Feeling and the Future of Work: Multiple narratives of academic labor in crisis and new configurations | Hunter Akridge

  1. Introduction

The COVID-19 pandemic elucidated and amplified pre-existing inequalities and inequities. Essential workers went out during lockdowns while others had the privilege of working remotely. But even among those who could and did work remotely during the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 there were inequitable burdens. These burdens were often gendered. Even in households with two full-time professionals, women do more domestic and care work (Addati et al. 2020). Hundreds of thousands of women in the US left the labor force to take over child care responsibilities by fall of 2021 (Edwards 2020; Petts et al. 2021). Yet for many more, this is functionally not an option. 

In the case of parents who are tenure track faculty, many were under enormous pressure to continue producing high-quality research while caring for children in the home. Current literature documents many of the specific hardships for female academics, particularly mothers during the COVID-19 crisis (Boncori 2020; Deryugina et al. 2020; Minello 2020, 2021). The narrative of the working academic mother has also been taken up by the media, with the Chronicles of Higher Ed, Brookings Institute, and New York Times, just to name a few. Sociologist Katie Averett discusses interviews she did with academics during the late spring of 2020 around these specific issues. She describes parents experiencing “levels of fear, anxiety, sadness, and stress that they have never felt before” (Averett 2021). Averett goes on to argue that these emotions are the substance of engaged social science pandemic research (2021). This study aims to take up a public anthropological approach to pandemic research, like Averett, to understand, listen to, and be in solidarity with working parents in academia. That being said, the context for pandemic research has changed since the Spring of 2020. This study furthers Averett’s research and integrates how academics created a new sense of normalcy, have been able to benefit from the silver linings of remote work, and are actively re-imagining their post-pandemic futures. 

Remote work produced opportunities for more flexibility, but also new challenges of bringing different domains of life under the same roof—but not for the reasons we might expect. Under the unusual circumstances of a global pandemic, home becomes structurally defined as not just the site of reproductive labor, but also as a formal workplace. For many academics, the quiet of an office is a refuge, rather than the home, even a refuge from the home and the labors it implies (Hochschild 2012). This flips the traditional script of work encroaching on home life, which is gotten at with the term “work-life balance”. The framing of work-life balance can be used to reassert agency over our time, but often functions as a normative device to defend family values and traditional gender roles. The rise of discourse about work-life balance was contemporaneous with more women entering the labor market. Seeking to curtail work can be a way to re-assist the home. When we see the home as a site of work too, we can begin to push back against this agenda. Sociologist Ariele Hochschild described the ‘second shift’ working parents, most often mothers, perform in conducting household labor after coming home (2001). She argues this is because of a “gendered economy of gratitude”, where women are simply expected and assumed to work the second shift of child care, cleaning, grocery shopping, etc. This at least partially explains why many women choose to work and work long hours, as a way to assert boundaries against the demands of the home. By observing the way work saturates so many aspects of life, even those defined in opposition to work, we can also begin to problematize the notion of work and life belonging to entirely distinct spheres. Feminist theorists have developed the conceptual tools to critique this fiction. 

Work and life as belonging to two entirely separate spheres has always been a false start, but this has become even more apparent in recent decades. Social theorist Kathi Weeks critiques this idea by describing how work and life “are not just interdependent but interpenetrated” (2011, 150). Echoing many in the tradition of feminist political economy (Federici 2020; Freeman 2000, 2014; Hardt and Negri 2005) Weeks argues that reproductive labor is becoming productive and productive labor is becoming reproductive (2011, 141). The day-to-day work of child care, eldercare, housework, and all otherwise domestic work is increasingly incorporated into the market and recognized as work (Parreñas et al. 2016). At the same time, there is an emerging literature on how productive (waged and professional) work is generative of “social landscapes, communicative contexts, and cultural forms” (Weeks 2011, 141). There has also been more recognition of the function of professional work to create a shared culture, sense of belonging, and identification with work. One of the signs of this recognition is the increased importance of skills like emotional intelligence, listening, and care, not just in affective or emotional labor (“service with a smile”) but in a broader range of professions (Gregg 2018, 104; Freeman 2020, 8). Work can be a site of genuine connection and personal meaning, even as it exhausts. With digital technologies work has also become more intimate (Gregg 2011). Even before the pandemic work email followed us into the bathroom or the kitchen table. The way in which we coordinate ever more complex configurations of professional, family, and personal tasks is made possible by work at the margins. This work at the margins is, in fact, everywhere. It is barely recognized as work, often invisible.

