I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the demands made on graduate students and the emotional labour that is required as a result. Academia privileges and glorifies mental labour (from the qualifying exams you have to take to the dissertation that you will write). But in my experience, the academy is mute when it comes to the question of the emotional labour that these acts of mental and intellectual rigor entail. Nobody talks about his or her feelings. If, as Tom Hanks famously proclaims in A League of Their Own, “there’s no crying in baseball,” then there is certainly no crying in academia. And so academia requires maintaining a vow of silence as you fight to live in this Darwinian “survival of the fittest.” Yet the dirty secret that no one wants you to know is that there is actually much crying in academia. But we do that crying in private. Our suffering takes place in bathroom stalls, in our private offices, or in our homes. We suffer in private where we cannot be shamed.
I say that we suffer not to be hyperbolic, but because labour and suffering are etymologically linked. In the first half of the 12thcentury, labour meant trouble, effort, affliction, and misfortune. By 1170 labour became a burden. One hundred years later, our labour was our suffering. And another hundred years later, our suffering became more specific, with labour denoting physical pain, fatigue, hardship, distress, wear and tear. I’m compelled here to read tear in both senses of the word: as in ripping or tearing and as the drop of liquid that our eyes release as a sign of emotion, but especially when we feel grief or sorrow. So the labour we perform – which could be physical, mental, or intellectual –hurts us and can make us suffer. And that hurt, I’d argue, is doubled when the labour we’re asked to perform (or need to perform, for ourselves, for others) is emotional in nature.
I’ve seen emotional labour take many shapes in my own academic life. I’m passionate about my research and so writing a conference paper, dissertation chapter or grant proposal is as much a physical labour (sitting down at my computer, fingers typing) and an intellectual labour (figuring out what my ideas are and how to best articulate them) as it is an emotional labour. Then there’s the emotional labour that goes into being a teacher. I’m deeply invested in my students and their successes. I work hard to create a classroom that is a safe space where students can be vulnerable and admit when they don’t understand something, a space where they treat one another with respect and care. I accept and want to perform these emotional labours.
But there are certain acts of emotional labour that I don’t wish to perform, like the emotional labour of pretending that I’m okay. Academia requires that you conceal your feelings all the time, because, god forbid someone (a professor, supervisor, administrator, colleague) be confronted with the fact that you’re a human being and you have feelings. I’ve been pretty lucky in this regard. My supervisor  came into our first class and told us how she’d just had a panic attack and explained why. She wanted us to know that, as a result, she’d be a bit off for that class. This was the first time that I heard a professor talk about their feelings (outside of “I love this book”). In that moment I felt like I could breathe again, that there was perhaps a space for emotions within the academy. The professors that I’ve TAed for before have also made space for my emotional life. When you make space for someone’s emotional life, you’re also opening up space for him or her to be a human. Recognizing another emotional life is not just a vital act, but also an ethical one. When I have to hide my feelings for the sake of other people’s comfort, I become exhausted. While I pride myself on always thinking about the comfort of others, I’ve also come to realize that living ethically means that sometimes we have to sit with that discomfort, we have to confront it, interrogate it, for the sake of the other.
I’ve cried in front of various administrators throughout my time in the PhD. Some have known how to handle it while others haven’t. One might say that it’s unprofessional to cry in front of your department head; but when you say that, you’re policing affect and failing to acknowledge that as human beings we feel things. What you’re saying is “there’s no crying in academia.” And you’re also shifting blame: you, the crier, need to change so that the person you’re crying in front of doesn’t have to figure out how to make space for your feelings. It’s this kind of thinking that has made the words “mental health” taboo. So when you say that it’s important for grad students to take care of their bodies and minds, you’re at the same time attempting to absolve yourself of any responsibility or accountability. You need to take care of yourself.
This year, UofT’s Graduate English Association executive decided to run its first ever workshop on health and wellness in academia. I was incredibly excited that this was happening and volunteered to talk about how I’ve dealt with my anxiety disorder while completing my PhD. Other students volunteered to talk about everything from having an eating disorder to how to make time and space for physical activity, and how to deal with failing your comprehensive exams. There were representatives from Student Life and Accessibility Services, as well as the newly created “Healthy Grad Crew” who came to talk about the different services that the university offers to support mental health and wellness.
It was an amazing workshop. Unfortunately, the volunteers and speakers were the only ones who were there to experience it. No other students came. There are many reasons that this could’ve been the case. Perhaps there are other, more private ways that they deal with their mental health. Maybe when it comes to their mental health, they desire privacy. I want to respect those choices. And yet many students expressed excitement at the thought of having this kind of workshop on offer, which leaves me feeling that the lack of attendees speaks – at least in part – to the fact that students don’t feel like there is time or space to make mental health and wellness a priority. Of course, I say this as someone who stopped going to yoga in the first semester of my PhD and then felt so awful as a result. Still, I think it also speaks to the fact that people are afraid to talk about their mental health, afraid to admit that they sometimes (or oftentimes) struggle when it comes to anxiety, depression, imposter syndrome, and a whole other host of affects that grad students tend to feel. The fact that the executive decided to call it the “Health and Wellness” workshop instead of “Mental Health and Wellness” speaks to their own awareness of the lived reality of the stigmas and taboos surrounding mental health – both inside of academia as much as outside of it.
