On teaching and the mental load, part 2 (some notes toward solutions)

Last week I wrote about teaching in relation to the gendered mental load – the experience, all too common among women, of both doing the work and managing the work, at home but also in the classroom. Of carrying more than their fair share of the burden, often invisibly, because of the subtle cognitive and emotional responsibilities that accrue to both domestic and pedagogical labour – and which for a variety of reasons are still assumed, even if largely unconsciously, by most people in our culture to be “women’s work.”

After reading that post, I bet a few of you were thinking: gosh, yes. I see some of that in my experience. But, Kim: what’s the solution?

If I had the solution, of course, I would be rich and famous – and probably hiding out on a remote island trying to stave off the angry, anti-feminist internet trolls.

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So no, answers have I none. I do, however, have some ideas about how we might do better at redistributing the mental load. And these come from my own recent experiences – on holiday, believe it or not.

From 1-11 July I was hiking and cycling in the Calder valley in West Yorkshire. (Calder is the ancestral home of the Brontë sisters, btw; these amazing women were POSTER CHICKS for the mental load, thanks to their arsehole, alcoholic brother Branwell. And Branwell, dammit! You would not be enjoying all this weird posterior fame if it were not for your shockingly talented and enterprising sisters. Jackass.)

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Anne, Emile, and Charlotte (right) vs Branwell (left) – as per the BBC, in the 2016 biopic To Walk InvisibleGreat fun – check it out.

Anyway, back to my holiday. I had put my out-of-office message on my work email and disabled it on my phone (which was along with me for navigation purposes); on my computer, I funnelled work emails into a holiday inbox (my computer was along with me because I’d planned to do some free writing toward a new book, between hikes and rides). I decided to check my personal email once a day, largely to get rid of spam and finalize some plans with friends post-holiday.

Things did not start smoothly. I was full of anxiety those first few days away. It was the come-down after two long weeks of teaching Western’s study-abroad class in London, England, during which time I’d been responsible for 12 Canadian students pretty much 24/7. Some of those students presented challenges for me – let’s just say they were struggling with their own mental loads, and as the prof-in-residence their loads were necessarily mine, too.

As I’d been teaching all day, every day in London I’d been managing other stuff, too – research projects in the air, a journal issue about to be released, two graduate students nearing completion. I’d worked through the day on my final Friday before vacation to tidy up as many loose ends as possible, but as I tried to settle into holiday rhythm I felt convinced I couldn’t just leave it all to be on vacation for 10 days. Too many people were counting on me!

Of course I’d done everything I could to clear my inbox; still, I felt nervous and uneasy.

On my fourth day away, overcome by this unease and against my self-imposed rule, I checked my work email’s holiday inbox. I reasoned with myself that I could delete the spam and would feel better for it not overflowing. (Spam is evil. EVIL EVIL EVIL.)

You can guess what happened next. I found an urgent email from a colleague, writing on behalf of one of my graduate students; that student had not received the work I’d sent back to them before my break, owing to an email glitch. The tone of my colleague’s message was polite, but it read to me like they assumed I’d dropped the ball on my student and left a mess for someone else to clean up.

So what did I do? Did I sigh, roll my eyes, and then say to myself: “damn! How annoying! Let’s shoot the work back again, with a copy to the colleague, and remind everyone of my holiday dates. Then let’s forget about it until the holiday ends”?

Nope. Of course not.

What I did was, I lost my shit.

First, I panicked. Then I emailed my colleague with details (let’s say excessive details) of all the work I’d been doing to support the student in question, while also teaching my study abroad course. I then re-sent all the work to the student, with copies to my colleague and another member of our admin team. I sent separate notes to the admin team member involved. I made a full evening’s work for myself, while on holiday, and produced in the backwash almost 48 hours’ worth of fretting to follow.

What happened in the end? My student replied with thanks, apologized for the email mishap, and my colleague replied supportively, too. Sensing my mood, on about my sixth or seventh email, they also reminded me to forget about all of this not-actually-big-deal, not-really-world-ending stuff and just enjoy my holiday.

