies disappointment. Obviously, I’m not alone. I see from this report in The Australian today that Australian universities have vastly increased their reliance on sessional lecturers:

“In many ways the lifestyle of the traditional teaching (and) research academic is totally dependent on the contribution of sessional staff, in the way that Victorian middle-class lifestyles were dependent on the domestic servant,” according to the University of Wollongong’s Rob Castle, spokesman for the Recognition, Enhancement, Development report, released yesterday.

The report says up to 50 per cent of university classes are taught by sessional staff and that official figures, stated as full-time equivalents, do not make clear the sector’s dependence on casualised academics.

In two of the 16 universities that took part in the RED project, commissioned by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council, sessional staff led 80 per cent of undergraduate classes.

Despite the insecurity of being a sessional lecturer, I’ve noticed that many provide an absolutely sterling service. Perhaps, indeed, insecurity adds to our performance, although I would have thought that fear of looking like a fool in front of a classroom of students provides enough incentive to compel one to deliver quality and well-prepared lectures. And personally, I work hard because I think the students deserve it, and because I couldn’t live with a half-baked effort.

I have no idea how many sessional lecturers are employed in my particular faculty. We’re a hidden group: peripatetic and often not included in “official” staff numbers. There’s no proper policy covering our entitlements or rights, no training or induction, no supervision or management from the faculty heads and very little support from the university or faculty as a whole. I’m lucky my permanent colleagues in the subjects I teach are so awesome and supportive, otherwise I would have floundered at the start. And I’m lucky to have the gift o’ the gab (“Could talk for Australia”, says my mother).

It does really annoy me sometimes, though. Oh well, if they don’t give me an ongoing position this time, I’ll just have to scare them into offering me a job by looming at them with my enormous belly. Or perhaps I should just remind my bosses how hard it is to find someone who actually likes Property Law?


  1. DeusExMacintosh
    Posted June 26, 2008 at 2:38 am | Permalink

    Threaten to deliver on the Dean’s desk. That ought to do it. 😉

  2. conrad
    Posted June 26, 2008 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    “There’s no proper policy covering our entitlements or rights, no training or induction, no supervision or management from the faculty heads and very little support from the university or faculty as a whole”

    Excluding the first one of those (and very occasionally the second), I think you’ll find the same applies to non-casual full time staff (many of whom are on 3 year contracts themselves). Usually managment only acts when things go wrong (which really should be read: When student happiness evaluations don’t turn out happy enough).

    Also, at least in Australian universities, most casual staff don’t realize the extent of the drudgery that full-time jobs entail (it’s administrivia city, and the main role many people have is trying to get money from the government and other sources, whether they want it or not). Personally, if you are good at law, you’d be crazy to become an academic in Australia. (Not that I know anything about it, but I imagine most of the decent staff in law are leftovers that have simply been in the system too long to move out).

  3. Apple77
    Posted June 26, 2008 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    You could go on calmly lecturing while your waters break in the classroom. Then when the media get onto it, you could speak out on the rights of sessional lecturers.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By skepticlawyer » Nice try but no cigar… on July 1, 2008 at 7:26 pm

    […] suspected would be the case, I did not get an ongoing position at university next year. I know that I said I wouldn’t hope for anything, but despite my best efforts, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed when I got the letter. You […]

  2. […] one of my recent posts about my job situation, Conrad said: Personally, if you are good at law, you’d be crazy to become an academic in Australia. (Not that […]

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