Emotional Labor in Academia: Burdens, Metrics, and Compensation

Brandi Lawless (2018) Documenting a labor of love: emotional labor as academic labor, Review of Communication, 18:2, 85-97, DOI: 10.1080/15358593.2018.1438644

I started reading what is considered to be the seminal treatise on emotional labor, Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, a few months ago. This book so resonated with me that I found I wanted to note and respond to about 10 things on every page. Since that takes a lot of time and energy, I am only about 30 pages in so far.

The main thing this book has awakened in me is a strong interest in understanding what emotional labor is (essentially, it is the regulation and suppression of your own emotions in response to customer needs and expectations when performing a service-oriented job) and how it shapes workplace culture and interactions.

Brandi Lawless’s 2018 article focuses on the impact of emotional labor in academia, which is a subject I have been thinking about throughout my career, especially in the last year or so. Although Professor Lawless is a communications professor and not a librarian, I recognized myself and my librarianship practice in which she writes here.

Professor Lawless begins with an anecdote about a student who accused her of not being caring enough in response to the death of the student’s family member. That the student even had an expectation of a sufficient level of “caring” from a professor, and was bold enough to take Professor Lawless to task for not meeting it, speaks volumes for the pervasiveness of the phenomenon. In fact, early in the article, Professor Lawless states definitively that that “emotional labor is an inherent part of teaching and research and should be central discussions on academic labor and the neoliberalization of the university.”

Lenses have come up in my reading again and again this week. According to Professor Lawless, “recent publications on neoliberalism in higher education suggest that it is productive to theorize the academic role through a service or consumptive lens.” However, what happens when the product that being consumed takes a lot of time and emotional energy to create and deliver but is, essentially, invisible in a measurable sense?

Emotional labor, according to Professor Lawless, is “development, management, and performance of affective work.” The problem with affective behavior, of course, is that it is “unpaid, sometimes invisible, and difficult to identify.” A further problem is that it is also correlated to “mothering” in people’s minds, which means that women (and especially, according to Professor Lawless, women of color) bear a heavier burden of performing it.

Professor Lawless proposes that, in response to this emerging phenomenon, women in academia “engage in micro-resistance” in accordance with this four-step plan:

  1. Recognize emotional labor as academic labor.
  2. Document the emotional labor that we do.
  3. Continue documentation through continued scholarly pursuit.
  4. Make arguments for compensation.

What Professor Lawless is not doing is arguing that we in academia should stop performing emotional labor altogether. This is because, as she argues, “pedagogy benefits from affective approaches.” I heartily agree with this. Of the students I’ve worked with, the ones who have learned best and gotten the most out of what I have taught them were the ones that clearly understood that I cared about them and their well-being.

Instead, she is making a case for thinking critically about the “dominant narratives” in academia that suggest that wanting to help and serve students “reinforces gender norms, pay gaps, and institutional and ideological control.” She makes this case very persuasively by stating that “we cannot quietly align ourselves with a model that expects emotional work, yet does not count that work toward tenure, promotion, salary increases, and paid time off.”

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