Strike rate; or, why I haven’t written to the Highways Authority

At the time of writing, we have just experienced Britain’s longest and most comprehensive strike in higher education. It isn’t making even a dent on the news and while that is obviously partly because of the killer virus sweeping the globe, the strike last autumn, which was almost as large and did not coincide with a pandemic, was also barely covered. During that earlier strike, I switched on the radio on a strike day hoping to hear (say) an articulate, smart and dedicated UCU rep being interviewed on the picket line, laying out calmly and clearly the various, entirely reasonable grievances of striking staff. Instead, I caught an outside broadcast from, if memory serves, St. Anne’s College Oxford.[1] The interviewer repeatedly exclaimed how vital both research and university education are to the economy (this is how we spot a Tory, my children: they have no metric other than money). Neither the strike nor any of the issues that prompted it were even hinted at.

A strike and a pandemic (whether they run concurrently or not) are both slightly strange for someone like me: a part-time academic only required to leave the house for teaching commitments once a week, with a chronic illness and a business to run from home in what is effectively pre-emptive self-isolation. This second period of industrial action has been particularly odd because I received an email from a non-striking[2] colleague[3] in HR to tell me that my teaching job, which I have done on a series of temporary contracts for the last seven years, has been made into a permanent role. I’ve been partially or wholly self-employed by my lovely little micro-business since 2005, and I’m very successful. Unlike roughly 60% of small businesses, mine did not fail in its first five years; I’ve managed to hit upon something that accommodates most of the physical and mental issues that my condition comes with; and the mortgage broker was entirely satisfied with both my accounting and the long-term viability of the business. Nevertheless, it’s hard to overstate the feeling of relief that comes with a guaranteed income, holiday pay and sick leave (things I have been without for over a decade). I sat alone in my office and whispered, “I can get the roof done.” Then I high-fived the dog[4], sent private messages to understanding friends and studiously maintained the digital picket line by not saying anything about it in public.

I’m one of the most junior academics in my Dept., which is as it should be: I’m part-time, which excuses me from all the most onerous senior admin roles; I became ill at exactly the point my first husband was supposed to start supporting me financially through my doctoral studies; and I certainly can’t afford to take four years off work to do a PhD now. I have thus spent the twelve years since my diagnosis slowly and painfully coming to terms with the fact that (a) I can’t be a fulltime academic, or indeed a fulltime anything; (b) my ability to get promoted through the ranks is necessarily limited and realistically lecturer (where I am now) is as high as I can go; and (c) I can’t afford for my (hitherto) hand-to-mouth, insecure university job to be my main source of earning power (and thus I can’t justify significant investment in it). That sounds frustrating, but I’m very content in my work. It’s so important to be satisfied with the job that you do, including what you get paid and how you feel about promotion. I resent the hell out of the horrible, predictable interview question “where do you see yourself in five years?” because it implies that the job you are doing right now (or indeed the job you are being interviewed for right now) won’t do and isn’t your main focus. I am happier and more productive when I am fully present in the job I already have.[5] I have a similar issue with the notion of social mobility: while I’m all for people trying to do well for themselves, as I said above I’m wary of anything that measures value in purely economic terms.

I manage the household finances with frugality and care. Helped by the fact that I don’t have to pay into a pension (because I probably won’t live long enough to collect it), we are comfortable. In other words, I am perfectly happy to be one of the most junior academics in my Dept. In addition to the reasons given above, this is partly because I am also one of the most highly paid academics in my department.

