The Empathy Trap

My career has broken up with me, or at least it feels that way.

For five years I have managed to line up limited term contract after limited term contract. The workload has at times been enormous, but I kept telling myself that I was doing the work I’d been trained to do. In the process of doing the work I’d been trained to do I learned that I love teaching. Indeed, I learned that I love teaching enough to talk about it in public over and over again. I’ve learned to worry about the conditions that structure the profession I fell in love with in 1997 when I took my first undergraduate poetry class at the University of North Carolina. I’ve learned though experience to fret publicly about the ways in which the shift to a corporate model affects students, teachers, the academic mission, and, yes, the future. And now, for the first time in five years I am unemployed.

I have been struggling with how to write this post for a few weeks. Indeed, I haven’t been able to figure out how to write it. Part of the struggle comes from not knowing what I want to say, exactly. Part of it comes from not knowing how to articulate the struggle itself. And the biggest struggle has come from fear. Fear of reprisal, fear of making myself and my own experience too public, fear of becoming an object of pity rather than an active agent in the process of positive change. After all, there are things one can say in a public forum, there are things one should say in a public forum, and then there are those things that fall under the category of the unspeakable. Guess which category this post falls under?

Each time I struggle with writing a blog post I find myself remembering a piece of advice I received a few years ago from my colleague Rohan Maitzen, who is herself an incredibly accomplished blogger. I had posted a kind of passive-aggressive “why do I even do this” message on Facebook–like y’do when you want to have reassurance but don’t have the guts to just ask for it straight up–and Rohan wrote “sounds like its time for a meta-post on why blogging matters.” She was right.

So, I’m going to try and take Rohan’s advice and think a bit in public about how to manage disappointment in the academic sphere, even though it feels both risky and self-indulgent.

Disappointment is something I have been learning to metabolize for years now. Yes, I get that this sounds petulant, and in a way it is. Bear with me. Academia is a combination of incredible affirmations and small and big disappointments. Indeed, I think that recognizing the affirmations and privilege are as important as learning how to deal with disappointment. Some of that disappointment metabolizing is good and necessary work. Didn’t get that grant? Didn’t get the job? Didn’t get the paper accepted to the journal? Didn’t get into the conference? All of these things happen, and to an extent they are simply part of the system built on peer review and other gatekeeping that is intended to ensure excellent work. But what happens when disappointment becomes the status quo? When you do everything right, when you are the recommended candidate, or the Dean who speaks up, and the structures that are supposedly in place to protect you fail? Do you take it as a sign that your work–or you–aren’t right for the job/journal/granting system? Do you move on? Do you get stuck?

The questions I’m really interested in talking about right now are less about the broken system of academia and more about how others manage public disappointment. Let me be brutally direct: one of the things I have tried to do on this blog over the last several years is write frankly about my own experience as a contract worker on the job market. The results of this experience have been mixed. On the one hand, I have had the great privilege of building community. I have heard from people who share similar experiences, and that shared experience is comforting. There is a kind of strength in numbers.

On the other hand I find that I am myself most guilty of talking not about the work I’m doing but of the work of trying to secure work. While frank conversation about the job market is necessary it is also costly in ways I couldn’t have predicted. It is a funny thing to be known for your work on getting work rather than the “real” work you do (wait, what do I do again?)

It is an equally funny thing finding yourself in the empathy trap. Now that I am facing unemployment and the necessity to shift to a plan B be it DIY Academia or an alt-ac position or who knows what I also have to consider how to manage my emotions when people offer empathy. I have publicly written myself into a place where my search for stable work is part of my public praxis, and I have done that deliberately (perhaps, as it turns out, to my detriment. Silly me). I think it is important to demonstrate the challenges (to put it mildly) of doing the work while applying to do the work. But I wonder now about the efficacy of my decisions. Writing my struggles–emotional, physical, psychological–has been my decision, but I’m starting to wonder if I haven’t actually added to the problem. I mean really, what responses are left when faced with someone you ostensibly respect who hasn’t found a place in the system? You tell them they matter. The work they do matters. You tell them that it stinks that they don’t have stable work and that it is unfair. And probably it is unfair, but there you are, face-to-face, at a stalemate. If you’re jobbed and you care then you’re inevitably in a position of empathy. You are in a position of relative privilege. If you’re not jobbed and you care, then you’re in the position of needing to tell the caring person you’re ok. You’ll manage. Because honestly, it is the system, it isn’t them. This, friends, is the empathy trap. It is a real thing and we are all, one way or another bound up in it, be we jobbed, not jobbed, or somewhere in between.

