Everything Was Great Until I Read the Comments: Emotional Labor in Higher Ed.

Julie Shayne’s recent post for Inside Higher Ed, “Recognizing Emotional Labor in Academe,” calls for institutions and fellow faculty to recognize professors who do emotional labor. She describes this as the work of supporting students who experience alienation, marginalization and trauma, issues that can prevent them from working to their full potential.

Shayne argues that institutions must provide support for these students and acknowledge the burden placed on professors who do the important but draining work of supporting them. She includes a partial list of what emotional labor looks like in higher education. For one item, she writes, “We challenge colleagues who let classroom microaggressions go unchallenged. Doing that requires workshops, trainings and shared resources that we organize.” This serves as a powerful reminder that those who do emotional labor are often at odds with those who see little value in it.

Since I have also written about emotional work at the university level, I was deeply interested in Shayne’s coherent, well-developed essay. Rhetorically, she makes excellent points and delves into the connection between emotional support and academic success. As I wrote earlier this year, “Without a personal connection, the content of my courses means little. It is that blurred space, where the academic and personal mix, that real learning takes place.”

While I should have stopped with Shayne’s well-reasoned final paragraph, I instead did something I try not to do: I read the comments. Yes, I should know better. But one response in particular garnered my attention. A reader called “ST” states,

Seems to me that measuring “emotional labor” is akin to measuring how many angels can dance on a pinhead. Also, calling out faculty who engage in “microaggressions,” pressuring faculty into attending training sessions, passing judgment on the proper amount of empathy people should possess, and demanding diversity centers doesn’t sound like emotional labor. Sounds more like emotional bullying.

My first reaction was, “ST doth protest too much, methinks” (my apologies, Shakespeare). I decided to see if this comment was consistent with others ST made.

ST also responded to another essay on Title IX, writing,

I’m a professor, not a counselor, psychologist, psychiatrist, clergyman, and so forth. An afternoon in-service isn’t going to change that. Wouldn’t the better route be to make sure that professors have the phone numbers of the professionals on campus trained to deal with sexual assault victims? That way I can just refer them to those folks.

I’m sure those “folks,” possibly highly trained like ST him/herself, would do a better job of helping sexual assault victims. But an attitude like the one expressed here helps no one, and will only serve to further alienate troubled students. Ultimately, comments like ST’s prove Shayne’s argument – those of us who take the time to listen to, empathize with, and ultimately become allies for students struggling with emotional and psychological trauma are picking up the slack in doing necessary and vital work for institutions. The university of the past, where we merely “teach” students, is antiquated. To work with today’s college students and ultimately keep them (and their tuition dollars to pay our salaries), we need to evolve. To do anything less makes us the bully.