Invisible physical, mental, and emotional work is essential work; it is at the core of how we coordinate life and maintain relationships. This work is also gendered. A recent ethnographic study by organization scholars Beckman and Mazmanian found that in practice “women still do more of the invisible work in the household” (2020, 238) while also often facing feelings of inadequacy for not living up to cultural ideals of professional achievement and bodily health. These cultural ideals are what they call ‘myths of perfection’ that keep working parents striving. Broadly, Beckman and Mazmanian demonstrate how the gendered dynamics of family and work (Hochschild 2001, 2004, 2012, 2012; Wajcman 2015) are still deeply relevant. In every family they studied, there was a network of support providing the work of coordinating childcare, cleaning, expressing gratitude, and so much more that is often unspoken. They name this “doing of invisible work in order to support the efforts of individuals striving for myths of perfection” as scaffolding (2020, 239). In this paper mobilize this framework for thinking about invisible work in the context of pandemic-induced remote work. I interrogate the implications of bringing home and work together not in the workplace but in the home. I also examine the implications of a gendered economy of gratitude, the reconfiguration of scaffolding, and the significance of flexibility for Emory academics. 

  1. Methods

I have interviewed 15 faculty members in the Emory College of Arts and Sciences from across academic departments, age, gender, and racial demographics, career stages, and household configuration in the spring of 2021. My interviews are forty-five minutes to an hour-long. I use an interview guide but follow the most salient lines of inquiry that come up during the course of a given interview, therefore semi-structured. Some of the ways I bring out the ethnographic quality of the interviews is by encouraging the faculty member I am speaking with to give me a tour of their workspace. This has been generative. Jill, for example, showed a bag she kept next to her laptop, with what she referred to as “a set of props”: makeup, a scarf, a snack—essentials for a day spent on Zoom. Jill went on to tell me, “it feels like you’re on or you’re performing all the time”. Another example of an observational interview experience is my interview with Ella. Shortly after expressing her ambivalence that “any work moment can become a personal moment and any personal moment a work moment” a parade of two small children and a golden retriever burst through the door immediately behind her. Because of these overtly personal dynamics and other concerns, I refer to all faculty by pseudonyms. I also have changed minor details to protect their anonymity. I also have collected photographs of faculty home workspaces. These photographs have helped me contextualize my interviews and give a more complete ‘picture’ of their daily lives. I have found that the physical organization of space reflects their autonomy in organizing their time. And as a student in the college, I have some observational insights from over a year of remote classes I reflect on in the conclusion. 

  1. Discussion 

I organize this section by 1) providing an overview of the faculty members I interviewed by household configuration and their differentiated experiences of remote work, by 2) discussing overarching themes in remote teaching and the shifting role of emotion work in academic labor, and by 3) outlining shared silver linings for faculty during the pandemic. These sections build to discuss some of the changes the faculty I spoke with want to make durable for a post-pandemic future. 

  1. Differentiated household configurations and career stages 

I found that household configuration, what the home in ‘working from home’ actually means, made a significant difference in the experiences of faculty over this past year. I begin the discussion with faculty who are both early career and have no children. Olivia is the only faculty member who falls into this category. She is somewhat unique in being able to experience the benefits of remote work and dealing with its challenges. Olivia is now able to live in New York with her partner and be close to family and important communities she is a part of. She says this has been “a big deal for my happiness”. Remote work has also enabled her to engage in life and family projects more flexibly. For example, Olivia and her partner “have been actively working to get pregnant”. They have been able to have their friend, who is their sperm donor, come over whenever. Oliva is almost always at home. She readily acknowledges her circumstances would be different if she had kids at home—“then it might not be worth it”. But for Olivia, it is worth it; “it balances out”. The idea of balance is much more elusive for the next grouping of faculty.  

