‘Can we chat?’: A discursive consideration of conversations between casual and permanent academics


‘Can we chat?’

‘Yeah, sure, anytime’ is what the casual academic is meant to say when facing this question from a permanent academic: particularly one who has employed them in the past. ‘Yeah, sure’ is probably the safest answer for a casual to give to almost any request from The Faculty. You know, if they hope to keep getting work. And therein lays the quandary: how can a casual who can only say ‘yes’ ever enter into real and honest dialogue with a permanent who employs them?

Let’s consider the discursive positioning here. I am a casual tutor, you are permanent (aka academic, subject coordinator, Faculty bigwig).

As permanent, you are secure, confident and busy. You’re expert in your tiny slice of the ivory pie. You know you’ll be able to pay your mortgage next semester, have a secure and ongoing space, email, phone number. You handle the big stuff, after it’s filtered through to you by those at the coalface. You get un-doable things done. You tell me way in advance about the work you’re offering – or maybe you give it to me during a chance hallway meeting on day one of semester – but you give me the work. You’re allowed to get angry, screw up, and have opinions. But when you ask me for anything, I say ‘yes’. That’s just how it is.

To complicate the conversation, I play two different roles in this dialogue, both teacher and casual. So we lift my atoms, drop them in the classroom and I become Teacher.

As teacher, I am confident, assured and authoritative. I am expert in my tiny slice of the ivory pie. I demonstrate sound academic, interpersonal and communications skill for my students. I think on my feet – handle the first wave of student complaints, answer the unexpected questions –  and somehow still keep that group of guys up the back quiet and off Facebook. As teacher I have panache and attention to detail. As teacher I have power. It’s fun, I love it and I want to keep doing it. That’s just how it is.

We lift my set of atoms again, move it a few metres in any direction and I become casual.

As casual, I am disempowered, silenced and compliant. I am expert in navigating the systems to keep clawing my way into work and juggling the admin to stay in that work. I cannot apply for internal positions, don’t get to participate in the ‘culture of lifelong learning’. I have no job security, minimal office space, no permanent email address, no phone number. I am invisible, no name on a door or profile on the web. I beg for work from semester to semester, watch my words and actions and body language constantly to avoid that one ‘career ending’ slip.  I’m not allowed to get angry, question decisions, or argue back. If I want to keep being teacher, then I keep saying ‘yes’. That’s just how it is.

Not a very sound base from which to begin communications.

There are two problems immediately inherent in any conversation between a permanent and casual academic.

The first problem, of course, is in that triple reinforced rebar in this system of power: ‘That’s just how it is.’ This system of power, aka The University, is built layer upon layer, with the casuals – those doing the majority of the work – being afforded the thinnest layers right at the bottom. They are the foundation which keeps the rest of the system operating but are given the least in way of job security, support or acknowledgment. And like all systems of power, most of those at the top – the permanents – reinforce the status quo by justifying and excusing the functioning of the system. Every time a permanent says ‘that’s just the way it is,’ this reminds the casual exactly how precarious, tenuous and transitory their position is.

The second problem is the lack of space for casuals to air or express any grievance, complaint or concern. What complicates this problem even more is that my little expert slice of the ivory pie is systems of power (SOP): dysfunctions in them, narratives in them, and structural flaws in them. As the icing on top, I am also a primary source with experience inside some severely dysfunctional SOP. The Faculty loves this ‘expertise’ when I turn it outwards, call it ‘research’. Turns out, however, that it’s not so lovable when I turn this lens inwards. When I complain or question or point at broken bits of the SOP, I’m told ‘that’s just how it is’. The researcher in me screams ‘NO’! The teacher in me says ‘why? But the casual in me is loudest of all when it says ‘yeah, sure’.

So that’s what you’re most likely to hear coming out of my mouth.

This conversation between you and I, you see, is almost going to come up against the wall of ‘that’s just how it is’.

So now – yes, let’s chat.




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