Here’s how I know. Firstly, I did not spend four years doing a PhD, for which I would have had to pay fees whilst earning very little and getting further into debt. Instead, I spent that time earning, supporting my first husband through his PhD, quietly paying off our student debt while he (because STEM) received a grant. Secondly, I keep careful track of all the hours I work, because that’s what self-employed people do. This means that working beyond my contracted hours is a conscious choice that costs me money. Obviously working beyond contracted hours costs most people money, but we behave as if this isn’t the case because we can’t quantify it easily or accurately. Those of us that pay ourselves a particular rate per hour, however, know exactly and immediately how much we could have earned in (say) the two hours we spent stuck in traffic. Sometimes I work beyond my contracted hours at very busy points in the academic year, but this balances out across the piece pretty well. I am paid to work 56 hours a month and my spreadsheet tells me that last year I averaged almost exactly that (although this is somewhat skewed by the fact that I was very ill in August, a month in which I did nine hours of university work, averaged four hours of sleep a night and lost a stone in ten days). In a typical week, I do around fourteen hours for the university and around sixteen hours for myself, averaging a total of thirty working hours per week. This is not normal in academia. Junior staff often work multiple fractional contracts, of course, but that’s not what I’m talking about because I have only two jobs, each of which is (now) stable and (now) long-term. What I mean is that a thirty-hour week (i.e. around 0.8FTE in most normal jobs) is nowhere near the norm in higher education. Most academics work ‘fulltime’ and I’m using the scare quotes to indicate that I don’t mean a normal working week of 35-40 hours, but rather a regular weekly workload of around fifty hours, doing work that is complex, emotionally demanding and against tight and inflexible deadlines.

Before I became ill, I routinely worked a 45-hour week in various academic support roles, with a significant commute at either end of every working day. I worked evenings. I worked weekends. My first husband studied and worked at the same university, as did most of our friends. I had no boundaries between work and rest (or Work and Not Work, as T. H. White’s ants might have it) and neither did most of the people I knew. I’ve got very much better at policing those boundaries, but people are still astonishingly bad at respecting them. I have written before about the time I went to work on Boxing Day and wasn’t the only person in the building (and neither of us was surprised). I’m no longer physically or mentally able to work like that and most working days now involve no more than four or five hours of work. A teaching day, with its two-hour commute each way and five hours of back-to-back lectures, meetings and office hours, knocks the stuffing out me. Regular readers may recall that I work far longer days when in China, but that’s because a) I have nothing else to do besides work; b) I ride the mighty steed of jet lag as far as it will carry me; and c) I take a full week off to sit in the garden when I get back.

Thirdly, when I say I’m one of the most highly paid academics in my Dept., I’m talking about an hourly rate after tax, not an annual or monthly salary. Here’s an exercise I invite you to undertake, particularly if you work in higher education: without looking at any of the relevant figures, write down what you would like to get paid as an hourly rate (this is something every self-employed person has to do, although of course we do look at the relevant figures). Now work out what you actually get paid as an hourly rate. Be honest about the hours you actually work in a typical week and how much tax you pay. Now compare the two figures.

In the interest of both context and full disclosure (see a relevant post on pay by Plashing Vole), in the current tax year I have paid myself £23.50 per hour as an editor and indexer. My university work pays me a few pence less (it wouldn’t be worth doing otherwise). I put my prices at the end of each tax year in April, in line with inflation and after looking sideways at the mortgage. The professors in my Dept. are on jolly decent money, but they are working far, far more hours that I am and are expected to do a whole load of boring shit that I’m too junior for. Professorial salaries at my institution start at £60k pa, which means most professors in my Dept. are paying 40% tax on a substantial part of their salary. If they are also working around fifty hours per week, even the most senior professors are taking home around £25 per hour. This means that I’m earning only slightly less (again, in hourly terms) and my workload is far more manageable. It also means that everyone between me and the top-end professors is earning significantly less than I am in hourly terms. Indeed, there are many conceivable scenarios in which a promotion might leave one noticeably worse, off on many levels.

