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 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.

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.

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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.

The universal language of cringe comedy

One of my favorite seminars in my postgrad media theory class is on Erving Goffman’s work on embarrassment. I put them in an embarrassing situation of having to give each other compliments, and then we reflect on what it feels like to give and receive compliments, discussing which is more embarrassing, and why. I also always take them through Goffman’s list of how people experience embarrassment–blushing, dry mouth, fumbling hands, etc.–and we talk about our own embarrassing experiences (they’re usually related to public speaking–it’s universal). 

I love how universal and human this seminar is–each year, I have a different mix of international and British students, but no matter where they’re from, everybody can relate to embarrassment. Talking about it in a theoretical sense always leads to confessions, vulnerability, and laughing with each other in this small (10-15 person) group. 

This year, I also showed them a clip from “The Office” to illustrate one of Goffman’s points about vicarious embarrassment–when we feel shame or embarrassment on behalf of another person:

“When an individual finds himself in a situation which ought to make him blush, others present usually will blush with and for him, though he may not have sufficient sense of shame or appreciation of the circumstances to blush on his own account.” (Goffman, 1956, p. 265)

I always think of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s “cringe comedy” when I read that part. David Brent has no idea how embarrassing he is, and the audience is cringing with embarrassment on his behalf. So many of their other characters do this to us, too–Stuart Pritchard in Hello Ladies;  Maggie Jacobs, Shaun Williamson and Darren Lamb in Extras; Danny in I Give It A Year;  most of what they do with Karl Pilkington…

I was curious to see how my Chinese students would react to the original UK version of The Office–would they get it? Would they realise how cringey David Brent is supposed to be? I used this clip of his terribly inappropriate job interview, and I was thrilled to see that they did indeed get it. There was lots of laughing, groaning and eye-rolling in the room. Everybody was able to reel off the various social rules he broke, his awkward body language, his inappropriate questions, and her embarrassment cues.

I wasn’t able to find any academic studies of international adaptations of The Office, but that’s one I’d love to see…It’s been adapted in 11 countries and 9 languages, and the similarities are brilliant. Wikipedia has this great chart with details about the different versions–I think my favorite part is that the Swedish version is an office hygiene product company instead of a paper company, and that’s just like David Brent’s job in Life on the Road. 

11 November 1940

“11 November 1940–in front of the Tomb of the Unknown soldier, the students of France demonstrated en masse, the first to resist the occupier.”

On my last trip to Paris, I noticed this plaque near the Charles De Gaulle Etoile metro entrance on the Champs Elysees. It commemorates the first demonstration against Nazi occupation, a small student protest held on Armistice Day at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe. The Chemins de Memoire website has a very good official account of the event, as well as this photo:

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“Demonstration of 11 November 1940. Students from the Institut agronomique prepare to march long the Champs Élysées to lay flowers on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Source: Museum of National Resistance – Champigny-sur-Marne”

When I saw it, I loved the fact that students were the first to speak out against the occupation, the first to organise and demonstrate. It’s always been students–in Berkeley, in Prague, in Tiananmen Square–and now it’s students in Washington, D.C. at the March For Our Lives.

Last week I presented my research on post-Parkland gun debate rhetoric at the Political Studies Association’s Media and Politics Group annual conference, and another mass shooting happened. My slides, which I’d recently updated to include the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting, were now already out of date.

You can’t keep up with the mass shootings in America. When I first considered doing research on the gun debate, it was after Las Vegas. That was only a year ago, and there have been so many mass shootings since.

But–and this is where my French resistance example comes in–I do have some hope after reading about the Parkland survivors, their #NeverAgain campaign and the March For Our Lives. They haven’t stopped speaking out. They’ve sustained an active social media presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, with 300k-400k followers on each platform. They campaigned for gun control candidates (i.e. recipients of F grades from the NRA) during the midterm election.

Students were the first to stand up to the Nazis on this day in 1940, and they’re standing up to the NRA today. Stand with them on the right side of history.

