Unpaid work, part 4: Academia

I’m not sure whether people outside of academia are aware of how much unpaid work goes into academic research, teaching and publishing…

Academic publishing is built on a system of unpaid work. You write a journal article for free and submit it to a journal. They send it off to reviewers, who are asked to comment on your work and determine whether it’s publishable–and they aren’t paid, either. The article is then published in a journal that higher education institutions pay expensive subscription fees for–or if it’s an open access journal, then the author has paid a large publication fee (while also not getting paid to write it).

Source: https://guides.lib.fsu.edu/academicpublishing/economics

Then there’s the unpaid work involved in teaching–the breakdown of contracted hours is often opaque and greatly underestimates the time spent on marking, prep, e-mails, and pastoral care. Hourly contracted staff are given 30 minutes per essay when it comes to marking, for example–that’s 30 min to read it, evaluate how it measures up to the marking criteria, and write up useful feedback with specific examples and advice. Even after 8 years of teaching experience and developing templates, I would still struggle to give decent feedback in under 30 minutes.

Other unpaid things you must do to establish an academic career:

  • Look for your next contract while you’re on a temporary contract
  • Apply for grants and fellowships
  • Write book proposals
  • Look for Calls For Papers (for publications or conferences)
  • Apply for conferences, which often require original work that hasn’t previously been published elsewhere (and they charge conference registration fees that University employers usually cover, so it doesn’t seem like a big deal unless you’re out of work or on a low paid part-time contract)
  • Networking–it’s work that doesn’t seem like work, but can actually be essential for finding the next contract or project…and women are often excluded from it.

On the last point, here’s a little illustration from my own experience:

When my son was 9 weeks old, I presented my work at a conference that was a *dream* topic for me. It was so closely linked to my recently completed PhD topic, and I had cited many of the other speakers’ work in my thesis. I was thrilled to be there and so grateful for the opportunity! They even funded my travel expenses, which was essential, as I was unemployed at the time (not on maternity leave, but actually unemployed). The conference was a wonderful experience and I got a lot out of it, including the chance to contribute to an edited volume that’s coming out in August 2019.

It was, however, the first time I really experienced the realities of being a working and breastfeeding mom. While I was downstairs listening to presentations, my husband was upstairs in our hotel room looking after our 9-week-old. Every time there was a coffee break or lunch break, I would dash upstairs and simultaneously pump and breastfeed until the start of the next session. My supply was low, so it was a struggle. This meant that I missed out on most of the conference’s networking opportunities. I was worried in equal measure about establishing my milk supply and establishing my career–and it’s easy to feel like a failure on both fronts when I look back at it now.

On a more positive note, blogging (also unpaid) about it and sharing our experiences with each other is a step towards raising awareness about these inequalities and the unpaid workload of participating in academia.

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Unpaid work, part 3: Internships

image from: Flickr Adam Fagan

Internships have long been considered an essential part of pursuing a career in the creative industries. They’re a necessary evil–of course it’s wrong to make people work without pay, but that’s just “the way things are”. If you want a job in television/journalism/other creative industries, you’ve got to “pay your dues”.

There are countless examples of intern exploitation and harassment, often overlooked and dismissed as “the way things are”. Critics are told ‘if you don’t like it, then don’t go into television,’ for instance, or ‘You’re just not cut out for journalism,’ etc. Media industries scholarship has called out such practices, including the concept of “self-exploitation”, where workers voluntarily work overtime (unpaid) because they think it will further their career trajectory/pad their resume, etc.

I’ve contributed to the phenomenon in the past, before I knew about this critical perspective and realized how exploitative internships are. As my department’s placement assistant, I helped arrange work placements for our students in broadcast journalism, film and photography, and television production. For most of my students, it was a 3-week, unpaid placement, usually as a researcher or a runner. Most had positive experiences and some were offered paid employment at the end. The complaints they shared often had to do with not being given interesting tasks, and I recall one student being upset about being asked to work on Saturdays. Despite the fact they were generally good experiences, I still feel a bit guilty for my role in reinforcing the unpaid internship culture.

Unpaid internships are of course, wrong for the simple fact that they are making people work without pay–that alone is bad enough. But there’s another, more subtle thing they do: they keep people from entering the creative industries who can’t afford to work without pay. If you’re going to do an unpaid internship, you need a place to stay for free, close to where the jobs are (London/NYC/LA). As a result, you’re probably either going to live with your parents or they’ll pay your (very high) rent for a place in the city. This excludes a huge segment of the population–in the UK, it excludes basically all but London.

This leads to a situation in which the proportion of people from privileged backgrounds is much higher in the creative industries than it is in the general population. Public school (US private school, tuition-fees charged) graduates are disproportionately represented in the media. “43% of people working in publishing, 28% in music, and 26% in design come from privileged backgrounds, compared with 14% of the population coming from this same social origin.” (Oakley et al., 2017).

What does this mean in practice? It means that the people who make the media mostly have the same privileged perspective. When they choose which stories get told, they’re going to choose things that matter to them and are relevant and interesting to them–so we miss out on the stories of underrepresented groups, of working-class concerns, perspectives from people of colour, etc.

