For the past three years I have been a temporary member of staff (including a compulsory unemployment break that severed my savings). The following is a piece inspired by my own experiences and the private conversations I keep having with fellow temps.
I am confused. My colleagues would go on a bicycle parade to protest temporary contracts but will not say hi to me in the corridors we inhabit every day. Temporary staff often feel like ghosts, disregarded by those who, for as well intentioned, do not know what job precarity does to your mental and professional health.
Being stuck in a temporary scheme is mostly ‘a contemporary thing’ and those whose appointments started much earlier were able to find loopholes to fight it in ways we cannot anymore. Those whose genetic fabric corresponded to the power structures of the time, also found a smooth way in. Precarity does not care for talent or intellect. Precarity grows from systematic inequality of opportunity…
A year ago, or so, I heard my department’s Coordinator of Studies, who has always been a pretty vocal supporter of unions and anti-precarity campaigns, was looking for stories about the temporary struggle. I immediately emailed her, sharing the painful details of my journey, and received no answer whatsoever. I subsequently contacted others; for example, the union I was part of back then, only to receive more silence. I write in English and my emails are often easier to disregard.
My colleagues do not have the time to even know what it is that I do, what my research interests are, and what my academic background is. They have been fooled by the system: they feel exceptional as they quickly promoted to permanency. For some, a temporary colleague must earn a space and must show something worth keeping. If they were able, so can you. And if you cannot, you must be doing something wrong.
I am a ghostly presence, in need of emancipation. The tone of some colleagues is deafeningly paternalistic. The desired features of a fitting academic are highly masculine. I must fit or perish.
Colleagues often place me into assumptions based on whoever, and whatever courses, I am covering for every year. I have tried my best to organise academic events, actively engage in existing initiatives and create new ones, but since I am perceived as temporary: to be gone sooner or later, there is no effort to support or engage in my projects. There is an unconscious disregard for those in academic transit.
During the past three years, I have seen many foreign female colleagues arrive, offering very innovative and competent additions to the department, to then leave as if they had never existed. At the same time, new male colleagues (often Dutch, British or US nationals), tend to be made permanent after a year or two. While female colleagues really represented contemporary fields of study, where scholarship is truly decolonial, male colleagues are often part of more traditional academic currents and fields.
My department seeks innovative and critical approaches to scholarship, as stated in the reports of their periodic evaluations. Their hiring systems welcome ‘women and those from underrepresented backgrounds’. However, the irony is appalling: job descriptions for permanent positions almost always target more traditional currents of thought and scholarship, mostly male dominated fields and modes of inquiry. It is like welcoming you to apply in the knowledge that you will not make it pass the first round of interviews if anything.
We need to be seen: is it so hard to inquire about the names behind ‘the temporary staff member’ in our departments? Why is it so difficult to find initiatives narrated by temporary staff themselves? We are not a homogeneous mass, we are diverse… often too diverse for our own good. Why do colleagues feel they can ‘coach’ you on ‘the tricks of the trade’ as if you were doing something wrong?
Sexist and racist comments
I remember a particular incident that is pretty representative of many other: a permanent member of my institute, with whom I was co-lecturing a course, decided to ‘enlighten’ me on how my attitude (i.e. flexibility in teaching, reflexivity, openness, closeness to students, warmth) was counterproductive if I ever wanted to become permanent. She continued to state that others would quickly perceive me as ‘the one who never gets research funding’. She suggested that I should become ‘stronger’: more authoritative, less warm, stricter in my teaching, etc.
Throughout the years, I have rarely shared time with her. She has always been too busy to engage in other than monthly co-lecturing meetings as part of a bigger group (where temps are often quiet in favour of those who have been in the job longer). She ignores that I have background in critical pedagogy, besides other specialisations. Yet, she feels empowered by a systematic inequality she has not experienced and a false sense of exceptionalism to lecture me. Her comments were not only implicitly sexist but also racist, and the worse was that she was not even aware of the impact such talks can have on others.
In addition, recent times have seen an increase in the hiring of managers who perceive teaching as labour and not as an intellectual pursuit. Now, we see an increasing need to focus on the hiring of IT experts, coaches, and trainers. Our universities move at fast speed, they need immediate relief. Systematic inequalities exposed by the pandemic have thrown our directives and committees into a series of performative feel-good displays while continuing to neglect the spaces we, temporary staff, inhabit: the lack of office space, the lack of individual support, the lack of recognition, the lack of consideration...
Right to be considered
Once again, a heavily neoliberal university manages to escape institutional reflexivity by placing not only guilt but also responsibility in the individual and by continuously neglecting the spaces of collegiality. We are told others care about us. We hear and read manifestos drafted by those comfortably sitting in permanent positions.
Temps are not able to engage in committees, chair networks (not even the ones designed to help up navigate inequality), be part of boards, long-term project groups or similar. We are often represented by a minority who ignore what not knowing whether you will have a job every semester can do to you. Their support and intentions are, of course, welcome and needed but unfortunately, they are not enough.
As a marketing-oriented response to surfacing inequalities, Leiden University has decided to invest in corporate-like diversity training, featuring the central topic of privilege. Perhaps it would be a good idea to connect the notion of existing privilege to that of absent rights: the right to be considered, to be seen and to self-represent… these are not concessions, these are rights we have worked hard for and that are implicitly denied to us.
We love our jobs, we are good at them, we may not fit within academia’s cloning traditions or the politics of coinage, but our university needs us even though it has not realised yet.
Bitter and radical
We, temporary members of staff, are ghostly presences, often profiled unjustly, often antagonised by silences. We are frustrated and bitter. Everybody supports the narrative but fails the individual. Some may even state that we have become too radical in our criticism and bitterness and push us aside.
Leiden University does not want us in its latest diversity and equality initiatives, unless we keep it confidential or buy into the marketising of our tragedies, smile, and clone the very power structures that stop us from successfully belonging to our academic cultures. Criticism is allowed for as long as it sits comfortable within the ‘lively spaces’ provided by our institutions.
And when existing powers and newly crafted counter-powers fail you, there is truly little left to do at institutional level.
The author whose identity is known to Mare is a researcher and teacher on a temporary contract at a Leiden academic institute.