Rows and columns, or the logic of the contemporary university

Exploitation of intellectual laborers at Australian universities is in the news, again: teachers with mounting debts, unable to pay rent, let go without notice. I’ve spoken to people who have received email terminations that opened with the words ‘Dear [Name]’. Others have been living on a pmerverse mosaic of semester-to-semester contracts for decades.

If the neoliberal university were to have an honest motto it would be minus tempus, minus stipendium, minus sustentaculum. Less time, less pay, less support. The contemporary university’s focus on content delivery rather than research-supported-teaching and careful collaboration means it chronically disregards embodied work conditions and knowledges. The odd email about mindful breathing from management can’t plaster over the university’s extractivist practices which include mining rather than minding bodies[1], creativity, capacity, time and space.

I know this, and still I read the latest articles, hypnotised. One worker describes teaching in the morning, attending a funeral at mid-day, returning to campus to deliver an evening class. There is no paid leave. The only way to miss a class is to be on your death bed, they say.

Someone else lives with chronic fatigue but can’t say no to loaded-up teaching due to financial insecurity. Another worker wonders, ‘How do I play it so I don’t have a total nervous breakdown while guaranteeing I’m employable?’

In equal running for a new university slogan would be Facebook’s original motto: ‘Go fast and break things.’

I started teaching just a few years after the Australian academic job market collapsed. I hate the word ‘market’ in this context. But it’s accurate, so I’m using it.

Between 2013 and 2020 I had thirty-four casual contracts. Some people have had 37 contracts during the same time. Others, 40+. Still, the university maintains it has no obligation to offer secure and ongoing employment to these workers. As a casualised worker, I was gob-smacked at how much teaching I had to take on to pay rent and bills; how much administration was related to the complex timecard submissions; how much time I spent taking the same onboarding processes, year after year.

When the systemic wage theft and education theft at my university started to get serious public exposure, I gave testimony in the Senate estimates, evidence to the Fair Work Ombudsman. I tried to narrativise my experience of being ground-to-a-paste by my work to the Vice Chancellor’s people at the bargaining table. I wasn’t alone, there were so many of us. Our stories spoke the same patterns of being overloaded, underpaid, demoralised. Still, universities across this continent maintain that these practices aren’t systemic. While giving testimony, I remember looking over at management and lawyers and not knowing who management was and who a lawyer. I felt like a small flower gripping the top of a bare and unstable cliff.

Writing from the early days of the lockdowns in 2020—when tens of thousands of full-time and casual jobs were lost at Australian universities—essayist, art critic and casualised academic Anwen Crawford recalled a small socially-distanced protest against fee hikes and job losses that got broken up by a squad of cops at the University of Sydney. As she writes about this protest she also remembers ‘when it was still possible to shame a university administration for allowing police onto campus …’

Crawford goes on talking about earlier years—the Howard years—when student unionism was made voluntary, ‘thus knee-capping the organising capacity of students.’ Not just industrial organising, but protest laws have been eroded these past years, too. She continues:

Often I have felt in the past decade that some chain of transmission has been broken, and it has been; the lessons I was taught by activists blooded in the social struggles of the 70s, 80s and 90s have not been passed down, and this has not been accidental.

So, you are good at teaching? Maybe you’re excellent. You’ll never work fast enough. You try and manifest the changes you want to see in your life. How will you afford them?

So, a manager says you are in the wrong job if you can’t deliver complex and careful work at punishing speeds. Punishing because it is underpaid—though you are overworked—and you don’t have time to get another job which, financially speaking, you really do need.

So, you don’t have money. Ergo you must have time because everything takes longer when you do not have money. Things you have made for yourself break. You cannot pay a plumber, so you become a plumber by night. Your car doesn’t work, but you can’t become a mechanic (you’ve tried). You get sick, can’t get to the doctor. Not this week. Or you can afford to go by slashing your bills. Your phone or internet runs out, you can’t recharge. Not yet. Not yet. You wonder if you can teach your online class using the library wifi in the next biggest town. But then you remember about your car. You sit down and try to untangle your problems, like untangling worms in a pile.

In ‘University.xslx’, Andrew Brooks and Tom Melick detail how the university is not just using the spreadsheet as a technology of violent efficiency but is actually becoming a spreadsheet—arranged in ‘rows and columns’—where degraded student experience is ‘re-branded as an ‘exciting opportunity to innovate’, and everyone employed comes to know, in no uncertain terms, they should be lucky to have a job.’

Following Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, Brooks and Melick suggest that it might be worth ‘decoupling the work from the job’ through study as a model of resistance.

This makes sense to me. When I was fresh out of my PhD, I started a group that met every Friday, from 10 am to midday. We read a book, out loud, for two hours. This was a collective practice in paying attention to each other, reminding ourselves to ask questions of each other. The most basic questions. We were reading as readers, not trained philosophers. We read all the footnotes. We looked things up. We paused and re-read passages we couldn’t understand. We were reading to think more closely about how to live, to withstand our bodies in this world. We had to listen carefully to each other, had to read mindfully. We were committed to reading cover-to-cover. We’d go slow to go deep. People from beyond the university started to show up and read with us. We read in galleries, under trees. It would take us a year, often longer, to read a single book and discuss the ideas in detail so we all understood.

