Gratis

Oh, the gratis.  There is always some contest or another available to the cast members to earn gratis, and even working part time I was able to earn soooooooo much.  For those who don’t know, gratis means “free, or complimentary” and is provided by the company or a brand.  …  Also, if you are a holiday hire, gaining gratis also means you are showing your worth, so not only did I get lots of makeup goodies, they also kept me on after the holiday were over…one of 3 girls kept on out of over a dozen.  Win-win!

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Travelling across North America during the dispute over tenure at the University of Wisconsin, I’ve found myself looking twice at the claim that tenure is higher education’s last ditch, to be defended at all costs—let alone the assumption that those excluded from tenure might have some sentimental attachment to the values it represents.

As it happens, we don’t have unconditional security of employment in Australian universities, although we do have an active national education union that it’s relatively uncontroversial to join. So we have some protection against capricious dismissal, including against dismissal on the basis of controversial or unpopular attitudes or research. But our institutions also have procedures for voluntary and forced redundancy, increasingly seen as reasonable responses to shifts in market demand for courses and disciplines. And of course, we have a large and growing casual teaching workforce who have no defense against this flexibilisation trend, because not being hired next semester is not technically the same as being fired, and triggers no severance entitlements or protections at all.

So while I’ve been sceptical of the claims that compromising tenure will bring about the end of higher education as we know it, simply because the higher education I know gets along without it, I can’t really argue that introducing flexibility to the academic labour market has done Australia much good. We’re still grossly casualised; it’s just that now our permanent academic staff also know what it’s like to feel the hot breath of administrative calculation on their collars. Do we really need all those different languages? What about computer science? Isn’t there a MOOC for that? Who needs Ancient History? How come this class only attracted 15 students? 

Sure, this continuous competitive analysis of the cost and efficiency of staying in business is common to other industries, but in the context of higher education’s necessarily slow-moving planning cycles, the attempt to be both agile and strategic at the same time really just ramps up anxiety and confounds calm decision-making. The problem for us is that our core service involves a course that typically takes a few years to complete, so we need stability of resourcing and hiring to be able to offer this in something other than a madcap way. (If you’ve had anything to do with assisting already enrolled students through a major course restructure mid stream, this may ring a bell.)

But because labour inefficiency is a criticism that plays well with higher education’s many critics, Australia is also now fooling around with the idea that casualisation as a cost problem can be addressed by redeploying underperforming researchers into “teaching focused” positions. So we also have some experience to share on the teaching tenure track proposition currently being promoted by Michael Berube and Jennifer Ruth in the US, albeit as a potential solution in the other direction—to bring more faculty into the tenure fold. (For a really thoughtful response to this, read Lee Skallerup Bessette’s latest column on “The Teaching Track“.)

The problem here is that it’s not possible to offer full-time job security and entitlements at a rate that makes it worthwhile for both parties, especially while the relative cost for zero hours teaching stays on the table. So it’s particularly hard to believe that this will be the excuse for an expansion of secure university employment in the current budgetary climate.

So if universities are to start voluntarily paying people more (especially in terms of leave and healthcare entitlements) than they are prepared to work for now, this means that either full-time and relatively secure teaching intensive positions must be of lower status, lower pay and fewer entitlements—economy class, rather than at the front end of the plane—or they will remain an institutional cost problem relative to the pay rates for hourly paid and contract teachers.

Formalising this solution also means revisiting the claims universities make about student experience being enhanced by research currency; a whole lot of marketing blurb would have to be rewritten. But if we want to uphold the ideal of research-aware teaching, then how should teaching intensive academics be supported to keep up with their disciplines? And if teaching intensive positions are to be some kind of meaningful career track option, surely this brings an expectation that specialist higher education teachers are also familiar with current educational theory? Otherwise they’re not specialists, just load-bearing generalists. So they’ll need time baked into their contracts for some kind of research practice.

Hello, square one.

