Not so long ago, during one of our meetings, my supervisor said an extraordinary thing. We were halfway through one of those grim, war-room discussions about the progress of my PhD – the kind supervisors and PhD students have been having, I assume, since Plato admitted to Socrates he’d been a bit down over the last month, and wasn’t as far along as he’d like to be – when the subject of teaching came up. Over the course of my candidature, I’ve taught twice – this is more or less average for a keen PhD student in Arts – and each time my progress on the PhD slowed to a slug-like crawl. My supervisor took in this fact, rolled it around in his mouth like whisky, swallowed it, and murmured: “It’s a shame, really – I wish I’d told you not to.”
“Why’s that?” I asked, bemused.
“Well,” said my supervisor, “professionally, it was probably a waste of your time. You certainly shouldn’t do it again.”
It’s tempting to overplay my reaction to this pronouncement, particularly since it renders what should be a genuinely exciting and (surely?) career-building part of PhD study down to the equivalent of a few weeks’ volunteer work at Free Tibet HQ, or the self-publication of a collection of poetry. But the fact that experience teaching undergraduates, in terms of an academic career, is right up there with, say, how deftly one can work a yo-yo, has been an open secret in most departments for some time. It’s a pleasant irrelevance, like a Duke of Edinburgh award. What surprised me wasn’t what was said; rather it was just how openly my supervisor said it.
It turns out that, as much as Spence and his various sub-Spences – the deputy VCs, those smooth-faced Vaders to his grizzled Palpatine – make noises about ‘excellence in teaching’, and ‘rewarding thought-leader-inspiring-creativeateers’, the truth is that they, and, it must be said, more than a few senior academics think it’s a waste of any serious academic’s time. So much so, in fact, that I’ve heard a few younger members of staff saying they deliberately downplayed their teaching experience in interviews – they were to let nothing as frivolous as undergraduates stand in the way of their brutally efficient hunting, harpooning, and rendering down of research grants to make the university money and build its prestige. It’s unclear to me why this has to be a whaling metaphor, but, for whatever reason, that’s just how it is for me.
The best way to prove this is to recall the staff cuts a few years back, when we lost a number of brilliant teachers to an utterly unprecedented and swiftly invented research output quota. If you’d been busy teaching instead of scouring the tertiary ocean for grants, you had to prove it. If you hadn’t been doing enough, you were fired; if you had, you were, unless you promised to get back in the whaleboat right away, moved to a ‘teaching-only’ contract. Most academics (rightly, I think) saw this as a demotion, but, more importantly, so did the university. The whole process was designed, partly, to cut out the ‘dead wood’ – a phrase someone in charge unfortunately used in an email – and, in doing so, make an example to inspire the others. It might surprise the undergrads in the audience to know that the real business of the academic is to research – teaching, like oxygen, is just a by-product of the photosynthetic process of converting research into money.
Many grants allow academics to essentially outsource their teaching responsibilities so they can focus on research, produce books, and then scan the horizon for the next grant-whale, and so begin the cycle again. Like most outsourcing, this means cheapening the labour and cutting corners with the product. (Want proof? Feast your eyes on the HR department – the latest casualty in the university’s war for/on efficiency). And this is where PhD students like me come in. You can hire a boatload of me for the cost of one Barry Spurr – and, as a bonus, we’re either not a racist, or savvy enough to confine our racism to non-organisational email, where it can be plausibly denied. We’re also, crucially, desperate, grateful, and hard-working – we rarely cut corners. Like those who rowed the whaleboats, we’re willing to heave away for terrible pay and brutal conditions, so long as, one day, there’s a chance we’ll get a go on the harpoon. Our purpose is to be foolishly idealistic, and, crucially, cheap.
How cheap? Well, if I have a class of twenty five students, and each one gives me five dollars, I make more than the university pays me for my first tutorial (it costs more because I’m allowed some preparation time). For every tutorial after that, I make less – a class of 18 or so would more than cover it. If you’ve done the maths and think this is good money, you’ve done exactly what I did – you’ve been a fool. Included in this payment is an hour of consultation each week, and all marking except exams (I think – I’ve heard directly contradictory information from at least two reputable sources, and the payslips are wonderfully opaque). Worse, even though we’re technically supposed to be paid more for marking if we have more students, this is calculated by the number of tutorials we take, rather than how many assignments we actually mark. If my colleague has four tutorials but fewer students, as regularly happens, he or she still gets paid more than I do for doing less work.
Not included in this is answering student emails (how many times have you emailed your tutor this semester?), reading the required texts, attending or listening to the lectures, attending marker’s meetings, and just how demanding teaching work is if you do it with any degree of passion and skill. The Casuals Network, a kind of ersatz union for causal tutors, calculated a casual tutor’s real hourly rate at something like 14-16 dollars an hour. And this is where idealism comes in. With a few remarkable exceptions, postgraduates care deeply about teaching – we love it. It’s inspiring, it reminds us of the exhilaration we felt in tutorials that attracted us to an academic career, and, crucially, it feels practical. When you spend most of your time researching, on your own, and often on subjects your parents, partners, and even many of your friends find esoteric, the attraction of actually practicing part of your craft – teaching – is almost irresistible. And this is why we actively sabotage our own study – prolonging our PhDs, neglecting our own research, passing up opportunities to publish – because we love it. And those who employ us know it.
I recall an afternoon I spent, when I first tutored, being subjected to a lecture from one of those glazed, fixed-smile horrors the Education faculty is so good at producing – grinning dogmatists of Educational theory. As a part of the glancing and inadequate Tutor Development Program (what passes for induction and training for new tutors, of which only two hours is compulsory – six if you want your laser-jet printed certificate), this creature was wheeled in front of us to talk about marking. After gushing, briefly, about ‘diversity’ and ‘constructive alignment’, this person gave us the following advice about our paltry time allowances for marking: “I only bother to read the introduction and conclusion of an essay when I mark it; this is more than enough to give you a sense of it.” After the technicolour platitudes that came immediately beforehand, this blistering show of pragmatism staggered us. It was as if, at a child’s party, mid-caper, Barney the dinosaur suddenly removed his head and the stubbled, jowly man beneath told the assembled children that life was short, and they should get money. And, just as the children would have, we attacked. How was it possible, several of us demanded, to get a sense of a student’s potential without engaging closely with their work? How could we, as tutors, abuse our positions, or worse, treat what we did cynically? We emerged, twenty minutes later, victorious – new tutors fired with conviction – while our interlocutor laughed ruefully. None of us fully understood why the Education academic laughed at us; we put it down to nerves, or just wounded pride. We certainly never twigged to the fact that our moral stand was exactly what the university relied upon, and why we were so easy to exploit. Like a flock of Victorian brides on their wedding day, we were young, pure, zealous, and completely unaware that we were about to be fucked.