Internships aren’t just a problem in the media. Yesterday US Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez highlighted the problem of low-paid internships in Congress, and drew attention to the larger ramifications of that phenomenon.

“Low pay is also a big reason for lack of socioeconomic diversity in DC, aka why many spaces in government can feel like a silver spoon club: only people who work 80+hr weeks w/ multiple jobs without an outside life, or whose parents can supplement their pay can have the opportunity to work in the nation’s capital. That has real consequences for government being out of touch w/ the people we serve on all levels. There’s a TON of work that needs to be done when it comes to the workplace (parental leave, hiring practices, living wage, healthcare as a right and not a perk, etc), but it starts with paying people enough to live as a minimum requirement, and not a luxury (and I guess that gets you called a communist these days 😂).”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@ocasio2018) on Instagram, 25 February 2019

To address that problem, her office staff are paid a living wage, which in the DC area equates to full-time workers earning no less than $52,000 a year.


It’s a very unusual move on the Hill and likely one of the highest entry-level salaries in Congress. I do it because I was outraged at how many staffers I saw on the Hill work FULL-TIME leave their day job for a second shift as a barista or elsewhere afterwards **just to afford the basics** – not even to get ahead or save up for something big. It’s totally wrong.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@ocasio2018) on Instagram, 25 February 2019

There are a lot of problems with the system, but moves like this give me hope. It looks like unpaid and low-paid internships are increasingly being recognised as contributing to systemic inequalities.

Further reading:

Ergin Bulut, Glamor Above, Precarity Below: Immaterial Labor in the Video Game Industry (2015)

David Lee, Internships, Workfare, and the Cultural Industries: A British Perspective (2015)

Kate Oakley, Daniel Laurison, Dave O’Brien, and Sam Friedman, Cultural Capital: Arts Graduates, Spatial Inequality, and London’s Impact on Cultural Labor Markets (2017)

Unpaid Work, Part 2: Breastfeeding

Breastmilk is not free.

When I saw this on Instagram, I had an Oprah “Ah-ha!” moment, because I’d never thought about it this way. Nobody does! We see how crazy expensive formula is and think we’re saving money by breastfeeding (as well as all of the other benefits), but ultimately, we’re paying indirectly in the form of unpaid work. And we do, all too often, think of women’s time, bodies and carework as worthless.

We pay in lack of sleep. We pay in hours of unpaid “on-the-job training,” learning how to breastfeed while we’re also recovering from childbirth. We pay in delaying a return to work or pumping at work. We pay in having to buy supplies for this unpaid work: breast-feeding friendly tops and nursing bras and nursing pillows and pumps and nipple cream and Fenugreek supplements and lactation cookies and Motherkind tea. We pay in the emotional labour of fielding unsolicited advice from strangers and friends and family about how we choose to feed our babies, how long we keep it up and whether/ how we do it in public.

Not only is it not always easy–it’s also not free.

Unpaid Work, part 1: intro

I’ve been noticing more and more unpaid work going on these days–the Deliveroo cyclists sitting outside the Arndale centre, watching their phones for the next job; the undergrads eager to get unpaid work placements at media companies; the reviewing we do without pay in academic publishing. It’s also in the extra help and pastoral care we give to students–the out-of-hours emails, the discussions after class, the office hours that overrun. Research has shown that women faculty perform significantly more service than men. Women are more likely to mentor colleagues and support their fellow academics in unpaid ways. Early career academics, in particular, do unpaid research and extra teaching prep that often goes unnoticed and unrewarded as they try to secure better contracts and improve their CVs. It’s a particularly subtle form of self-exploitation–nobody forces us to do it but ourselves and “the system”.

I’m not sure what the answers are to any of this, but being aware of the problem is a good first step. To that end, I’m going to write a little series of posts on unpaid work.

The role of language in exchanges

This morning I read an article from the BBC about an incident at Duke University, where a professor emailed students about her concerns over Chinese students speaking Chinese, rather than English, while on campus. Apparently, two colleagues had overheard students speaking Chinese (“loudly”) in a lounge/study area and asked this professor for their names. They wanted to know so that, allegedly,


 they could remember them if the students ever interviewed for an internship or asked to work with them for a masters project. They were disappointed that these students were not taking the opportunity to improve their English and were being so impolite as to have a conversation that not everyone on the floor could understand.

from:https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-47022374

The professor e-mailed her students and asked them to speak English “100% of the time” in the building or “any other professional setting”. The professor has been removed as director of the programme, as a result of the backlash against this e-mail.

First off, let me say that I’m not surprised by this incident, for several reasons. When I was in high school checking out universities, I visited Duke and decided not to apply–despite being considered a “prestigious” school, campus life felt very Greek-oriented and sports-oriented. Also, I’ve seen the way some people (lecturers, students, locals) react to international students speaking their native languages–I’ve heard the same things as these staff members in the e-mail have said.

It’s racist and ridiculous for a number of reasons, but my main issue is that the students in question were not in a “professional setting”. They were in a “student lounge/study area”. Why shouldn’t they speak their native language there? Why does “everyone on the floor” need to understand what they’re saying? What if a couple of native English speakers decided to whisper?

