As the UCU have been arguing for a long time, universities are already riddled with poor casual work practice. Research in particular is sustained by low paid insecurely contracted staff (see this blogpost). One tweet during the strike mentioned a passer-by's incredulity when it was explained to him that a group of science researchers looking into cures for a range of devastating illnesses were all employed on low paid insecure contracts. 

Teaching is not far behind, with postgraduate students scrabbling for hourly paid work, even though this only pays for the actual hour they are with students, not for any of the substantial preparation time needed. We are supposed to be gearing students up for better jobs - while on immiserating contracts ourselves. 

As so often, the Open University is well ahead of the curve here. Our teaching has historically been delivered on short term contracts, which have only gradually had some working rights attached to them. Our contracts are 'casualised' rather than casual. It looks like things may get better for us, but for the sake of those in traditional universities who wonder what casualised work might mean, I will explain. (NB teaching at the Open University is unlike that in traditional universities. A permanent academic team put together teaching materials with a highly qualified but casualised set of Associate Lecturers supporting student engagement through blended learning.) 

It is very difficult to deliver high quality teaching on a casual contract, and next to impossible to do this if you have to write the lectures as well. I have done that too - staying up til 3 am to write a lecture which I would deliver the next day, unable to give the students reading material until the day of the lecture because I was writing it the night before. Then the following year throwing all those lectures in the bin and writing a fresh set on a completely different subject. I wasn't needed to deliver the first set of lectures any more, but had found yet another short term contract to do something else which I always hoped would turn into a secure job. Every contract ended in praise and congratulations, never in secure work. It took me a long time to realise that for that, I ought to have spent as little time as possible on my teaching (or the public policy research I was also doing) and focussed on polishing abstruse research publications. 

Recently things at the Open University have improved. Previously, I used to get a redundancy notice a few months before teaching was due to start, followed by a surreptitious email from line managers telling me in vague legally restricted phrases not to worry too much. A couple of weeks before the allocation of student groups, I would suddenly get definite confirmation that I had the work.

One year I was hurriedly phoned up and verbally appointed two weeks before the start of a postgraduate module. I had to learn all the materials myself as quickly as I could, keeping just ahead of the students and constantly asking supportive colleagues (who were not paid for the kind help they gave me) 'stupid' questions about the assignments so as to be prepared to explain them to the students. I did not know if I would still be wanted the next year, so it was hard to motivate myself and carry on working on that module once the teaching had finished. 

I have colleagues who take on temporary management contracts in hopes of getting into a more permanent position via that route. They can't let their teaching go in case the management post doesn't become permanent. They are working themselves into the ground, but can hardly be expected to deliver as effectively on the quadruple hours they are having to put in. 

Because our contracts are strictly limited to the teaching period, we can't be asked to contribute to feedback and development of the module to improve it for the next year's teaching until a few days before it goes live. A clause has had to be inserted to say that for the month before the module starts, we should do some work towards it without receiving pay. I have sometimes struggled to find the money to travel to teach, because I haven't yet been paid for the teaching. 

Even as I write this post, I'm thinking I want to do two big loads of marking work I have got in hand, check over my slides for a tutorial I'm giving on Monday - but that maybe I should prioritise applying for a new teaching contract which has just been advertised. It's not in an area I particularly want to teach, but I can't afford not to try for it. 

I am a single working mum. The many disadvantages of casualised work have a big impact on my family life. The hugely variable monthly income (some months my pay is double what I get in other months) makes it difficult to budget and plan. From year to year, I am never quite sure what work I will have in hand. At one point, I feared I would have no work for six months of the year, yet be unable to claim any benefits or tax credits because I would have a potential upcoming contract for six months' time so be deemed to be making myself unavailable for work. When I was looking to buy a home, no bank would give me even the tiny mortgage of £5-10K I was looking for - they all said my contracts were too insecure. 

The National Director of Relate Cymru recently appealed to Welsh Government to review support for children's mental health. He linked rising demand for mental health support from children and young people to difficult family lives. The effect on my own family of my stressful contractual situation has been very severe. We lived for a long time with a sense of impending doom, fearing that at very short notice our means of living could be almost entirely snatched away. Ironically (yes, my teaching is so full of irony that I ought to set up a laundry!), my module materials include a film about people accessing a food bank near my home - which I have sometimes thought I might have to go and get food from myself. 

