Traveling to Boston for the International Communication Association meeting this week, where I’ll be participating in a workshop on Feminist Process and Media Art. In our ongoing conversations about this, Mél Hogan raised a question as to “how is not being paid for work problematic within a feminist framework?” I’m so glad she did, because this is a question that’s been much on my mind lately, particularly as I’ve been thinking about Fembot, the online portal/journal project a group of us have been working on. Ever since graduate school, I’ve worked with feminists in the academy in reading groups and other informal settings where we’ve mentored one another, shared ideas, argued, and formed communities. I’ve always read other feminists’ work when asked, believing that supporting the work of other feminists — creating collaborative frameworks for improving all our work — was a feminist act.
A dear feminist sociologist who participated in a couple of these reading groups used to talk about the “norms of reciprocity” that we modeled in doing this work. Not only was I enriched by reading the work of my feminist colleagues, they reciprocated by reading and commenting on my work.
I find that it’s harder and harder to make a case for such norms these days. Thinking about Fembot in particular, it’s hard to get people to invest in a project like this — one that’s definitely and intentionally labor-intensive (you can’t do feminist collaborative work in 15 second spots); a project whose professional pay-off isn’t guaranteed; and a project that promises to be intellectually, technologically, and politically complicated.
I understand this project to be a form of feminist activism and not simply professional activity. Feminists in the academy need to actively intervene into a publishing and review system that is alienating, often hostile to feminist ideas, and one that forces us into having relationships with corporations whose politics, as Ted Striphas has pointed out in an essay on publishing in cultural studies (ironically locked up by the very corporate masters he criticizes: http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all?content=10.1080/14791420903527798), are antithetical to feminism. When I read Ted’s article, I thought to myself, I have never shopped at Walmart, but I’ve published my work in venues owned by some pretty heinous corporations.
At any rate, what I’m seeing in the academy is a form of academic piece work, perhaps intended to compensate for the fact that fewer tenured or tenure-stream faculty are doing more and more administrative work. This is a mixed bag, imo. In the US, there’s a long history of labor activism arguing for higher wages rather than more time off (time we might meaningfully use for activism of all sorts). This is the reason why in the US we have fewer paid holidays (an ever dwindling number in fact) and shorter vacations than our European counterparts — because workers have traded time for money.
I get the argument that invisible labor of all kinds should be adequately compensated, but I’m uneasy with neoliberal solutions, which seem divisive and highly individualistic and unevenly applied. What kinds of “service” should be compensated for in academic settings. What does it mean for feminist research, projects, and activism when this expectation governs? How do we create defiant and oppositional networks in university settings that have become so professionalized as to make the very idea of norms of reciprocity based on anything but a market logic unthinkable?