Reader, I give you ‘casual lit’

In April, The Conversation published an article on the casualisation of academia. The piece (which was co-authored by a trio of senior academics) made several dubious pronouncements, including that ‘[m]any casual academics enjoy the flexibility of working across different institutions.’

Critical responses to the Conversation piece were swift and searing. Most respondents concurred that the article downplayed the exploitation and the limited employment conditions faced by casually employed uni educators.

The Conversation piece does, however, have one redeeming feature: it underscores the need for casual academics to speak about our own experiences.

In fact, those of us employed casually in the ivory tower have been speaking and writing out for some time now. We’ve carved out our own little sub-genre, even if we may not have referred to it as such.

Reader, I give you ‘casual lit’.

The term casual lit is used here to refer to an eclectic range of writings written by and about casual academic staff. These writings include traditionally journalistic pieces, such as Kate Cantrell and Kelly Palmer’s rejoinder to the Conversation article, and Inez Baranay’s 2006 study of ‘the academic underclass’.

Casual lit also includes social-media missives, as this author’s Facebook and Twitter feeds attest.

Of course, neither casual lit nor precarious academic employment are exclusive to Australia – far from it – but I am choosing to focus on Australian examples here.

The casual lit sub-genre is a kind of spiritual twin to ‘quit lit’. Both strands chronicle the challenges of the neoliberal university – quit lit is written from the perspective of scholars who’ve departed the ivory tower (or are in the process of doing so), while casual lit documents the lived experiences of those who are struggling to stay put.

How useful exactly is casual lit? Can this sub-genre go some way towards effecting genuine workplace change, or is it simply a chance for a (much-needed) vent among those working precariously in higher ed?

To answer these questions, it’s useful to turn again to quit lit. In reference to that booming sub-genre, one former academic observes that:

this kind of [writing] fulfills several needs: 1) to publicly explain your choice to leave, 2) to be seen and heard after years of feeling ignored, devalued and dismissed, 3) to be a role model for others thinking about leaving, and/or 4) to provide your own critical analysis of the state of the academy on the way out the door.

Many casual lit authors ‘provide a critical analysis of the state of the academy’, the author goes on – they also feel ‘ignored’ and ‘devalued’. Cantrell and Palmer acknowledge this when they write: ‘As a casual, you have no annual leave, no holiday leave, no research leave, no carer’s leave, no domestic violence leave, and … no sick leave.’ They also point out that (despite what the Conversation authors might suggest) most casuals don’t work between institutions out of enjoyment; they do so to pay their bills.

The drawbacks described by Cantrell and Palmer are generally unknown to students, and can easily be overlooked by colleagues with more stable employment. Casual lit allows casual academics a medium through which to make these issues known.

Whereas quit lit explores an academic’s ‘choice to leave’, casual lit frequently examines the author’s decision to remain in an apparently impossible industry. This decision usually stems from a genuine passion for education. For example, one casually employed academic writes that hers ‘isn’t a sob story. I love my job. It is what I am trained to do and it’s an important job.’ The importance of education, and the rewards reaped by students and educators, cannot be measured in monetary terms.

Speaking from personal experience, the decision to remain in the ivory tower can also be linked to a passion for research. Of course, universities aren’t the only places where research takes place, but they provide one helluva stimulating atmosphere for this activity.

So, casual lit is brave. It’s brave for casuals to speak out about their plight, given the risks to employment that this poses. Voicing dissatisfaction about casual academia can result in accusations of ingratitude, and decisions made by the Powers that Be not to rehire the person speaking out.

Casual lit also showcases the voices of casual academics themselves,­ not the voices of those speaking for and about casual academics. There’s plenty of support and good will from scholars in more stable/ongoing positions, but nothing compares to getting the lowdown on the academic precariat from those at the coalface.

Okay, so far, so good. But can casual lit actually bring about change?

That latter question was raised by a close friend, who endured years on fixed-term lecturing contracts before changing industries. Responding to a casual lit piece posted on my Facebook wall, said friend remarked: ‘So many of these articles are published and yet nothing is done about it.’

Well, casual lit (like quit lit) can certainly change or at least challenge the myth that academia is a meritocracy. Casual lit can also provide a necessary corrective to the glossy images of happy students promulgated by university promotional materials. Such images take on a bleaker hue when one considers that the educators of those students are struggling to afford food.

