Most complaints about unpaid academic labor ignore context

No one likes to be exploited and this perhaps why over the past few years lots of social media posts have taken issue with “unpaid labor” that most academics are asked to do.

These messages outline the typical kinds of things graduate students, instructors and professors are requested to do (mostly submit papers to journals, review papers in peer review venues, review candidates for jobs and promotion, etc.) and sometimes how others (i.e. universities, academic organizations, and publishing companies) profit from it.

Conterminously a sub thread of these posts have focused on the disproportionate free service that people of color and women are asked to do (e.g., organizing, leading, and serving on diversity committees, participating on university and community panels dealing with this issue, etc.) above and beyond their white counterparts.

Unquestionably, the practice of free labor has been normalized in academic settings. And in the case of peer review, scholarly publishers have responded with gimmicks like Publons, that attempts to track the number of reviews you do. And big publishing companies have earned considerable profits from free academic labor and a better system needs to be put in place for remunerating scholars for their work.

I get it. If you are content at your rank, with your employer, and where you live then perhaps it’s fine to make these kinds of complaints, take this stance, and quietly quit. However if you want to secure a job in academia, and in some cases maintain your job, move to a better academic institution, earn tenure, secure a research grant, dream of earning a prestigious academic award (e.g., Guggenheim), and move up the ranks you are going to have to do a lot of free unpaid labor.

Also, for all sorts of vanity and legacy issues, perhaps you want to demonstrate to others that you are an expert. That you still have your chops. If that is the case then you are going to have do free academic labor.

Why? This unpaid academic work typically involves demonstrating to people on search, grant, and award review committees that you are research active, that you are involved in your learned society, and maybe even do some departmental, college, university and community service.

In this case, I don’t know how else you are going to have your cake and eat it too.

But it’s also disingenuous when colleagues decry the amount and type of unpaid academic labor, never review for scholarly journals when asked, but still submit their papers to a peer review journal. (I suspect that many of these individuals are also the people who complain when it takes so long for their papers to be reviewed).

Similarly, in every academic setting there are one or more free riders, people who do not do departmental, college or university, learned society service. It’s not fair that a disproportionate burden is placed on a small number of faculty.

Also, it’s important to determine how much unpaid academic labor and what specific activities is normative in your school, unit, and discipline and not drift into situations where you are overworked with agreeing to engage in unpaid free labor. For example, if the norm is reviewing twelve scholarly papers a year, and two external candidates for tenure or promotion a year, then you are in your right to say enough is enough when someone asks you to do more.

Another thing to keep in mind. Let’s say you are content with your rank, university, location etc. and say to hell with doing any more unpaid academic labor. This means that you are leaving the gate keeping/research agenda setting function of research to junior colleagues (typically untenured assistant professors and associate professors). Again, you may be okay with this state of affairs, but I think it is blatantly wrong.

Finally, if getting paid for your academic research skills and knowledge is what you want then you should try your hand at commercial publishing or writing textbooks. You will soon learn how challenging this is and what small remittances that you will earn.

Photo Credit: Charlie Chaplin from the movie MODERN TIMES

All work and no play makes Jack and Jill dull scholars

In addition to teaching and service duties, most professors are required to engage in scholarship. Although this can take various forms, scholarship is usually resource intensive, cerebral, requires lots of concentration, is often done in a solitary setting, and more challenging then most outsiders to academia realize.

This work has a number of downsides. Some the drawbacks include the proclivity to develop a kind of tunnel vision, and the possibility of evolving into a one trick pony, and becoming an intolerable bore; the person people quickly avoid at academic and nonacademic social functions.

That’s why it’s important for scholars to do non scholarly things besides commuting, grocery shopping, cooking meals, cleaning up, taking care of dependents, and maybe even a modicum of physical exercise.

At a basic level scholars need some sort of distraction. This can be as simple as going for periodic or regular walks, or even taking regular vacations, and here I am not talking about going to an academic conference and calling it a vacation. Sometimes this non research activity can take the form of activism, but I’m talking about something qualitatively different here.

At a deeper level scholars need to take up something beyond researching and writing that consumes their energies and interests, that they find challenging, but also enjoy and on a regular basis.

For example, scholars might consider engaging in (and perfecting) a creative activity like painting, photography, or cooking. Some of my colleagues, for instance, love learning to play a musical instrument and then joining a band, that performs on weekends and holidays, at social occasions or even local bars.

