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  • Nina Reis

An Interview with Casual UvA: No Grades and the Future of Teaching at University

At the end of May, Period 4 at Dutch universities ends with a week of final exams and assignments, and, hopefully, the uploading of passing grades soon after. Except at the Universiteit van Amsterdam (UvA for short) this year. Currently, there is a marking strike taking place at the university, initiated by the junior lecturers. Thinking of strikes, images of picket lines, people holding up signs, protesting in front of a company building or factory rush to one’s imagination. But at its core essence, a strike is a refusal of labor. Labor that often entails bad working conditions, minimum wage, and exploitation. And labor that can be made better. At the university, refusing to mark is such a strategy to demand better. “Academia is just not the same as it was in the 1980s, so we also need to step away from how it used to be organized”, a striking junior lecturer, Paula from the Anthropology department, tells me.

She is part of Casual UvA, the collective organizing the strike. As the name suggests, the group mainly advocates against casualization at the university in Amsterdam - casualization referring to the conversion of stable, secure jobs into short-term, part-time, temporary, or hourly paid work. The junior lecturer position is exactly that: “Our contracts at UvA right now are one plus one plus one; it’s a maximum of three years.” So for three years, Junior lecturers prepare tutorials, give seminars, and facilitate education, and then they are to bid goodbye to teaching. While advertised as part-time, all the people I talked to agreed on simply being overworked the entire time. “In my first year, I was paid less than minimum wage, and I was sometimes working six days a week. Now I’m in the second year, and I’m already paid for four days a week, I work five days a week. I can imagine, in the future in my third year, I will work four days a week and I’m being paid for those four days. Because you have read the literature, you know what you are going to teach, so at some point, these hours do fit. But that’s when you are in your third year, and that’s when you have to leave.” Overwork, temporary contracts, and a lack of opportunities for professional development - those are the main concerns of Casual UvA.

The strike is organized by the action group as the latest point of escalation. The group has been meeting and talking with university officials for over half a year now, and in lieu of any serious commitments by the UvA to take them and their concerns seriously, the strike has now been put into effect. “So the marking strike is that we refuse to mark final assignments for block four (...) Outside of that, we are still facilitating education, we are still tending to all of our contractual duties”, Alex, a Junior Lecturer for Sociology, elaborates. What she and other people involved with Casual UvA see as important is the students’ reaction. Paula paints a rather personal and very relatable picture of her sitting underneath her desk after sending out an email to her students, announcing the strike, explaining why, and how she was participating: “I was so scared about how people were going to react. But students have been extremely supportive. They came to the demonstration (on April 1) as well and I think they understand what is going on, and they recognize it as well from what has been happening in the tutorials, for example (...) They can see that the quality of the tutorial is not as we want it to be. That’s also another reason why we want to do the strike. We don’t have the capacity and the time right now to really give the classes that we want to give.”

The question, of course, is what kind of classes those are. The strike, while demanding better working conditions, also demands a conversation on what the university should look like - how does it view teaching? What is the role of research? With these two tasks of research and facilitating education, universities have been an institutional pillar of most societies for centuries. As such, they are also not entirely neutral, but rather reflective and at the same time, producing of power relations. Nothing reflects the still continous inequality of who takes up space in university, who even gets to research and teach, more than the ongoing casualization. What do temporary contracts that only get extended at the end of every academic year entail for people on working visas? “In our department, there is one person from outside of Europe. He is experiencing a lot of precarity regarding his work visa - even now, he doesn’t officially know if he can work next semester, even though we are already setting up the courses. But officially, they haven’t said yet that our contract is renewed for next year”, Paula tells me.