I did say the Open University is often ahead of the curve. They have been in negotiations for ten years to move Associate Lecturers like myself onto permanent contracts. These negotiations had foundered, and when he arrived at the university our Vice Chancellor Peter Horrocks made them a priority. As well as negotiating over pensions, the Open University union branch and the university have continued to work on this as well as other major issues of employment and working conditions. The last announcement was that they still hope we will get our permanent contracts this summer. 

This may be a Pyrrhic victory. Proposals are being put forward to slash our contact hours with students and restrict us to giving them written marking feedback. More on why the union and ourselves feel this would spell the end of the Open University soon. First I want to talk about support staff and the way we in the Open University work as a team to deliver student learning. And before that, I thought I would talk about why this could be the best job in the world. 


Tags: ucu, strike action, neo-liberal approach to education, equalities, casual work
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Black cat and pink blanket

Laptop, a laptop - my kingdom for a laptop

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Several of the modules I teach are Level 1, with students who are new to the Open University. There is a lot to get sorted in signing up to an e-learning course, which I do my best to support my students through. I remind them that once these are done and dusted, they will be set up for the remainder of their studies so not to worry too much.

Easy for me to say! One of the issues which students often face is not having good computer facilities. There is a student grant available to provide students with appropriate resources (ask your relevant Student Support Team for more details). However the grant will only be awarded once you are signed off as having genuinely started your studies - about eight weeks in.

You can understand this from the point of view of the grant funding body, otherwise they might have to claw back money from people whose studies didn't quite get going. For the student, though, it can be tough getting through those first few weeks - not only trying to access the module website but also having to write and submit the first assignment on inadequate or borrowed equipment.

I'm glad I have always been sympathetic to students in this situation, as I was inadvertently plunged into it myself this week sad Some of the high levels of rainfall we've all been experiencing (snowfall in Scotland) got into my laptop and irretrievably shorted out the battery and some other parts dead I have spent the last few days wrestling with a very ancient and slow netbook to keep up with my students' forums (only time I have ever been glad that students are so shy shy about posting big grin), figuring out what is the optimum laptop I can buy for the price that I can afford, and what is the price I can afford - or rather what is the price my bank/credit card will let me afford. 

In my own studies (on e-learning), we are asked to take into account accessibility. People assume this means disabilities, and most of all issues like dyslexia or sight and hearing impairment, which might need us to provide the materials in a different way. However one obvious issue is if you haven't got the equipment or the speedy bandwidth necessary to access online learning. 

Sometimes public libraries will let students have extra time on their machines - maybe the university could approach them to ask if they could provide this at the early stages of our modules, while students are waiting for their computer grants to be signed off. It's not ideal working in a library, and having to run away from a bank of glaring people below the signs saying 'quiet PLEASE' if your kid phones your mobile to ask what's for tea mixed but IMHO it's better than a cronky old netbook dead

It's amazing what we used to do instead of going online. I actually like writing letters, and still send parcels to people and stuff. However I sometimes have to hold onto my letter til payday - seriously, it can cost £3.50 to send a couple of sheets of chat to a friend in the States, then it takes two weeks for the letter to get to him, then it would take two weeks for his reply to get to me if he were as good at going out to cafes and writing letters as me.

Half-written letter decorated with decoupage pictures, a fountain pen and a cup of coffee.

When I started teaching for the OU - back when dinosaurs were just dying out, we did all the coursework by post. I used to get the assignments written and printed on paper (sometimes hand-written sleepy), I would mark them by hand and put them into three or four big bundles in special brown university envelopes, then rush out to take them to the post office and send them to be verified by hand, and then they would be sent back to the students. It has enormously speeded up the process to be able to submit, collect, mark and return assignments electronically.

At least I had actually submitted my own TMA02 slightly early the day before, as I was fed up of it and wanted to get rid of it tongueout I always advise students to put in a draft version of their final assignment (EMA, as it's affectionately known). This can't be picked up early by eager tutors and marked before they have really polished it, so you can get a draft in the bank in case of an eventuality such as I have experienced sad

Now I just have to get used to the new laptop. I am starting to realise that my old laptop had a much higher spec, as well as touchscreen and - an unusual feature - a soundbar instead of tinny speakers.

