Last Wednesday was a big day. It was my last day of teaching for the semester but also the end of my 20 year sessional journey. I have decided not to continue this kind of work with universities.
This decision has not come lightly as it is not because I want to disengage from academic life. It is about value – feeling like my contribution is valuable and is of value to the organisation.
What I plan to do now is to continue to work with universities in different ways. I love the freedom of presenting papers, collaborating on research with academics and delivering workshops. In this context, I can see how my passion for making connections between knowledge systems can flourish and grow. That said, I would still accept a full-time role as a research academic. In a heartbeat.
Over the past twenty years I have had some wonderful experiences working as a sessional academic, working at some Australia’s top universities including University of Queensland, Queensland University of Technology, University of Canberra and the Australian National University. I have worked with some amazing people. And some duds 🙂
It has not been an easy road. Any sessional academic will tell you that.
Break point came for me in late 2003. My teaching contract was downgraded from being paid as a tutor to a demonstrator (for the same work) and I had to continue as I did not have much option at the time. As a single parent heading into the Christmas holidays I was very fearful of not being able to manage financially. Thankfully a good friend made me realise that I have very transferable skills, encouraging me to put my name with recruitment agencies. Within a couple of weeks I had a full-time contract as a web publisher and then that contract rolled into another and another. By late 2004, I had secured a permanent role as a communications officer in a government department and have been in the public sector since.
But my true love was still teaching, so I continued to teach as a sessional academic with the support of my employer. It was a juggling act but one I believed was worth it.
To come to the decision that I will no longer pursue sessional work has been a really tough call. It is the end of a dream.
It was always my desire to work full-time as an academic but for one reason or another that has never manifested for me. In some ways, it is about my character – I could never cope with the jostling for position, the elbowing to get to the ever decreasing opportunities. In other words, I was not prepared to fight for the crumbs.
Now I could say a lot of very disparaging things (which are all true) about how sessional staff are treated – but I won’t. I would much prefer to reflect on the time as an enriching experience where I hope I my have inspired one or two students along the way. They have certainly inspired me.
One of my highlights was at the University of the Sunshine Coast working with Margaret Turner delivering courses in web design and interaction design in 2000-01. Under Margaret’s leadership, we delivered one of the fist web design courses in Australia which addressed accessibility, drawing from the World Wide Web Consortium’s Accessibility Guidelines, released in 1999.
When I arrived at the ANU School of Art in late 2001, there was no appreciation or understanding of the importance of designing interactive environments with accessibility in mind. Even though my PhD looked specifically at accessibility in the content of design and social equity, it was suggested that I look at using Macromedia Flash to design for web. Ironically this person now considers themselves an expert on WCAG. I would argue that many universities are still failing to delivers graduates with sufficient knowledge of WCAG and usability, particularly if web design is offered through an Arts faculty, rather than through an IT faculty.
I share this story because it is not an unusual experience for casual academics and postgraduate students. This is one of the reasons why real collaboration is difficult in the academic realm. Your research is your life and to have that appropriated is personally and professionally devastating.
My personal experience is not unique by any means – there are loads of PhDs in the public sector, perhaps not so many still trying to make the academic dream happen 🙂
The last 20 years has taught me a lot about what needs to change.
What needs to happen is a real commitment to better conditions for casual academics. The NTEU and the support of full time academic staff can put real pressure on universities to make improvements for sessional academics. Faculties need to be held to account – if someone has been sessional for a number of years then make a commitment to them. They have shown they are good at what they do and have a real contribution to make. Show appreciation, include sessional staff in faculty activities – treat them like they are part of the community. Don’t just use them to solve your short term issues – think of ways that they can actively contribute to a vibrant educational environment.
It is sad to let go of a long held dream but it is time. Time to invest my passion and energy into projects and ways of educating that have real meaning and value in the world – not just within the academy.