Thinking about this I found myself yesterday in the brightly lit store of a well known North American retail brand where the staff are notoriously friendly, product-aware and super keen to help. In online surveys of employee satisfaction, they continuously rate their experience as positive. As we made our way around the store, they jumped out at us to answer our questions and make us feel good about ourselves. And then at the checkout, we were asked if we remembered who helped us. Because right there on the receipt—look, she said, I’ll circle it—is a website for us to rate them by name.

“We don’t work on commission, we work on recognition.”

Doing some research online I found that employees of this company are paid a pretty low hourly rate that’s compensated for by the gratis: the free stuff they get, that they get more of if customers rate their service highly. So as in any recognition-driven industry, care is reduced to a hustle with measurable reward, that needs the customer to be coached in the practice of timely feedback. The conversion of gratitude into gratis isn’t a cultural novelty, just a modest extension of the expectations of a tipping culture that have over a long time enabled employers to offload to customers the responsibility for people actually making a living wage. It makes for an extremely friendly set of interactions, for sure, but I’d honestly rather someone didn’t have to flatter me in order to be properly compensated for the job they do.

Because local variations in tipping etiquette have been on my mind as I’ve been travelling, I’ve been having a bit of back and forth with Mike Caulfield on whether it’s useful to think of tipping as a model for scholarly acknowledgement. And now I recognise that something like tenure does represent a robust alternative to the distortions of recognition. It’s a safeguard against the promotion of one kind of employee over another: the extroverts, the super competitors, the jumper outers, the crowd pleasers. And it’s challenging to institutions and their governing boards precisely because it formalises the expectation that universities behave with a sense of obligation towards their faculty. It’s also a vital defense of universities against political interjections in their academic governance, including those that are right now dismantling research into poverty and social justice.

But in the end I’m with those adjuncts who have responded with a slow hand clap as their privileged colleagues try to imagine working in higher education without the protection of tenure. Tenure can’t be defended only in the abstract; it needs to be called to account in its practice and application. The values it represents aren’t sustained by the hoarding of tenure to the few. And if academic freedom is offered to a minority only, then it’s really not the foundation of a whole system of values—it’s just what passes for gratis in our line of work.

8 thoughts on “Gratis

  1. I think the Sephora thing is a profound analogy, or perhaps fever dream mirror world of the problem we engage in with scholarly tipping. Either tips have consequences or not. If they do, they’ll be gamed. The waitstaff who are friends with the owner will get the most tables or the best tables. The Sephora employees will shift their workin various ways. And so on.

    I think this issue you’ve brought up — tipping on the edge of precarity — is important. If you have a stable job, health care, employment, good pay, etc., there’s an entirely different feel to the incredibly incestous academic tipping systems in place.It’s unfair but it it doesn’t feel dangerous. But of course most people are in precarious positions and a tip paid to the wrong person could be the difference between being able to make a living as a scholar and teacher or not.

    I still want to return at some point to our other conversation — does tipping more often increase inequality or decrease it? Would building a culture of less tipping perhaps be better for everyone?

  2. Hi Mike

    This is where I’m also wondering if there are alternatives to tenure that provide robust protection against political interference and expand secure employment without the almost mystical nature of tenure itself. I’ve just been reading an article that argued that the cost problem of tenure has caused it over time to be progressively harder to get, so this seems to be a system that generates more problems than it solves. And I do think the situation is different in the US where unionisation is different, philanthropic and governance stakeholders are far more powerful, and the likelihood of board intervention in matters of research and teaching is much, much higher. All these are serious risks, and tenure defends something there. But again, I think in its application over time it has delivered some very challenging unintended consequences, much like tipping.

    On tipping itself, I was interested to learn that in Paris there has been a shift away from discretionary tipping towards service charges included on bills, leaving optional additional gratuity. I was told this by someone working in hospitality who added that of course this meant no one expected waiters etc actually to offer good service, once service was a mandatory inclusion. This wasn’t at all what I observed.

