Friday, November 6, 2015

Missing the Point on Invisible Care Work in Academia

I just read Myra Green's "Thanks for Listening," and you should, too. In this post, Green explores the invisible care work of teaching that often falls to a small segment of (usually) female instructors. Here's an excerpt:
A small group of academics — primarily women — end up taking on this kind of care-work at colleges and universities. We know that women in academe are expected to do more service work, and women and faculty of color often do more advising and mentoring than white male professors do. That is especially true of what my colleague calls "warm and fuzzy" or "nice" women, and I’d add to that list women who are what Susan Cain describes as "quiet" listeners. Such women, however they came to be perceived that way, are understood as empathic helpers, sounding boards, caretakers. They do a lot of the institution’s care-work.
I am undoubtedly among that number. The nature of working teaching the lowest-performing students at an open access institution located in an urban environment means that care work is a necessity. In fact, for a large portion of my students (in some classes, even a majority), success is less dependent on their ability to complete the work expected of them (they can do that) and more dependent upon getting the other pieces of their lives to fit together just long enough to actually demonstrate that ability. In a single semester, it is completely typical for me to have students who have close family members murdered, students who get pregnant, who lose pregnancies, who get arrested, who become suddenly homeless, who are trying to escape abusive relationships, who are battling substance addiction, and who are navigating more amorphous impacts of being members of marginalized populations within a particularly racially and economically segregated city.

I've written about this before, and then I called upon Holly Ann Larson's excellent article titled "Emotional Labor: The Pink-Collar Duties of Teaching." Larson, also a developmental writing teacher (like me!) points to these same necessities:
I find that I need to take on various roles in order for my students to obtain both basic and college-level skills: mentor, advisor, teacher, and entertainer; and to play the roles successfully, I need lots of energy.

I do not resent taking on these extra roles. In fact, I delight and take pride in them. I enjoy teaching immensely, and particularly enjoy the contact I have with the students, both inside and outside the classroom. I also feel an obligation to advocate for students and assist them in any way possible, especially the nontraditional students such as the young woman I mentioned earlier. I identify with them: I, too, come from a working-class family and was the first generation to attend college.
And maybe that last part is why I am so interested in talking about this phenomenon. I, too, am a first-generation college student who came from an impoverished background. I will readily admit to you that I would not be here (a recent PhD, a pretty rare first-gen accomplishment) without the emotional labor of professors at every point in my academic career.

In elementary school when I was the strange, painfully shy child who had never interacted with kids before entering kindergarten, it was understanding teachers who helped me make the transition. In middle school when my parents' very public and very ugly divorce led my small town to become a pit of venomous gossip, kind teachers made me their concern. When the weight of working three jobs and paying bills in my now chaotic, single-parent household had me depressed and disconnected in high school, attentive, passionate teachers got me back on track. When I discovered that a community college was the right fit for me professionally and got negative reactions from some faculty members in graduate school, it was other faculty members who carried the burden of hearing my emotional turmoil and assuring me I could make my goals work for me within the academy.

So maybe I'm sympathetic to troubled students because there have been plenty of times when I stood in their shoes.

But as Green's article makes clear, it is not just statistically "at-risk" populations who make use of emotional laborers. She recounts having these kind of conversations with junior colleagues and students of all stripes.

And this is why I am so baffled by some of the responses to Green's article.

The top comment (as of this writing) is from user joelcairo and begins with this:
The writer wants to scream that she's not inviting all kinds of people to unload their burdens on her, but of course that is precisely what she is doing. And this is precisely why so many people feel they can go to her with their personal problems.
Then there's this response to joelcairo from natalie:
"I wonder if some of the problem is that the author wants to be liked and therefore finds it hard to say no." 
The reality is that for folks who are women or people of color, they *need* to be liked in order to amass the social capital (that white men receive either automatically or at a much lower price) that will allow them to navigate the required institutional politics to advance their careers.
Many of the other comments devolve into the typical internet barrage of commenters calling each other racist. Beyond those, there are a lot of comments parroting the idea that Green needs to get better at setting boundaries or that she's not qualified to perform counseling services.

All of these comments, even the one defending Green as shoring up her necessary social capital, miss what is, in my opinion, the main point of this discussion: this kind of care work has to happen if our institutions are to be successful. I think it becomes more obvious at an open access institution serving underprepared students like the one where I work, but Green is at a four-year research institution and facing the same dilemmas.

If Green took the commenters' advice and set better boundaries, these needs would just shift to someone else. And if everyone set boundaries that refused to do the emotional labor of educating, the results would be disastrous, a disaster measurable in classroom behavior problems, retention rates plummeting, and more general loss of community between teachers and students. Some complain that Green isn't a qualified counselor, but she is referring students to those resources, resources they likely wouldn't find or use without the encouragement and guidance of a teacher with whom they already have regular interaction and a comfortable relationship.

Education is a transformation. It involves identity construction, and that's a necessarily emotional endeavor. Trying to separate out the emotional requirements of the task of becoming educated is futile. It can't be off-loaded or outsourced. It happens on the ground, where the learning takes place.

What's more, articles like Green's and Larson's (and I suppose, the post I'm writing right now) are not bemoaning having to do this labor. Larson even specifically says, "I do not resent taking on these extra roles." The complaint isn't about having to do the work. The complaint is about the work not counting as work.

Emotional labor is necessary to keep the academy functioning. In a world where service can be counted in a variety of ways, why can't this ubiquitous component of educating be among them? And why is it that when the people (usually women) doing this labor point out their efforts, they're shouted down with demands that they get better at boundary building instead of recognizing that what they're trying to point out isn't that their boundaries are too weak, but the fact that everyone else's are so strong they've been forced to take on more than their fair share of the emotional labor from which every educator benefits.

NaBloPoMo November 2015

(Pictures: Brian Reed, Art Crimes)

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