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Rightly so, there has been a lot of discussion in recent months about the struggles of full-time academic staff in higher education institutions in our previous posts: Higher education, students, the strikes and me*, The strikes and me: never going back! and Industrial action, knowledge, and blurred lines. For the sake of clarity, this post is not designed to distract from some of the very real problems they face. Instead, I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on the silent voices in lecturing teams: PhD Students who are also Visiting Lecturers (VL’s) or Associate Lecturers (AL’s). Having been both an AL and VL in the past for various higher education institutions, and simultaneously a self-funded PhD student, the experience of those who have very kindly offered to share with me their stories, struggles and often deteriorating coping mechanisms resonate with my own. I am grateful for the unexpected avalanche of responses I received from VL/AL’s from various universities on this very issue, including current and former colleagues. I should stress that this is neither targeted at any one individual university, nor do I claim that these are universal experiences for those in similar positions.
These students are hybrid beings, often stuck in a limbo of loyalty to their respective graduate schools, their fellow lecturing colleagues and the students they teach. Despite this, or perhaps more appropriately because of this, many VL/AL’s are not fully trained or integrated into the roles they are expected to play within the university sector. Firstly, adequate training is almost non-existent in most universities for new starters, who are often expected to simply jump into the deep end without adequate experience. What is available to VL/AL’s in helping with building knowledge and experience in higher education teaching is the offer for them to take ‘independent initiative’ in signing up to undertaking a Postgraduate Certificate of Higher Education (PGCert/PGCHE) which leads to a subsequent Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (AFHEA). The experience of taking this course and securing the Fellowship was highly positive amongst those who contacted me prior to the writing of this post, though of course this may vary depending on the institution. The problem is, the course is rarely, if ever, offered before VL/AL’s begin teaching and is often treated as a simple tick box exercise to boost departmental or institutional reputation through an increased number of Associate or full Fellowships within their ranks. Secondly, integration into their roles is often stifled by various reasons, including somewhat critical outlooks within their teams on emerging pedagogical research focused on student experience, misguided assumptions that they are ‘more students than lecturers’ and/or the belief by others that they are not likely to remain as permanent members of the teaching team. These issues relating to hybridity lead to VL/AL’s often feeling as though they do not carry the same “worthy status” by colleagues or the department of being co-creators of the curriculum, being included in important communication relating to decision-making which will affect their ability to carry out their teaching and learning sessions, or in generally expressing discontent for various issues which they are facing in their roles.
One of these issues related to low wages, which is a rather common issue affecting employees across most sectors, especially in the current cost of living crisis. It may seem rather trivial to those in higher education institutions tasked solely with ensuring maximum profit by quantifying the experience of teaching, but the struggles faced by those VL/AL’s on 0-hour contracts are widespread and damaging. Though there are distinct differences across institutions in how these contracts are managed, or how their staff are paid, many practices seem to be commonplace, such as for instance paying solely for hours spent actually teaching. In circumstances where academic staff may spend hours on end preparing for teaching and learning sessions, engaging in a subsequent wind-down of emotions potentially triggered from the sessions, and then engage in copious amounts of marking (sometimes as many as 100 scripts at the same time due to the bunching of deadlines), being paid only on the basis of having taught a 1 or 2 hour session, even at what may seem a reasonable hourly wage in other sectors equates to less than minimum-wage if the maths is done correctly. There are nuanced differences of course between those VL/AL staff who are self-funded and those on studentships or scholarships, the latter receiving a flat-rate annual “salary” alongside a tuition fee waiver. Having said that, those on scholarships or studentships tended to face other challenges throughout the payment process, including lack of automatic payments, breakdown of communication with those organising these manually, and the general slowness in being ‘set up’ for all the admin-related tasks expected of them (including email accounts, e-learning, lack of training etc.).
The challenges of 0-hour contracts, although they are not described as such within the contracts themselves, also include a looming sense of dread for VL/AL academics approaching the summer months, when they know that they will be left penniless by their universities. If on a full-time status, those who are self-funded and undertaking a PhD are also barred from claiming any kind of benefit entitlements due to the receipt of a postgraduate student loan from Student Finance England. It is important to note that the maximum entitlement for this loan is £25,000 over the course of what is, on average, a 3-5 year research project. The average tuition fee for research degrees is over £5,000 per year. At the most ambitious end of the PhD completion scale, undertaking a 3-year research project with a £25,000 loan, leaves a £10,000 remainint total which is expected to help the student survive for 3 years. Of course, most PhDs exceed the 3-year mark and, combined with the challenges of not being paid by their universities over the summer months, this takes a serious toll on mental health which paradoxically affects their ability to dedicate full focus on their research projects. It inevitably leads to VL/AL staff scrambling to “take on” additional modules of teaching in an attempt to save enough to make ends meet throughout the summer, which again leaves them with little time or mental strength to focus on their PhD research.
