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?

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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?

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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 teaching and the mental load, part one

A few days ago a good friend and colleague sent our group of female peers a link to a terrific cartoon about gendered labour in the household, and what the anonymous French author, known as Emma, calls “the mental load”.

(The cartoon, I’ve since learned, went viral shortly after it was published in English, so you may already have seen it; if not, click here.)

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The piece is feminist but it is not pedantic: it sensibly, carefully, rationally, and fairly discusses the nature of the intellectual labour demanded of women who find themselves in heterosexual relationships that seem, on the surface, quite equitable, but at bottom aren’t.

Emma demonstrates multiple instances in which women in apparently fair-trade partnerships assume the “mental load” of household management, doing a significant amount of bolt-on labour because the roster of chores – from paperwork to baby care to laundry management – belongs to them. As household “project managers”, these women do the management work AND a fair bit of the grunt work; the former, however, is often invisible. Result? Tired, irate female household members, and male household members who don’t understand why they don’t get enough credit for doing their share of household work.

I posted the cartoon on Facebook, and it got a mixed response. Plenty of my friends copped to not having any idea of such problems; certainly it wasn’t in their personal experience. Here, I pointed out, it’s worth remembering we are a pretty lucky lot: we are, most of us, academic feminists for a living. Stands to reason that lots of us have married feminist partners, male and female and non-binary.

But the “nope, not me” response was not the lot of it; several others – and to my surprise, a number of younger others – shared the link in turn and described having these very issues at home. Again, these are smart, educated, feminist women, with partners who share their values.

Which means that, even among the most sensibly feminist among us, we’ve still got a significant gendered-division-of-labour problem. And for many of us, it walks invisible.

Where does this persistent division come from? Emma’s cartoon makes this very nicely clear, especially toward the end (it’s worth reading the whole thing, btw). It’s not about individual men or women, or our desires or our choices, or our individual douchebaggery. It’s about the ways we have internalized, naturalized, and effectively dismissed our own experiences of patriarchal conditioning.

You know: the kind that says that good women get shit done around the house, while good men do exceptional stuff that supports their family’s wellbeing, but that also has the helpful effect of serving them power and status.

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I’m going to pause here for a second to remind us all that patriarchy does NOT equal men, and that women are NOT just patriarchy’s victims. Patriarchy is a system of social relations that organizes gendered individuals into groups, places divisive expectations on those groups, and then perpetuates those divisions as somehow natural, as connected to sexual embodiment rather than social nurture.

Patriarchy affects both men and women negatively, as well as sometimes positively. It affects women negatively more often than men, because women are the secondary group in the patriarchal binary. That said, women often make the best patriarchs: the system needs effective, successfully conforming women to keep other women in line.

OK: so now you’re thinking,

Kim! WTF does this have to do with teaching?

You don’t have to look far to discover that women’s uneven workload in the home has knock-on impacts for those who are both partners and/or parents, as well as researchers. Best practices in the recruitment, retention, and promotion of women in the academy now frequently acknowledge how key university-based support for women’s “mental load” is for promoting their academic success. (Though of course, it’s not usually called that, plainly and outright. It’s usually called “childcare support” or “flex time” or similar – something attached to a chore, not an ethos.)

Women who have too much work to do at home – especially in the key years after giving birth to children – simply cannot also give 60+ hours per week to teaching, research, and administration (with an emphasis on research, of course) in an effort to earn promotion, tenure, and then – the kicker – further promotion to full professor. The latter, in particular, is something in which women tend to lag significantly, even as women’s numbers in the graduate student and junior faculty cohort continue to climb.

(Excellent research into the gender imbalance in the senior professoriate and senior administrative ranks, across a range of disciplines, was conducted by an expert panel convened by the Council of Canadian Academies and made public in a report published in 2012. The panel was convened after the initial round of 19 appointments to the prestigious Canada Research Chairs program included, tellingly, not one woman. It’s worth a read; click here. For [slightly] older research, in the American context and published by the National Education Association, click here.)

So: women who do a lot of mental-load work at home don’t get promoted as fast, or at all, at work. They are TOO. BURNED. OUT.

So far so simple to understand.

But: I don’t do a lot of mental-load work at home; I live alone and am my own household boss. Even when I had a partner, we typically lived apart and did our own things. That’s surely part of why I’ve been as professionally successful as I have been: minimal mental load.

Still, Emma’s cartoon resonated with me fiercely. I wanted to know why. So I did some soul-searching.

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(Why is this woman smiling? Keep reading to find out.)

The cartoon, as it happens, landed in my inbox while I was away on holiday, trying – and failing – to get away from work. As I reflected on it in that specific context, what surprised me was realizing that I do bear a disproportionate mental load – not at home, but in my academic job.

The perception of men working in the academy remains different from the perception of women working in the academy, even now; men are more or less automatically perceived as “professorial”, while women are associated less directly with the solitary-genius-in-robes model that term has historically implied.

I want to be clear that I’m not saying here that women profs aren’t recognized as profs in their jobs; I’m saying that the term resonates differently when it’s attached to women, as when it’s attached to men.

Let’s call it the Professor Dumbledore vs Headmistress McGonagall effect:

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(Albus vs Minerva. “Professor” vs “Headmistress”. Spot the differences.)