Since this minor but telling email meltdown, I’ve been thinking a lot about it.

What does it say about my mental load at work?

What does it say about my own expectations of myself in relation to that load?

What does it say about the systemic issues that shape both that load and my relationship with it?

Climb_HebdenBridge

Things about which to lose one’s shit: maybe this. Maybe not email. (An image of an actual cobbled climb in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. Really.)

Lesson number one for me was this: I made extra work for myself where I did not need to. I overreacted to a simple situation and created both stress and labour where none was required. I made extra work for myself by checking my email on holiday. I did not need to do that! I SHOULD NOT have done that! The world would not have ended had I not looked at my colleague’s email until my break was over. Armageddon was not even in sight.

So that’s it, right? I created my own mental load problem. The solution? Just say no! Simples, ja?

meerkat

Not so fast. Lesson number two: I did what I did because I live inside a work structure that creates an onerous mental load for me on a regular basis, to which I’ve become slowly and unknowingly accustomed.

I understand my responsibility, as a teacher, to be to tend that load at all times. And more: I have learned to peg my self worth to my tending of that load at all times.

After two weeks of supporting 12 young women in a huge, foreign city, my pastoral care radar was at its max. I was utterly drained.

Maybe I checked my email because my body thought that experience wasn’t yet over. Maybe I checked my email because I’d created some destructive muscle memory that needed satisfying.

Most likely I checked my email because, unconsciously, I believe that’s what “good teachers” do: they make themselves available to their students 24/7. They never let their students down. They bend over backwards. They sacrifice their breaks. They martyr themselves.

To say this is destructive, wrong-headed, and awful is both true and not helpful. Remember what I argued in my last post, when I cited research into student responses on course evaluations: as a rule, women need to work harder to be perceived as caring and supportive teachers at university level. Whether that scenario holds true in every classroom or not doesn’t really matter: women are by and large socialized to over-care. And we do it at our own expense, more often than not. (We are socialized to do that, too.)

How do we begin to fix this?

Let’s start with what we – women in situations similar to the ones I’ve been describing – can do to help ourselves unload some of that mental load. In my own case, step #1 would have been for me to leave my computer behind on my holiday. (Free writing? Who cares! Just take the holiday. THEN write.)

Step #2 would have been for me to delete my work email completely from my phone.

Step #3, upon finally receiving my colleague’s email, would have been to take a deep breath and go for a walk. Then after some reflection to reply as I suggested above: briefly, calmly, unapologetically, and with the missing work attached.

(I might also, at the same time, have noted to my colleague – a kind and sympathetic human who would have heard the message! – some ways that the tone of their email might have been adjusted to help me feel less burdened by the situation.)

How could I have gotten to a mental place where steps 1-3 might have been conceivable for me? That would have involved me, in the first instance, asking for more support during my study abroad labour: being extremely clear to the colleagues around me what I needed, and asking for those things, frankly and kindly and, again, without apology.

But of course, there’s a catch. Academics in general, and women (among other non-white-male) academics in particular, rely for their status and security upon appearing to be shit-together-don’t-need-no-help types; asking for help reveals weakness, which places us, potentially, at risk.

Now, some of you (just like me, as I just wrote that sentence) are likely thinking: but there’s lots of help available at my school. And my male (among other) colleagues are super kind and supportive.

Yup, sure, true. But guess what else? Our mental loads are learnedingrained; they are systemic and they are tenacious, regardless of the objective realities of our work situations, and regardless of the kindness of our male (among other) colleagues. (They sneak in. They aren’t so immediately easy to see as a colleague’s gesture of kindness.)

Which means that it’s not just down to us to get a grip and take a holiday and ask for help.

It’s actually down to our colleagues, our line managers, our chairs and deans and others in positions of power at our institutions to help change the culture of the mental load.

The key thing to remember about the mental load is that it is often invisible. We have to work, sometimes very hard, to bring it into focus.