And even if they were in a “professional setting”, lighten up. My seminars are often 90-100% Chinese students, and I’m absolutely fine with them speaking Chinese with each other when they discuss the readings. I put the discussion questions up on the screen and they break up into small groups, discuss them in Chinese (and/or English, depending on the group’s preferences), then share their thoughts with me and the rest of the class in English after a few minutes. I would much rather ensure that they understand the content than use my seminars as an “opportunity to improve their English.” It will improve–but in the meantime, we need to talk about Adorno and Horkheimer’s critical theory (which has already been translated from the original German). If speaking English with me and Chinese with their peers helps us get through these difficult readings, then by all means, feel free to speak Chinese!

It’s taken me a few years to come to this position, though–back when I started working with international students, I thought they should engage in “immersion”. If they committed to speaking English all the time, they would become fluent quickly and everything would be easier for them. But now I realise that this is a very privileged, unrealistic position. Immersion works, yes, but it’s incredibly mentally exhausting. It’s such a relief to speak your native language when you’re abroad.

Last September, I experienced this sense on a smaller scale–I was in Paris with my family, responsible for doing most of the ordering and translating and navigating with my limited French. We stopped at a deli to get sandwiches for lunch, and I struggled to understand and make myself understood. The woman behind the counter was very sweet, asking us about our son and where we were from, and it turned out that she was from Ecuador. I was so relieved–I switched to Spanish and we both grinned. Suddenly it was so much easier to communicate! And that wasn’t even my native language, so I can imagine how relieved my students must feel to speak in Chinese after hours in the library struggling to get through Adorno and Horkheimer. It’s not just about language acquisition–we need to take a holistic approach to understanding the international student experience.

Michael Haugh picked up on some of these ideas in his article on international students in Australia. The so-called “English problem” amongst international students has been blamed for a perceived decline in standards in Australian higher education. His interviewees shared some very interesting anecdotes, and I think many of my students would find them relatable. Haugh’s conclusion suggests that

 …it would be useful to draw greater attention to policy-makers in higher education to the moral complexity of the ongoing discourse of complaint about the English language skills of international students. In this way, we can move beyond the view that the so-called English problem is simply a matter of an objective, measurable deficiency on the part of international students.

from: Haugh, M. 2016. Complaints and troubles talk about the English language skills of international students in Australian universities. Higher Education Research & Development,35(4), pp. 727-740.

Immersion vs. bilingual education will continue to be an area of debate in exchange diplomacy, particularly in terms of language acquisition and culture learning effectiveness. In terms of the way international students are treated on campus, however, there’s no question that we must respect students’ right to communicate amongst themselves in whatever way they choose.

What I’m Reading

Image result for becoming

Michelle Obama’s memoir was the book of 2018–even before Oprah picked it for her book club, it was a huge bestseller. I added it to my wishlist as a pre-order, and my sister and I both bought it for each others’ birthdays in Nov/Dec! I’m about halfway through, and I adore it. She’s a fantastic writer and storyteller, and her tone is everything you’d expect from her. She’s brilliant yet relatable, down to earth yet Ivy League educated. Her stories of the South Side of Chicago and her youth outreach work make you realise how much untapped talent there is out there, how many brilliant people don’t get the opportunities that would enable them to shine–and how many people like her are doing inspiring, empowering work that never gets heard about because they don’t happen to be married to Presidents.

Oprah once said that whatever you do, to be excellent and “make excellence your brand”. Michelle’s behind-the-scenes account shows that the Obama family did just that–they knew that as the first African-American First Family, they had to be excellent, that one slip could undermine them and that they would be even more vulnerable to criticism than other First Families. The Obamas succeeded. No scandals, no corruption, no slip-ups. Michelle is relieved to be out of the White House, but the millions of people around the world now reading her book can’t help but feel nostalgic for the Obama White House’s excellence.

New Year’s Resolutions

For the past few years, I’ve come up with a list of 10 resolutions each December to give some structure to my plans for the year ahead–they cover all areas, personal and professional, big and small projects.

Every year, I accomplish most of them–all but my publication goals. I fail to meet them every year, which leads me to feeling like a failure, and then that drains my confidence and I continue being unproductive…I feel so much guilt for not having achieved more, like I’ve let everyone around me down–every supportive teacher/mentor/friend is let down by my failures (which I know isn’t true, of course, but this is the mental spiral I’m trying to describe here, in case someone else feels this way too and finds it comforting to know they aren’t alone…).

I know I need to write more and publish more. There are so many stacks of articles and books for half-written projects lying around on my office shelves–they never seem to get done. They always get moved to the back burner, usually due to teaching prep and marking that needs to be prioritised. Everything else always seems more urgent in the moment, but it’s been 4 1/2 years since I finished the PhD–now my lack of publications seems urgent and I’m panicking.

Image result for i should be writing

This term, I’m going to devote my Tuesdays to writing and research. I’m going to set some concrete writing goals for each month and keep a publications to-do list on my office wall that I can check off as I complete sections/tasks. I’m also going to re-commit to blogging again, because accountability is a great motivator.