Faculty who have young children and are early career have been the center of academic writing and media discourse on the impact of remote work and the pandemic on faculty. I confirm and question some of the dominant narratives about the experiences of this group. Lilly was the closest to the figure of ‘the early career struggling mother’. It truly has been difficult for her, her entire scaffolding collapsed. When daycare ended and she had to stop going into her lab, it seemed like Lilly’s whole world collapsed; “that was a dark time”. Her baby would wake her up at 4:30am. During the day she would try to administer her lab, teach classes, and try to keep up with research deadlines—all while working across the table from her husband in a tiny apartment. After dinner and finally getting her baby to sleep, she would stay up until midnight writing grant proposals. This was her life for months. Now with daycare open for reduced hours. Lilly is able to have more uninterrupted time during her day to get work done and gets more than four hours of sleep each night. Yet, it still feels like she’s just getting by. Lilly is ‘terrified’ thinking about what some of her colleagues have been able to accomplish during the time she has been treading water. She described the mentality in the first six months as, “let’s not make negative progress”. Ella has the most similar situation to Lilly but is different in many ways. She has two young children, one who is a toddler and one who just started kindergarten in the fall. Ella “never gets a break from work or being a mom; it’s constantly one or the other”. Her husband works in person and so to help with the child care, Ella lives with her parents during the week in the Atlanta suburbs and commutes to her home closer to campus on the weekends. There’s no ‘day care’ for her kids to go to, except for the help her parents provide. Ella’s mom recently broke her hip. So, there’s less of that and more of her work during the day being interrupted. Like Lilly she is doing the majority of the housework, but unlike Lilly—it is for two houses. But for Ella, that’s not the main source of her exhaustion. In her words, it is “all emotional”. She described her mentality over this past year as “survival mode”, just getting by. Ella had particularly evocative ways to describe her situation: “death by a thousand cuts”, “it feels like a slow trauma”, and “there’s no rest for the weary”.

For both Lilly and Ella, the burden of child care is one they experienced in gendered terms. Ella put it bluntly, “even if you have a progressive spouse, being a mom is particularly stressful”. Both described being the primary one to absorb the impact of child care and housework scaffolding falling apart, while still being expected to be emotionally available. Ella expressed frustration that the minimum requirement for her, in terms of child care, is above and beyond what is expected of her male colleagues. Implicitly, it is the male faculty member who can devote themselves to work, who have uninterrupted time at home. For Ella, keeping her obligation as a mother and as a professional separate at any given point is “very hard”. As we will see though, there are other meaningful dimensions of obligation and care that have made this year challenging across the board. 

Both Lilly and Ella described a paradox of formality and informality. Work is more formal because if it is to get done at all—it must be scheduled. Impromptu connections and informal meetings now come with a Zoom invite. What might have not even seemed like work before, for example, checking in with students and chatting with a colleague now takes the form of work. The same is true of personal activities such as exercise and connecting with a close friend. Work is more informal because our personal lives spill into our physical spaces and on our Zoom calls. This is particularly true for faculty with young children. From Ella’s interruption during our interview to Lilly’s description of recently having her cat start eating the plant behind her in the middle of an important call, it has become difficult for some faculty to segment off what makes up their home world from their work. This is also a paradox of flexibility that Ella describes as potentially a part of any moment. For example, when taking her son to the dentist she could listen in on a faculty meeting or get him set up with online school on the car ride over. She has to decide how much work and how much non-work she wants to be present at any given moment. Which for Ella is exhausting. This forced flexibility is different from before the pandemic when most of these choices were made for her. The other two parents with young children in this study also have struggled with not having uninterrupted time for work and clear boundaries between their work and home lives.

