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Unfortunately for me, the other childless professor selected for this special task lives with her partner on Long Island — at some distance from our Manhattan-based campus. She couldn’t do it, she explained, because her train was delayed, as they frequently are. That left me — the childless, single, gay guy who was, as usual, on campus.
I had a 12-hour day, beginning with a 9:55 a.m. class and ending with an evening with the new hire (which didn’t conclude, by the way, until after 11 p.m.), with a work-in-progress talk to attend, a teeming inbox, and an observation of an adjunct instructor in between. The only time I had to myself that day was the hour and a half I jealously safeguarded, the time I reserved for going to the gym and eating.
But there was a guest here — an incoming colleague, no less! Two of the welcome party had “grown-up” responsibilities, while the third was prevented by the peremptory God in whose hands all New Yorkers’ fates rest, the MTA. How could I say no? Well, I did, but only after prevailing upon another colleague (a full-time lecturer whom no one else had thought to ask) to escort our guest.
If not for the serendipitous invitation, that very day, to join a roundtable on unrecognized academic labor, I might not have recognized the labor imbalances on display here. I wouldn’t have worried so much about how things were added to my plate just because that plate was free of the things that are thought to round out an adult’s life — kids, partners, the long commutes accompanying cohabitating with partners. I also might have overlooked my own complicity, how comfortable I was, in my panic, imposing on a colleague not on the tenure track and, though stably employed, saddled with a more punishing teaching load than my own.
That anecdote throws into relief two fundamental attributes of our profession, the neglect of which, I think, are at the heart of the unequal distribution of academic labor. The first is an open secret, a truth universally understood but scarcely acknowledged: Colleagues tend to forget most of the times you say “yes” but always remember the times you say “no.” The second is less intuitive, perhaps obscured by the fact that even the most communalist of us in the American academy still retain some measure of individualism. Fiercely protective of our autonomy, we often forget that at all levels — at the levels of the department, the institution, and the profession — we operate in an ecosystem, where what you do, or don’t do, affects someone else.
How should we deal with the first problem, the oversight whereby we remember the noes but not the yeses? There’s no denying that our habits of memory carry ethical implications. People higher up in the ranks can afford to have their contributions overlooked by people lower down, but the reverse is not true. A recent report by the American Council on Education points the way. The researchers propose “six conditions linked to equitable workloads”: transparency, clarity, credit, norms, context, and accountability. The first three — transparency, clarity, credit — apply most aptly to the selective-memory problem. They ensure that what is expected of faculty members is clear and that the work they do is visible and appreciated — and that they feel seen.
While there are conventions in place for recognizing the more entrenched forms of service, such as becoming department chair or joining a hiring committee, the less formal, ad hoc roles — which include time-intensive activities like taking a job candidate to dinner, organizing a departmental holiday party, or introducing a guest speaker — can add up to a great deal of labor.
Formal designations protect your time, either through established measures, such as teaching releases, or more casual means, such as co-worker awareness that you are occupying a certain role (“He’s chair! I’m not going to ask him to entertain this job candidate.”). But labor conducted outside the purview of a title is literally unrecognized; it has no name. Department chairs should meticulously document this labor so that there is an official account of all the times that people said “yes.” Doing so will increase the likelihood that faculty members, especially junior faculty, are credited for all that they do, not just for the accomplishments that we have been told belong on CVs.
If academic service isn’t recognized, valued, and equitably shared, faculty members will simply renounce it altogether.
For many, context — which entails creating individualized workload expectations based on individual circumstances — may not go down as easily as the other stipulated conditions. The ACE researchers anticipated this fact but maintain — correctly, I think — that “there are structural, social, and cultural contexts that make an individual faculty member’s workload distinct from the workload of another member of their department.” Although the applications that they emphasize are somewhat remedial — accommodating “weaknesses” and correcting for disadvantages — accounting for context can also be a way of accentuating strengths. Should colleagues more adept at and more active in publishing have the same administrative responsibilities as those less so? Do they not serve the department, the institution, and the profession through their writing — writing that advances the profession but also redounds to the credit of their departments and institutions?
We are accustomed to adjusting for context when it comes to administrative roles: These often come with raises, teaching releases, and lowered, if not eliminated, expectations for publishing. We would do well to extend this thinking to scholarship and other kinds of writing that advances the profession. Let me be clear: I am by no means suggesting that scholars who publish more should not be expected to aid in keeping the department and institution running, and I am keenly aware of the potential abuses of lightening faculty members’ service commitments based on their publishing output. (As one passionate attendee at our roundtable session astutely warned, the last thing we want is to create a “servant class” in our departments, a group pigeonholed into administrative work because other colleagues feign incompetence.) It is also true, however, that publishing is, like teaching, an essential service and ought to factor into how we think about apportioning responsibilities.
At the same time, considering context requires that we take into account what’s going on in people’s lives, at work and beyond. Does that mean that people with children are meant to get away with doing less? No, their workloads simply need to be structured differently. Someone with child-care obligations may not be able to fulfill after-hours departmental duties, such as taking job candidates to dinner, but there is plenty of work to be done during the day. The goal is to match faculty members’ responsibilities with their strengths, and factor in their out-of-work obligations so that everyone can contribute maximally and fairly.
If academic service isn’t recognized, valued, and equitably shared, faculty members will simply renounce it altogether. As any chair, dean, or provost can tell you, this is already happening and has been exacerbated, like every other problem we face, by the pandemic. The risk posed by the decline in faculty participation in service is not only that the distribution of academic labor will become increasingly less equitable; it’s also that this work will grow so unappealing as to disincentivize any sane faculty member from agreeing to it. And we all know that when faculty members step out of service, the bureaucrats step in. You do not want bureaucrats writing your curricula, evaluating your scholarship, and depleting your budgets — not any more, that is, than they already are.