Now that I am not jobbed at all, now that I have experienced what others before me have since this long recession began, now that I have been let down by the system so dramatically that I am having a hard time getting out of bed sometimes I wonder: what does empathy really do? Is empathy a means of avoiding anger? Shouldn’t we all be angry?

Last week I was working on my conference paper for ACCUTE, and while it felt ridiculous and futile to be putting a paper together when I have no work lined up writing this paper, giving it, and thinking in public is what I have been trained to do. This careful thinking is what Canadian taxpayers have paid me to do, moreover. So I’ll do some of that here as a means of getting to what I mean by the empathy trap. In The Cultural Politics of Emotion Sara Ahmed writes about the necessity of anger for the feminist movement. Further, anger is a necessity for a future-oriented hope:

If anger is a form of ‘against-ness,’ then it is precisely about the impossibility of moving beyond the history of injuries to a pure or innocent position. Anger does not necessarily require an investment in revenge, which is one form of reaction to what one is against. Being against something is dependent on how one reads what one is against….The question becomes: What form of action is possible given that reading? (175)

Ahmed draws on Black feminist writing and Audre Lorde specifically to think through the ways in which anger is crucial for the necessary energy to react against injustice. Lorde writes

My fear of anger taught me nothing…. Anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification….Anger is loaded with information and energy. (Sister/Outsider 124, 127)

Anger, as Ahmed puts it, is framed here as a “response to injustice; as a vision and version of the future; as a translation of pain into knowledge; and as being loaded with information and energy” (175). Anger, she writes, is not simply a response to the past, it is an opening up into the future. It is a means of moving forward out of what is without forgetting what was. “If anger energizes feminist subjects, it also requires those subject to ‘read’ and ‘move’ from anger into a different bodily world” (175).


My question, then, is this: how do we move beyond the empathy trap in small and big ways? How do we acknowledge what is and get angry about it in ways that will move us into a future that is more generative and generous? (and by ‘us’ I mean people working in academia, because working on the margins and the outside always already makes you more vulnerable). I think that the ACCUTE CAF Best Practices sheet, which offers suggestions for how departments can support contingent faculty members, may be one way, and I hope that conversations here are another way. Certainly, the work that my blogging colleagues are doing each week is helping me nuance my thinking. But these alone are not enough. Once you read a blog post and get angry or empathetic, what do you do? What other ways are you cultivating for managing the disappointments that stem from a broken system?

18 thoughts on “The Empathy Trap

  1. Erin, this is another brave and necessary post. Thank you for writing it. I have so much I want to say, but I haven't organized my thoughts. For now, I will say that I think turning to people like Lorde and Ahmed is very important. I also think that talking about anger is important, for all of the reasons you mentioned. There is danger in anger. What I mean by that is both the danger of being labelled the “angry feminist” or “feminist killjoy” as Ahmed puts it, when you are the one who is the vulnerable position and angry about structural inequities, but also the danger of being angry when you are the “jobbed” one, as you put it. There are very real affective rewards to succeeding in academia, and I don't just mean professional rewards, but psychic and emotional ones (thinking of Berlant here) that make anger dangerous in a way that empathy is not, and which makes sustaining anger more difficult than generating empathy– both for those on the receiving and giving end of the empathy. Yet, it is the lack of those psychic rewards that gives those who are in a vulnerable position a vantage point unlike others, as you demonstrate here. I think this is why Lorde is so significant. You are doing the very work of translation she notes, sifting through the information that is inherent to anger. This is a way to feel energized rather than overwhelmed, I think. At least that is what I take from your posting as a reader. Like I said, I have more I could say, but these are my initial reactions. Again, thanks.


  2. Thanks for writing this – very well said. I think you are right about the importance of anger (socially, politically, “we” really don't like anger in North America; big problem). I will ponder this for some time, but my first thought is to ask, how/when, and by what means, does empathy transform into solidarity? When and by what means does it move from isolating/individual pain into collective feelings of shared circumstance, cause, action? How do we “organize” our empathy?


  3. @Heather: Thank you, first and foremost. Can you feel the biggest hug I am sending you? Yes, you've nailed it I think– we need to think about the way that the terms “anger” gets pathologized out of usefulness (as Lorde underscores). This might actually point to Stephen's extraordinarily important question of organizing our empathy. I really want to think publicly about how we do that. Writing this post–which of course makes me feel vulnerable and easily targeted as whining or some such–is my attempt to start that public thinking.