Emma and Steve each have children in elementary school who are slightly older than Lilly or Ella’s kids. Emma has a unique situation, different from any of the faculty I spoke with. Her wife has cancer and was diagnosed a few weeks before the transition to remote work in March of 2020. She readily admits that it is difficult to disentangle her experience of COVID-19 from cancer, but I know she has some important insights. Between taking her wife to chemo and being with her daughter through his remote schooling, Emma is never truly ‘alone’. She expressed immense frustration at this point. The omnipresence of the ‘informality’ of her life in the background forced her to develop a new routine and organization of physical space. She transformed the downstairs playroom into an office and takes her daughter to her in-laws the one day a week he does not have class. Emma has to ‘maximize’ this time to do the work that requires ‘deep thinking’ and ‘uninterruption’. Yet, even setting aside this time, establishing boundaries for herself felt difficult; she felt guilty. Both Lilly and Ella described taking time for themselves in similar language, as selfish, as asking too much, and as feeling really guilty. For these women, the expectations of motherhood and their professional roles frequently run up against their own well-being. 

There is another dynamic at play for Emma. She has an extremely difficult time scheduling with the unpredictability of both her kid and chemo. And because of the day-to-day mental, coordinating, and emotional work of being a mother and contending with external stressors, Emma describes not having the same ability to focus and a more strained memory. This dynamic also applied to Ella and Lilly. Ella told me her “mind is just not as sharp” and that she almost missed her own meetings the other day. This is part of the experience many parents described as just focusing on what’s right in front of them, often using the framing of “survival mode”. Steve also found the fall semester “extraordinarily stressful”.  He is a father with two children in a remote school. With the exhausting qualities of parenting and remote work, he found himself and his research productivity slipping. 

This is not the whole story, the experiences of faculty with young children also include many nuances, substantive joys, and appreciation of the flexibility and accessibility of remote work. All the parents I spoke with expressed gratitude for being able to be more involved with their children’s everyday lives. As Lilly told me, “the silver lining of the pandemic has been more time with my kid. I got to see him walk. I wouldn’t have gotten to see that; it would happen to daycare. He gets more time with his parents and that’s a great thing”. And Emma:

I’ve watched my daughter grow up in a way that I would never have watched him grow up, if we were not at home. I’m watching him learn how to read; that would have happened at school. He would have gotten it, you know, eventually. I wouldn’t have been there with him every step of the way. Or even learning how to skateboard or ride his bike. In many ways, my time feels more like my own.

These same faculty members who detailed the labor of child care, appreciated its joys. Ella draws on her experiences with her children for resiliency and as a daily motivator. She told me, “I’m used to conflicting realities like, ‘Oh, the world is ending, but this child is so happy’. It’s not something that I didn’t feel before; it’s just more constant”. Ella also wanted me to know that “I could tell you a sob story, that I’m a mom with two kids and it’s so hard.” But Ella’s narrative is so much more. It is nuanced and certainly not melodramatic. For her, and many other faculty, there are both substantive pleasures and pains in remote work. 

The next set of faculty are parents who have teenagers at home. They tend to be mid- to late-career. All of these faculty expressed their gratitude that their children are not younger. Although, raising teenagers during the pandemic presents its own set of challenges. The biggest difference between parents with young kids and those with teenagers is that the latter have more uninterrupted time for themselves. It is the difference between Emma having to look over her son’s shoulder while he’s in online school and Mia’s daughters being able to do Zoom in their rooms. Mia described having interruptions, texts from her daughters asking her to be quieter while she’s lecturing, having to drive them to volleyball practice, and just having to be there with her daughters throughout the day. The coordinating and even mental work can be more for these parents. With kids involved in multiple different activities, Mia found her afternoons absorbed in this physical and coordinating work. The emotional work in being a parent with teenagers is often also intensified. As John puts it, “you have to be really aware of where the children are emotionally”. He went on to say with empathy and frustration,

The emotional dimensions of this have been just like flying in the dark with no lights. You don’t know what’s coming. You don’t know how they’re going to deal with the different changes. I’m talking about things like not having contact with their friends or what do you do when you got a 16-year-old, who spends like 12 hours a day in a sort of blanketed bunk bed watching Tik Tok. She misses her friends. She misses school. She thinks the assignments are really stupid. 

