Mental labor of the always connected

Amanda Marcotte has an excellent piece out on the mental labor that falls more heavily upon women in the household. While chores may be more evenly split, women are still the ones exerting the effort to split the work, to nag when it doesn’t get done, and finally, likely to do it if really doesn’t get done.

Though perhaps unrelated to gender, the piece prompted me to think about how my workload has changed over the course of my short teaching career. In particular, I find myself spending a lot more time with my students than I did when I first started, and more time fretting about them getting their work done. This is my invisible work, keeping track of student assignments, making sure they’re on track to finish their research papers, worrying about their sick grandmothers, and more. It reminds me of my college roommate, who since we’ve aged and mellowed a bit, has reminded me several times how stressed out I made her through my procrastination while students at Duke. As the years have gone by, students seem to want more of my email time, and at all hours of the day, even as the face time has not changed much. Like many professors, I try to limit my time on email. There are many activities and conversations that can be more efficiently performed in person. For instance, if you email me asking how to calculate Adjusted R squared and ask why it’s different from R squared, I’m going to ask you to come talk to me instead of typing out those equations. I promise you’ll learn it better and it will take both of us less time.

More and more of these emails seem to come in the middle of the night, before exams, before homework assignments are due, etc. I tend not to answer those late night emails and I don’t accept them as excuses for not doing work. I have a policy about late work; It’s in the syllabus. I’m not going to remind you of it a million times either. It’s your job to keep track of your work.

I do this partly for my own sanity (avoiding mental labor at least a few hours of the day), but also because I believe that as an educator, I should be preparing my students for the real world. They need to learn to produce timely work—even if it’s not perfect—to manage their time, to realize that help is not available at all hours. That’s the real world, right?

More and more of what I hear though, is that it’s not. One serious problem that professors have is that they don’t live in the real world they’re trying to prepare students for. The only jobs I’ve worked outside of academia since 2006 have been consulting, hardly indicative of day-to-day office jobs that are commonplace for recent grads (when they’re getting jobs, that is). While some friends assure me I don’t want to be there among the unwashed masses, it’s a real liability for professors, especially if a whole new economy has popped up around being constantly available and connected and cheap, as some are claiming.

In response, some universities are advertising for positions to be just that for students: constantly available, connected, and (likely) cheap. This Western Governors University position wants a PhD economist to be available essentially 24/7 to tutor students who are struggling. I admire them being honest about the hours and expectations, but is that really the most efficient use of a PhD’s time? Answering the same email over and over again at 3am about opportunity costs? And they have similar positions open in almost every field. Is it really in students’ best interests to reinforce that work should be round-the-clock? That someone will be there to answer questions all the time?

Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo!, was recently lambasted by any number of individuals and groups for telling telecommuting employees that their flexible work schedule days are over and that employees can’t work from home anymore. While I disagree with the fundamentals of the decision for reasons that have to do with supporting working parents and caregivers, I’m sure she has internal reasons for her actions and the point about separation is important. It’s ridiculous how many of us check our email at the bar, respond to a client in the middle of dinner with another client, interrupt play time to read another message from our bosses. The WGU positions mentioned above actually erase all of those boundaries between work and home, keeping us constantly connected, constantly answering emails. There is no office, no in-real-life contact with students. It’s not teaching, but “mentoring,” and it reinforces the idea that someone should be working constantly. If you’re a student, it’s you and your professors. If you’re in the workforce, it’s you and your boss. If you’re the boss, it’s you and your employees.

College is kind of a special time. If you’re not up all night writing a paper, you’re up all night debating philosophy, or driving to the nearest Krispy Kreme, or or doing all manner of legal, illegal, silly, and serious things. There’s a reason that we don’t continue that madness (or at least some of us don’t) into our 20s and 30s, and especially not into our work.

And if work is really now 24/7, how the heck do we get it to not be? Certainly not by hiring people specifically for that purpose.

Thanks to @katinalynn for comments on a first draft of this post.


2 thoughts on “Mental labor of the always connected

  1. Perhaps the most demotivating thing is to spend your time away from work helping a student go through the last minute motions of his/her work. Somebody who really wants to learn is different from a person who just wants to pass the exam / get a good grade on the homework.

  2. The correct term for the phenomenon you are referring to is “emotional labor.” There is a difference between “emotion” work and mental work. There is a huge academic literature in sociology and communication studies about the gendered nature of emotional labor, and even specifically on the emotion work required of female professors. Check it out!

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