My business allows me to practice a workplace model in which I increase my hourly rate and decrease my hours. For example, if I am asked to produce an index in a week (rather than the three weeks it would usually take), and if I can be arsed to take that job on, I can charge a rush rate to reflect the fact that I will have to turn away other work, perhaps delay jobs already booked and work far more hours in a day than I would really like (and which will then require me to take time off when the job is done). Having planned a week in which I expected to spread my usual thirty hours over the whole seven days, I might then find myself working into the night on a complicated text for four days in a row to meet an inflexible deadline. We do this in academia all the time (marking exams, for example), but we don’t have enough control over our workload to balance this out once the deadline has passed. Having produced an index in no time at all on rush rates, if I’ve planned my work properly, I can take some time off to recover without it costing me any money when compared to a normal week. Based on this principle, my plan for the future of my business is, therefore, not to gradually increase my rates as I become more experienced, competent and highly-trained and continue to work the same hours, but to gradually increase my rates and work less: to be content with what I earn and what I do. Rather than the reward for work being more money, in other words, the reward will be the same amount of money – an amount of money that I already know to be sufficient for comfortable subsistence – and less work. This is a deeply counter-intuitive model for a workaholic and I don’t pretend to be implementing it as well as I would like, but nevertheless that is the endgame.

Now imagine if higher education was run like that. Imagine if a promotion meant an increase in responsibility, an absolutely rigid workload model in which everyone worked strictly to contract, and an increase in pay as an hourly rate. I would favour a model in which a member of staff who found they were regularly unable to do their work in the stipulated hours was not penalised by just being expected to do the work anyway, for no extra money and in their own time (as happens now), but one in which their line manager was asked to treat the mismatch between paid hours and the length of time required to do the job as a matter of urgency. When these things are left to individuals, the most conscientious – the best citizens, if you will, who take on the horrible roles that nobody else wants, and who genuinely feel obligated to do them well – will work whatever hours are required.

The kinds of roles and tasks that I’m talking about can erupt out of nowhere like puffballs, and they fall disproportionately onto women and/or more junior staff, for obvious reasons that we needn’t rehearse here. Pastoral care, for example, is not spread evenly across academic staff, even if students are allocated to staff in an even way: any member of staff perceived as too frightening, too senior, too unsympathetic or brusque, or simply too difficult to run to earth (e.g. someone with a teaching or admin role that means they are rarely in their office; someone whose research involves regular periods away from the university; someone whose office is difficult to find or access) is likely to get off very lightly here.[6] A student with serious pastoral care needs not only takes up a huge amount of time and energy, but may also need to be prioritised above other pressing matters (without warning and at any time of the day or night) if we are concerned that they may be a danger to themselves and others. We may literally have to drop everything. This is as it should be, in the sense that we should love our students; we should want to support them as best we can; and we should see it as a privilege to be able to help them, when we can help them. However, be under no illusion: this work takes its toll. It is often triggering and always exhausting. Moreover, when academics support students, rather than the blind leading the blind, this is often the exhausted counselling the exhausted. I suggest that balancing one’s unpredictable, draining work – work that must be done properly, if we are to serve each other and our students well – cannot be left to the conscience of each academic. One of the most psychologically destructive aspects of overwork is that we do it to ourselves (or, rather, we feel that we are doing it to ourselves). Suicide, illness and self-harm among students makes headlines (as it should), but we hear a lot less about the poor physical and mental health of the staff trying to support them and how this relates to the quality and quantity of the support we are able to provide.

I admit that in the model I am proposing there would be an uncomfortably Foucauldian level of scrutiny in terms of keeping track of one’s hours; we would all have to spend more time with our line managers, wrestling our jobs into submission (clearly HR can’t be trusted with this even though it is literally their whole job); and the senior staff would all pay less tax. However, I think these downsides would be more than outweighed by two things. Firstly, since HR clearly wouldn’t be needed anymore and thus the whole department could be removed, saving heaps o’ cash and lowering the general cuntishness in the university by a noticeable margin. Secondly, imagine the lightness, joy and productivity of a healthy workload. Rest. Energy. Reading. Giving our best to our students and to each other. Cooking. Eating slowly. Sex. Sleep. Imagine how many books you could read if you worked thirty-five hours a week, at a sensible pace, like a normal person. Imagine how many books you could write. Or, to apply the principle of ‘less but better’ more strictly, imagine if you read and wrote the same number of books and papers as you do now, but with the care, time and attention they deserve. Imagine the care, time and attention we could give our colleagues and our most vulnerable students. It would literally save lives.