In thinking about emotional labour within academia, it’s also important that we highlight just how gendered that labour is. All of the student volunteers were women and all of the representatives at the workshop were women. It was women who came together to talk about the importance of mental health and wellness. And it was women who were going to perform emotional labour – by sharing their stories and struggles – in the service of others. This shouldn’t have shocked me; it is taken as a fact that women are emotional caregivers. We can see this in the fact women outnumber men in the fields of social work, counseling, and teaching. We can see this in the ways in which women are criticized for not smiling or for having “Resting Bitchy Face.” And yet here I was, not only surprised but also angry. I’ve spoken to many men in my program about their struggles with anxiety and depression, yet it was only women at this workshop (although one member of the executive is a man, who couldn’t be at the workshop but put a good deal of labour into the planning and organization).
In “Multiculturalism and the Promise of Happiness,” Sara Ahmed describes how the gendered performance of affects – happiness in particular – “erases the signs of labour under the sign of happiness” (121). She goes on to point out that “the claim that women are happy, and that this happiness is behind the work they do, functions to justify gendered forms of labour not as products of nature, law or duty, but as an expression of a collective wish and desire” (121). Ahmed points out how the emotional labour that women perform is not for them, but for the collective that holds certain wishes and desires – those wishes might be everything from the desire to not have to be confronted with “negative” affects to a wish to not recognize the suffering that is etymologically, if not inextricably, linked to the emotional labour performed by women.
I do want to take a moment and acknowledge that men are confronted with a great amount of stigma when it comes to mental health. Historically (and sadly, even presently) women have been portrayed as weak, hysterical, emotional. And so we’re the ones who take on this burden of emotional labour; it is our terrain. Men have been portrayed as strong, self-sufficient, rational. To admit that you’re struggling, that you’re dealing with a mental illness, might seem impossible. It is tragic when a man suffers but it is quotidian when a woman does.
In a recent article for GUTS Magazine, “DEAR BB: DUDES INRAPE CULTURE,” the author addresses a man who wants to know how he can stop being complicit in rape culture. He writes: “Can you talk to me about talking to rapists about rape?” The unnamed author responds by asking the man to think about the emotional labour he is asking the women in his life to perform. She writes: “Teaching people not to rape (and indeed, trying to not get raped) is work that is disproportionately performed by the people who are raped most often: women, even more so if they are of colour, Indigenous, trans, sex workers, disabled, fat, or poor. Rape is quotidian to us.”
The author wonders why is it women that must teach men about rape when men are the ones who are experts. Why is it that women are the ones to talk about their struggles with mental health when men struggle too? When you ask women to tell you about x, or when you place them in the position of being the only ones to share their stories, you’re asking them to perform some heavy emotional labour; labour that can be painful, distressing, fatiguing; labour that can tear new wounds and reopen others. I’m willing to do this, but I can’t be the only one to do it. While so many women are willing to do with work with me, I don’t feel like that is enough. I don’t want women to be the only ones crying, in academia or in general.
I want this essay to be a manifesto that is not just a call to the academy to recognize the ways in which it asks (or tells) us to keep our emotional labour a secret. This manifesto is also a call to the men who exist within the academy’s walls, especially to the men who identify as feminists. I want us to push back against “the residue of certain cultural,” and I would add emotional, “imperatives: to have a relationship to pain defined by the single note of resistance” (Leslie Jamison, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” 209). Emotional labour doesn’t need to be painful but if we refuse to talk about it, if we continue to tell graduate students that we don’t want to hear about their feelings, if we continue to promote the idea that the only relationship one should have to their emotions is one of resistance, of stoicism – then we end up valorizing exhaustion, pain, and suffering. If we continue to ignore the emotional labour that is part and parcel to being an academic – and a human being – then we’re saying: “you just got to figure out a way to deal.”
This kind of logic begs the question: where has all the empathy gone? To borrow the words of Carl Gombrich, we are experiencing an “empathy deficit” in academia. So what would it mean for us to rectify this deficit? If empathy requires “knowing you know nothing,” as Leslie Jamison argues, then the stakes are pretty high (“The Empathy Exams,” 5). To admit that you know nothing when you exist in a field that is committed to the performance of knowledge, well, that’s a pretty scary thought. And yet this is what I try to do with my students. I try to teach them to feel okay about admitting that they don’t understand something. Being okay with not understanding doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to understand. When we confront the unknown what we’ve actually done is give ourselves an opportunity to travel into another world.
As a PhD candidate in English, what draws me towards literature (and what made me fall in love with literature in the first place) is that I’m able to enter a new world – sometimes familiar, sometimes unfamiliar. I get to meet new people in the form of characters; I see how they struggle and what enables them to thrive. And more often than not, I come to care about them. Literature has taught me how to be in the world with others, it has provided me with different roadmaps for ethical relations and enabled me to create my own. I find that I’m compelled to read stories of great sadness, suffering, and sorrow – and it is these stories that ask me, beg me, to empathize. There’s plenty of crying in literature. When will there be a space for crying in academia?
University of Toronto
I’ve spoken to my supervisor about disclosing this moment and she has told me that she is more than okay with that (the decision to not name her was my own).