Mia describes being able to, or forced to, spend more time with her daughters as “equal parts a blessing and difficult”. Part of the difficulty is watching them struggle and have defining features of their teenage years under pandemic conditions. Georg talked about his frustration with having to watch his son go through the college application process without being able to tour schools or even leave the house. 

The current academic literature and media discourse have not given enough attention to the experiences of fathers. As we have already seen with Steve, there are many male faculty members who have a difficult time managing their parental and professional obligations. And as a recently divorced father, John was with his teenagers four days a week. This gave him some ‘off’ days, but also made much of his week subject to the needs of his kids. Similar to parents with young kids, he describes there is a much “more discreet segmentation of” his day. And when I asked about how he makes time for himself he told me, like many parents, that he had to “sneak out or steal a moment”. Again though, there is a difference between these parents with teenagers and those with younger kids. There is also a reason much of the current literature focuses on mothers. John described how one of the ways he copes with these exhausting qualities is drinking coffee on his porch in solitude for 10-15 minutes each morning. Emma would love to have some solitude. She described how she used to arrive early to work to have half an hour of blissful quiet drinking her green tea. Now the tea is black and if she is in the kitchen—so is her son, asking her questions, trying to get her to play with him at 6:30am. As a mother and academic, Jill described struggling even more than Emma or any of the previously discussed faculty.

Jill is a single mother with two teenage sons. One of whom has depression and the other special needs. She told me “at some point you just ran out of words to describe how stressful” this past year has been. She described what she referred to as “responsibility fatigue” between her role as a professor and the seemingly constant needs of her kids. She described having to ‘be there’ emotionally for both her students and her kids in ways that no one was there for her. For example, when her son would tell her that he’s feeling lonely, she felt an obligation to stop what she was doing and be there for him. The intense racial violence this year has made her fearful for her sons and has deeply impacted her own sense of well-being.  And while several of the previously discussed faculty members on the tenure track expressed a pressure to produce research, but gratitude that the tenure clock had been paused, Jill expressed acute anxiety about productivity. Like how Mia (who is on the lecture track) described wanting to set aside time for research, but actually getting to it proved all but impossible, Jill described making little progress. She says that the pressure from her department chair was enormous:

The very strong message was that we should be more productive. Supposedly there were fewer distractions and we weren’t going anywhere. It was as if the pandemic was giving us extra time to work. It just seemed like the expectations went up exponentially. I was shocked by it.

This reminds me of a concern that Ella voiced. She described how at a department meeting one of her colleagues said “Oh, all of this should happen at home”. For Ella, and I imagine for Jill, “it can’t happen at home”. 

 However, these faculty, even Jill, experienced silver linings. They told me about the joy in being able to watch their children grow into their teenage years. There have also been many mitigating factors for these faculty and their families. One of the most important factors for these faculty and some who have young kids is having pod-families. Pod-families have helped patch up the scaffolding that often broke down at the beginning of the pandemic. And they provide sociality for both adults and kids. Emma and Mia both referred to their pods as “lifesavers”. Family was also crucial in helping the faculty I spoke with manage childcare and professional obligations. Several faculty described being able to grow closer with people they care about and who help them in a day-to-day capacity. Lilly told me, “I may not have known how important that [scaffolding] was to me until I didn’t have it anymore”. 

There is hope for a better, more sustainable, more predictable future. Many faculty discussed the way vaccination has already relieved anxiety and helped them plan their next few months. There is also hope that the way we do academic labor will take into account the way both students and faculty are whole persons, with lives and families outside of their professional roles. This hope is salient for the faculty I spoke to, but particularly the parents. As Emma indicated, “I think that now faculty have opened up and realized that there’s nothing wrong with being flexible”.

