academic reorganization · adjuncts · classrooms · guest post · mental health · workload

Guest Post: When too much is still not enough; Academic workloads and campus exhaustion

Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, Suzette Mayr’s recent satiric novel about a harried English professor, dramatizes the anxious thrum of academic work. Edith teaches, grades, and answers “pounds” of email. Her phone therapist advises her to excel in new areas, to increase her pace of publications while exercising regularly, revamping her wardrobe, and networking more extensively. Edith protests, “there’s never any time.” While swimming laps, she worries she “should be catching up on her critical theory, not frolicking in pools.”

Over the past decade, faculty have become increasingly willing to protest that academic workloads are overwhelming, stressful, and conducive to ill health. In last year’s The Slow Professor, Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber called for a shift to a more deliberative, less frenetic approach to research and teaching. Cultural theorist Rosalind Gill contends, “A punishing intensification of work has become an endemic feature of academic life.”[1][1]  The contributors to a special issue of The Canadian Geographer on academic workload and health describe “academic cultures and practices that valorize overwork, including expressions of martyrdom, talking about not sleeping or eating and about working all of the time, [and] an expectation of always being available for work purposes . . . .”

Faculty complaints about workload and stress may “appear self-indulgent,” as Berg and Seeber acknowledge. Mark Kingwell, for example, has little patience: “I am sure that people feel rushed to produce journal articles and positive teaching evaluations, to sit on this committee or that. But can you seriously compare this to actual work? Surely, there is a better term for such high-end special pleading. Ultra-first-world problem? Point-one-per-cent lament?” This is an invitation to shame and guilt. How can you be working too hard if what you are doing is not even work?

And the culture of shaming starts early. A mid-August tweet from the University of Cambridge praises novelist and alumna Zadie Smith for spurning barbecues in favour of long hours in the library and asks students, “Are you #teambbq or #teamlibrary”? The fierce competition for admission suggests entering students are unlikely to need an additional nudge. But the comment is perfectly characteristic of the anxiety that if we are not working all of the time, we are not doing enough to pursue the world-class status demanded by a growing number of institutions, with all members pressed to achieve more with declining resources. It reflects the anxiety of a neoliberal higher education sector beset with measurements and rankings of excellence. Graduate students are urged to publish while completing doctoral studies as rapidly as possible, even while new (and not-so-new)  proposals advocate that they also commit extensive time  preparing for non-academic careers. Institutions increase class sizes for introductory courses taught by teaching-stream faculty and sessional instructors and then mandate the time-consuming development of online resources to support struggling students. Research universities require qualifications for new Assistant Professors that were once sufficient to achieve tenure.

Contract faculty cobbling together enough courses to pay rent, staff members who have experienced surges in expectations without salary increases, and hourly-waged service workers on campus laid off every summer are all experiencing time crunches of various kinds, exacerbated by financial strains. Rather than isolating one kind of faculty work for analysis, we might assess how various campus groups—including students who are juggling onerous work obligations with school—are participating in a culture of academic exhaustion. We need to know more about each other’s work conditions. A student who fell asleep in one of my classes explained that she clerked at a convenience store until two a.m., when public transit had stopped running, and then walked several kilometers home. She had no family financial support and, as a first-generation university student, feared acquiring a heavy debt load. A member of the custodial staff described how her work duties had been revised to increase the amount of heavy lifting while reducing the social contact with faculty and students that she enjoyed. Knowing these stories, and translating that knowledge into advocacy for better student aid and more equitable and safe working conditions across campus, is crucial.

But we also need to resist the notion that academic work is such a privilege and a pleasure that there can never be too much of it—only too little capacity to carry it out. This approach stigmatizes people who bring up workload concerns and equates endless work with competence, pushing out those who, in Berg and Seeber’s terms, fear they are “not suited” to academia, who judge themselves as inadequate to (unreasonable) demands. It also creates trickle-down impacts, as burnt out faculty members’ responsibilities shift to their colleagues.

And we need to watch out for the unequal workloads that are imposed. Alison Mountz is among those who have pointed out that female faculty members perform a disproportionate amount of emotional labour; persuasive evidence suggests they do more service work, particularly in lower-status roles,  and that this has a negative impact on promotion. Racialized and Indigenous faculty are called upon by their institutions as diversity workers and as mentors to students from traditionally underrepresented groups, sharply increasing service responsibilities that are less valued than research.[2]

Universities and colleges have increased their attention to student mental health, but most are doing far less to support faculty and staff members (even while adding to their work the support and monitoring of student well-being).

Workload is a labour issue; workload is a feminist issue; workload is a disability issue; workload is a mental and physical health issue, a collegiality issue, and a sustainability issue. It is also one that academia avoids tackling. Ramped-up expectations in all areas of faculty performance have come to seem inevitable, and they cannot be resisted without collective will.

[1] More recently, Gill reflects on the ubiquity of a discourse of academic pain among tenured faculty: “Academics’ talk about our own lives has become suffused with extraordinarily violent metaphors: people speak of going under, of coming up for air, of drowning or suffocating. This shocking imagery should surely give cause for concern.” Rosalind Gill, “What Would Les Back Do?: If Generosity Could Save Us.” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society. Pre-print. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10767-017-9263-9

[2] The essays in The Equity Myth expose a much broader set of issues and reach depressing conclusions about the ways in which symbolic forms of inclusion and diversity are overriding more substantive equity efforts. Frances Henry, Enakshi Dua, Carl E. James, Audrey Kobayashi, Peter Li, Howard Ramos, and Malinda K. Smith, The Equity Myth: Racialization and Indigeneity at Canadian Universities (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017). The essays by Henry and Kobayashi and by James pay particular attention to the workload consequences.

 

Heidi TD

Heidi Tiedemann Darrock holds a PhD from U of T and taught as a contract faculty member at universities and colleges in Ontario and BC for more than a decade before accepting a position as an Assistant Teaching Professor. For four years she was a member of the MLA’s Committee on Contingent Labor, serving for two years as Chair. Heidi publishes on Canadian literature.

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