Mental health is an issue which spans across a variety of challenges faced by VL/AL’s undertaking a PhD. There are intersectional elements which are not taken into consideration by higher education institutions that take a serious toll on their ability to juggle between their roles as facilitators of teaching and learning, students undertaking a PhD, but also human beings with a variety of other important identities in need of comfort, reassurance and support. Many universities fail to recognise nuanced issues arising from increasingly consumer-focused, neoliberal and bureaucratic practices adopted, which leave those who already struggle due to their class status, race, gender, or parenthood, with even less support than one individual characteristic that higher education assumes can be tick boxed away through a single counselling session. Some of the responses I received drew attention to the intersectional nature of class and race, others class and gender, and some even a combination of all three with an inclusion of motherhood or parenthood in general. It seems that experiences have been similar in that many higher education institutions still fail to take into consideration how the challenges associated with each individual identity are exacerbated when combined. These include a lack of acknowledgement that (1) money is a real issue, (2) there are racial, cultural and religious barriers which often mean an increased requirement of attention on family and social life beyond work, (3) certain departments and faculties are still male-centric, (4) motherhood and parenting requires serious review of pay and workload, and (5) many subject or course leaders are failing to recognise their curriculum content and teaching/learning practices are essentially colonising their own colleagues. A former colleague even encompassed all of these identities: an ethnically minoritised working-class mother of two children. One cannot begin to imagine the mental health struggles someone in this position faces during summer months in an ever-failing welfare system.
Academics who have not been through similar intersectional struggles seem to be unable or unwilling to acknowledge even the existence of them and the genuine impact that they have for their colleagues who spend a large proportion of their day-to-day work life trying (on top of everything else) to resist barriers to gender identities, dispel unconscious racial biases within their teams, or simply to provide their children with the level of care, love and support that they deserve. It can lead to a continuous interplay of unconscious gaslighting by one’s own full-time colleagues – some quotes provided to me by respondents were: “I teach more modules than you do, so you’ll be okay”, “yes but we all had the same amount of marking”, “can’t you do it over the weekend?” and “you need to work on your time management skills”. Despite many of us spending years drawing attention to stigma, oppression, marginalisation and social inequality, deconstructing and reconstructing by-gone theories that reproduce hegemony, we seem to allow it to flourish so easily under our noses and within our own institutions. This can perhaps serve as a reminder for all academics within higher education institutions, but also those focused on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, to step up their game by adopting principles of co-creation and genuine participatory change. After all, while the ultimate goal may be the same, the journey must be mapped out by those who have already experienced, and continue to experience, the inclines.
Jessica is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first year.
Unlike the episode from Family Guy, which sees the main character Peter Griffin present a segment on the Quahog news regarding perhaps ‘trivial’ issues which really grind his gears, I would hope that what grinds my gears is also irritating and frustrating for others.
What really grinds my gears is the portrayal of women without children being pitied in the media. Take a recent example of Jennifer Aniston who has (relatively recently) split from her partner. The coverage appears to be (and this is just my interpretation) very pitiful around how Jennifer does not have any children; and this is a shame. Is it? Has anyone bothered to ask Jennifer if she feels this is a shame? Is this something Jennifer feels is missing from her life? Who knows: It might be the case. But the issue that I have, and ultimately what really grinds my gears, is this assumption that as a woman you are expected to want and to eventually have children.
There are lots of arguments around how society is making progress (I’ll leave it amongst yourselves to argue if this is accurate or not, and if so to what extent), however is it in this context? If women are still pressured by the media, family and friends to conform to the gendered stereotype of women as mothers, has society made progress? I am not for one minute saying that women shouldn’t be mothers, or that all women should be mothers; what I am annoyed about is this apparent assumption that all women want to be mothers and more harmful, the ignorant assumption that all women can be mothers.
It really grinds my gears that it still appears to be the case that women are not ‘doing gender’ correctly if they are not mothers, or if they do not want to be mothers. Families and friends seem to assume that having a family is what everyone wants and strives to achieve, therefore not doing this results in some form of failure. How is this fair? The human body is complex (not that I have any real knowledge in this area), imagine the impact you are having on women assuming they want and will have a family, if biologically, and potentially financially, having one is difficult for them to do? Is it not rude that you are assuming that women want children because their biology allows them the potential to have them?
