Do we owe each other our emotional labor?

By Aliya Hamid Rao

In academia our intellectual pursuits are also inherently emotional. It is thus unsurprising that in a recent blog post (here) another graduate student makes a case for acknowledging that academic work is infused with emotional labor, and for creating a space for “crying in academia.” She urges us to move away from scripts of professionalism so that we can stop pretending that emotional labor is not intrinsic to almost all that we do as aspiring academics.

I find this framing is problematic. One function of “professionalism” in academia is to create emotionally neutral spaces. Being emotionally neutral is a myth, of course. These artificial spaces require emotional labor in manipulating our own emotional displays to minimize the expression of our emotions. But they also bring the freedom of not being compelled to perform emotional labor for someone else. The author uses examples of her own crying in her department and how it was at times “handled” well by administrative staff, while at other times it caused discomfort. She condemns the idea of having to reign in her emotions so that “the person you’re crying in front of doesn’t have to figure out how to make space for your feelings.” Yet, the demand to figure “out how to make space for your feelings” is intrinsically a demand for emotional labor from others.

If emotional labor is demanded of administrative staff at universities (and it bears mentioning that in my department 75% of the administrative staff is female), that is troubling. Will those staff members who do not perform this labor risk falling out of favor with faculty and graduate students and jeopardize their jobs? I fear that in eradicating the emotionally neutral spaces in academia which professionalism is meant to create, we run the risk of making other-focused emotional labor yet another thing that is expressly expected of, and demanded from, us as graduate students and, later, professionals in the academy.

Emotional labor and outside support

The alternative to not creating the room to cry in academia is that all too often emotional and mental health issues in academia are framed as individual problems. This is true and troubling, notably in the invisibility of depression in academia. But I am not convinced that the solution lies in abandoning “professionalism.”

We should make demands, but of the university system rather than of each other. We should ask for ready and reasonable access to mental health facilities (particularly therapists) on and off campus as a start. We should ask for help in creating spaces for mutual emotional support amongst graduate students within the university. We can do this in several ways: (a) establish weekly small group meetings bringing together graduate students from across the disciplines convened by a licensed therapist on campus; (b) encourage peer-led social groups where peers get together for the express purpose of venting to each other in a comfortable and safe environment; (c) encourage departmental cultures where peers have the facilities to engage with each other in non-academic ways. For example, small funds for monthly graduate student get-togethers; or participating in departmental activities such as annual skit nights where students have the leeway to parody faculty in jest (as some departments already have).

Our work is often lonely. Creating spaces for joy within the university system will be immeasurably helpful in enabling academic cultures that recognize the intellectual and emotional toll of our work, and make space for respite from it.

Should there be room for “crying in academia?” Absolutely. But, as we try to liberate ourselves from performing emotional labor in academia, let’s make sure that we don’t end up subjecting others to it.

Aliya Hamid Rao is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.

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