    Here are some questions for you, marvellous Stephen Collis: how and where can organization happen when the collective is spread out, diverse, and dealing with the siloing/isolation effect in very different ways?

    Thanks to you both for thinking with me here.


  4. Thank you so much for this. It is one of the most devastating things I've read in years, though perhaps that is because I see myself and my partner in your words, so it strikes close to home. As a Buddhist, I worry about anger's place within any social change, though I recognize that it too can be (if deployed properly) a skillful and compassionate means for ending suffering. My concern is the flipside of organizing empathy, which is organizing anger.
    Anger that comes from compassion (which is what I am seeing in your words, which is what Lorde speaks of) is powerful, but it is always deeply individual. It is an anger that cannot bleed, but builds. Anger without compassion leads into very dark tunnels. (A bit poetic, perhaps, but your post really moved me.)
    The point, I guess is more of a question: How to organize anger such that it is always compassionate, while at the same time preventing it from poisoning one's self? I don't know.


  5. Andrew: Absolutely. I am in BC right now, so this post went up before I was awake. I woke to a wonderfully caring and concerned email and a number of FB messages worrying that I would poison myself with anger. I *do* think that it is a necessary emotion and affect as part of the process of moving to that next step of solidarity, y'know? I need anger to get me out of bed, to see the systematic problems and failures as those rather than as I'm-not-good-enough kinds of feelings. Of course I haven't and can't write publicly about the real backstory to this post, but I do feel strongly that we need energies like productive and generative anger to really DO something.


  6. Yep. To quote an old movie (if one from the late 70s is really “old”): “We're mad as hell, and we're not going to take it anymore.” That should be a mantra for all of us, not just you. Anger is sometimes the only empowering emotion, and you/we have every reason to be angry.


  7. Erin, that is indeed the question! I struggle with it on a number of fronts (different fields of engagement that meet the same problematic – how to effectively co-odrinate/work across sometimes distant siloings – good word!). Usually there needs to be a campaign/project around which more formalized solidarity (i.e., the yoking together of our empathies and social affects) can be built. In this case, a “campaign to build a new academy”? A “project for a post-neoliberal academy”? I'm not sure what to call it, but the battle over pedagogy and what “higher education” and “scholarship” can and might look like is, I think, very much just beginning.


  8. I don't know that “empathy” as a concept describes any necessary flavor of shared feeling: empathy can be sad or happy or angry, can't it? I guess we get mad enough to take back the university. And that's what empathy looks like.


  9. I have often wondered how the structure of academic feeling (to borrow from Raymond Williams) can be changed. Like you say, there is a line between the “jobbed” and the jobless.” I actually think anger and public discourse are making inroads: all hail well-positioned anger! It's not like hiring practices and academic labour haven't been mired in unethical practices for years; however, now that these pathological paradigms have been exacerbated by the collapse and outed by social media, real change is on the horizon. That said, I have been working in administration for the last year or so and I think that unless tenured faculty get their act in gear, tenure will be pretty much dead in medium to small sized unis. There is a window of opportunity to make positive changes here, but if left to those who make decisions based on spreadsheets, then we are all pretty much screwed. Went off on a tangent there – love this post and the whole blog. Thanks for this.


  10. I'm posting a response from Veronica Austen who let me know I could make it public on her behalf:

    ” Hi Erin, Thanks for another excellent post. The thing that I struggle with is who (or is it a “what”?) to be angry with and how to seek and manifest change in this huge and broken system. I taught contingently for 6 years and was at my turning point (or breaking point really) when I at last was hired, but now from the “jobbed” side of things, I'm still left with no answers on how to make things any better. I can empathize with my colleagues who work contingently; I was quite literally one of them since I was hired by the place in which I too was a contingent faculty member. But the divide between the jobbed and the contingently jobbed and unjobbed is a difficult one to navigate even when one has all the right intentions. I can work to ensure we have an inclusive work place environment; I can try to see how our decisions (what courses we choose to teach, etc.) affect my contingent colleagues; but none of this is really enough and I can still say stupid things forgetting that my circumstances are no longer the same as one of my contingent colleagues. And my so-called “survivor's guilt” doesn't get us anywhere either. All I know is the constant threat when fighting against a system that we can't seem to change is the threat of becoming apathetic, of shutting down because the problem is too big and feelings of helplessness pervade. So, whether or not anger is the means forward, starting (and continuing) the discussion does take us somewhere. Now, if only we can keep working to figure out what concretely it is we can do to accomplish some of that taking back of the university.”