Made up mostly of junior lecturers and some senior staff, with over eight departments represented currently, the action group came to exist rather organically: “We were having these conversations about casualization and how to combat it, and we found out about the existence of 0.7 and learned about these other casuals, so we opened up a line of communication with them. But it wasn’t until recently that we finally decided to qualify ourselves as Casual UvA, and that’s how we are going to proceed. It developed over time.” Starting out in the Sociology department, soon junior lecturers from other departments and faculties, and some senior staff in solidarity, joined the organizing efforts. Alex, involved from the very beginning, describes it as a grassroots effort, of “who is it that we know? What entrypoints do we have in respective departments? And how can we get them involved? So it’s been a lot of just trying to network and increase visibility and ask people to engage with us”. This very much reflects Paula’s experience - a friend, another junior lecturer for Sociology, kept asking her to join the revolution, until, finally, she did. “So then it was a month ago or something, that my friend came down to talk to me again and was like, - Hey, we are actually very keen on organizing the strike now; Anthropology, it’s time for you to step up -. And then it all went very quickly (...) I was spamming the WhatsApp group chats quite a lot with all the messages that I could send. At the same time, I was also sending messages to ISW, where I was also working. (...) And then we had the meeting the week of the exams, and there were quite some departments coming together: Anthropology, ISW, Sociology, Political Science, Institute for Interdisciplinary Sciences, all kinds of departments.” All the people I talked to described it as a kind of donut effect, with a lot of departments joining within a couple of days. Right now, “it’s predominantly in the Social Sciences”, Alex reflects, “but we intend to grow, and we are trying to actually find contacts in other departments. At the same time, UvA is also rather decentralized so departments operate in their own capacity, which makes it a bit challenging to contact them.” But it’s not only activists from Casual UvA approaching people - as the group is gaining visibility, its number of members is also increasing. At the demonstration on April 1st, one of the now striking departments, Communication Science, actually approached them.

Which just goes to show how much their message, their concerns over exploitation and labor conditions, is resonating. A lot of senior staff are also experiencing precarity and casualization. Paula tells me, and maybe this is only the case for the Anthropology department, on how when she sent the emails to course coordinators and faculty, she received very supportive responses, “like, thank you junior lecturers, for finally doing this”. “I can also see that it’s a structural thing and it’s not only our position, definitely the one that are higher up and have fixed contracts, they are also experiencing all those things. And they are even more confronted with issues around family planning and wanting to move up, but there is just limited space to do so”, she tells me. It’s not just junior lecturers who are facing casualization, and coming out with the short end of the deal. Despite the university citing a lack of PhD as explanatory factor on why no long-term contracts are offered, a doctoral title doesn’t necessarily warrant better working conditions.

In the days leading up to the demonstration, the group notified faculty and administration of their intent to strike, most importantly the CvB. The College van Bestuur (CvB) is the executive board of the university, responsible for the organization of education. If Casual UvA were a group of Amazon workers unionizing, the CvB would be Amazon, to put it simply. “I can speak primarily for Casual UvA, we started organizing in October last year. That’s when we kind of first started having initial meetings, and discussing the actions we wanted to take and what we wanted to do. We sent a letter to the CvB, a public letter sharing our concerns. They responded and we had a meeting with them in January this year. We requested that they release a public statement acknowledging our conversation, and that they also check in and periodically inform us of the implementation of the petitions we had shared”, Alex explains. While the CvB did release a statement, it was only accessible to those with UvA credentials. “And we haven’t heard from them since January. So then in March, we tried other routes.”

Casual UvA’s petitions focus on three aspects of the Junior Lecturer position; the workload, the lack of opportunities for professional development, and the temporary contracts.

While individual situations do differ, also depending on the department, the workload is a talking point for all people I talked to, all of whom worked in different departments. Jamie, a junior lecturer for Political Science, says that in his opinion, it has gotten a bit better in his department. But better to what extent, at what cost? “In the past year I have been here, we have gotten a new Bachelors director and he has made, with his team, an effort to reduce the workload of the political science department. We have moved away from essay-based examination in many courses to multiple choice exams, which are less of a grading load (...) But at the same time, we have courses in Political Science where I am uncomfortable doing multiple choice. How can you test political theory on multiple choice exams?” Workload does not only mean grading papers and exams, but also includes things like on-boarding. Alex describes it as insufficient in her department, with new hires receiving a two-day course, a very general one that does not help with content specific training nor practical matters like Canvas: “We are never taught how to navigate Canvas in terms of grading and stuff (...) It directly impacts the students. So if we are not properly supported, if we don’t receive necessary training, if we are not allotted the appropriate amount of hours, then we can’t facilitate the education they deserve.”