In answer to the last question: Yes! I think it is rude, wrong and ultimately irritating that it is assumed that all women want children and them not having them somehow means their life has missed something. As with all lifestyle choices and decisions, not every lifestyle is for everyone. Therefore I would greatly appreciate it if society acknowledged that women not wanting or having children does not mean that they have accomplished less in life in comparison to those who have children, it just means they have made different choices and walked different paths.
For me, this just highlights how far we still have to go to eradicate gender stereotypes; that is, if we even can?
For my blog this week I thought I’d follow up on @charlottejdann’s blog on tattoos and add some personal experiences to the discussion. The media certainly have had their part to play in the negative connotations surrounding tattoos and the types of people with them, however I question the extent to which the media influence those perceptions today. Based purely on my own experience and opinion I believe that tattoos have become relatively common and as we saw in Charlotte’s blog the rise in tattoo studios would certainly seem to support this assumption. In fact, I think a process of normalisation has occurred whereby it is more surprising when someone hasn’t got a tattoo than when they have. Furthermore, the negative connotations and ‘expressed shock’ at the increase in tattooing is, in my humble opinion, typically associated to those of the older, more traditional generation for whom tattooing was a symbol of deviance, rebellion and/or disrepute.
I got my first tattoo when I was just 14; a small black panther discreetly placed on my thigh. My choice of phrase here is not accidental, being just 14 and below the age of legal consent the placement of this tattoo had to be discrete to hide it from my mother. The intentional law breaking and deception of this act would certainly look like deviance to an outside observer. Since then I added two more tattoos to my collection and have another one planned for the near future. Reflecting on this notion of deviance and my own motivation I arrive at a number of conclusions. My first tattoo was, without doubt, an act of rebellion against the expectations placed upon me by family and peers to be a ‘good girl’ and a ‘high achiever’. I don’t in any way regret that tattoo but I can recognise the reason for getting it. My second tattoo was more daringly placed on my upper arm and in hindsight was not thought through or carefully picked but at the same time it was not an act of rebellion. Those of you with tattoos may understand when I say that getting tattoos is like an addiction, you either love them or hate them but once you’ve got one, you want more. It was this ‘addiction’ so to speak that led to my second tattoo. My third tattoo which covers my foot and spreads up my ankle, symbolises the changing direction of my life after the birth of my first child and is by far my favourite to date. In short, the meaning or motivation for each tattoo has shifted over time reflecting my growth as a person and my life experiences.
At the point of my third tattoo I’d entered the world of academia and was establishing my professional identity; an identity that was in some ways at odds with my tattooed body. Wearing a professional suit and heels with a tattoo on my foot and ankle certainly led to some raised eyebrows and disapproving looks from older colleagues. This reaction was nothing compared to the openly disapproving judgements I later encountered from fellow magistrates; not only was I young to be a magistrate but I was also tattooed and had the audacity to display them in court! Linking this reaction back to my earlier statement about deviance, rebellion and disrepute, the simplest thing would be for me to wear a trouser suit in court and hide my tattoos, in essence, conforming to societies expectations of that position. However, my reasons for not doing so are twofold, firstly I am a bit of rebel at heart and secondly, I do not see my tattoos as an act of deviance but one of self-expression. In all other areas of life, I conform to the norms and values of society, I have a career and present myself as a professional, I’m trying to raise my children to be good law-abiding citizens, I pay my bills on time, I put out my rubbish when asked and I try to treat others with compassion and respect. In short, I’ve joined the collective, blended into society and accepted the expectations of me as a woman, a mother, a daughter and so forth. My tattoos therefore are a reflection of self-expression, my little rebellious side that says, “I’m more than one of the collective, I’m an individual”. Each tattoo reflects my journey, where I have come from, what I have experienced, who I am and where I am going. They tell the reader that I am more than just a number, I am an individual embracing self-expression through body art because to me tattoos are not just ink, they are pieces of art symbolising your life journey. For this reason, I agree with Charlotte’s argument that tattooed people cannot be stereotyped as a homogeneous group because tattoos by their very nature make us unique individuals.
Like so many other singles in the world I decided to join the realms of online dating. Little did I know what I would encounter and the subsequent conversations that would unfold in the office. So, this week’s blog is a reflection on some of those criminogenic discussions that have both amused and appalled us over the last couple of week. I have to start by saying that, on the whole, there are a lot of nice genuine people out there just looking for ‘the one’. That said, this perspective was put into question on Tuesday when I received my first ‘dick pic’. Not being someone who takes this sort of thing too seriously I giggled and deleted the person, however it raised a number of questions about behaviour and our responses to it. For example, on a personal level why was I not offended? Has this type of behaviour become the norm? Is it something that women now expect or at least accept? It’s a big step up from a wolf whistle in the street or the honking horn and leery comment shouted from the window of a passing car.