  11. Thank you for this, Erin. I so agree that anger can be, as you put it a way to “see the systematic problems and failures as those rather than as I'm-not-good-enough kinds of feelings” – I have found time and time again that anger is an emotion I access only when I'm able to externalize disappointments and failures and see them as the products of a broken system or structural inequality, rather than my own inadequacy/failure to pull myself up by my bootstraps. It is also energizing, & does help to combat the helplessness that can be so easy to sink into (anger is something felt by the resisting subject). I also agree with Aimee that anger and empathy are not necessarily separable – I feel solidarity when I and the people around me are enraged by the same things, even if we have vastly different experiences of those things. Those different experiences are what coalition building is rooted in (and what makes it so hard! but worthwhile, to build alternatives based on genuine care for one another.)

    I manage the constant disappointments of broken systems by starting at what feels like the micro level. I take on the responsibility as someone in a position of numerous relative privileges to educate myself. I build relationships with friends and partners in which we are honest and vulnerable, and we try our best not to replicate misogyny, heterosexism, etc. etc. I appreciate when others are honest about their disappointments, so we can start building solidarity together.


  12. Thank you for posting this, Erin. In a sense, you are the canary for miners from my cohort and it pains to see the challenges you have had to overcome and will continue to grapple with. I don't just say this out of a sense of selfish concern, though I would be disingenuous if I said I have none of that. The anger and the pain comes also from the fact that it is you, who struggles. You are a fantastic thinker and speaker of thoughts, and clearly a wonderful advocate for your students. Your paper at ACCUTE (and the others from the panelists who share your precarious position) was thought provoking and relevant and I'm delighted to hear that you have taken on the Contract Academic Faculty Representative position. There's no one better to have that role. You will not only get a job, you will get a good one and a big part of the reason for that is your willingness to engage with a broken system to help fix it. That willingness disqualifies you from bad jobs, but it will ensure that you remain in the mix until the good one comes. Thank you for these posts Erin, you rock.


  13. Erin, thanks for this. You’ve (as always, thoughtfully) gotten to the heart of the problem – the impasse that happens when we think about what to do in/with this horribly broken education system. This response is coming from someone who’s chronically underemployed, and who frequently takes her Ph.D. and gets up at the ass crack of dawn to shovel literal shit as a job because she’s discovered that the realm of ideas is fantastic, but she can’t eat them. Like everyone, I’ve learned and relearned and relearned that the problem is not any inadequacy of mine – the problem is with the system. To a point.
    Somewhere along the line, you and I and most of the people we know have forgotten something really, really important. We have forgotten that we are formidable. We are formidably educated, hyper-articulate, politically savvy masters of rhetoric with, really, very little to lose. There are a lot of us. And that makes us strong.
    I so agree that empathy is necessary to change. All this talking about anger and change sounds a lot like talking about anger and change, though. Maybe it sounds a lot like that because that’s what we’ve been trained to do. What we do is talk and think and write about important things. We do it super well, but if we just keep doing what we’re doing, we’re only ever going to get what we’ve got.
    Angela Davis said that real change happens when people stop thinking that the thing they want is impossible. What do we want?
    We can’t seem to decide. I’ll put my vote out there, though. As it stands, university administrations tell us what they’re going to pay us, how long our contracts will be, and what professional designations (“staff,” “part-time faculty,” or “Assistant Professor,” in the case of those lucky enough to land LTAs) and corresponding benefits they will bestow on us. That is ridiculous. In no other profession would that fly. Even university administrators know this on some level. They have contracts with professionals in other fields (like lawyers, accountants, construction companies, etc.), and those contracts do not look like the contracts we get. I want us to think about ourselves as professionals.
    I want a national professional association of contract instructors that has the power to lobby governments, set wages and working conditions for its members, and participate in actual policy formation at the executive level of each university. Does anybody else want that?


  14. CINDY! YES. Yes yes yes! I am now the on the ACCUTE executive as the Contract Academic Faculty (CAF) rep. This is a platform from which we can start/ make this happen. I'll start talking with CAUT, CACE, and ACCUTE as well as former presidents to see if there is a route from which the Federation can be of help. What other resources for national organizing do we have among the readership?

    Also: formidable. Yeah, I *had* forgotten. Thank you for reminding us to recognize this and more.


  15. Cindy and Erin are right that CAF need to organize and that all academic workers need to support them. BUT we need to do this without losing sight of the need to challenge a two-tiered employment structure that's all too quickly become normalized.


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