As for whether casual lit can bring about workplace change, well, that’s another matter.

In Australia, the casualisation of the academic workforce has been gathering pace for several decades, and has coincided with the rise of casualisation in other areas of the labour market. A 2018 op ed pointed out that ‘27 of the nation’s 42 universities have rates of casualisation exceeding 40 per cent, including 14 with a rate equal to or exceeding 50 per cent.’

The reasons for this increased casualisation are many and varied. They include reduced federal government funding for universities. Robyn May sums up this situation nicely when she writes: ‘Casual employment, a uniquely Australian expression of insecure employment, has become embedded in the university sector as a management response to dealing with funding uncertainty.’

So yes, casual lit does provide a much-needed voice for the academic precariat. Casual lit does provide a corrective to the misrepresentations put forward by the likes of the Conversation article. Casual lit does provide a necessary perspective on the harms wrought by neoliberalising higher education, as well as the tenacity and dedication of those working in the lower rungs of this sector.

Hell, casual lit is a testament to that tenacity and dedication.

Nonetheless, considerable change will be required before the casualisation of the academic workforce in Australia can be halted.

What forms can this change take? That question could be the subject of a whole ‘nother article. One clue can be found in the successful strike action taken by graduate student workers at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC). These workers were protesting high student fees and low wages. Reporting on the strike, Jeff Schuhrke notes that today’s ‘academic culture … promotes a calculating careerism over collective action.’

Yet, as Schuhrke notes, in the case of the UIC strike, collective action proved successful – student fees were placed ‘under control’ and workers were awarded ‘a 14 percent raise over three years’.

Collective action, whether this takes the form of joining a union or sharing resources with other casuals, is an affront to the emphasis on personal gain and the individualism that characterises neoliberal culture. This action may also effect change more rapidly than ‘casual lit’, however important that writing is.


Image: Cole Keister on Unsplash

Jay Daniel Thompson

Dr Jay Daniel Thompson is a Lecturer, Professional Communication in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University. His research explores ways of cultivating ethical online communication in an era of disinformation and digital hostility.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Great article.

    As a fixed-term professional staff member (5 contracts in 3 years, in the same job) at a University, I can sympathise – although, I do get sick leave and annual leave.

    I feel like Labor’s proposal to allow employees to take their employers to a dispute resolution process if they refused conversion to continuing may have really moved us in the right direction on this issue… Imagine, 100s (1000s?) of staff at each University launching actions at the same time.

    What’s utterly disgusting is how few Managers (whether senior or junior) are in fixed-term or casual employment. They are part of the problem.

  2. Response? Well, just go out on strike. Use peer-pressure and an appeal to good old common decency to acheive the much needed ends.

  3. One of the issues with ‘casual lit,’ I think, is that academics in general are encouraged to think that producing a piece of writing is an end in itself. Their research metrics are measured this way, and (in humanities at least) writing itself, alongside a devalued and often secondary teaching, is the passion which drew them and holds them to academia.

    On this note, I’ve known many humanities academics writing about disempowered subjects who seem to think that their writing itself somehow helps the people they write about (an identity they may or may not belong to themselves) and who are blind to the cognitive dissonance of this regarding the situation of casuals in their own institutions, whose exploitation pays their wages.

    But, like prestigious journal articles read only be a small circle of other niche specialists, unfortunately the ‘consciousness raising’ value of writing is small and has likely been reached in relation to the problem of casualisation.

    However, still being enmeshed in the university, or at least in love with the romantic image of it you were first attracted to as a prospective academic, makes this difficult to see.

    Personally, as a former casual academic, I feel like I’ve read very many of these articles over the past years – what was once a little known problem is fairly widely discussed – and seen no substantive change as a result, because universities suffer no cost. The question is how to take action which actually has an impact, and the energy spent writing about casualisation would be better spent on this.

    1. I agree with Guy. It’s not necessarily one or the other – write about it or do something more activist – but it so often is. Activism is the only way to make improvements. Writing about it, and clocking up research points by doing so – Dr Thompson, anyone? – is a form of complicity. Casual academics who are (rightly) too afraid to speak up in real meetings then write articles about the horror of their working conditions. It’s a ‘genre’ of writing that has always irritated me, much like the ‘I have writers block so here’s my essay on it’ or ‘I have depression so here’s my essay on it’. Certain states of being, by definition, almost preclude the conditions for immediate reflection and production, don’t they?

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