Later, the group decided to bookend each reading of philosophy with poetry, which is philosophy done in the language of bodies and rivers and beds. We understood that poetry would deepen the meanings of philosophy and critical theory. We read in galleries, at protest ‘read-ins’. None of the work we did in those rooms, galleries, at protests could be caught in a spreadsheet, which is the point. In those reading sessions, I felt like we were punching through the walls of the university. Fuck the doors, we were climbing in and out of our building’s windows.

Last week, as the picket line at the University of Melbourne’s Parkville campus unravelled across the South Lawn, I saw a sign that said ‘Drop your books and protest’. Instinctively, I thought, ‘No, no! Your books can carry you into the streets.’

I suspect that poets are viewed by the university system as a kind of wilderness. A green cathedral, embodied. I mean, maybe they are thought of as beings who stand apart from other beings. Like when a poet thinks, torrents of mist shoot from their ears. And when they walk, they walk with boots damp from morning dew. And when they speak, they speak as a lone crow calling from a great distance. If this is a way to understand poets, it makes sense of my sense that poets are treated by the university as a nature park: a thing to be managed, patrolled, audited, while also appearing to be authentic, untouched, complex, woven. Talk to a poet, feature one at your conference, even. Have the whole eco experience!

Who knows what a poet thinks? Is something I think the university thinks. As the poet’s mind reels across the earth, new productivity techniques are devised by the university. When I read Naomi Klein’s definition of extractivism—as the ‘nonreciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth, a reduction of life into objects for the use of others, giving them no integrity or value of their own,’ I feel that I am also reading a description of how the university relates to workers, to artists who are also university educators.

The art of bookkeeping is the privileged art form of the university. It seems to get more layered and complex, year-on-year. How can the artist’s time be quantified? How can art be captured as output and those outputs sorted into data sets and returned as value? These are just some of the bizarre questions I think the university is fixated on. The question I am fixated on is what words poets can give to the transformation of creativity into productivity? I ask Rupi Kaur how she might say it and I read, ‘i’m lost in the sick need / to optimize every hour of my day.’

Without research-supported-teaching what’s to stop educators from drifting towards what Paolo Freire calls a ‘transactional model of education’? What Freire is talking about is a process in which someone deposits knowledge into my head, which I then deposit into the heads of students because I do not have time to do research myself. This kind of teaching isn’t teaching at all. It gives no space for critical thinking or creativity. It shuts down wonder. It stops educators from being able to think through difficult questions with students, out loud.

I fear the way this transactional drift creates conditions in which knowledges that are too-too familiar—white, Western, settler-colonial, cis-het, abled, neuro-normalised—are reinforced. Such knowledge practices produce shame through exclusion, and other very real dangers for anyone who does not fit into this narrow kind of existence.

In The Good University: What Universities Actually Do and Why It’s Time for Radical Change, Raewyn Connell points out that in early-modern Europe universities did very little research. Their curriculum focused on teaching and re-teaching traditional texts from centuries earlier. It was thought that a good university should expand the minds of young men by exposing them to the classics.

One of the realities spoken by the chant learning conditions are working conditions is that crises in research-supported-teaching are entangled with crises of imagination more broadly. The two nourish and amplify each other. If a person, or people, cannot imagine their way out of the order of knowledge privileged by colonial institutions invested in endless capital expansion, how are they (I mean me, and maybe you) to learn beyond that system? And how am I (maybe you) to participate in refusing that endless expansion, those colonial investments?


So! This is your life. Labour in general might hold value. Learning in general might hold value. But your labour in particular—which is the business of teaching and learning—does not hold value. There is a hole in the logic of values at the university, and you have fallen through it. If you generate surplus value, it will not flow to you. So what? You do not get loans. You do not go on holiday. You do not go out for dinner. You have ramen noodles, no? You can plan your future one semester at a time, no? Are you doing the bulk of your job in your car? You’re lucky to have a car, no? Say you learn to manage your budget, carefully. Still, your bathroom leaks. Your house is uninsulated. Holes everywhere. The mice, the mice, are shitting everywhere. You get sick. You work, regardless. You are self-motivated. Not a quitter. You tell yourself that the world is bright though you are passing through some dark years. At 3 am you find yourself alive and asking: What else can I be doing? You feel the collective power of other workers—colleagues! friends!—when you come together carrying your exhaustion like little green flames between cupped hands. These moments of collective action have been rare, but they are building.


[1] Here I draw on the interrelation between ‘mining’ and ‘minding’ as written by Charmaine Papertalk Green in her blistering poem ‘Don’t Mine Me’ from False Claims of Colonial Thieves (Magabala Books, 2018).


Image: Arts West Building, The University of Melbourne (Flickr)

Hayley Singer

Hayley Singer research and writing practice moves across the fields of creative non-fiction, critical ecological feminisms, animal studies and queer embodiments. Her essays have been published in a number of places including, The Sydney Review of Books, The Lifted Brow, The Monthly and Writing from Below. Abandon Every Hope: Essays for the dead is Hayley’s first book. It is published by Upswell. She lives on the unceded lands of the Bunurong People.

More by Hayley Singer ›

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