academic work · emotional labour · solidarity

Walking the Line Week 3: Emotional Labour

Two weeks ago as I prepared to head out to my first shift at strike headquarters my partner told me that Pete Seeger had died. It seemed both an ominous and, strangely, also auspicious coincidence. Celebrity death is a bizarre thing to negotiate. There is, on the one hand, a sense of the loss of someone familiar. On the other hand, there is a simultaneous awareness of distance: most of us don’t know the celebrity who has died. For me, the loss of an activist who has inspired me amplifies these paradoxical feelings. Three weeks ago I walked to strike headquarters thinking not just of Pete Seeger, but of Emma Goldman, of Woody Guthrie, of the many people who have spoken up bravely and unwaveringly for fair working conditions and human rights.

In the second week of the strike as I headed out to my first shift on the line I was thinking about the contradictions of being a contract labourer on strike. My resolve was strong, but the things I couldn’t say — the criticisms and close readings I would normally perform here simply didn’t feel safe. In the past four years I have continually circled back to the paradoxes of writing a blog as a contract labourer. I initially (naively) felt that I could write posts explaining the complications of being a contract labourer. I’ve tried to do that, but let me tell you: as someone still on the job market there is so much that I can’t actually write about. Yet. Honestly, it is exhausting and infuriating.

We are now into week three of the strike here at Mount Allison, and while my resolve hasn’t been shaken I am feeling tired. I am not simply tired from the strangeness that comes of interrupting a rigorous routine of teaching, researching, and applying for jobs. I am tired from the unavoidable emotional labour of being on strike. Two years ago Aimee described emotional labour as the invisible work that we do when we teach students not only to master writing and communication skills, but also to develop social savvy through historical awareness, self-reflexivity, and creative critical thinking. I would add to that definition that emotional labour includes the time spent in office hours, on email, or doing just about anything while thinking through a problem that a student has brought to you. Emotional labour includes taking the time to think through how to address justifiable student frustration, anxiety, anger, and misunderstanding in the classroom and, as is the case here in Sackville, when the classroom gets temporarily closed in order to work towards sustainable working and learning conditions. For me and my colleagues here emotional labour will eventually involve not simply figuring out how to productively and ethically salvage a semester, it will also involve choosing how to take the time to address students’s questions about job action even as we ourselves may be working to understand the ins and outs of a strike. When we talk about the academic mission — itself an overdetermined and under-defined phrase — I think about the necessary fusion of emotional labour and critical praxis. We, each of us, teach the histories, contexts, methods, and practices of our disciplines. We also have the responsibility to model and carry out the undervalued but absolutely necessary critical and affective work of emotional labour.

This morning, as I headed out for my second week of 8am picket shifts my partner told me that Stuart Hall has died. Another incalculable loss, I thought. Yet, while Hall has left us he has also left us with his words, which I will borrow now:

                      “The university is a critical institution, or it is nothing.”

I trust my students. I trust that they are developing the critical reading and thinking skills I work to model for them. I trust that they can take Hall’s statement and put it to work as they continue to do their own difficult emotional work of navigating what is happening here, and I know that when I meet them back in the classroom even though we will all be tired I will be ready to do that emotional work with them.