So: those of us who carry a lot of load need to look straight at it, and question whether or not we should be carrying it. We need to ask ourselves why we are carrying it: who benefits from that carriage? At whose expense does it happen? Then, we need to take some action based on our responses.

This might be as small an action as speaking out about it, candidly, to loved ones and colleagues who can help. It might even involve speaking openly with our students about the mental load. (I’m a big advocate for that: students, once invited to see teachers as human beings, often do so, and do so with real empathy.)

Just as crucially, those who do not carry as much load need to look with nuance at the others around them, and question how much mental load those others are carrying – and on whose behalf. For some of us, in fact the first job might be to look at the load itself, maybe to see it for the first time. To consider carefully the labour behind the stuff that just magically, somehow, gets done. And to ask who the hell is doing it, if we are not.

And again, the imperative to take action pertains: to ask questions, to imagine alternatives. Maybe just to make fewer assumptions.

Finally, at the level of structure – department level, faculty level – we need to do this work, and officially. How about a wellness task force (gender-balanced) to look at mental load specifically, to parse carefully the inequities in certain kinds of labour in our immediate environments, and to recommend action toward redress?

Or, even simpler – and with fewer risks of offloading the work of thinking about mental load onto those already burdened with mental load – how about some informal but curated discussions about how our local loads are distributed? (For this purpose, I’m a huge fan of Lois Weaver’s Long Table format. It is amazing because nobody leads; everyone must invest and hold a stake. Try it.)

When I started my academic job I got two excellent but flawed pieces of advice. The first was: keep your head down and publish, publish, publish. The second was: do not make yourself invaluable, or you will be placed on every committee ever.

The first problem with this advice is not that it’s bad; it’s that it is systemically naive. It assumes I can live with appearing both selfish and not quite good enough. For a woman like me in the academy, both of those prospects are social, and emotional, poison. Unbearable.

The second problem with this advice is that it expects me to adjust myself to a flawed system; it does not expect the system to open its eyes to me.

But here’s the thing: it’s not that hard to see what others are doing, going through – and what each of us is not actually doing about it. You just have to look a bit harder, more carefully, at greater depth. As academics, isn’t that what we are trained to do?

To end, and in the spirit of lightening the mental load, some snaps from Yorkshire – after I finally threw the email out the window. Enjoy and feel free.

Kim

 

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On emotional exhaustion

This morning I was rushing to work. Nothing new there; I get up at 7am to make my 9:30 class, but between the dog-walking and the breakfast and lunch-making and the email-answering and the showering and dressing (if I’m lucky!), it’s usually 8:50 before I’m out of the house. This morning it was 8:55: cue the panic.

I had to stop at the bank machine to grab some cash en route to campus. This morning there was a man ahead of me – he was a bit older, looked somewhat confused, and was carrying two plastic bags filled with sundries and paper bills. I noted that he hadn’t yet put a card into the ATM machine.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, “but I’m in an enormous hurry. Would it be ok if I went first? I won’t be long.”

He was reticent to start, but then became gracious.

“Just be sure to do something nice for someone else” he said as we traded places.

“Of course!” I replied.

But, as I left the bank and jumped back into the car, I thought to myself: when? When in my incredibly busy day of catering to other human beings’ needs will I find the time to “do something nice” for someone? Isn’t that my job, more or less, all the time? In fact, I was so moved by the (grudging) kindness of this old, disheveled man toward me that I was practically tearing up as it was. It felt ages since someone had stepped out of their way to give me a helping hand. Mostly, I do the stepping, the helping, the hand-extending.

GraphicUpAgainstAWall

It’s mid-October: brisk air; swirling, coloured leaves. Here in Canada Thanksgiving is over and Halloween is a week away. The geese are running wild in the streets. (No, really.) The snow has already flown. On campus, that of course means homecoming is behind us, midterms are here, and study break can’t come soon enough. The students look like zombies. Everyone is sick – my inbox is littered Tuesday mornings with tales of coughs, flus, reasons aplenty not to come to class. They trade their germs with us; my colleagues cough and wheeze up and down the hall.