I hate my new laptop angry It feels like a plodding workhorse, whereas my old one - which I realise now I took dreadfully for granted - was like Pegasus soaring through all my work and studies and fun forums I used to go on in my private life evil But I'm lucky to have this new ... thing. I'm trying to be more careful and not let it get quite so close to the flour-y cooking when I use it to find recipes for teacakes, or take it out in the rain *sigh*.

My old laptop with cat and teacakes *sigh*

Laptop with tabby cat and a rack of teacakes

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The power of power

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Wednesday, 10 Jan 2018, 21:34

In last week's Unit of studies, my postgraduate students (EE814: Addressing inequality and difference in educational practice) were offered a reading by Bree Picower (2009) which for me is axiomatic in our studies.

Picower's article describes a study undertaken with white student teachers doing an anti-racism course. These students were uncomfortable on the course, constantly defending themselves against its anti-racist thinking. They were unwilling to view themselves as being in a position of power over others, to admit they might sometimes act in a way which asserted their normality as against others' difference. They could not get to grips with what thinkers on identity often refer to as an 'invisible' or 'unmarked' privilege.

T shirt saying Black Lives Matter, with woman's afro hair and a rainbow comb with a peace sign

In line with thinkers on critical race theory like bell hooks and Gloria Ladson-Billings in the States, and David Gillborn in Britain, Picower suggests the teachers relied on 'tools of Whiteness'. She argues that they didn't just passively resist the idea that they may be part of a White supremacy. They actively protected hegemonic social narratives about race identity.

Picower is a tough read for anyone who wants to tackle issues of inequality in education. It's dispiriting to think that it might be that hard for liberal teachers to understand how racism is inbuilt, not only into our systems ('discourse') but into many ways in which we interact with each other - and therefore between teacher and pupil. But Picower rings important bells for me; not on issues of racism, in terms of the struggle I had with the main equality issue on which I am in a position of strength and power: social class.

Drawing on the Hegelian concept of the Master/Slave, standpoint feminists highlight an unfortunate paradox in gender politics. Hegel suggested that the 'Master' has power, so he (everyone in Hegel is 'he') doesn't need to know anything about the 'Slave'. However the Slave needs knowledge not only of his own condition, he must also understand the Master so as to service him.

Standpoint feminists argue that men have power, so they lack knowledge of how gender politics is enacted. Only women have the knowledge with which to set up an egalitarian, non-sexist way of working. (But we have no power to do this.)

Dorothy Smith, seminal standpoint feminist thinker:

Older white woman wearing glasses and smiling

On most issues of identity, I have plenty of 'knowledge' mixedblack eye However I come from an intellectual upper class background. I have an accent that can cut crystal (I try to soften it in tutorials!), I can talk about fine wines, high art and where to get a brace of grouse (pronounced 'grice' wink).

It took me a long time to understand that it is not right nor fair to casually talk about these things in a way which makes people around me feel about two inches tall. (Except young bar tenders who attempt to put ice in my whisky angry) It was hard to face up to the fact that I do it without even thinking about it, and that instead of pretending I can't help it, I must think about it and not do it.

That was my Picower moment. It didn't come in a moment, but slowly and painfully. I didn't want to admit that I had sometimes made shop assistants wince and cry just with a look - but in order to stop doing it, I had to learn to see the invisible 'tools of class prejudice', and realise that I am an unmarked expert at using them to take other people down sad

(NB Thanks to Gill Duncan, for finding a newer and highly relevant article by Picower - 2013.)

Reference

Bree Picower (2009) 'The unexamined Whiteness of teaching: how White teachers maintain and enact dominant racial ideologies', in Race Ethnicity and Education, 12:2, 197-215, DOI: 10.1080/13613320902995475

Bree Picower (2013) 'You can't change what you don't see: Developing New Teachers’ Political Understanding of Education.' in Journal of Transformative Education. 11(3) 170-189, DOI: 10.1177/1541344613502395


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