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!
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.