It is my first day as an assistant lecturer in the humanities at a university in the South of England. I don’t want to be late and make a bad impression, so I leave home two hours before my lecture is scheduled to start. Around here, buses are predictable only with respect to their unreliability, and the few hours of paid work I have will eventually absorb more than six hours of my day. When I do make it home, I’ll be greeted by my forlorn thesis draft, which awaits my return and needs to be finished.
As the first session with a new class always induces some nerves, on the journey in I try to distract myself by reading a book. Unthinkingly, I’ve packed William Golding’s Pincher Martin: a taut novel that sustains a sense of anxiety. My choice soon appears apt. The story follows a sailor who, after his ship is torpedoed and he is tossed into the Atlantic Ocean, scrapes his sodden body on to a rock, exerts himself in the cold to forage for scraps of food, and attempts to retain his sanity by talking to himself. I’m soaked from waiting in the rain for the bus and cannot resist the comparison.
Like many other graduate students, I need scraps of teaching to survive. Today’s session is one of several teaching commitments. My thesis is nearing completion but my funding has evaporated, so I am fortunate to have found some work in a nearby university. However, as the bus meanders along and I overhear students disparaging their assignments and lecturers with increasingly colourful language, I cannot help wondering whether my efforts will be worth it.
At the university, there is no office space for temporary staff, so I head to the campus cafe. Like much of the UK, it is privatised. I cannot justify buying an expensive coffee just to sit comfortably, so I turn away from the soft seats, which are reserved for customers, and find a wooden bench in the corner. Slowly, the space fills with students as lecture time nears. Looking around, I become aware of other older faces: people perched on the peripheral benches buried in piles of marking, or reading the only open books in the room. These are academic staff, people priced to the edges of their own workplace as the gentrification of higher education continues apace.
I purloin a cup of water and review my lecture resources. In this department, most course “content” is slathered on to PowerPoint. The students expect it; presumably it reminds them of school. I quickly discover their aversion to lectures that revolve around listening and discussion, their resistance to independent thinking, and their lack of interest in sustained engagement with textual sources. Later I am told, perhaps apocryphally, that one can finish an undergraduate degree here without ever reading a whole book.
Temporary lecturers are expected to accept teaching assignments just weeks before term starts because lectures and presentation materials are, purportedly, pre-prepared; I am expected to effortlessly assimilate the work of another mind. In practice, our intellectual inheritance is frequently limited: an array of hastily assembled PowerPoint presentations replete with illegible text and hermetic references to outdated research. When I received my own lecture resources, they challenged my sense of what “content” is expected to look like, from a student’s perspective. It was hard to imagine that a salaried academic had managed to produce such a mishmash of decaying research, pop culture references and political insensitivity. A few days before my first lecture, I had to confront a choice familiar to many in my position: either deliver the material I was given or work unpaid to improve it. In the end, a sense of foretold shame and embarrassment ignited a sense of scholarly duty and I spent a few hours modifying the material. This was to become a regular part of my routine in subsequent weeks.
I enter the lecture theatre. Usually, I would spend time introducing myself and getting to know my students. Here, I first have to grapple with the technology required to deliver my slides. There are between 50 and 60 students, most of them on their mobile phones (Apple narrowly trumps Samsung). A quick calculation reminds me that this roomful of undergraduates is worth more than half a million pounds a year to the university in tuition fees alone. I wish the students knew how much I was being paid. (It would be like telling supermarket customers how their supposedly wholesome sausages are really made.)
The teaching goes well in the way that an opening night at the theatre goes well: no one spots the mistakes or the tape holding everything together at the seams. Unlike Broadway, however, the “10 per cent rule” applies. Only six people are visibly interested and willing to contribute. They are my companions on the isolated rock of academia, and it is only because of them that I narrowly avoid talking to myself.
As the term goes on, I feel increasingly sorry for those six students. They are trapped by their marginally higher expectations and their desire to learn. Their phones remain hidden; they read; they are not afraid of perplexity. Hopefully they will experience more collegial environments in future, if they continue to study.
