From Kieryn McKay,

A response to “Stormin’ Norman’s Stats” post of November 22nd.

Once upon a time a doctorate guaranteed you a tenured job. Now, in some corners of academia, even those with extensive teaching experience and publications remain precarious and underpaid. As Kieryn argues, it is important to unpack the category ‘general’ or ‘professional’ staff:

Despite the fact that much of their work is academic, all casual and contract researchers at the University are classified as General Staff. Yet in your post (and in many other discussions I’ve witnessed of late) Research Assistants and Research Officers, as General Staff, have been conflated with ‘administrative’ staff. Statements such as your “…and cry now of ’Poverty!’ is as a result of the profligate spending on an increased army of general staff who add nothing to the University’s mission of educating, researching and publishing’” therefore directly (if unintentionally) misrepresent the kinds of work that some General Staff do.

Not all General Staff are administrators. In my 7 years as a ‘General Staff’ employee at the University, I’ve edited 7 books, 4 special issues of journals and co-authored 6 publications. I’ve worked as primary Research Assistant/Officer on a total of 6 ARC projects. In my lunch breaks (unpaid, just to clarify), I’ve co-founded and coordinated a Research Seminar series, a Research Exchange Workshop and a Research Support Network. And so, far from “add[ing] nothing”, a number of research General Staff contribute directly and significantly to the “University’s mission of educating, researching, and publishing”.

Statements such as “The proportion of academic staff to general staff has become increasingly adverse… It is the academics who are the ‘production line staff’ pursuing the University’s mission of education, research, and publication. The administrators do no teaching, no research, and no publication” are therefore somewhat misleading. I do not know the figures for # or % of RAs and ROs employed by the University (though I’d like to see them), but I do know that employment of research staff (and therefore General Staff) within the research centres/institutes has grown considerably over the period 2007–2011. Taking stock of this might only make a small impact on the picture you and others have painted re: administrative vs. academic work at the University but it would, more importantly, correct the devaluing of research General Staff implicit in these kinds of computations. The work of research General Staff deserves to be counted.

I’m not suggesting that your discontent towards the allocation of UWS funds by management is misplaced. Not at all. Nor do I wish to legitimise the gross underemployment of academic staff that UWS have maintained at least for my length of service at the university. I think it’s appalling. But I do think that while we are having (rightfully) impassioned discussions around the issues UWS is facing right now, it is important that we try to always speak to the reality of the situation as best we can – not least because it strengthens an already-justifiable argument, but also because denying the complexity of the nebulous General Staff classification risks further disenfranchising cohorts of workers already dispossessed of ‘academic’ standing by their classification as General Staff, and because it risks marginalising them from a conversation in which they are heavily invested and would like to participate.