A letter to my students awaiting feedback

I’ve been meaning to get back to regular blogging, just to get in the habit of shaping words, and I realised that today I wrote something that I wanted to share more broadly than the Discussion Board where I posted it.

My students have been awaiting feedback on their essays, and sadly for a variety of reasons their tutor hasn’t been able to return the feedback yet. Here’s part of the short post I wrote trying to help them understand why this is happeningā€¦

Unfortunately the shift towards sessional staff by universities means that often the people who mark your work are often juggling multiple jobs, and when something else comes up in their life (illness, family obligations, etc) something has to give. I don’t want to throw the blame on individual tutors when the system as a whole is, frankly, so very broken. So much of the day-to-day work falls on staff who are insecure and underpaid.

This is not just a problem at our university: it’s absolutely part of the way that every Australian university works today. There are times that sessional staff do manage to keep up with the work, but sadly we can’t be surprised that they’re not always able to. Among other things, the NTEU is campaigning for better conditions for sessional staff, which would also translate into better teaching for students. I know that this isn’t much consolation when it comes to a very understandable desire for your feedback, but it is also important to understand some of the broader structural pressures that universities are facing.

Because this is a public university, it’s heavily dependent on federal government funding and that’s been cut massively over the last few years (from an already-low point). This university, like every other university in Australia, has tried to balance the budget in various ways (restructures, cutting some courses, limiting wage increases)…but universities are not corporations: they are meant to provide a public good. And that means that unlike a corporation, they can’t respond to budget problems by simply raising the cost of the ‘product’ (and I hate the thought of your education simply being seen as ‘product’ to be consumed), producing something different, mining and selling your data, etc. It’s what the federal government has been telling us to do for years, but it’s just not viable. In order to provide decent education, we need funding.

I’m deeply sorry that this means that students are often let down. I love teaching, and I think it’s incredibly important. I want you all to have an inspiring, interesting, thought-provoking experience in this unit (and every other unit that I teach), and I know that feedback is a key part of that. But I also very much do not want to throw any of our sessional staff under the bus and pretend that they’re individually responsible for years of systemic failure to give decent funding to Australian universities.

I am trying to find a way, as an educator who also cares about the sessional staff I work with, to deal with these deep structural problems in a reasonable way. I hate letting students down, but I also absolutely don’t want to pretend that systemic failures are individual failures. Making these issues visible to my students is one response. It feels unsatisfying, but it’s less uncomfortable than trying to plaster over the cracks.

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