The 10 per cent never email me spuriously. They take guidance and conduct independent research. Everyone else emails me all the time; I get an endless cascade of requests and questions that I’m expected to manage seven days a week (while being accommodating of their late assignments). My favourite subgenre is the “I know you told us not to email you, but…”
As deadlines near, unsurprisingly, the nonchalance, assertiveness and sense of entitlement of the majority wither faster than a vice-chancellor can announce a new initiative. All they want to know is: “How do I get the grade I want?” Sadly, they never ask me about what I think they could achieve, with effort. Everyone here, from the students upwards, seems to be wrestling with the tension between a latent awareness that things could be better and the prevailing apathy. I have taught undergraduates before, but this is the first time I have seen an educational institution give up. My experiences here have stripped off higher education’s vestigial sheen and forced me to confront the exploitative underbelly of this contemporary university.
Most forms of labour are demanding and frequently unfulfilling, and academics have no automatic right to anything different. Too many are blind to the material preconditions of their employment, to the fact that their efforts are a form of labour within a system that delivers economic benefits to others. Those who start down an academic path, after years of invested thought, time and money, are choked by ideology that lauds assistant lectureships, tutorial teaching and scraps of work as necessary “experience”. This is true to a point, but the argument fails when diminishing marginal returns set in. Another course, more hours of teaching, further rounds of PowerPoint slides and emails – none of it necessarily makes one a better teacher. In fact, reliance on short-term teaching harms everyone in higher education except the few who benefit when the meagre savings are siphoned into legacy buildings or marketing strategies.
Assistant lecturers occupy a precarious position on the payroll, in terms of their poor remuneration and the instability of their income – both familiar pressures on mental health. This precariousness usually fails to reflect the volume of teaching they do. Some assistant lecturers do more teaching than salaried staff while lacking employment benefits, security and respect. The contingent and temporary nature of the work, combined with the last-minute nature of its organisation, incentivises poor teaching. Lacking time and institutional familiarity, assistant lecturers struggle to develop ideas or create new ways of motivating student “customers” with low expectations. Of course, temporary teachers are not supported as researchers. Indeed, from an institutional point of view, they are not researchers at all. Thus a gulf widens between the scraps of work they do to pay bills and the research that initially drew them into academia.
Students are also harmed by universities’ addiction to ad hoc teaching. Although they pay £9,000 a year, undergraduates are taught by reserve troops of impoverished graduates: people incentivised to improvise, people who may not have experience in the courses they teach, people who are exploited. Despite this, most graduates work tirelessly, even if their work is made harder by a poor educational infrastructure that excludes them from the resources that should support their teaching.
The reliance on temporary, underpaid labour fuels an intractable cycle. As in the cafe, so in the classroom: students are now consumers, regardless of their wishes. Consequently, they are encouraged to demand attention and input when it suits them; they are not encouraged to engage with a subject for its own sake. Students are located in a system of teaching provision that motivates weak responses to these consumerist attitudes, for they are taught by lecturers who are as disposable, from a managerial perspective, as the money students represent in fees. In a time of austerity, with a growing gap between the numbers achieving PhDs and available jobs, it is no surprise that temporary staff are unable to freely critique the departments they support.
Finally, in addition to the damage this system does to individual teachers and students alike, higher education suffers as a whole. Energetic assistant lecturers who remain motivated to research could serve as role models for academically minded students. But they sit unsupported and aloof within teaching infrastructures that would collapse if their labour were withdrawn. Reliance on temporary teaching constrains the courses that students experience: the only courses that will be offered are those that fit easily on to PowerPoint, are instantly understandable and are deliverable by untrained graduates between bouts of thesis editing.
Despite the inspirational rhetoric one may hear from university leaders, quality teaching is valued less than the simple provision of information that remains divorced from contemporary enquiry and passionate reflection. Teaching lacks depth when it is distributed and discarded as regularly as the temporary lecturers themselves because disposable, itinerant teachers cannot successively deepen their engagement with the course material; they will never attain the profundity that arises from rereading, rethinking and reflecting on the relationship between core themes and contemporary challenges to their relevance.
One can live off scraps, just about, but crumbs and scrapings do not amount to a meal. Departments can patch together hastily delivered courses for their students, but such offerings do not add up to a valuable learning experience. Do the many “customers” in contemporary higher education who are now paying exorbitant fees realise that they are receiving the cheapest “product”? At the very least, they should know what they are paying for.