2. Work/Home – Hidden labour

Work Home - Hidden labour

As shaky as politicians’ claims of truth
K’s cooking was boring, and she didn’t have too much time to do it either. They soon fell into the habit of a weekly takeaway and sweet treats from Asda (the only place outside the home that she was able to get to); the girls waiting at home for her in excited anticipation like baby birds in a nest. Meanwhile her husband, shut away in his office and working 9-5 in the way he had always done, didn’t seem to notice. Naturally slim and tall, he had no concerns about weight or fitness and made a fuss when K made an attempt at healthy eating, siding with the girls about how ‘we need to indulge ourselves!’ and simultaneously leaving the entire household cooking duties to her. After eight long weeks it was really driving her round the twist. One night, frantically trying to cook tea while listening to Matt Hancock spouting obvious lies on the nightly news briefing, she realised that equality in their home was as shaky as the politicians claims of truth.  The issue wasn’t that jobs weren’t evenly distributed; it was that she was the one who carried the relentless worry about whether she was doing them right.   #2

Personal Tutoring becomes paramount
Teaching online from March 2020 to the end of the 2019/20 semester was emotionally challenging. In addition to my teaching commitments, I also had 46 personal tutees. These were all part-time mature students who were nearly all key workers who often also had caring commitments. Therefore, our students’ anxieties were running high, particularly with the switch to online modes of teaching and the challenges of this for them (e.g. lack of access to reliable broadband/ lack of access to a personal laptop; impact of family and noise/ interruptions during live lectures). This situation led to a huge shift to personal tutoring taking a paramount focus with and increased amount of 1:1 tutorials. The focus shifted from academic achievement to being more based around checking the mental health and current concerns (e.g. worries about loved ones with COVID-19). This was time intensive and draining (especially concerns over students who had tested positive). During this first lockdown the daily hour exercise (often a joint walk with my daughter) was essential for my positive mental health.  #9

Students were isolated, scared and angry
During the pandemic, trying to do a lot of the additional pastoral work with PhD students fell on me, which I think is a gendered issue. I would like to say it’s because students think I’m a caring, nice human being, so they’re comfortable to talk with me, but I also think it is that some male co-supervisors just … students won’t go to them. They won’t deal with it. So, I was picking up a lot of the bulk of that as well.  Students were isolated, scared and angry. When they reached out, I wasn’t going to ignore them. There was also additional workload in that university systems had to be negotiated and in places designed and redesigned to support doctoral researchers in these unusual times. I worked to support funded students to access funding extensions and to calm their fears about the impact on their future careers.  #1

Be as ‘motherly’ as possible
I had some students with mental health issues and family issues, particularly as a result of COVID, who were really struggling to make progress on their dissertations.  One of the pieces of advice I was given was to be as motherly as possible and reach out with as much care and concern and compassion.  I mean, I think I’m quite an empathetic person, but I’m not a mother, nor do I ever aspire to be.  That was an acutely sexist thing to say.  I very much doubt that male members of staff would be encouraged to be motherly towards their students and to reach out to them.  Yes, I found that disappointing.  #18

I wanted NOT to be my mother!
I can see relatively junior female and nonbinary academics doing shedloads of extra unseen work, especially during the pandemic (and women-of-colour friends doing additional anti-racist work and counselling other students of colour on top of dealing with constant racism)… and our relatively junior male colleagues are getting grants, published and promotions. I wanted NOT to be my mother (the one who did all the unseen crap, all the work that was never valued, all the stuff that benefited everyone else, the one who never had anything she could really call her own)…I think the frustration I’m feeling is that I can’t escape my mother’s role. I choose not to escape it, every day in small ways. I can’t unsee the students who ask for help, I can’t not reply when I see an email come in from another student stressing about something. I can’t not carefully formulate an email back to a student who has said he felt like I might be the most understanding of all his lecturers (I hope it’s my personality, but I fear it’s my gender too). I can’t say ‘no’ to the things that take time, but probably won’t further my career – because I care about the students, about my colleagues, I care about important and exciting work. And…I don’t have a ‘wife at home’…I do the shopping, the cooking, the cleaning, the DIY and all the finances.   #9

Nothing to show
I don’t have anything tangible to show.  And I think this is one of the biggest problems with our institutions, is that none of the process is recognised, everything is about output. It all becomes just about success, and this year I have not a lot to show for it, even though it was probably one of my busiest years ever, because I have done so much support for students, and PhD students, and masters students, and prepping for next year, developing new modules this year, supporting colleagues with all their stuff online, because it seems to be that now I am the go-to person for online questions, particularly research in this area. So yeah, I need to find a balance. I want a day in my life to change from just being all these big piles of admin and support, to being something more about my research, because I take pleasure in that as well.  #6

Going the extra mile(s)
We have a van and travelled around the Highlands and Outer Hebrides for a month in August/September 2020. I worked while we were away, there was still so much to do, adapting content for online delivery for the 2020/2021 academic year, marking late student work, supporting students and so on.  It was a bumper recruitment year for my PG module and managing 250 students remotely was a huge job, it was almost all asynchronous which just meant huge amounts of reading and writing feedback. From October – February I worked 10-12 hour days and weekend working became common. Recording lectures worked better for me than giving them in person and the smaller zoom seminars were better in many respects than a large face to face group (although tiring and a bit stressful to run). I felt a responsibility towards these students that I wouldn’t usually feel, I was a lot more responsive by email (the 8am-6pm policy went out the window), offered far more assessment support than usual including 1-1 tutorials, and added in extra opportunities for feedback that weren’t required of me.  The module feedback was really positive and I think these extras were appreciated by the students.   #19

Taking the emotional burden for the institution
Looking back at my calendar for the year, what is striking is what is not in there – all the ‘extra’ meetings.  Being on Teams meant instant accessibility and a sense of needing to respond to all the calls for help.   The challenges of the pandemic meant that people wanted ‘on demand’ support and answers – and (in a way unheard of in universities) colleagues wanted to be told what to do. The pressure … was immense.   There were also a lot of pastoral meetings and conversations – hidden work that doesn’t appear on any calendar or workload plan … I consciously tried throughout our institutional response to put staff wellbeing at the core of our approach and to live that out authentically.  There are times in the past 18 months where it felt that was being widely embraced – notably over the spring and early summer of 2020.   Tea and chat sessions, crafty clubs and so on were set up, people took time to call each other. Much of my day was spent on those hidden calls and support, on sending out small boxes of treats and cards to staff to recognise efforts and show a bit of humanity amidst the Teams calls.  But, from the current vantage point, I also reflect on how much of my caring and emotional energy was focused on work – to the detriment of my own family and friends.  There’s two different levels to that hidden work.  I guess there’s the kind of ‘real work’, if you like, how much effort was put in, and you say, “Oh I was working eighteen, twenty hour days continually.” That’s very quickly forgotten in terms of the institution – it’s “Okay, so you’re only as good as the last thing you did … “You’ve worked at that pace, let’s carry on doing that.” But then there was all the emotional stuff, the kind of shouldering that care for the people that you’re working with closely – you’re constantly on Teams, constantly kind of taking the unexpected phone calls and so on and really taking that emotional burden for the institution which was never really recognised.  #21