The Four F***s: Apathy, Indifference and Industrial Inaction at University
I have been working in university seminar rooms for a little under twenty-five years. As a post-graduate student, I became aware that students were not always seen as developing minds, as partners in the education project, as future writers and thinkers, but in many cases as a drain on their tutors’ intelligence and time.
As I began my own teaching career, I started to see the reasons behind those complaints. I have turned up to deliver a 9am seminar, waited for half an hour for even one student to appear, and gone home; I have marked work that would struggle to seem satisfactory from a schoolchild; and I have left the classroom with my handouts still in my bag because my students showed so little willingness to comment and debate that we had not even begun the process of thought that the printed materials were meant to develop. When I recounted these experiences to colleagues, they were met, for the most part, with resignation and sympathy. Words like ‘apathy’ and ‘indifference’ were used. My teaching career, my writing and my scholarship began to merge as I drew on Latané and Darley’s research into bystander apathy, and Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments, to understand, and help my students understand the atmosphere in those classrooms.(1)
If my colleagues understood my struggles with my students, I had struggles with the institution itself, to which only some seemed sympathetic. As a sessional tutor, I signed roughly thirty contracts with my employer over a nine-year period, in each case effectively denying that I had any employment history at that university, or had acquired employment rights under European law. During the summers, I was unemployed and without income, or with benefit levels of income that required me to seek other work, and endured the inconvenience and uncertainty of preparing teaching materials that I might not be required to use. I was subject not only to the vagaries of student recruitment, but to the decisions of my managers. I was removed from a module for which I had prepared, because the visiting professor’s wife wanted an hour or two a week of part-time work during the year she would be staying in Britain. Despite her desire to do a little teaching, this university was not a happy place to work. A disabled student was considering legal action against them on the grounds of discrimination. During negotiations, the university mentioned by a name a tutor who had challenged his terms of employment on legal grounds, and then left the university, as an example of what could be done to those who took the university to the courts.
The Universities and Colleges Union recently reballotted its members on industrial action as a part of its Four Fights:(2) to address low pay, to reduce overwork, to challenge racial and sexual inequalities, and to curb such casualisation, which wrecks the professional and personal prospects of a huge proportion of British universities’ staff.
Many branches failed to meet the 50% turnout which is the legal quorum. In the first university for which I worked, the turnout was approximately 25%. That colleagues who accuse their students of apathy and laziness should have failed to post their ballot papers with a couple of ticks, eviscerating the union’s stance and consigning their colleagues to poverty, uncertainty, humiliation, and exhaustion, angers me beyond words.