Shadow work and academia.

indexReading Craig Lambert’s new book Shadow Work for research on my own manuscript, my thoughts went immediately to faculty, at my college and elsewhere. “We are living in the most prosperous era in human history,” Lambert writes, “and prosperity supposedly brings leisure. Yet, quietly, subtly, even furtively, new tasks have infiltrated our days, nibbling off bits of free time like the sea eroding sand from the beach. We find ourselves doing a stack of jobs we never volunteered for, chores that showed up in our lives below the scan of awareness. They are the incoming tidal wave of shadow work, [which] includes all the unpaid tasks we do on behalf of businesses and organizations.”

Academia’s not unique, or course – every profession is seeing this.  Think of medicine, and of nursing; in a recent radio documentary I heard, a nurse lamented the loss of time she experienced in the early days of her training, when she could rub patients’ feet and sit and talk with them, making them feel cared-for and seen.  The issue at the heart of Shadow Work is the same conundrum each of us face: We love our jobs. We feel lucky to have them.  We don’t want to complain.  Times are tight, and our institutions need to save money.  We want to be team players — and if we have been invested with tenure, we should be.  (Never forget: so many adjuncts are doing everything we are for half the money and zero job security.)  Yet how should we deal with the sense that every day we are doing more and more — including things not “part of our jobs” — with less and less, and work against that trend to keep the quality of our work high?  Because this is the real reason to pay attention to this issue: if we keep stacking on more and more without really asking “why,” we are undermining the value of our own work and of our institution in the short and long term.

As at every small college — and, really, every college in an era of stuff like this — we faculty, especially the tenured people who are invested in the institution, are doing more with less every day.   And some of that’s inevitable. A generalist by nature, I like having my hand in a lot of pots.  To whom much has been given, much is expected; my education has privileged me, and I feel obligated to give back out of that well of interests and ideas.  I know that the success of any institution requires all hands at work. I’m a teacher, and like many of that tribe, an idealist and a giver, who isn’t going to cavil at pitching in when our school needs us.  Thank God for generous teachers like the colleagues with whom I spend my days. If we were actually paid for all we do on behalf of students, we’d be making Morgan-Stanley-level salaries, which, um, we’re not.  (Insert somewhat strained smiley-face here.)  And yet we give our all, anyway, because it is important, and because our college — and the young people we care for — need us.

But when I counted up the number of pots I’m stirring as part of my job these days — even aside from writing and publishing and teaching (6 courses per year) — I got something like this: advising (academic, senior-project, professional, and what-do-I-do-with-my-life advising, for recent graduates and for current students who are and are not officially my advisees), “service” (all-college committee chairs, honor-society advisor, and more), admissions (talking with prospective students and parents, formally and informally; interviewing scholarship applicants; generating and giving feedback on new initiatives; hosting class visits), and marketing (attempting to bring new ideas, initiatives, and mentions of the college in national media to the relevant people’s attention.)   There are also the social functions: receptions, potlucks, honorary dinners, celebrations of the institution’s life and good colleague-connection time which nevertheless consume entire evenings or afternoons.  Every bit of this carries on through the summer, which I count on to build a giant backlog of writing I can revise for the rest of the year.  I’m doing an awful lot of shadow work.  And I’m not alone.

This means that when we rejoin one another in the fall, colleagues and I are much less “rested” than stereotypes of summer-layabout teachers would have us be. This also means that our patience for that well-meaning advice we always get from non-teachers — “Just say no!” — is pretty short.  “Just saying no” is not a realistic option if you’re on the tenure-track, where pleading child-responsibilities seems to be the only reason colleagues will respect, and sometimes not even then.  And it’s not realistic if your institution has a real need that you can help fill — and if you have tenure, discerning and volunteering for such needs is your responsibility.

Shadow work may just be a fact of any job, and of being a faculty member, as it is a fact of life.  But the challenge, as with any job, is to keep one’s focus, keep doing well the things for which you were actually hired, and to discern what those things are.  There is a difference between doing (even taking on) additional work that builds the institution and its long-term mission and identity and finding yourself snarled in shadow-work minutiae that you do either because there is no administrative help available or because you are too pigheaded or rushed to use it.  (Guess which is more often the case with me.) There is also a difference in discerning which one builds you and your institution and which one confuses both of you, covering up real gaps and needs it is the institution’s job to address in order to keep its employees truly productive.  Such discernment — even in an era of financial belt-tightening — has got to be both faculty’s and administration’s work at any college in order to keep it healthy, as it has to be the work of any successful and functioning organization.

What are some sources of shadow work in academia? Lowered numbers of tenured colleagues in general, and too many tenured colleagues who don’t feel as obligated to pitch in and help run things as they should.  (This is often tied to gender: women tend to “give” too much, men too little.)  Lowered numbers of administrative and support staff.  Administrators who need active faculty input (and rightly so) in marketing the school and in refining its academic reputation and mission.  Massive amounts of email from every direction, which can take a big chunk of time to even begin to sort — let alone answer.  And the broader social trends beyond our walls that are shaping the lives of our students — God bless them — who seem to need more direct support each year in understanding what “education” is really for, what “college” really means, how to keep anxious parents (and one’s own anxiety) in check, how to talk with professors and work-study supervisors, why they should put away phones during lectures, how to manage time and energy, and how to take advantage of the vast resources waiting to help them succeed.  (This is true of students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, at institutions up to and including the Ivy League. Just ask William Deresiewicz.)