Alternatively scholars can pour themselves into a physical pursuit like distance running, hiking, mountain climbing or horseback riding.

In short, the hobby forces scholars to get away from their labs, offices and computers, use another part of their brain, and possibly interact not just with their significant other, children if that is the case, friends and acquaintances, but people other than colleagues, students, and university administrators.

If scholars are adept in these social venues then they have more opportunities to hone their social skills because they will be exposed to different kinds of audiences that they may rarely interact with.

The good thing about devoting oneself to one or more hobbies is that it could also provide scholars with ideas that they can bring to their research and teaching. And overall that’s a good thing.

Photo Credit: Plashing Vole
Potter’s Wheel DSC_0494

Crystal balls and midterm elections

In just under a month, on the first Tuesday in November, the United States will have a midterm election.

This process enables registered voters to chose members of Congress, Senators, Governors, State Legislators, County Executives and Mayors whose terms are up.

Although not as important as the election for president, which is held every four years, midterms can’t be ignored.

In many respects the 2022 midterm is the most important election that the United States has faced since the 2020 election and the January 6th insurrection.

Over the past two years we have seen a disgraced former president (bogged down with numerous legal challenges), and several elected Republicans and MAGA supporters make false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. We have learned about attempts by MAGA supporters at the state and local level working behind the scenes to intimidate election workers and gain control of the election apparatus to enable their preferred candidates to win when off-year, midterm and presidential elections are held. We have also witnessed important civil liberties legislation (in connection with women’s reproductive rights and Americans voting rights) whittled away by the supreme court.

Unquestionably the outcome of the 2022 midterms might be an indicator of what might happen in 2024 when there will be a presidential race. Although both Joe Biden and Donald Trump have indicated that they will be running, numerous things, including the outcome of this upcoming midterm election, can happen between now and then which may prevent the pitting of Biden and Trump against each other.

In many respects the midterm election will be an indicator of public attitudes towards the achievements (or lack thereof) of Biden administration and the Democratic Party over the past two years, the health of the economy, the publics’ displeasure or insecurity surrounding the January 6th 2020 insurrection, and numerous other political developments.

Keep in mind that less Americans vote in midterm elections than they do in presidential elections. Moreover voting is only one of several way people can participate politically.

But let’s talk about possible outcomes at least at the federal level. If the Democrats manage to retain their slim majority in the senate and congress then in principle they will be able to hold on to the gains that they have achieved over the past two years and may even be able to advance other kinds of modest legislation.

On the other hand, if the Democrats lose enough seats in the senate and house, then this will set into a motion a situation where Biden’s progressive agenda will be stalled and little if no new pro Democratic laws will be passed at the federal level for the next two years. Why? The Republicans will now chair important committees, and try to block most if not all efforts by the Democrats for progressive change. For example, committees, like the one currently investigating the causes and participants in the January 6th 2020 insurrection will most likely be disbanded. Already respected political watchers like Politico are predicting that the congress will go to the republications

All hope, however, is not lost.

On the plus side there are a handful of key elections right now for Senate seats (including Wisconsin where Republican Ron Johnson is running, and Florida where Marco Rubio is running), that pit vocal Trump loyalists against Democrats. And if these senators lose, it means that some of the wind will be knocked out of the MAGA sails.

But there may be some surprises. Notwithstanding the Supreme court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade and fears of legislation supporting a national ban on abortion that could be introduced in either house, both Biden and the Democrats have passed some very critical legislation (e.g., student loan forgiveness, and the pardoning of low level marijuana offenders). This may motivate the Democrat’s base to not only vote, but to assist with the elections of other Democrats in battleground races.

Regardless of the outcome of the midterm election, a number of key political events will probably occur shortly after that may have a more significant effect on the future of the United States. This includes some type of closure on the trial of Richard Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers charged with seditious conspiracy., Also it’s quite likely that a number of indictments leveled not only against Trump, but other facilitators of the January 6th committee, may be issued, not to mention indictments against Trump in his handling of classified documents.

This may lead to things getting real ugly real quickly as Trump and MAGA supporters could feel like their last hopes for controlling the political agenda have been lost. This may lead to violent street protests and actions. On a positive note the political situation will likely not descend into utter chaos as the American public has a low tolerance of this sort of thing and will call upon both state and local law enforcement, fearing a repeat of the January 6th violence will respond with force and try to quell this kind of political activity.

photo credit: W Carter
“A staged mock setup of a person divining answers from a crystal ball in Lysekil, Sweden.”