Academic emotional labour

We are getting to the business end of our second term at my institution, when our final year students submit their dissertations, and we shift register looking towards field trips (our 2nd years go this weekend), exams and transitions – including of course graduation. This and some rather troubling conversations and various meetings through the term have got me thinking about the volume of emotional labour some of us perform. I say ‘some of us’ because, as with any organisation, some colleagues variously avoid it due to a range of reasons. Thus, some are faced with quite a bit of such work. Maybe these observations are a bit naive but this is where I currently find myself…

At the beginning of this academic year I ceased to be “Early Career”, in spite having only recently (3 years ago) getting back into geography – I spent three years (overlapping writing-up) as a post doc outside of the discipline. In the three years I’ve been in my current position, and beginning to learn how to teach, I have been surprised and at times overwhelmed by what others have labelled an ‘epidemic’ of mental health issues in universities. The complicated entanglements of anxiety and depression that a significant number of our students are contending with are worrying and at times heart-breaking. Some terms can be measured in the number of boxes of tissues I buy (not only for the students).

My experience has been that you get no training for this and, if you have not been an undergraduate for some time, the level of the issues our students are experiencing may feel utterly alarming and mystifying. I remember my time as an undergrad as pretty care-free and fun. It really saddens me how many of my tutees may well remember their time in a very different and perhaps largely negative way. Likewise, many of us in academia are wrestling with personal mental health issues and to be confronted with those of the students may well be very challenging.

So, what do I/you do, with no training and perhaps little experience of such things? Well, this is not meant to be advice but it gets me to the point I want to make: First things first – we are not counsellors. We are not trained to deal with these issues and can possibly make things worse ont better. Show empathy and sympathy, of course, but my strategy has also been to show respect for the student by explaining as tactfully as possible that they need to seek help from what we call “wellbeing services” and/or their GP. Many have already done this. A surprising number are already medicated.

So, personally, I end up listening, trying to discern the academic/administrative measures I have at my disposal that I can put in place to support the student’s needs and identify when I need help. Sometimes you get through the meeting, close the door and may have to have a cry yourself. Many colleagues will recognise this pattern and I’m not trying to dispense advice here but it does say something about work.

Many of us have a calculated workload, perhaps in a digitally accessible workload model (which some colleagues might suggest inculcates us into internalising the logic of institutional discipline for ourselves 😉 – if you look in that workload allocation the chances are there is figure somewhere that figures in office hours, personal tutor duties and so on. Often, the students you may be ‘supporting’ are not personal tutees but dissertation tutees as well, which is a different workload allocation – but probably not a big number. For some of us this workload figure may be accurate. For others this is a mere fraction of the workload experienced.

It would be easy to retort – “well, don’t take on the work”, don’t ‘pander’ to the students and stick rigidly to the time set out. Of course, with some authority (seniority, grant income buy-out etc.) you probably can do this. However, increasingly there is institutional pressure to improve metrics around student experience, to demonstrate the institution is ‘supportive’. As ‘frontline’ staff, academic tutors can bear a significant amount of responsibility for this.

So, this (potential) labour can be a catch-22: you do it, support students, deal with the related admin and your own emotional wellbeing and it may potentially affect other parts of your work that you value (i.e. research/writing time); or: do the minimum/ don’t do it and the work will be displaced to your colleagues (I don’t think it simply goes away) and you may risk being admonished for damaging the ‘student experience’.

Increasingly, such work is being pooled into particular roles – “senior tutors” of one kind or another: for a year group etc. Likewise, the extraordinary growth in applications for mitigation and the administrative side of the academic support for students with wellbeing issues involves a huge increase in work for our administrative colleagues – who are, in many institutions, increasingly embattled, disenfranchised and pulled in other directions.

It seems to me that the status quo is untenable. We cannot go on, we must go on. According to colleagues researching school-level education and those managing admissions, some students are arriving at university with these mental health issues already at an advanced stage, which seems to me a damning indictment of the ethos of the culture of our education system but also suggests we may need much more concerted responses to managing wellbeing from day one, somehow.

I don’t have the answers, but it seems to me that if we continue like this many of us face an ever-increasing student support workload that carries significant emotional cost. I try to remain positive – it is possible to put measures in place and there are dedicated colleagues in many institutions who are putting in place systems and taking difficult but necessary decisions about how to do this work. Nevertheless, I never imagined this would be such a big part of my job.

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2 Replies to “Academic emotional labour”

  1. Thanks. It’s definitely tied to how we represent ourselves (both singularly and plurally) ‘externally’, to funders and so on, but I think it’s also about how we attempt to differentiate ourselves within a discipline, institution etc., which in some ways I find more worrying.

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