On Precarious Pedagogical Practices; Or, Being Paid Very Little to Do a Lot

Our latest guest post is from Joshua Phillips (University of Glasgow) on the underpaid teaching conditions he – and many others – currently face, strike action and proposing a pedagogy based on transparency, openness and honesty.

The JEF (Josh Exploitation Framework): What, How, Why?

If you’re reading this, then chances are you’re on a casual contract, you’ve been on one recently, or you’re thinking about applying for a post that comes with precarity baked in. The opening to that sentence isn’t an exaggeration: at my institution, 46% of teaching staff are on hourly or fixed term contracts. That figure only rises when looking at postgrads and early career researchers. If you’re a Graduate Teaching Assistant or similar then you very likely will be on a casual contract.

The details of these contracts vary from institution to institution and, very often, within institutions – I’m on a very different contract to someone who teaches, say, history or linguistics. What tends not to differ is the fact that these contracts are inadequate, often to the point where they are exploitative.

For instance, the contract that I and my colleagues are on stipulates that we have 30 minutes of paid prep time for every hour of teaching. That’s half an hour in which to read and absorb a long and complex novel (say, Robinson Crusoe or Great Expectations), find secondary reading, plan a seminar, make handouts and course materials, and so on. Needless to say, it’s not enough time. You have to exceed contract significantly in order to do the bare minimum, in order to simply finish the course books and be able to talk about what happens at the end of Jane Eyre. It’s a flood, right? A tornado? Some sort of natural disaster? Or maybe a tsunami? Something has to give.

Late last year, I conducted a little experiment. I timed how long it took me to read each of my course books and calculated my actual hourly rate for prep for each of the books on my course. The results weren’t pleasant.

I expected the figures to be bad, but not that bad. So bad that I thought I’d calculated it wrong and did the sums over and over. Not only did I fail to make minimum wage, I didn’t make the minimum wage from back when minimum wage was introduced in 1998 – £3.60. I took to Twitter about my little experiment, which I dubbed the JEF, or Josh Exploitation Framework, and it turned out I wasn’t alone. My little experiment struck a chord with academic Twitter and I briefly went viral, which was fun.

The University and Colleges Union (UCU)-mandated period of Action Short of Strike made a tough job even harder. Part of ASOS was working to contract – as I’ve said, spending half an hour preparing for lessons. I’d struggled to get through as much reading and prep as possible before ASOS started but couldn’t manage it. Something had to give. And this is where I stop moaning about pay and start talking about pedagogy.

Precarious Pedagogy

None of this is to say that you shouldn’t teach: it may not pay well, but it can be rewarding beyond that. I’d like to talk about teaching in straitened circumstances more broadly but, frankly, I can’t. I’ve only been teaching for a very short period and the ongoing industrial dispute has overshadowed my time in the classroom.

So, what I’d like to talk about is the role of honesty in pedagogical practice. These casual and inadequate contracts normally give you an impossible choice. Either you do the work and you open yourself up to exploitation, or you don’t and your students’ education suffers. If your contract is inadequate then working to contract removes one half of this choice: you can’t do the work.

But this isn’t to say that you have to feel that you’re letting your students down. For starters, you’re not; the people higher up the food chain, those who write these contracts and leave their precarious employees exposed to exploitation, are. ASOS doesn’t break the system; it shows that it’s already broken.

Starting teaching with a mandate to only work the hours stipulated in your contract is a perfect storm: I didn’t have any pre-prepared materials to fall back on, and I wasn’t able to deploy knowledge that I’d gained during less turbulent times. The one thing I could do for my students was be honest with them about what this would mean. The first thing I did in my first session (after taking a quick register) was to tell them what the strikes were, what Action Short of Strike entailed, and the conditions under which this course would be delivered.

Screenshot 2020-03-06 at 11.04.02

A literary striker during the 2019 strikes.

Luckily, the form of the seminar provided some cushioning. I never had to do all the talking: seminars are far more Socratic in form than lectures or demonstrations, and they represent an opportunity for students to discuss and work through ideas for themselves.

And no matter how little time you’ve had to prepare, you will know more about your subject than your undergrads will by virtue of having studied it for longer, having read widely and having thought about it for years more than your students have. That counts for a surprising amount once you get in the classroom, even if you’re not overly familiar with the texts or subjects you’re contracted to teach. So that’s handy.

Teaching during these difficult times calls for a pedagogy that is based on transparency and dialogue. If your faculty makes calls to hide the scope or scale of industrial action from your students, resist those calls: your students have the right to know how their education is being delivered. And you have the right to resist exploitation.

Exploitative employment practices aren’t inevitable: they’re the result of choices made by government at a national level and by management at an institutional level. And, of course, exploitation does not stop at the classroom. Some institutions have docked the pay of workers taking Action Short of Strike, while others have suspended the funding of students taking strike action. Others employ GTAs through outsourcing agencies like Unitemps, which means that outsourced workers cannot take strike action.

These choices weigh hardest on the most precarious of us – I should acknowledge my own privilege here as someone who can afford to take action and not worry about making up the money should I find my institution doesn’t renew my contract. These choices work to actively undermine solidarity and make it harder for workers to combat exploitative practices.

It is immeasurably difficult to combat these on an individual level. That’s what collective action is for. But a pedagogy based on transparency, openness and honesty is a start.

Would you like to discuss sending in a Guest Post? Email chiara.bullen@glasgow.ac.uk

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