Everyone doing less work per person (so to speak) would mean that there would be a load of work left over, of course, but I suggest that much of that work has absolutely zero value and could simply be abandoned (as the coming months of ‘lockdown’, whatever that means, will no doubt remind us). However, for everything left over that does have value, I draw your attention to the fact that every academic has a precarity story, by which I mean a harrowing tale about a lengthy period in the wilderness, usually immediately after getting their PhD: working multiple jobs; teaching anything that moved; writing lectures, job applications and teaching material (almost all for lectures, jobs and seminars that they didn’t get to do); and watching their peers and colleagues fall away. Academia is merciless. It will rip your throat out the moment your arms get tired. I’ve written elsewhere about being a functioning workaholic, but almost everyone in academia is a functioning workaholic. Indeed, I’m not sure it’s possible to work in academia without being a functioning workaholic. Overwork and work addiction are completely normalised. That’s why so many talented, dedicated colleagues, undergrads and postgrads fall away, through ill health caused or exacerbated by punishing hours and stress, or through realising that they have other, more attractive options. That attrition may sound like survival of the fittest, but of course the selection pressures at work here aren’t the natural external forces of a hostile terrain or scarce food resources, winnowing out those least suited to the environment for the long-term health of the species. It isn’t the best and brightest that are left, but those of us who have already invested too much to walk away; those who can’t do anything else; those who can’t bear to do anything else; those who are institutionalised; those who got lucky; those whose bodies and brains and relationships hold up the best.

Why not spread the work out across more people, then? There is clearly no shortage of workers or work, but a shortage of proper jobs (and, I suggest, leadership). The current model is that of a person who, upon ordering a reasonably-sized piece of cake that they are planning to savour is instead strapped into a chair and force-fed an entire cake. Every so often the person doing the force-feeding whips the cake away for no reason and yells into their face that they aren’t eating it right eat it better eat it faster eat it eat it eat it you bastard EAT IT. Nearby, half a dozen other people who are quietly starving to death (and who have both expended considerable energy, time and money to even get through the door of this cruel and unusual cafe) write endless, hopelessly elegant essays about how much they love cake and how well-suited they are to eating it, for which they are rewarded with crumbs. On no account is anyone to be given an appropriate amount of cake at any time.

74b
Obelix as professor, from Asterix and Cleopatra (words by René Goscinny, pictures by Albert Uderzo). I quote this here because: a) Asterix is not used nearly enough as an explanatory device; b) Asterix and Cleopatra contains some of the best word-related jokes, thus illustrating the briliance of both the writing and the translation, as mentioned in an earlier post; and c) Albert Uderzo died, aged 92, while I was editing this post. I note that, since exhaustion is my topic here, several of the articles about his death quote Uderzo’s son-in-law as saying, “[h]e had been very tired for several weeks”.
As well as being one of the highest (hourly) earners, I think I might be the only person in my Dept. with a manageable workload. Again, let us be mindful of the fact that this has been achieved by a combination of bloody-mindedness and chance. It certainly wasn’t via a sensible, transparent and evidence-based process that takes into account the number of hours an academic needs to work in order to be both happy and productive (the kind of process that one might have thought, I don’t know, some department with responsibility for staff wellbeing and working conditions might have developed, if they weren’t too busy being cunts). Since we have already established that many staff (including professors) are apparently content to be paid £25ph, I see no reason why a workload model couldn’t be established (or at least tried, for fuck’s sake) that, alongside the collossal sums freed up by not bothering with an HR department ever again, released enough money to employ some of those talented, committed people currently languishing on multiple fractional contracts, chasing payments for months and not getting paid at all over the summer. And when I say ‘employ’, I mean properly: with a contract, for years at a time, on decent money that they receive promptly and spread evenly throughout the year, to deliver courses that they have had the time and support to develop well in advance.

