Weighted time

We are in the shark’s domain … I am just lucky it wasn’t my time.

Mick Fanning, Australian surfer

So there’s an administrative thing that must be done, and if I do it, it’s worth a certain amount of workload time. But if the money is available to pay someone else to do it at an hourly rate, it’s given a bit more time. This is not because it takes less time for me to do it, but because it costs less per hour for them to do it. Time stretches and shrinks again according to what austerity can afford.

But then we try to reconnect this elastic, provisional money-time to human time that’s finite, and chronological time that ticks, and down we all go into the swamp of academic workload counting, where we swim and flounder in the weird suspension of “weighted time”. In weighted time we hope to calibrate time based on teaching contact hours to a separate nominal time based on research outputs, and yet another kind of multiplier based on the idea that every minute of every kind of time is the tip of its own tiny iceberg of invisible time.

So now there’s a discussion paper, and a model, and modelling from the model that shows us how time might work in the future relative to the way it’s worked before. There’s consultation, and there’s really genuine interest in fairness. And there are all sorts of efforts to use the threat and promise of time itself to nudge behaviour. In this economy, time is measured out in coffee spoons, small doses of privilege, reward, motivation, rebuke. And there’s a thought that more might be asked of people in senior roles—except not more actual time, because no one really has that to offer. But maybe those whose hours cost more could somehow achieve higher levels of productivity, by tackling the more demanding ways of spending time: time with greater responsibility involved, time that involves difficult things and hard choices. Management’s time.

And the increasing problem for all of this is that lived time in the digital work economy is time that’s sliced very, very thinly and laid on top of itself. If we do three things at the same time, where should the balance sheet reflect this? Surely we’re not trying to overclaim on time’s expenses? If I’m furtively, frantically multitasking, what do I count? if I no longer work on tasks sequentially, patiently and completely but keep all tabs open, all plates spinning, then when I finally stand up and stretch, how do I count the time that passed, that can’t be replayed, ever?

And digital time has entirely disrupted the assumption of working place and labouring presence, to the point that mentioning this is like pointing to the clouds in the sky. It’s one thing to be doing two things at once for my employer—emailing my way through a Skype call with a research colleague—but what if I’m texting my kids or checking out shark attack videos while listening to the Vice Chancellor? Am I stealing time, as we used to think? Is this the economy of la perruque, that de Certeau wrote about so persuasively as the realm of the trick, the tactic that liberates time from the strategies that enable the management of work?

The answer to this really depends on whose time is being stolen now.

This week the NTEU released their report on a national workforce survey focused on academic workloads. 7000 responses and many charts later, the takeaway is that if we’re all adding uncompensated overtime at the rates claimed by those who responded, then this is what we did:

Academic staff worked 19.8 million hours more than the standard hours (38 hours per week for 46 weeks) in order to satisfy their job requirements. This translates into to approximately 11,660 full time equivalent positions. Without even taking into account overtime rates of compensation, and assuming an average academic salary of $120,000 per year, this equates to salary savings in the order of $1.4 billion a year (2015 values).

On this basis, the NTEU suggests that while our sector dreams of attracting philanthropy from the wealthy, the most significant donation to Australia’s universities is coming from those of us who work in them.

This time wasn’t lying about waiting to be used; it was made possible by borrowing heavily from other good things we might have done. Collectively we gathered up our creative time, time for health and well being, time for care of others, our children’s time, and we handed it over to our institutions. And of course, every hour of this time that we gave came from the very finite resource of time that’s left on the clock for each of us.

While I was feeling defeated by the scale of this, a student showed up in my office. He explained to me that in addition to the volunteering he was doing right at that minute, he does a number of other things around the university, both in paid and unpaid capacities. He’s also widely engaged in community volunteering, for which he’s been recognised as an outstanding young citizen. So I asked him how come he did all this volunteering, and after a while, he thought it was something he learned from his dad. Growing up, he watched his dad volunteering for organisations, but also taking the time to help strangers.

What will it mean for all these organisations, these strangers, if we can no longer reserve enough time that can be donated in these important ways, because we’ve already given it all to our institutions?

My visitor turned out to know quite a bit about mathematical modelling of human behaviour. I asked him if he thought it would ever be possible to model and map the impact of a major overworking employer organisation on its surrounding economy, much as we can model and map the local impact of polluting industries. Could we develop a better understanding that by cultivating and then depending on chronic overwork, our understaffed higher education institutions are actively depleting time resources on which others locally depend?

I think if we could see this visualised more clearly, it would help us all to choose how to weight our remaining time and use it well.

Update: thanks to someone moving quietly among the deckchairs, I’ve been nudged back to read an older post. 2012 seems so long ago, and yet here we are. Broken. I’m sharing this because there are so many individuals working in higher education who take upon themselves the responsibility to get All The Things Done, and this is exactly how higher education survives its own chronic understaffing, to recruit its next generation of overworkers.

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