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Standing out among this crowd of the industrious is Cal Newport, author of books like Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, and A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload. Newport focuses on increasing one’s attentional “intensity”: “If you’re not comfortable going deep for extended periods of time, it’ll be difficult to get your performance to the peak levels of quality and quantity.” Some of his tips include cramming the entirety of your teaching load into one semester, keeping your office door closed for days on end, turning on your out-of-office email reply even when on campus, and refusing to answer emails for days or even weeks. Following this advice might indeed help you get that article or book published, but it doesn’t alleviate the onslaught of campus-service labor or bolster student success.
There’s a reason I’m not surprised Newport’s advice ignores service obligations: He’s a man. I took note of the gender dynamics on my campus and found my male colleagues generally shirking jobs bestowed upon women or duties that add to the creature comforts of college life. These men were not inclined to remember how to use the copy machine or complete a standard form for travel reimbursement. Faculty members would meet and agree that a new process for helping students should be worked out or student-learning outcomes must be revised, but when we got to the part about who would actually perform that labor, it was usually the men who kept their hands down.
In short, their performative helplessness created a pile of work that was generally picked up by women. What would it look like if I were to emulate them? What if I were to follow Newport’s advice and simply stop responding to emails, feign incompetence with routine paperwork, and refuse new menial or laborious tasks? It would take a radical shift in my day-to-day schedule, but I was willing to try to transform into something helpless and mediocre.
Some of the things I’ve been asked to do at my job range from the mundanely sexist to the borderline lawsuit-worthy. The first time my college hired a woman as president, a senior male colleague asked if I would “buy her red roses for Valentine’s Day, from all of us.” A junior male colleague sent his student to me so that I could help prepare plates and napkins for his student-club meeting. He was too busy being “the campus writer,” as another male colleague once referred to him, to bother with this inconvenience. When I embarked on my first experience teaching abroad, I met the male program director in the airport for the first time. He distractedly shook my hand and then shoved his baggage tag into my palm, stating, “You put this on my luggage while I go over here and handle other duties.” For the entirety of the program, I became his ad hoc “work wife”; the expectation was that I would wrangle the “kids” while he disappeared daily to dawdle in cafes. When he did appear, it was to wax academic about the significance of key places, often perching atop an old fountain in the style of Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society.
Could I embrace the faux out-of-office email, become a publication machine, and finally surmount the fountain with true academic panache?
Newport’s argument for why deep work is meaningful relates to the confluence between deep work and a “flow state,” defined as “stretching your mind to its limits, concentrating, and losing yourself in an activity.” I recognize that feeling. For me, it’s the rumble of excitement and flurry of anticipation in my gut when I realize I have time to write and read uninterrupted. So in January 2020, after submitting my final promotion portfolio, I told myself that I would write for me now, and no one else. As a tenured professor, I thought that I could afford to dial back some of the campus housekeeping tasks I’d been running to complete for the sake of “proving” myself: helping host an academic conference that required the women-exclusive committee to track down coffee pots for attendees and mallets for placing signs in the ground, and coordinating enriching events for students while male colleagues alternately performed “important” work or relaxed behind shut office doors. I also wanted to rage against the encroaching education model of “customer service”-isms and to push back on the weight of being a de facto therapist, assistant, mother, and coach to over 100 students per semester. In short, serving to death had buried my professional joy for far too long, and it was time to do my own deep work.
I rolled into February 2020 with an important word that I began to employ more frequently: “No.” I started to say “no” to joining and running new committees and to coordinating special campus projects. “No” was a perfectly acceptable response to added advising and student-club-service labor, and “no” suited most coercive work conversations just fine. I said “no” freely and indiscriminately to colleagues, and I said “no” to administrators. I gathered that hearing this word from someone like me who was known for extensive campus service confused some of my colleagues, but it began to feel more comfortable to me the more I used it. After all, my male colleagues had figured out that by saying “no” repeatedly, they gradually received fewer and fewer tasks. With more “noes,” I progressed toward my return to at least a part-time life of the mind, and I set out to find a publisher for my book project.
And then came March 2020.
We must take women and minorities aside and whisper difficult truths to them: No one is going to stop them from doing too much academic service.