    What tipping makes complicated is the hospitality of care freely given. Because tipping is essential to the pay structure of service work, it can’t be withheld. So it can’t really be used to express appreciation either. (For an excellent take on a similar question, search for Ghassan Hage’s essay “The Pedestrian Crossing as Social Gift”).

    1. Hey Mike and Kate, i am extremely interested in the notion of tipping because as a child i used to consider it insulting to tip someone. I grew up in Kuwait where this wasn’t common practice then i came to Egypt where it is very common. It’s so bad (i hesitate to share) that in some professions such as nursing, it is expected. Imagine getting a different quality of medical care based on tips! It’s… Awful…degrading for both nurse and patient.
      But I am curious what you mean exactly by the analogy to academia. Does retweeting your blogpost count as a tip? Does citing your article count as tipping? Will i understand more when i read Mike’s blogpost?
      If tipping for service in shops etc is a form of extrinsic motivation, i do not think of academic tipping as such (if i understand u correctly) because it is more nuanced. Isn’t it? At the very least there is opportunity for reciprocity (which gets really tricky and i am not even claiming all academics are equals of course).

  3. I’ve been watching your conversations and thoughts about tenure and casualisation from the outside for a while and this feels like the first time I’ve been able to really understand some of the complex issues. Partly, I think, this is wonderfully written and explores a thought track that feels familiar. Also because I’m now back in the public sector and I can sense similarities to the “tradition” of permanent and contract/temporary/casual employee status I’ve experienced in 2 Australian states. The perception of permanent employees who have incredibly strong industrial protection to stick in the same role and complete the bare minimum and the contract/temporary employees who work on 3/6/12 month rounds, constantly on the look out for the next level up and rarely stay in one place long enough to stick them out anyway… Tough to find a solution there either that satisfies the need for flexible employment because of fluctuating priorities/funding and a core set of workers to complete the basic requirements to keep the state running…

  4. Hello, thanks for this useful comment. Seeing universities from the outside–from the perspective of other kinds of employment–is definitely relevant to all this. And I think you’re right that there’s a perception that permanency leads to less effort. This is one of the core myths of higher education, when the reality now is that academics are continuously scrutinised, compared and generally pushed pretty hard, with the very real threat of redundancy in underperforming areas. This is a particularly serious threat because a mid to late career academic is actually fairly hard to redeploy to other kinds of work, so there’s a serious risk of long term unemployment following. I know people in exactly this situation and I do understand why people lobby for the US model of tenure. But tenure hasn’t solved the labour problem, nor would removing it fix the labour problem, in my view — it might fix a business problem. You’re right, it’s really hard to see the right combination of moves that could lead to a more sustainable kind of work.

  5. Thanks for this, Kate. You’ve put this in really interesting perspective and made me think a lot about my own contexts which are really interesting. I say contexts, plural, because my univ is American and has a mix of tenure-track, non tenure track and causal faculty (so much hierarchy and inequality) and my husband’s univ (a public university) has something akin to tenure in its lifelong employment of univ professors – but this lifelong employment occurs based on… Wait for it…how well they do in their Bachelor’s degree. The top ppl in bachelor’s level get “hired” into professorial track, do their grad work in the same univ and as they “pass” their doctorate they become assistant profs and get promoted after a certain number of years and x number of academic papers of such and such quality. A recipe for stagnation (but there is a lot of nuance behind it all). And yet i don’t know if the permanency affords academic freedom. When people fight for tenure, are they fighting for academic freedom or job security (i know they are related but they are not the same). Is job security, medical insurance, etc., the first thing to fight for, for widening access to? But of course i cannot imagine any kind of academic freedom without some kind of job security because..what would that even look like? I am off to read Lee’s post. It’s been on my browser tab for a while now. Because i never understood why tenure related more to research than teaching. And i was wondering if teaching controversy is something academic freedom can “protect”? Might there be ways (like unions) that provide that kind of support to faculty, rather than tenure? I don’t really know what i am talking about…just thinking aloud at nearly 3 am

Conversation welcome here