It’s also the time of year when class numbers start to dwindle. Students make the calculus: whose lesson do I skip to finish the assignment for Professor X? They may know, or may have forgotten, the penalty for skipping mine. They probably make their decisions based on whose absence penalties are most punitive.

This morning, when I finally made it to my classroom (after a major parking headache, with four minutes to spare!), I faced a mere 65% of the group. I won’t lie: my heart sank. After all, I’d put heart and soul into the prep, and I was prepared to give all the energy I had to the room even though I was sweaty and slightly out of breath. I’m not sure the students could have cared any less; their faces looked, well, like they were zombies. (NB to all university timetable-keepers: for students, 9:30am is the new 6:30am.)

Now, I’d like to stop here and say that I don’t intend this post to be a rant about typical undergraduate student thoughtlessness; I wasn’t an undergrad *so very* long ago, and I know I made some stupid, thoughtless choices at the time that I wish I could take back. (Entschuldigung, Dr Langhorst!) But the combination of events at work this morning – the familiar, draining rush; the man in the ATM vestibule; the manic arrival in class; the lack of students, and those in attendance sporting their weary masks of “it’s too early!!” – made me realise, once again and as though for the first time, how incredibly emotionally draining my job as a teacher is.

To be a teacher in any capacity means that you need to be prepared to give a great deal more than you get. Those of us who do this work all know this on some level, but we rarely vocalise it; instead, I suspect, we live with the struggle of coping with an emotional deficit most days. I go to class and try my very best to give my students the most energetic and passionate experience of my research that I can; good teachers are “passionate”, after all. What the brochure doesn’t tell you: that students tend to lack similar levels of passion for the thing that ignites you. That your passion is not in a 1:1 relationship to their potential passion. And that the return on your passion-investment is often pretty poor: one or two truly excited students per semester, after maybe 40 contact hours (not counting prep, office, other…) of you doing the very best song and dance you can. I’m not denying this is a valuable outcome – of course it is; I’m just saying that it’s not a very efficient one. Forty hours of hard work for one or two lives touched is wonderful. But it also means our emotional engines run hot, run out; and we often run dry.

muybridge_galloping_horse

(Only Eadweard Muybridge understands my pain.)

By the middle of any term (aka, about now), I usual start getting regular visits to my office hours from students in some need. Anxiety and depression are big ones; panic over deadlines and apparent confusion over the assignments I’ve painstakingly laid out in detail in the syllabus are two others. Basically, students come to my office hours to express to me their emotional struggles with the pressures of school, of getting older, of coping on their own, of peering into an uncertain future. I smile, I look concerned, I nod, I try to help them problem solve as best I can. I feel for them – really I do. I remember being in their shoes. And I often eat my lunch while they are talking, because there is literally no other time for me to eat it.

So, by the time I get home most nights mid-semester I’ve got honestly nothing left. Still, many evenings I hunker down to work: as I’ve spent so much of my teaching day meeting with students or colleagues, I usually need the extra time to catch up on administration or a bit of writing. On research days, too, the demanding emails roll in while I’m trying to write – and then they need somehow to be addressed, or at least triaged, before the next set arrive with the new day. I realised this past weekend that I’m working at least a 60-hour week right now, not counting home chores. If I have an hour a day to myself that’s a good outcome; I watch TV rarely, though I miss it a lot, and I wish I had time to read more for fun.

drained (10-11)

I don’t want this to seem like I’m complaining about my job. I am so lucky to have a well paid, salaried, tenured, flexible position in a well respected and highly ranked Canadian research university. I just wish my students, and maybe also the world around them, could appreciate better the sheer amount of emotional labour required by me and my colleagues every day, in addition to the intellectual and administrative work that defines our jobs on paper. And I really wish my colleagues and I could talk more openly about this stuff amongst ourselves. I know I, who have so few emotionally strengthening resources to draw on at home, would welcome such a conversation with open arms.

Kim