Academic Labor, Entrepreneurialism, and Feminism

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:, 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?


2 responses to “Academic Labor, Entrepreneurialism, and Feminism

  1. I’ve been having similar conversations with myself as the semester ends and I think about how I will approach my job this summer and next year. A friend and colleague of mine who teaches at a business schools tells me how they are compensated financially for tasks that most of us do as “service” even if that service doesn’t contribute much to promotion. He gets money for taking in independent studies, money to review and revise curriculum, money to mentor CapStone projects, etc! I often envy his institution because *at least* it recognizes and compensates work above and beyond stated expectations. Of course, STATED and clear expectations allude many academic jobs (or any job, probably). In order to know what is above and beyond, a baseline has to be drawn.

    On the other hand, I resist attempts to quantify every thing I do – the tracking of my time alone is such an effort. My colleagues in the Law School here tell me it is easy once you get use to it. But do I want to get use to tracking my labor in 15 minute increments? [Ugh, I’m getting so sick of “productivity tools” and “gamification” that generate data on my every move. No, I don’t want an info-graphic of my work, sleep, play, eat habits!] And I believe mentoring and working with students on independent studies has value (for me, the students and the institution) even if I am not financial compensated. But some days – MORE now that I have tenure, not LESS – I desire a system of reciprocity that recognizes work load inequity and also encourages greater participation. But what does that look like? How can we create a system that encourages collaborate work that doesn’t, as you say, legitimize neoliberal solutions that further separate us from each other.

  2. Such good points! Some grad students have been tracking “invisible labor” among women faculty here at UO — mostly using time diaries which are a huge pain in the arse. I hear that there’s an iPhone app in beta being used in Norway, I think. As you point out, what would help is having some clarity about what we’re expected to do — a baseline. It seems to me that tenure standards at most institutions mystify some of these issues (maybe the tenure system as a whole does). If we had proper labor contracts and unions, well, that would be a different story with different problems.

    But how do we address workload inequity in the short term? I am so tired of full professors, for example, who don’t do their share of administrative work (either because they’re thinking the unthought as a colleague once put it to me or because of willed and willful ineptitude at the admin jobs they’ve been assigned in the past) because that means that those who are reasonably competent (female and male) wind up doing the lioness’ share of the work. Or departments that place an undue administrative burden on women associate professors, while their male counterparts dodge those bullets. Or the squeeze we’re all placed in when universities don’t hire enough staff or have deans whose major function is no longer running a school, but raising external funds. Someone has to do that work.

    I don’t think we talk enough about our labor these days. Thanks for the opportunity to rant a bit, Nina!

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