Explaining the Inexplicable

This week I’ve been going back to my survey of American study abroad participants, in which I asked about their experiences of talking about US politics overseas during and after the 2016 election. By far the most frequently asked question they faced was simply “What happened?” They wanted to know why the election had the outcome it did, why Trump won, why Clinton lost, and whether Americans were actually in agreement with Trump’s platform.

It’s been almost two years since the election, and we still don’t really have all of the answers. Hillary Clinton even used that question as a title for her book, which she’s now promoting again for its paperback release.

There are a lot of contributing factors–the electoral college, for starters. Americans might be asked to explain the electoral college to people they meet overseas, often without fully understanding it themselves. There have only been a few elections in which the winner of the popular vote lost the electoral college, but two of them have now happened in our lifetime, and both were to the detriment of the Democratic party (2000 & 2016). That’s going to raise some eyebrows when we try to explain it overseas.

Another factor is the problem of “fake news”–not Trump’s definition of “fake news”, i.e. every form of journalism but Fox News–but actual misinformation disguised as news and circulated on social media by readers who may or may not be aware of its true nature. Trump’s overuse of the term has turned it into a joke, but the spread of fake news stories that smeared Hillary Clinton may have had real consequences, particularly in swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Ilkley Brewery’s real ale with the slogan “Making Beer Great Again!” and Topshop jeans

There’s also the matter of Russian influence that we still don’t really know the full details of–but a few things are certain: 1) Russia did definitely meddle in the election, 2) they wanted Trump to win, and 3) Trump really doesn’t believe they did.

There are a range of other contributing factors, too: the Democratic party’s in-fighting and prolonged primary with Bernie Sanders, the “baggage” of Bill Clinton’s scandals, James Comey’s investigation announcement that came far too close to the election (and although it turned up nothing, the damage was done), Hillary Clinton’s so-called “likability” problem which is probably just sexism against the first female Presidential candidate, etc.

I’m still going through the survey data, but so far I’m just struck with the enormity of what we Americans abroad are asked to do, when we’re asked to explain the 2016 election. There’s really no explaining it, not then and not even two years on from it.

What I’m Reading

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Mama, Ph.D: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press 2008), edited by Elrena Evans and Caroline Grant.

I bought this book almost 3 years ago and I’m finally getting around to reading it, which tells you something about the reality of motherhood and academic life. I read a few chapters with George napping on me today and I love it.

When I bought it, I hoped for some tips and lessons learned, but it’s more theoretical and reflective than that–after all, it was written by academics. I’ve also been surprised by the extent to which I identify with some of their confessions. In the first chapter, Jamie Warner (one of the few contributors who is not yet a mother) voiced some of the very same questions that I’ve considered over the years:

“And it gets even more complicated. What does it mean to be childless and then not be thin (no pregnancy weight to lose), not have a twenty-five-page CV (what am I doing with all of my time?), or not be a gourmet cook (with no little people who won’t eat anything that isn’t beige, covered in cheese, or deep fried)? What if my career doesn’t take off? I can’t blame it on soccer practice. Do I have an obligation to work every evening, serve on more committees, be a better teacher, and become a publishing machine because I don’t have familial obligations? Is being ‘average’ considered a failure in academia if one doesn’t have a family?” (p. 10)

 

When I was in her shoes, contemplating the big questions of career and family and work-life balance, I wondered whether having a baby so soon after finishing my PhD was partly a delaying tactic, whether I was using it as an excuse for my lack of publications and inability to find a proper (i.e. full-time, permanent, tenure-track) academic job. I half-jokingly reasoned that if it takes a few years to establish your career in academia, you might as well have a kid while you wait for publications to come through and jobs in your field to come up. Now, a few years on, when I voice concerns about my career trajectory, they’re often met with “Oh, but you had a baby”–as if that absolves me from any blame or guilt for not having published more, for not securing a post-doc or a research grant, etc. They’re trying to be comforting, but I don’t see it that way–I hold myself to a higher standard than they do (we’re always our own worst critics).

This book hasn’t really answered any questions for me yet, but it’s comforting to hear other peoples’ experiences and think “It’s not just me!” (On that note, I’ll also recommend Brene Brown’s work)