What I’ve found in my return to campus is this: We all changed during our Covid year, but women workers suffered the most from trying to work and manage homelife concurrently. I, naively, thought that Covid-19 would break us in half and change us fundamentally in a positive and necessary way. But once we returned to our campus roles, there was no revolutionary shift. Women performed the “garbage” tasks while locked down in isolation, and we were expected to continue these duties upon return. Writing in these pages last fall, Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, Lise Vesterlund, and Laurie Weingart bemoaned the “non-promotable task” — things like serving on behind-the-scenes committees or institutional review boards and mentoring junior staff. “Compared with men,” they write, “women are 48 percent more likely to volunteer (when a volunteer is sought), 50 percent more likely to say yes when asked directly, and 44 percent more likely to be asked.” If a global pandemic wasn’t enough to upend old-fashioned gender expectations, what would be enough?
Mainardi spells out the ways in which insidiously gendered labor norms undermine women’s “liberation.” Female and minority labor is considered an immovable precedent. Men feign incompetence and need constant retraining on mundane tasks. Men passively resist and accomplish daily chores only weekly or less frequently. Domestic tasks are seen as “garbage work” to be completed by people believed incapable of handling “matters of significance.” Underpinning all of this, for Mainardi, is an oppressive system that keeps white males at the top.
Seen in academic terms, this dynamic translates to women’s forced and endless service, the result of which is fewer women earning tenure or being promoted to full professor. The American Association of University Women reports that “women make up the majority of nontenure-track lecturers and instructors … but only 44 percent of tenure-track faculty and 36 percent of full professors. Women of color are especially underrepresented.” According to the Modern Language Association’s 2009 Standing Still report, which tracked why so many humanities faculty were getting stuck at the associate level, women did not report doing more service work than men, yet they completed significantly fewer hours on writing and research. Much of this was attributed to women faculty members’ increased time spent grading student work and preparing for class. Women also commit more time to family obligations, devoting 31.6 hours a week to child care, which men spend only 14.2 hours per week on.
This stark difference made me wonder if our invisible service labor had perhaps become invisible even to ourselves — something we simply accept and bear. As Katie J. Hogan and Michelle A. Massé note, “How can a faculty member, particularly a female faculty member, ask for compensation for activities that are routinely categorized as an index to one’s unselfishness, moral goodness, and dedication to students?” In short, female faculty are not only asked or told to do the campus “housekeeping,” they are also seen through the prism of maternity — a perspective that results in an expectation of saintly sacrifice. That expectation then becomes internalized. How could we even begin to catalog the service work we do if it is just a part of who we are as women?
This presupposition of female goodness is just one hurdle we face. A 2022 study in Research Policy revealed a perceived lack of depth and seriousness in “feminized” research. The researchers uncovered bias against “gendered” studies — that is, content related to women and conducted by women — which resulted in fewer women Ph.D.s across disciplines receiving academic positions and less overall attention for their work.
Women are doing more labor at home, and that expectation spills into the workplace. Women might not have reported more service work in the MLA report, but the onus to do service work weighs more heavily on contingent and junior faculty — and those groups are disproportionately female. Finally, when women do engage in scholarship that is perceived as feminized, they find it more difficult to attain publication and promotion.
Newport himself actually embraces this method for equalizing service work. In a 2019 Chronicle essay, Newport argues that “we should clearly articulate these trade-offs by specifying the exact amount of time a faculty member is expected to devote to service each year.” The problem for Newport, however, is in the details. Much though he might want it to go away, those of us doing service work recognize its importance — if not on our CVs, than on our campuses and for our students. How impoverished would a college be without faculty mentors for student clubs, faculty spearheading academic roundtables, or faculty answering emails daily because an at-risk student in crisis reached out to them and can’t wait 48 hours for a response? The envisioned chunks of time for “deep work” may be fewer and smaller than Newport would hope, if distributed equally.
Perhaps the most revealing finding of the 2009 MLA report is this: The only men who took longer to attain the rank of full professor than women were men who “were married with wives living and working at other institutions” — that is, men whose wives are subject to the all-encompassing expectations of gendered academic work.
Post-pandemic, I never managed to regain my “Just Say ‘No’” outlook. Instead, metaphorically, I still stand here ironing. For it to sink in, the gross unfairness of our gender expectations must be conveyed early in life, or, at the very latest, upon entering one’s graduate program. We must take women and minorities aside and whisper difficult truths to them: No one is going to stop them from doing too much academic service.
An MLA report prepared by the Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession in 1971 concluded that “women in our profession find themselves … in less prestigious, less privileged institutions … and earning less money than their male counterparts.” If we were better at this, an essay from 1970 about housework and an MLA report from 1971 wouldn’t resonate so darkly and deeply today.