As I said above, I’m wary of conflating value with money and my intention isn’t to suggest that senior lecturers, readers and new professors don’t have value, or are in some way stupid or wrong for working so many hours that they reduce their hourly rate below my own. Rather, my point is that annual salaries are meaningless numbers unless they are accompanied by information about the hours worked, the intensity or complexity of the work, the time spent training and preparing to do that work, the money and time spent commuting to a particular place, the emotional labour and stress the role might entail and finally the aesthetic labour of dressing yourself appropriately (another burden that weighs far more heavily on women, even in a sector where tweed and corduroy are considered what my mother used to call ‘smot’). None of those things appear in the job description, and most of them (unlike the annual salary, at least in theory) are not up for negotiation.

To borrow the language of corona virus, then, the stress of working in higher education does not simply ‘move through the population’, removing the weak, the stupid, the obscure and the lazy. It chews everybody up. Once we have been spat out again, we are then expected to act as role models for our students, perpetuating workaholism in the next generation, teaching without breaks and pushing through office hours on adrenalin and no lunch as if this were reasonable. We do everything in a rush, on flights and trains, late at night or early in the morning, and often at the very last minute. With my editing hat on, I have yet to be asked to proofread an application for a job, research money or additional funding that isn’t right up against the deadline. That might not sound like much, but think about who academics are. We are conscientious, bookish, earnest people. We got where we are by paying attention and doing as we were asked. Missing a deadline is something most academics had never done until they became senior staff and found that the good habits we tell students to practice (planning carefully, not allowing oneself to be surprised by a deadline, seeking help as appropriate) simply aren’t possible. That bothers us. We feel we have failed. We feel haunted. We feel guilty. We might even feel stupid.

There are also ramifications of our enormous workload and feelings of inadequacy for the rest of our lives, and indeed the community as a whole. Academics are organised, passionate people. They are thoughtful citizens and have many interests outside those they choose to research. Imagine the contribution they could make to society if they had the time and energy to get involved in their communities. Consider also the burden of admin (non-work-related admin) that falls upon the partners and families of academics. I have written elsewhere about how important it is to a romantic relationship that both partners are able to do their share of admin to a reasonable level (again, simply not possible for those described above with the fifty-hour working weeks). I’ve literally no idea how any of my colleagues manage to spend time with their children, or indeed how they found the energy to produce a family at all.

Recall also from an earlier post (Zen and the Art of Relationship Maintenance) how boring-yet-important many of those life admin tasks are. Anne Helen Petersen speaks of  ‘errand paralysis’, arguing that when we expend too much mental energy on simply staying on top of our work, we have nothing left for tasks further down the food-chain, tasks that are then done badly or not at all. She’s right. I’ve had ‘write to Highways Authority about wall’ on my to-do list for nearly four months. It would probably take fifteen minutes or so to re-read the relevant paperwork, write the email and file the correspondence in a sensible place – certainly far, far less time than I have spent writing this post. It isn’t the case, then, that I don’t have time to do that boring-yet-important little job. Rather, I don’t have the energy with which to do that job – whatever finite amount of energy I have has been spent on things that are more important, more interesting and more rewarding.[7] And yet, the list of undone things still reproaches me. The full inbox. The endless to-do list. The unwashed plates and unhoovered floors. The half-decorated rooms; half-finished knitting projects; half-abandoned, buttonless dresses. Those last two items are not ‘work’, but they still reproach me, along with all the books unread, films unseen, plays unwitnessed. I don’t feel good about the fact that I haven’t written to the Highways Authority about our wall. I feel sloppy. I feel ashamed. I feel less of an adult. There is something deeply wrong with a working culture (and indeed a society) in which ‘busy’ is virtuous, and ‘disorganised’ is a moral deficiency, because, like the annual salary described above, those labels are meaningless out of context. Also, I’m not disorganised: I know exactly where the paperwork is, who I need to contact and what I’m going to say. I just haven’t got to it yet. There are too many other things in my life that are more important, and I only have so much energy to expend on them. There is no logical reason for me, a competent, responsible person, to feel bad about sensibly prioritising other things ahead of this boring-yet-important little job – and yet I do feel bad.