The lack of serious training directly relates to how the university sees junior lecturers - as temporary. Paula is frustrated by the lack of opportunities for professional development: “There is just no space for guidance, or any form of personal development. It’s just not there, and maybe people are also not interested in it because you are gone within three years anyways.” Her story seems to resonate, “I thought this place was going to be the place where I could write a research proposal, where I could continue developing within academia, but actually, first of all, there is no time for it. And you’re so fucking tired, if you are finally done with all the work (...) The pressure is so high to do things actually next to teaching, in order to move upwards. But if you work, make so many overhours, then how can you write articles and apply for PhDs and also write research proposals, and also do jobs next to teaching so that your CV looks interesting?” These are all things one needs to do to eventually gain a permanent position at university, it seems. The university claims that being a junior lecturer is a dead-end position, as one needs a PhD to sustain an academic career. According to Alex from Casual UvA though, “that is not entirely true. In order to facilitate a Bachelors level of education, you shouldn’t necessarily need a PhD, and that is also not the case right now. In fact, if these positions were better developed, if they had more opportunities for professional development, they could be more fulfilling opportunities. It’s a narrative that’s imposed on us. The university decided that this position is a dead-end, and that’s why it should be temporary. But that should be up to the employees to decide.” Alex herself applied for the job because she thought about pursuing a PhD in the future, “so I thought this might be a good opportunity to discern if I like teaching at this level, especially because it is part of a PhD at some point.”

And that’s exactly it: It’s not that the people involved with Casual UvA are opposed to pursuing a PhD, in fact the Junior Lecturers I talked to had all thought about it. It’s that it shouldn’t be a requirement for permanent contracts and workload transparency. As Jamie says, “I just think it’s a matter of principle. You need junior lecturers, these courses will always be taught. I just think it’s immoral. You’re constantly just recycling teachers, on temporary contracts forever.” The reasoning of the university in their response to Casual UvA always seems to come down to money. But isn’t the turnover, the constant hiring and re-hiring and training, actually more expensive? We all know the government is underfunding universities, despite growing student numbers. This just increases the work pressure on teachers, in particular those on temporary and part time contracts. “So every time we asked for something, it was like - sorry, we have no money, we cannot hire more people to lessen your workload, to help you- ”, Jamie tells me. The group has constantly encountered this financial reasoning in response to their demands, but together with explanations of needing to budget for fluctuating student numbers, it becomes more complex than simply underfunding of universities. Universities have research to forecast student numbers, “so they do have an idea of how many students will attend”, Alex argues. So while the government surely underfunds education, these institutions might also just have other budgetary priorities, which seem to neither include junior lecturers nor students.

Jamie, Alex, and Paula all tell me of the overwhelming support they have received as part of Casual UvA, from students to senior staff. A lot of times in their talks with the CvB, the responsibility junior lecturers feel towards their students has been used against them. “Oftentimes, the university will also use the relationships we have with our students against us. You want to do anything for your students, you want to support them, you want the best for them. And so you will go out of your way to do these things, when in fact, it’s not a nonprofit, it’s not a volunteer job, and we should be paid for the hours that we work. We should be provided sufficient enough hours to facilitate the education that students pay for, and that they deserve.” Jamie shares Alex’s sentiment: “Because in the end, we are doing this for you. We care, our number one purpose of teaching is for the students, right? We are not trying to hurt the students or something. We want to make our working conditions better to make the students’ learning conditions better as well.”

And students seem to see that - “Students have been really ready to be in solidarity with us and do what they can.” This solidarity can take many forms. While Casual UvA shares email templates that students can use to email the faculty, the dean, and the executive board of UvA, it can be something as simple as a message of support. Paula recently ordered a pizza through her UvA email - “And I got a pizza box, and it was written on it: “We support the junior lecturers’ strike”. That absolutely made my day, and I want

to thank those people who did that”.

Although Casual UvA states three main demands, ultimately their organizing goes beyond these petitions. It is about the role of teaching at university and how academia is structured, how we envision it to be in the future. As Jamie says, “it’s about how we don’t want universities to just be about research anymore. It’s also a teaching institution (...) There’s no reason why someone shouldn’t be able to make a career out of teaching at the university”. This strike challenges how academia is organized, how students and lecturers are treated at the Universiteit van Amsterdam - and it is happening because of a vision for a better future. If education is the passport to the future, as Malcolm X proclaimed it to be, Casual UvA is fighting for a more equal vision of what that future can look like.

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