A day in the working life of a historian: Sarah Pinto

Sarah Pinto reflects on the working life of a feminist historian and the privileges and precarities of university workplaces.

Teaching Assistants' Association strike, 1970. Image via University of Wisconsin Archives.
Teaching Assistants’ Association strike, 1970. Image via University of Wisconsin Archives.

I would like to be able to say that I began my day at my desk at dawn, impossibly fresh and rested in a spotless and soothing office, taking the chance to get some writing done before leaving for work. But it is November: results season. So I arrived at work at a regular time, and my morning has been dominated by administration.

Results are due to be uploaded this week, and I have some missing students to chase, late submissions to mark, and spreadsheets to fill; it is as exciting as it sounds. But it has me thinking about the workplaces of today’s academics, and what it might mean to be a working (feminist) historian in an Australian university in 2016.

I am very conscious that I am writing (and working) from a position of enormous privilege: I am a white able-bodied woman with a continuing position at a mid-level comprehensive teaching and research university. Like the vast majority of my continuing colleagues, my income puts me well within the top twenty per cent of taxpayer incomes in Australia.

More to the point, I am in a very privileged position within a sector that has some very pressing problems with privilege. The university sector in Australia, like much of the western world, is a workplace with significant structural inequalities. While I (currently) enjoy the kind of workplace entitlements that activists have fought for more than a century to establish – including generous leave entitlements and superannuation schemes – most of those currently employed in the university sector in Australia are not nearly so lucky.

I often find myself wondering how best to make use of this privilege in advocating and living a feminist agenda, and today is no exception. I can, of course, work gender and sexuality into my teaching and research. I can also push against the everyday exclusions and marginalisations that sustain hegemonies without (immediate) fear of losing my job: I can report the building that has been left without lift access to teaching rooms during semester; I can highlight all-male panels and advocate for their elimination in seminar series; I can speak up in support of women (and others) in meetings; and I can try to make space for the voices of others in everything I do.

But, when it comes down to it, the most pressing issue facing the university sector today is casualisation. And casualisation, perhaps like resignation, is a feminist issue – and not just because around sixty per cent of contract and sessional staff in Australian universities are women. The casualisation of the university workforce has been accompanied by a serious and devastating erosion of workplace rights and entitlements that, put simply, fosters inequality. The increasingly stark divide between the continuing and the casualised in Australian universities – a divide that is gendered, racialised, and generational – reflects broader workplace trends that are some of the many pernicious effects of neoliberalism. I like to think that historians are more alert than most to the likely long-term consequences of this division, and of the realities of the removal of long-fought-for workplace rights. How, then, to make use of my privilege – which is, after all, the privilege of the implicated, of the collaborator – to work against this outcome?

Eight Hours Committee, Melbourne, issued by Trades Hall Council, 1915. Image via Museum Victoria.

I stop for lunch with a visiting colleague whose research is focussed on the university sector. She reminds me that it is difficult to pay attention to our privilege in the face of the overwhelming demands placed on those in continuing positions in today’s university: the enormous workloads, the proliferating bureaucracy, the diminution of academic freedoms, and the constant ratcheting-up of expectations in teaching, research and administration that have all fuelled an explosion in working hours. I walk back to my office and consider how tempting it is to try to quarantine myself from the exploitations of today’s university, closing my office door on the world and focussing instead on simply hitting my own targets.

But nowhere is really safe; those office doors are increasingly being replaced with hot desks and open plan workspaces. And even from my relatively lowly position – as a lecturer who is, in fact, still on probation – I know I can try to subvert the casualisation agenda from the inside, albeit very much at the edges. I can, for example, be very careful of what I ask of contract and casual staff. I can try harder to listen to their voices and understand their experiences. I can also advocate for more substantial employment wherever possible. And I can remind those in positions of authority of the realities of the precarity of casualisation. I can even use a blog post to highlight the issue, and in the process perhaps encourage a more open conversation between continuing and casualised staff about the effects of casualisation.

I look at the clock and realise its time to get back to today’s to-do list. Assuming no disasters, tomorrow I will return to some tricky article revisions I have been working on since the end of my classes several weeks ago. And although I realise the demands of my job are sometimes overwhelming, I’m also grateful for the privileges and pleasures – and luck – of having a job at all.


screen-shot-2016-11-01-at-1-08-53-pmSarah Pinto is a historian who lectures in Australian Studies at Deakin University. Her research interests are in public and popular history, the history and politics of emotion, gender and sexuality, and place and landscape. She is currently researching the commemoration of Indigenous peoples and histories in contemporary Australia. Sarah is co-convenor of the Melbourne Feminist History Group.

Follow Sarah on Twitter @sarahpinto_.

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