I’m not denying the reality of tightened financial belts, and/or the need for all hands on deck. Yet the question’s still worth raising, and caring about, because the invisible costs of shadow work to the institutions we love are so considerable. First of all: overextended colleagues whose exhaustion (even resentment) saps the atmosphere of collegial support that is sometimes one of the only tangible rewards we have for our work. Second of all: lowered quality of the work we are in charge of – teaching, advising, and creative or research activity, which under the pressures of real responsibilities and “shadow work” can become nonexistent.  (Yet in twenty years, you — and your institutional reputation — will be affected by the book you never finished, not the emails that Must Be Sent Today.) My dissertation director advised me never to sacrifice the important (long-term) to the urgent (short-term.) This is a dance I do every single day.  It’s gotten a little easier as I’ve gotten older, but not much, since the stakes are higher on the dance floors where I’m performing now, on and off campus.  (I dare not push this metaphor much farther.)  I informally advise several current graduate students at other institutions, and one of the biggest pieces of advice I give is to develop your strategies to manage your time, energy, and philosophies of “shadow work” now, before you ever go on the job market.

So how can we think about “shadow work” and manage it in our lives? Here are some thoughts:

One: couple the hard work of self-analysis to your analysis of the institution and to meaningful action.  Why am I saying yes to yet another thing? Why am I feeling so tired and resentful?  How have I been complicit in my own oppression here — taking on what I know, deep down, is not really my job, trying to manage others’ feelings for them, trying to shield students (for instance) from the consequences of their actions?  (Or, conversely, am I protecting my “own time” at the expense of colleagues – am I not giving enough, especially for someone at my level of seniority?)  How can I empower others, especially junior colleagues looking for opportunities to build their skills, to step up and meet these needs? And how / can I articulate my analysis of the problem and suggestions for institutional improvement in a concrete, constructive way that goes beyond complaining-over-coffee? If such suggestions would make me vulnerable, how/can I either address those fears and proceed anyway (if not me, who? if not now, when?) or find recourse with, for instance, AAUP?

Two: design boundaries that are true to the realities of your work and to your own comfort levels.  Find your truth and stand on it, kindly and factually.  With students, articulate your standards and policies clearly on syllabi to cut down on questioning emails; put a gentle ceiling on the number of meetings with you in a given month (they can also use the Writing Center, counseling services, or other colleagues); ask for appointments written down and confirmed in advance, and don’t hesitate to say you are not available or rescheduling is not possible. (I don’t have open “office hours” for this reason; when students are asked to make a specific appointment, they’re more likely to keep it, which also builds calendar skills.) For advising, teach students to use online registration and transcript-analysis tools and ask them to come to your meetings with a possible schedule clearly laid out. If they’re not ready, ask them to come back when they are.  And if they’re never ready, they may not be ready to be in college. For committees, consult the faculty handbook: many have stated limits to the number and type of committees you can be on. Point to that as needed.

Three: get a handle on email.  The message sitting there unread, like the thing sitting there undone, creates stress, and so your task is to reduce the stress by getting rid of it.  My life changed forever when I made it my goal to get to a totally empty inbox as much as I could — and in an average week, I can keep the inbox at 20 or below each day. On my first pass through, I delete ruthlessly: mailing lists, ads, spam, whatever (and unsubscribe from lists if possible.) Don’t agonize too much – if you haven’t read this organization’s last three bulletins, skim it, delete it, and go to their website when you have time.  Next, I answer as many emails as I have time for and file them away in folders I’ve made for each category.  (One for each class, committee, or type of responsibility, including “stuff to read” – they’re still there, but no longer in inbox.) Pretty much, if it’s still in my inbox, it’s something I’ve still got to do.  Of course, it’s also important to designate email-free (and social-media-free) times. I use Facebook but try to do so pretty strategically, letting a lot of stuff (especially “social” stuff) go by.

I’m not saying “shadow work” is unavoidable. But with a little thought, maybe we can get it under control and in doing so help preserve the health of the institution for which we’re working – shadow-wise and otherwise.

3 thoughts on “Shadow work and academia.

  1. The flip side of this issue is the proliferation of productivity methodologies and apps, technologies for squeezing more profit out of ourselves. We have taken over and internalized what was once the province of factory owners and their efficiency and ergonomics experts. We have become the perfect proletariat who have internalized the ideology of the bourgeoisie!

  2. Thank you for this. I think it’s true in many jobs, but more so in academia. Our desire / need to give back, coupled with the element of service in our job descriptions, leads to overwork, overcommitment, and time away from the elements of the job that we were actually hired to do.

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