Some evidence for this difference in perception comes from growing bodies of research into how women are perceived on course evaluations relative to their male peers (click here for a brief NPR article from 2016 summarizing recent research). Both male and female students tend to attach adjectives like “wise”, “passionate”, and “tough but fair” more often to men than to women. The evidence suggests that male profs don’t need to do anything differently from female profs in order to garner this response; in fact, assessment statistics show that even when women are objectively revealed to be more effective teachers, men often score more highly on that measure on course evaluations.

It’s not just students who feel this way, either. As the Council of Canadian Academies’ report reveals, “socialization, schemas, and stereotypes define social roles and expectations, and contribute to the lack of encouragement for girls to forge non-traditional paths. As a result, female students consistently report lower levels of self-confidence,” especially in the STEM disciplines (xvii). Women who go into research careers are making a mental leap – even today – away from gender convention. That’s a risk, and it requires compensations of all kinds.

Helpfully, however, convention lives in the creases, particularly in the “teaching” and “administration” aspects of the academic job. Teaching is traditionally a “pink collar” or “helping” profession, and it’s where a lot of academic women get stuck, especially when they are not considered, or do not consider themselves, to be “full professor” material. As Mary Ann Mason notes in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Women are most well represented at community colleges (both those with and without academic ranks) and least well represented at doctoral-level institutions. Women make up 50 percent of the faculty at community colleges, 41 percent at baccalaureate and master’s degree colleges, and 33 percent at doctoral-level universities. Most women are not obtaining jobs at the more prestigious and higher-paying research universities where they earned their degrees.

And women are greatly overrepresented below the tenure track in the low-paying, nontenured positions. Women make up 58 percent of instructors and 54 percent of lecturers, and hold 51 percent of unranked positions.

(My emphasis)

In the lower and middle ranks – where the research reveals many women are trapped – everyone teaches a full course load or more. The labour to teach even reasonably well is onerous, and a lot of it is not in-the-classroom work. It’s “mental load” labour: prep; marking; office hours; fielding emails; holding hands.

What’s more, teaching’s “mental load” for women also means always appearing as caring as humanly possible, in an effort to earn a “caring” student eval score at least as high as the senior male prof down the hall who doesn’t have to do half this kind of mental somersaulting in order to achieve the same results.

I know a heck of a lot of men who are adored, even idolized, by students of all backgrounds and genders. They are perfectly good teachers and decent colleagues, most of the time. But I know few female colleagues – generous to a fault, supportive of each other, damn committed teachers – who make the same kind of “professorial” impact.

By god, though, do the students ever line up at those women’s doors! Why? For global kinds of help and advice, reading of work in progress, career support. In loco parentus stuff. Time-consuming and energy-depleting stuff.

You know: women’s work.

I’ve had three separate cases of sexual assault reported to me in my office hours. I’ve had countless students in tears, usually because of struggles with mental health issues – not because of grades. I used to keep Kleenex on hand just in case.

And then there’s administration – and not the sexy, well-paid kind. Wow, do women ever over-invest in the admin labour our jobs demand! Could it be that we are very used – socialized, we might say – to bearing the administrative burden for others? Of course I’ve got a number of talented male colleagues who do exceptional administrative work, particularly at the “officer” level in my department, for which I’m hugely grateful; still, I can’t help but notice that the VAST majority of non-academic staff in my faculty are women. I’ve also lost track of the number of times I’ve been in an administrative role, where my job was to try to coax male committee members to do the job of committee member… and I ended up doing it myself, because, you know. Easier.

Look, I know, ok? Rampant sexism in the academy is not news, and, thankfully, we’re increasingly aware of it.

But making real change to women’s working conditions in the academy means taking seriously not only how often the conditions of academic labour neglect entirely women’s experiences of the “mental load” at home, but also how often those conditions actually reproduce the domestic conditions of “mental load” and call it academic labour. Not the kind that will get you accolades, prizes, and promotion, mind – not yet, anyway.

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On that note, I’m truly proud to report that on 1 July 2017 I was promoted to the rank of Full Professor at Western University, one of Canada’s leading doctoral-research schools. I’m unusual in this promotion: a comparatively young woman (I’m 42) who has achieved a top research rank just 12 years after my first academic appointment.

I did not apply for promotion based on a “second monograph”, the so-called “gold standard” for top-tier success in my field – I don’t have one, and, increasingly, I think I might never write one. Instead, I applied based on my record of collaborative labour: my editing work, which has been substantial and much-lauded, and my teaching work, which shone through in my file thanks to a dozen letters from former students, and a damn fat teaching dossier to boot.

Why am I telling you this? (Also: if I was a guy, would you ask? Just checking.)

I wanted my promotion case to argue that this kind of work – shared, supportive, and student-forward work by a woman – needs to be more than enough for significant promotion at research schools circa 2017, if we are serious about taking action toward gender parity in the academy. I wanted it to set a precedent; I hope it does. I’ll certainly be supporting, wholeheartedly, future women scholars coming up for promotion with similar files. (I’d like to invite anyone reading, who works in my field, to name me on their promotion files as a potential external examiner, btw.)

I know this post has been long – thanks for reading! In my next post I’ll share the anecdote that prompted the reflections above, as well as some ways we – men and women both – might combat the academy’s gendered mental load in our day to day actions this coming year.

Stay cool meanwhile,

Kim