In essence this is a sex crime, whether you class it as distribution of pornographic material or indecent exposure it is a crime and therefore raises the question of whether I have a moral and or legal obligation to protect other women by reporting it. Yet here in lies the problem, firstly the most the site can or will do is to delete the user who will ultimately just create another profile, secondly in the grand scheme of things the police have neither the resources nor inclination to investigate. Whilst these are pertinent considerations, the fact that I didn’t report it but instead deleted him (and his picture I might add) has, upon reflection, little to do with the potential response and more to do with the perception of risk. The lack of physical proximity provides a sense of security, albeit tenuous, that you wouldn’t have if this happened to you in the street.
In the online world I have a relatively safe profile and I can delete or block those who cause me offence. Whilst it is true that nothing we do online is truly anonymous, there is a sense of detachment created by the lack of proximity and direct risk which can turn deviant behaviour into something abstract. Is that why someone who is otherwise a law-abiding citizen or at least not a sexual predator feels that it is appropriate to send a relative stranger such images? I do wonder whether they actually make the link between physical actions and virtual ones. I suspect that if confronted most of them would not see their behaviour as criminal or even comparable to someone who exposes himself in public.
The more concerning aspect of this is the potential emotional and psychological damage that could be done. While I spent my youth working in clubs and pubs, exposed to a range of male behaviours and thus gained the experience to navigate this terrain, can the same be said for today’s younger population for whom the internet and online dating may be the norm. This led me to consider my daughters and how to prepare them for this online version of the world that I experienced in the physical. How do I explain why guys would send such pictures to an unknown woman when I can’t even begin to fathom that out myself? How do I prepare them for the emotional roller coaster of online dating where a text message lacks the physical prompts needed to decipher it and can easily lead to confusion, misinterpretation, sexual exploitation and psychological harm. Where parenting is concerned the internet and online dating presents a black hole of danger and one which I’ll have to navigate with care if I want to protect my daughters from the ‘dick pic’ senders of the world.
Who am I? For this week’s blog I thought I’d talk about the challenges of being a single parent and an academic. When I started down this path, children were definitely not part of my plan. I was career driven and adamant that I was going to be an outstanding academic – how things change! As others around me started to settle down and have children I found myself increasingly being challenged by societal perceptions that as ‘a women’ it was my duty to have children, if for no other reason than to have someone to look after me when I got old. I vividly remember these conversations, with people saying ‘you need to make a decision’, or ‘you can’t have both (children and a career)’! For those of you who know me, you’ll know that being told I ‘can’t’ do something simply makes me more determined to prove everyone wrong, however what I hadn’t taken into account was the fact that I’d eventually end up doing it on my own. So here I am some years later trying to balance the two. Do I do it successfully? Well that depends on how you measure success. From an academic perspective the answer’s probably no because I’ve deviated a long way from my original goal. Similarly, if being a good parent is someone who is there for the children after school, every weekend, and school holidays then the answer is also no. In short, trying to do both presents a constant state of tension, with my job demanding evening and weekend work, and my kids demanding less commitment to my career. For many, the answer to this tension is simply a matter of prioritising my children over my career, however what happens when my children grow up and my career has stalled? Also, why should I have to lose myself and my dreams in the name of motherhood? Such questions lead to feelings of guilt, guilt because I’m not there to collect the kids from school like the other mums in my area, guilt because I can’t commit to networking and conference because of the absence of childcare, guilt for taking time to go to sports day, Christmas plays, recitals and the like, rather than finishing that paper for publication.
Mulling this over I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no answer, in fact the situation is only likely to get worse as greater and greater pressures are placed on us in both our work and home environments. But all is not lost, as human beings we have considerable resilience, so I make it work through a process of negotiation and compromise. The children are well accustomed to the rule that ‘mummy works in the morning and plays in the afternoon’. They also get my full attention for a 2 hours every evening, restricting my work to after they have gone to bed. My most cunning approach is the one that involves play zones, where they can run around and burn energy and I can work in the corner with a cuppa tea. Finally, it’s about picking out the moments that are most important to them such as gymnastic recitals, swimming lessons, sports days and all the performances, which to them are huge events. I’m lucky that the nature of what I do allows me the freedom to be able to attend these big childhood events and gain brownie points in their eyes, which then minimises the impact of my absence at other times. The same compromises have been made regarding my career, I’ve adjusted my goals and dreams making them more realistic for my current situation. I’ll still be a good academic but I may never be a high flyer, but I’m happy with that – for now!