Let’s Talk About Work… Could discussions about work also be a useful pedagogical tool?

by one QMAC TA (with some help by colleagues) — views their own

A few days ago, Guardian Higher Education posted an article bemoaning that the £ 9, 000 fee hike was turning students into customers expecting lecturers to be at their beck and call. It mentions conversations with colleagues that apparently reveal a widespread attitude of disrespect, students calculating the hourly cost of a lecture and demands of good grades for attendance alone. As an hourly paid TA, I opened the link quite excitedly, expecting a critique of the entirely preposterous workload heaped on academics the pressures of rising student debt, and the general marketization of UK education’s impact on inspiring and constructive learning environments. Instead, all I read was a frustrating attack on supposedly entitled students with the only solution offered being answering their consumerist demands with snarky responses. Throughout the day my social media timelines were awash with approving links to this article in a way that, despite myself, started to increase my anger at the simplistic, and entirely ungenerous approach to the issues caused by increased fees. An increase that will, at the minimum, place large numbers of students in over £ 27, 000 debt as they exit university and enter an increasingly insecure job market, a market that also affects me as a present and future university worker.

Above all, as an active member of Queen Mary Against Casualisation, fighting for better working conditions for one in three workers in higher education who hold non-permanent contracts, what annoyed me the most was the lack of interesting and fruitful approach to the problem of consumer based education. I am talking here about an approach that emphasises the conditions of work in the university and beyond, shifting emphasis away from blaming students towards a way of discussing together what exactly the problems of UK higher education are for all of us who are not in management. The blog post has prompted me to write about how conversations about work, workload and cost can be integrated as a pedagogical method in higher education, a method which may counter the increased reification of education through a discussion about this reification.

There is a lot to be said about the contemporary pressures heaped on academics and students alike in the UK right now. As pointed out in this blog on global politics, despite wages falling in real terms, ever increasing casualisation across the Higher Education sector and catastrophic pay negotiations, academics continue to be perceived as relatively privileged workers. More worryingly, the countering of this narrative has been slow, and discussions with students patchy, which may in part have helped clarify why fees bear little relation to lecturers and teaching associate’s pay. Whilst fees have gone up, so have precarious casualised employment practices for teaching and research staff and real term wage losses for permanent staff. On the other hand, social and mainstream media discourse is increasingly painting students out to be consumerist ‘mollycoddled brats’ who do not understand the value of debate and only want to be spoon fed familiar subjects. Identifying these discourses in articles not unlike the one that prompted me to write this, Sara Ahmed identifies how many such enunciations appear to lay the blame squarely on students whilst harking back to a university of the past which was fundamentally a bastion of racism, sexism and class privilege (not that it’s looking that much better now). The upcoming possibility of implementing the Teaching Excellence Framework does also not bode well, for teaching quality or fee increase. It’s looking bleak all round. Yet, as educators, are we not, at least in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, in an ideal position to think about how conversations about our work with our students might bring about a relationship of solidarity rather than antagonism? Maybe it’s because as soon as I started teaching that both on campus and nationally the fight against casualisation in HE started to gain momentum, but it makes sense to me that talking about our work conditions is an excellent teaching tool. Indeed in a transferrable skills obsessed environment, in which Arts Education must constantly and relentlessly justify its purpose through market adaptable skill sets, I hope that talking about my own conditions might help students reflect on and organise around their own.

Last year myself and a colleague from another university went to speak about casualisation at the Goldsmith’s student occupation, an action prompted by the cuts to student support services including dyslexia and disability and counselling services. What we realised, in the first instance, was that our experience as hourly paid teachers spoke directly to the working situation of many students participating in the occupation. With maintenance loans barely covering rent (landlords in the area had clocked how much the loan was), many people we spoke to worked various zero hour contracts on top of studying full time in order to sustain living in London. Many of them understood exactly why we were worried and anxious about our job prospects, and empathised with how some of us felt constantly overworked. After all, they felt the same – they were protesting the counselling services being shut, services that might support them cope with the mounting stresses of being a student. I have seen first hand the effects this stress can have on students. Mine and colleagues experiences of students reveals levels of anxiety and overwork which lead to lack of sleep, emotional turmoil and physical symptoms.

However, many students coming straight from school misunderstand how exactly the university functions for the workers within it. I remember that way into my undergraduate degree I used to imagine lecturing as some sort of dream job. As a friend of mine put it ‘a bit aristocratic, sitting around thinking about things.’ A Kant in Königsberg sort of set-up. What research might mean practically as a job, let alone the terror that is the REF, is not something I expect 18 year olds to magically understand as soon as Freshers week is finished. Again here is where demystifying the university itself as a workplace might help. Being in a field that I would wager remains attentive to structural inequalities and materialist concerns, using the neoliberal university as a constant example in seminar discussions, as means of also having meta-level conversations about our relationships as educators and students can work on pedagogical and political levels. These are also conversations that might lead to reflections on about their own work places. Because most of them do work.

When I’m teaching I always start the first class with a conversation about emails. However, I always try to frame it in a way that isn’t about chastising them about daring to bother me after 6pm or on weekends. Rather, I ask them to consider why I am asking about this? Why might it be undesirable for me, but also them, to be available at all hours, never mind what Jo Johnson says? I am lucky to be teaching subjects which leave a lot of room for tying academic readings to contemporary apparatuses and ideologies. I give them articles to read about unpaid internships and protest by cleaners, asking them what is valued in different people’s assertions about these? What and how is work valued, and why should we accept it? Reification is a difficult word to grasp, but the worsening of the university space into an career and outcome focused environment for them and for me also provides the easiest way to depict its meanings. I also get to class early and speak to students in the corridor and as we are leaving the room. Objectively yes, this could be perceived as more work, but in the longer term it is also a rapport of friendliness, honesty, openness and hopefully solidarity that might pay off in the long run. When students and teachers alike can discuss struggling to pay the rent and the extra work they’ve both had to do on the weekend, maybe misunderstandings such as depicted in the Guardian article could be avoided and our teaching and learning environments can develop into politically and socially dynamic spaces that look for commonalities in our differences.

At Queen Mary, as part of attempting to expand these conversations, a group called Material Matters has been set up as an initiative to create conversations between staff and students about contemporary issues – including work. The next one will be held on the 28 of January at 18:30, and will discuss the precarity of work we all find ourselves in. QMAC will be part of this conversation, and we would urge any of our supporters, whether students, permanent staff or academic support staff to join us in hopefully finding ways to fight together rather than each other. See you there!

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