We need to recognise where the burden of care falls in higher education

Higher education is a caring profession, and the burden of care is often mediated through technology, argues Lorna Campbell

Most of us work in higher education because we care; we care about our students, our colleagues, our subject specialisms, we care about learning, and we care about sharing knowledge. Many of us even care about our institutions, even if we feel that care is increasingly unreciprocated.

Our profession is distinguished by emotional commitment, compassion, and a strong ethic of care, but this burden of care is unevenly distributed across the academy. This critical and largely invisible labour routinely falls to those who are already marginalised in the system; women, people of colour, early career researchers, those employed on precarious and part time contracts, those on lower pay grades.

Caring has always been regarded as women’s work, and as a result, the labour of caring is habitually devalued and taken for granted. There is an assumption that caring is low skilled work, that anyone can do it, but of course that is far from true.

Despite the toll taken by the exploitation of this invisible labour, we all continue to do our best, to go the extra mile, to pick up the pieces for our students and our colleagues, which inevitably leads to stress, anxiety and burnout. In a timely Twitter thread about the current round of UCU industrial action, Máiréad Enright pointed out that:

There is emotional labour involved in knowing and being reminded that others will have to face the everyday crisis, because you aren’t there. It’s important that we recognise that this emotional labour is part of what’s distinctive about the neoliberal university. We govern ourselves and each other through emotion. Disunity, competition and compulsory individualism in the university ensure that.

The reason many of us are striking, to protest universities’ failure to protect our pensions, and adequately address the gender pay gap, unrealistic workloads, and increasing casualisation, is not because we don’t care about our students and those who rely on our emotional labour, it’s because we care too much. And I am fully aware of the irony that I am writing this article while allegedly on strike. Withdrawing our emotional labour is a hard thing to do.

When feminism meets technology

As with many other aspects of our employment and our practice, much of this burden of emotional labour has become mediated through and exacerbated by technology. Whether it’s spending weekends answering e-mails from distraught students, peer reviewing journal papers and conference submissions, writing blog posts, taking part in Twitter conversations, contributing to hashtags, writing Wikipedia articles, or keeping up with social media.

In a provocation recorded as part of Open Education Week, Leo Havemann argues that there is a lack of appreciation for the kind of labour and expertise involved in digital practice. All too often digital labour is unrecognised and unrewarded invisible labour.

Of course there is a gendered aspect to digital labour in higher education too, which is largely unacknowledged and under researched. A notable exception is research undertaken by the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) to analyse the results of their sector wide ALT Annual Survey through the lens of gender. ALT’s research has provided some evidence of different priorities for men and women particularly with regard to dedicated time and recognition for career development.

While much of our invisible labour may be undervalued by our institutions, grass roots initiatives have sprung up to acknowledge, celebrate and support the contribution our digital and emotional labour makes to education. One such initiative is femedtech, a reflexive emergent network of people learning, researching and practising in educational technology.

The femedtech network is informal, unfunded, and cross sector and our resources are our passion, kindness, knowledge, enthusiasm and volunteer commitment. Our name, femedtech (feminist education technology), aligns us with a critical perspective on education and technology. We are alive to the specific ways that technology and education are gendered, and to how injustices and inequalities play out in these spaces.

Despite the burden of care that we carry, there is strength and solidarity to be gained from shared labour and a sense of community and belonging that traditionally derives from women’s work. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the femedtech Quilt for Care and Justice in Open Education project. Created by Frances Bell in collaboration with members of the femedtech network, this craft activism project takes its inspiration from the themes of the 2020 OER Conference The Care in Openness.

Women and men, from all over world have contributed quilt squares representing personal reflections on care, openness and social justice. These are being stitched into both physical and digital artefacts which will be on display at the OER Conference in London in April. You can find out more about the femedtech quilt project here.

One response to “We need to recognise where the burden of care falls in higher education

  1. Lorna, you say that ‘Our profession is distinguished by emotional commitment, compassion, and a strong ethic of care’, but surely the issue is that the profession isn’t, only certain individuals within it. Surely you can’t argue that individuals who lack that commitment and ethic necessarily suffer in their own careers?

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