As I’ve written in another post (in which I argued that love is finite and that one only has so much love to expend on others, and therefore must necessarily make painful choices), one can’t simply pour oneself out endlessly. However, without a healthy workload and concomitantly healthy, proportionate attitude to what is actually possible, agreed upon and shared by all the people involved, neither can one learn not to mind that one can’t do everything. As the Confession has it, ‘we have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us.’

___________________________________________________________________________________

[1] I put the radio on without thinking, which meant I got the seething self-congratulatory cess-pool of drivel that is the Today programme, rather than the adult perspective of the World Service, the joy and energy of Radio 6 or the light and space of Radio 3.

[2] You’re right: I needn’t have said it. Of course there were non-striking staff in HR. There shouldn’t have been, mark you. Human Resources ought to be more exercised than anyone about our clunky tools, wasted time, suicidal students and inadequate pensions, as well as the gender, race and class pay gaps, the perils of staff/student relationships, poor pastoral care and all the other stressors that those working and/or learning in higher education are beset with. HR ought to be leading the charge. HR ought to be jumping up and down with rage, all day every day. They aren’t, though, because they’re cunts.

[3] Again, you’re right: ‘colleague’ is the wrong word to describe the parasite that clings to the neck of higher education. As I explained above, HR staff have a duty of care to ensure we are able to carry out our jobs as best we can. They don’t, though, because they’re cunts.

[4] Be under no illusion that there was corresponding, supportive high-fiving going in HR. HR fucking hate me and the dick move of sneaking this piece of information out during industrial action is merely the latest skirmish in a war of attrition, currently approaching the end of its second decade. Of course they informed me of this at a time when I couldn’t celebrate it in public. Of course they did. They are cunts.

[5] I’ve been promoted beyond my competence before and for anyone with a shred of self-awareness it is a deeply uncomfortable experience, for both the person it happens to and those who have to work with them.

[6] Staff with a reputation for being inappropriate with students are also unlikely to be asked to do their share of pastoral care. The students might discuss this amongst themselves, or it may be quietly agreed among the other staff that Professor Handsy needs to be kept away from the kids. Yes, of course Professor Handsy should have been sacked the minute they first laid a sweaty hand on an undergraduate knee, but that’s not how HR in higher education works. That’s not how any of this works. I likened HR to mousetraps in an ealier post and I stand by it: unnecessarily cruel, ugly and out-dated.

[7] I have spent time today outside sawing wood so that I can light the Aga later and cook a roast and I’ve spent time trying to express the ideas I’ve laid out here. I don’t get paid for either of those tasks and could easily have made the argument that I would have done better to spend the whole day pushing on with paid work, and it’s a powerful argument – exactly the kind of argument that, when taken to its logical conclusion, would mean that I will never be able to justify spending fifteen minutes writing to the Highways Authority about our wall.

2 thoughts on “Strike rate; or, why I haven’t written to the Highways Authority

  1. janeishly March 14, 2020 / 5:59 pm

    I do miss your writing when you aren’t, you know, writing. And, as I believe I’ve said before, the more I learn about academia, the more I wonder why anyone bothers, no matter how much they love their subject.

    I had a couple of days last week when I managed to find the energy (you’re quite right that time has nothing to do with it) to knock a couple of long-standing items off my to-do list. And it really does feel wonderful. Until the next few things slide up to fill the vacant spaces and then you start to feel less than worthy again.

    Love the HR comments – all HR staff I’ve ever dealt with have been equally unpleasant. And one day I really must write up my rant against the cunts of the world (spoiler: let’s get rid of the cunts, rather than the immigrants, the poor, the wrong coloured people and so on).

    • literacystrumpet March 14, 2020 / 8:14 pm

      I wish I had the energy to write more – this is my first post in months. It clears the brain out so wonderfully.

      Oh, those bed-blocker jobs. They’re just death. Sometimes you do one and it takes hours and is exactly as awful as you thought it would be; and sometimes you do one and it takes five minutes and you hate yourself for not having done it earlier (and then as you say, something else sidles into its place and you are back where you started).

      Also, HR can fuck off.

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