The precariat of academia

Saw the following thread keep coming up in my timeline yesterday, and found it resonating, so this post is to archive it for my own re-read. Why don’t people blog any more, instead of leaving these beautiful remarks in the ephemeral streams of microposts, but that is my problem.

RT @DrSudaPerera My contract finally arrived. It took a threat to quit unless it happened, and 10 years of being undervalued and underpaid at 5 different institutions. This moment is not one of joy. It’s one of relief and finally having the security to actually rage against precarity. THREAD (5 June 2020)

Long-term precarity is exhausting & humiliating. It’s a constant conveyor belt of toxic productivity. It’s not being able to put roots in one place. It’s never being able [to] plan for the long-term because of fluctuating salaries and never having savings.

It’s never getting a promotion or pay rise and spending your salary on house moves and train fare. It’s constantly having to adapt to new systems, rules and procedures. Of living that “hellish first year” writing new courses again and again.

It’s not saying “no”, or calling out exploitation, in case you burn bridges or get ‘a name’. Being unable to say “I don’t know how to do that” and having to learn. It’s always showing goodwill in the hope that you’ll be in good stead when a permanent job comes up.

It’s the kick in the teeth when the job you’re basically already doing gets advertised as a permanent role and you’re not even shortlisted. It’s having to take that kick with good grace because you still need a job and there might be a next time (but ‘next time’ never comes).

Trying to get out of precarity means spending your free time applying for things. It’s the Kafkaesque feeling of being excluded from funding calls because your contract doesn’t last long enough, then having that held against you when you apply for permanent roles.

In precarity you document all the work you do as lines in your CV and displays of competence for your next job application, to keep being paid, so you can make your next rent. Your permanent colleagues put their work on their promotion applications for higher pay.

Precarity is having to hide your precarity from students and networks because it might undermine your expertise. It’s realising that your knowledge is judged on your position rather than what you know and you’ve got fake it till you make it (knowing you might never ‘make it’).

I got out of precarity because my colleagues @SussexDev fought for me. Because my Head of School had the savvy to use the Uni trying to cut staff that weren’t “business critical” to frame me as such. I’m good value for money. The Uni accept my worth as a number not as a human.

I’m still cheap labour, but at least now I can make a fuss. For all those precarious staff still dealing with this shit, I will fight for you. I can’t promise I have the power for change, but now I at least have the power to try. And I’ll keep banging on about your disadvantage.

I’ll speak up for the hardships you face. I’ll explain that we don’t have diverse faculty because we don’t value diversity of experience. I’ll speak up about how valuable you are because you’ve taught widely, sat on committees, run social media accounts and written blogs.

I’ll promote the emotional labour of caring for students, of the pressure to be collegiate and never say ‘no’. I’ll argue that your experience shows versatility and adaptability not a lack of expertise. That your string of shitty contracts shows resilience not mediocrity.

I’ll call out when permanent staff don’t value that and get seduced by research superstars who never contribute anything that doesn’t advance their careers. I only got to this point because some really great permanent staff did it for me, and my HoS & HoD used their power for me.

So today, as I sit with my new permanent contract, I’m not going to celebrate my ‘success’. I’m going to reflect on how much it took out of me to get here. I’m going to remain angry I had to go through it. I’m going to acknowledge my new privilege, and use it as best as I can. ❤

Since we are on the topic of a “constant conveyor belt of toxic productivity”, in academia, here are a few more that have weighed on me.

  • @ryancordell on the vicious circle of academic overwork (13 July 2018)
  • @sophiephilpott1: “Y’know how on the London Underground you’re never more than 10ft from a rat? In Higher Education you’re never more than 2 years from a restructure.” (4 July 2019)
  • @zeyneparsel on academia as third shift (15 January 2020)
  • @wishcrys on microaggressions against junior, women, and PoC scholars (22 May 2020)

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