Leaning In: The Labour of Listening


The Managed Heart, by Arlie Hochschild.

On emotional labour in Canadian higher ed.


It was a busy week last week: I covered a lecture for a prof who was out of town; I provided written feedback on the first “stage” of a staged essay-writing assignment; I met with students about those assignments; and two of my colleagues at Mac’s unofficial Writing Centre have been off work, meaning that my appointments have been booked solid, with me cramming bits of food into my mouth as I one-hand type the required notes on each session in the two minutes before the next student arrives.

To be honest, it was a great week. Yes, there was a lot of me talking, but there was also a lot of listening, a near-continuous leaning in to hear and decipher the thoughts of learners as they rummaged about in new ideas and course concepts. I think teachers will know what I’m talking about when I say that I love “rummaging.” It is a great thing when a student invites you in to be a part of the rummaging process.

Ah, what cause for merry-making! For heart warming! For skipping through the university quandrangle, the soul all but brimful with the goodness of listening & learning!

Except that while the teacher and higher-ed blogger in me may feel like skipping along in pedagogical wonder, the wage-earner in me can’t stop rubbing her eyes with her tired, tired little fists.

Emotional Labour in Canadian Higher Education

As universities across North America ramp up enrollment while reducing the number of tenured faculty kept on staff, the emotional labour of teaching has been downloaded largely onto the lowest-paid instructional staff and/or part-time instructional staff. In 2010, Stats Canada reported that “In the last 40 years, full-time teaching staff [at Canadian Universities] has increased by 82.7%. In comparison, during the same time period (1970/1971 to 2009/2010) the number of students enrolled in Canadian universities has increased 158.3%. Student enrollment is growing at twice the rate of faculty hires. While profs may may theoretically deliver course content to students regardless of the hefty imbalance of prof-to-student ratios in higher ed, they cannot effectively deliver the emotional labour of face-to-face encounters and student-instructor consultation under these conditions. Enter TAs, and other teaching staff that generally fly under the radar at Canadian universities.

Stats Canada does not keep track of the number of part-time instructional staff (i.e., sessional instructors and Teaching Assistants, including both graduate-student TAs and undergrad TAs) working at colleges and universities in Canada. And they certainly do no keep track of the number of volunteer workers teaching at higher ed institutions–what we might call the non-staff instructional staff that are actually doing the work of making sure that students can do things like write, take effective lecture notes, author lab reports, manage their time, and generally feel less alienated.

McMaster is looking to not-hire 150 of these non-staff staff members for the 2013-2014 academic year under the banner of the Student Success Leader program. Student Success Leaders at Mac do a lot of great work, from student wellness outreach to academic skills support. But most of these positions are unpaid. And while some of the positions are not directly related to a student’s academic life, a lot of them are. In other words, these non-staff staff members are not just “leaders,” but teachers; moreover, they perform the emotionally tasking labour of working with students one-on-one.

This sector of invisible teachers at McMaster is further supplemented within different faculties, departments, and disciplines. Just this week I came across a poster advertising the services of grad students in the Department of Anthropology who were volunteering their time to tutor undergraduate students in writing. And last semester I volunteered my time to lead a workshop for first-time TAs for my department; I also led two other TA-training workshops for the Centre for Leadership and Learning, which was again, unpaid.

I don’t mean to single out McMaster here–institutions across Canada turn to volunteer labour to support their students. Promoting volunteerism to promote campus culture is likely an old and well-established tradition. But how can universities and colleges claim to support student health and wellness–not to mention education–when the heavy emotional labour of actually working with students is shunted to the lowest ranks in the teaching profession?

Flip This

There’s a lot wrong with this picture. What’s been getting me lately, though, is the cost of the emotional labour required of a lot of my teaching work, which involves interactions with many different people–many of whom I meet only once or twice–and the expectation that I deliver a service tailored to each, within specific and often narrow time constraints. And what really gets me?– that resisting a system that downloads this important work onto its least secure workers (and unpaid workers) means abandoning students, or, at the very least, selling them short.

Here’s a crazy wild crazy idea of crazedness: let’s flip the classroom. Nooooo, I am not referring to all the hype around “flipped classrooms,” where the students become the teachers as they lead their own inquiries, and the instructors become mentors or facilitators or co-learners or whatever. No! I’m talking about redistributing the emotional labour of teaching! Spread it around! Get your hands dirty! You’ve never cried with a student?! Now’s the time to try! Never learned how to teach sentence structure without being condescending? Get on that sh*t! Don’t know how to teach something without telling people what not to do and utterly demoralizing them in the process? Haven’t talked about a complicated idea with a student lately who is resistant/confused/tired/angry/extremely excited/giddy with happiness/distracted/agog with wonder? Go. Go do it.


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