Bodies of work: a proposal for critical labour literacy in the post-pandemic university

Kate Bowles, Mia Zamora, Autumm Caines and Maha Bali


Small stories of pandemic fatigue

1

You’re in the middle of a work meeting and your child pops in, visible on your screen for all to see. There is just a moment to decide whether you will panic or remain calm, to wonder how the people on the other side will react. Will they be welcoming or impatient; will your child be demanding or understanding this time? Are you in the middle of making a complex point where you need to concentrate, or are you less central and can turn off your camera and hide your home life from view? Even if those you care for do not appear on your screen, they are part of the hidden work that you are doing now: juggling attention, judging need. As pandemic disruption extends, you are all tiring of the novelty of worlds colliding, over and over again.

2

The professional day starts earlier and earlier. You’re reading emails in bed as soon as you wake up. As soon as you’re at your desk you are in back to back committee meetings where emphasis is placed on student wellbeing and student success. Next you join a planning meeting with your research team, and then wrap up with a department meeting. Finally you switch Zoom rooms to begin a three hour graduate seminar evening class. After a day of sitting in the same seat for the duration of a long haul flight, moving from meeting to meeting with no more than a click, you are now working to conceal your exhaustion on screen. You strain to signal your presence, your sincere care, and your attention. As another 11-12 hour day winds down, you sense that the ability to maintain positive mental health under such circumstances has become a new performance indicator for career success. 

3

The meeting is peppered by emails that you try to manage while fixing your gaze at the screen, hoping to appear alert. The news is never ending, and never good. You will be teaching online for longer than you thought. You will be supporting less experienced teachers to design their online teaching indefinitely. Vendors are cold-calling you with ideas that show how little they know about students. Your university made the headlines, and not in a good way. International students are never coming back, or perhaps they are. There’s an idea from someone senior who has not recently taught—and has never taught online—that online classes could seat more students than a room, and that by raising caps on class size, money could be saved. Meanwhile, your mental health is important to your employer, although it’s not clear how. Student wellbeing is also a priority, except when scaling up class sizes or using invasive proctoring software or demanding they turn their cameras on. 

In the background of all this noise, your bone-tired colleagues remind each other to mute and unmute, and you find yourself quietly calculating retirement options that map a possible path to the end of working in the pandemic university. It’s tempting.

Holding space for critical labour literacy in the post-pandemic university

If the coronavirus has done one positive thing, it has exposed the labor on which our global economy depends. It is now our job, as scholars and students of data science as it is our job as people in the world, to work to see that labor is properly compensated, valued, and named. – D’Ignazio & Klein (2020)

We aren’t the first to use our own stories to think and talk about the impact of work on health: adjuncts (in the US), casual academics (in Australia), casualised lecturers (in the UK) and labour unions everywhere have raised awareness that the lived experience of precarity is unsustainable. Scholars and activists draw attention to the intersections of technology and career management that depend on self-harming behaviours for systems to function at all. The consequences of unfair and increasingly unsafe working conditions have generated new attention to academic mental health, and especially to suicide, in a sector that hasn’t been traditionally associated with such risk. University workers aren’t frontline or crisis workers, and yet we are in crisis.

The immediate and obvious response from universities has been to implement staff wellbeing initiatives. The scrutiny of individual wellbeing as a solution to a structural problem displaces responsibility for working well onto the worker, and diverts attention from the systematic exploitations that are making working well harder. These are the same structures that also make being well increasingly difficult: the body of the university worker contributes nothing to the work of making universities efficient, profitable or competitive. Accommodation of illness and accessibility requirements is minimally attentive to the law. In reality, academics who are attempting to manage careers while also managing chronic conditions, disability or carer’s responsibilities know that the standards for productivity will be set by those with less to deal with, and that by these standards, they will continue to fail.

Rather than succumbing to the idea that we can solve these structural problems of a competitive workplace by being more effective in managing our health or attitude, we have begun to see an alternative future that can emerge if we speak candidly and with solidarity about the hidden dimensions of work. This means acknowledging the forms of care labour that we recognise in our lives, and noticing how in our own workplace, inequities of labour are entangled with and informed by inequities of living. We think this should also matter to universities at least as much as the current boosterism from the industries waiting to profit from 4IR, because it speaks directly to the graduate futures of all our students, not just the most privileged.

This is not an agenda for competitive graduate employability, but a proposal that being able to read and respond critically to claims about the value and virtue of work can become a priority among university graduate literacies as we participate in post-pandemic economic recovery. Some disciplines have this focus; most do not. The task of developing an agenda for a comprehensive critical labour literacy has begun in activism and research; now we need to address ourselves to this priority across the curriculum. This means centring critical literacy about work in our teaching, while recognising that our own working habits are part of a pedagogy of learning to work that currently models competitiveness, reward scarcity and surge work as liveable moral norms. 

We are ready to make our working lives visible, as a way of refusing the demands of pandemic professionalism that we keep our fatigue veiled and our living responsibilities off screen.


Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Kate Bowles is a narrative researcher and labour activist, and is currently the Associate Dean International in the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia. She writes online at musicfordeckchairs.com, and is founder of NiCHE: Narrative informed Codesign in Health and Education, a grassroots group of scholars and researchers working on finding effective ways to use storytelling to co-create public systems.

Mia Zamora, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of English, the Director of the MA in Writing Studies and the Director of the Kean University Writing Project in Union, NJ, USA. She has recently received the Kean University “Professor of the Year” Award. Dr. Zamora’s commitment to equity, digital literacies, data rights, and intercultural understanding is clear in both her scholarship and leadership work. She has founded several global learning networks including Equity Unbound (#unboundeq) and Networked Narratives (#netnarr), and was Co-Chair of ALT’s #OER20 conference on “Care in Openness”.

Autumm Caines is an Instructional Designer at the University of Michigan – Dearborn in the Hub for Teaching and Learning Resources, prior to which she held professional appointments at St. Norbert College and Capital University. She holds a MA in Educational Technology from The Ohio State University. In the Open, she is a Co-Director of Virtually Connecting where her work explores questions of presence and spontaneity in synchronous virtual conversations as well as equity and inclusion in online community. She also helps to organize and facilitate Open/Connected online events for the purposes of faculty development and her own practice in digital stewardship, most recently with the tags #DigCiz, #DigPINS, and #EthicalEdTech. Autumm tweets @autumm and maintains a web portfolio at https://autumm.org

Maha Bali, PhD is an Associate Professor of Practice at the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo, where she has been a faculty developer since 2003. She holds a PhD in Education from the University of Sheffield, UK. She is the co-director of Virtually Connecting and co-facilitator of Equity Unbound (links below), and is an advisory board member of OneHE and the Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange project. She tweets @bali_maha and blogs at https://blog.mahabali.me https://www.virtuallyconnecting.org/ https://unboundeq.creativitycourse.org/.

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