The Gendered Labour of Loving What You Do.
In April of 2016, upei professor Ron Srigley published a short article in The Walrus magazine bemoaning the current state of the university classroom, a place, he claims, where "academic content" has given way to entertainment under the guise of "student-centred learning activities" (his scare quotes). On the rise of student experience offices he is quizzical, pondering to himself what kind of experience these offices are hoping to create before offering an answer: "Fundamentally, one in which students are made to feel happy, empowered, valued, and the centre of their own learning experience. The student services department itself will guide students to this beatific end and shield them from cantankerous faculty (like me) who insist on raining on the parade by actually attempting to teach them something" (Srigley).
Public responses to Srigley's piece were predictably divisive. Many academics understandably identified with Srigley's bemoaning of the corporatization of the university, the shifting of professor-student relationships to that of customer and employee, and the increasingly incomprehensible bureaucratic apparatus that structures and manages that relationship to within an inch of its life. Other readers, from both within and outside academia, were seemingly drawn to Srigley's disparaging tone, to a bias-confirming parody of academia as a self-indulgent refuge for entitled millenials and the pc leftist killjoys teaching them.
A good example of the latter response comes in the form of a comment on Melonie Fullick's critique of Srigley:
Fullick seems more interested in condemning the "tone" of Professor Srigley's piece than in refuting his (compelling) thesis. Perhaps he should have included a "trigger warning" at the outset? What's more, as someone with twenty-seven years of university teaching experience myself and fully aware of what Professor Srigley is talking about, I find Fullick's denigration of his evidence unfair, even insulting. Surely his twenty-plus years of front-line service in his profession warrants our most serious attention to his concerns. (Azoulay)
Note here the use of the phrase "trigger warnings" as shorthand for inadequately scholarly, overly affective response. Similarly, the discourse of experience as a support for wisdom about teaching--experience against research--of course supports some voices over others. Who is in the position to have twenty-plus years of teaching experience? Who, on the other hand, has more recently gained access to these rapidly deteriorating hallowed halls (and, by implication, is positioned as complicit in said deterioration)?
But many of us--Fullick included--experienced a profound disconnect between our own "front-line service" and Srigley's account of what teaching looks like in the contemporary university. We know there are problems, but we're pretty sure they aren't the students' fault for wanting to feel empowered. We strive instead to balance our precarity with our obligations to our students, to balance their needs for quantifiable outcomes with our belief in the other things you can learn in a classroom--to be resistant, belligerent, unsettling thinkers, but also generous, reliable, supportive teachers.
The most illuminating critique of Srigley's article came in the form of media scholar and public intellectual Aimee Morrison's post on the popular feminist academic website Hook & Eye. Here, Morrison addresses not so much the content of the Walrus article as the question of Srigley's public status; how, despite his position as a career adjunct, he is able to speak confidently from within the privilege of his own white male authority; how people are so willing to listen to him. Morrison invites her readership of primarily women, many of whom are graduate students or sessionals, to imagine how much cultural capital they themselves would gain through such ostentatious public displays of dissatisfaction. That move, she asserts, is "really only available to conservative white dudes." What about the rest of us?
Me (and you, I imagine), I hold a tiny bit of my soul in my hands every class I walk in to. [...] I engage my students every day as if they were human beings who mattered, who have stories. Could this sound any more like care work? Could I feminize this description any more, make it sound less like what many expect to be "the life of the mind" and any more like exactly the sort of "handholding" Srigley stakes his whole career against? Probably not. (Morrison)
There's the crux: in defending the work we do as teachers, in defending our students and our classrooms and our labour, we slip so easily into the very gendered language that makes our voices more precarious, more unhearable, to the Ron Srigleys of the world. The language that lets commenters mock us with references to "trigger warnings." We cannot engage in a debate about pedagogy that pits learning against students' empowerment and happiness when we don't believe that those things are mutually exclusive.
Drawing on Kate Eichhorn and Heather Milne's account of editorial work as "Labours of Love," I would like to describe not just this kind pedagogy but also the public defense of it as part of the affective economy of the university. Eichhorn and Milne explain that "editorial projects are both essential to fostering and sustaining literary communities and deeply undervalued" and ask why some academics "still engage in such work at their own loss" (189). Their conclusion is that editing work is primarily concerned with "relations and proximities" (190), a feminist approach embodied in the late Barbara Godard, who "was in the 'business' of generating social networks, multiple and intersecting communities, longstanding friendship" (192). The academics who engage in affective labour do so to their detriment, only in the sense that it is undervalued as a career path, unlikely to lead to tenure and promotion. On the other hand, it is fundamental for building the communities and collaborations that make the university livable for many of us, both students and professors.
There is a near-constant circulation of articles that advocate for women and femmes to stop taking on the burden of unpaid emotional labour in their workplaces. Those directed at academic women tell us to stop volunteering for committees, stop participating in non-mandatory workshops and seminars, stop taking on extra student supervision and offering extra office hours. We need to get better at protecting our time if we want to start overcoming the gender gap in the academy, if we want to stop being in the majority of precariously employed adjuncts and sessionals.
And yet. If we don't do it, who will? And: must we consent to the care work we do being recast as weakness, as professional liability? And: if we insist on defending the work that we do as important, as central to the university we want to create, do we doom ourselves to taking on ever-increasing forms of additional labour, blogging and giving public talks and running workshops while other scholars keep their heads down and publish the kind of stuff that their institutions actually care about?
Articles on thriving in academia as a woman keep telling us to do less, to refuse the trap of caring too much. But this kind of refusal only contributes to the undervaluing of care work and feminized labour--and leaves our students more vulnerable to the institutions that constantly reframe their education, and their subjectivity, in brutally unfeeling terms. What would the university look like if we took those discourses of happiness, empowerment, and value and placed them at the heart of our collective understanding of teaching, research, and service?
Azoulay, Dan. Comment on "Critiques of higher ed--beyond animosity and anecdotes" by Melonie Fullick. 31 March 2016. Web. 4 October 2016.
Eichhorn, Kate, and Heather Milne. "Labours of Love and Cutting Remarks: The Affective Economies of Editing." Editing as Cultural Practice in Canada. Eds. Dean Irvine and Smaro Kamboureli. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier up, 2016. 189-98.
Fullick, Melonie. University Affairs/Affaires universitaires. 29 March 2016. Web. 4 October 2016.
Morrison, Aimee. "The unbearable privilege of cynicism." Hook & Eye. 23 March 2016. Web. 4 October 2016.
Srigley, Ron. "Pass, Fail." The Walrus. 18 April 2016. Web. 4 October 2016.
Simon Fraser University
Hannah McGregor is an Assistant Professor of Publishing at Simon Fraser University, where her research and teaching focus on the histories and futures of print and digital media in Canada. She is particularly interested in Canadian middlebrow magazines, podcasting as public scholarship, and the histories of structural racism in the Canadian publishing industry. She is also the co-host of Witch, Please, a feminist podcast on the Harry Potter world.
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|Publication:||English Studies in Canada|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2017|
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