While much of the media attention on faculty during the pandemic has centered the narratives of early-career faculty with children, there has been relatively little attention to care burdens associated with later life stages. Margret, Ansley, and Sarah are faculty whose care responsibilities have intensified since the start of the pandemic. For Sarah in particular, this past year has entailed taking on a more ‘traditional’ role as a daughter of aging parents.  Sarah moved her divorced aging parents, from across the country, to be closer to her in order to be able to take care of them. She was considering taking a leave of absence, but the flexibility enabled by remote work allowed her to continue teaching. In that way, COVID was a blessing. On the other hand, this year became deeply emotionally draining, in part because of the pandemic. She describes her mentality this year as “very much just hunker down and try to survive”. Sarah embraced a defense mechanism where she would only do what needed to be done, and nothing else.

If the email is not something that I have to deal with, something I have to apply for, it just gets deleted. So interesting seminar on an interdisciplinary topic, a wonderful new paper somebody found, delete.

Over time, like many faculty, she developed new routines and ways to take time for herself. She described how she now has “a better work/life balance” even though the pandemic and taking care of her parents.

The other two faculty members in this grouping had a less difficult time and largely focused on the positive aspects of their experiences. Margaret had her college-aged son lived with her throughout the pandemic. While this was challenging at times, Margaret was largely glad she could spend more time with her son, even if he was feeling down or unmotivated. Ansley had her elderly mother stay with her during the pandemic. She is largely independent, unlike Sarah’s parents, which contributed to the relaxed quality of her household dynamic. Ansley was also the most explicit in acknowledging her privilege. In referring to Emory faculty, “we are fortunate, and we have a lot of control over the choices we make in terms of when we work, and when we don’t work. I do feel pretty strongly about this. We’re so privileged at Emory. And that was even more true during COVID”. She also expressed her frustration with faculty who complain, while acknowledging that there have been differentiated burdens. 

The last grouping of faculty has had household configurations that do not include additional care burdens. But that does not mean they escaped the negative effects of the pandemic altogether. Amelia lost her mother and her in-laws. And her father has dementia. Wrestling with grief has been difficult, although she is finding her way through it. Similarly, Georg, who also lost several close family members, described the difficulty in not being able to hold a normal funeral or seek support from a community. However, they both emphasized that these deaths might have happened with or without a global pandemic. In dealing with loss they both took some time for themselves. They both expressed gratitude for Emory’s response to the pandemic and felt lucky to be at this institution. 

The last two faculty members I interviewed had very few negative things to say about their experience. Like Olivia, Laura was able to live with her partner during the pandemic in another state. She described to me a routine that had been happening for decades. Laura would fly from Philadelphia during the semester and fly back during breaks. It was striking for me how normalized this routine was for her. She described herself as a “happy workaholic” who found a lot of joy in her research and life in Atlanta. She told me that she could see herself continuing this routine in the fall and that she is excited to be back teaching in person. This outlook was the opposite of Olivia; she described wanting to find a more sustainable way to move forward, even if that meant moving permanently. This difference can be attributed to different life stages, with Olivia planning on starting a family and Laura having adult children. Olivia expressed a desire to set down roots and be place-bound. Alec has been doing remarkably well. He is a full professor and has his own apartment. Even though some major professional and personal plans were canceled by the pandemic, he has largely been overjoyed at how remote work has allowed him to restructure his time and multiple commitments. Given that my recruitment letter asked for faculty with children or other care burdens, I imagine that Alec’s experiences and the positive aspects of the experiences of other faculty are generalizable. 

  1. Shifting burdens of emotion work in the household and the virtual classroom

Remote teaching has been an experience that differs substantially depending on how large the given class is, the subject, and what type of students are attending. However, there were a few universals. Olivia expressed it most directly: “my body is experiencing zoom teaching the same way it experiences sitting in front of my computer, in this room, all day”. Particularly for professors who described their teaching style as engaged and relational, this aspect was challenging. Many faculty also described not being able to read social cues as effectively. And many of the faculty, particularly lecture track faculty, who described teaching as a true joy, found that aspect of their job more draining. These faculty are eager to get back to teaching in person. Others were much more ambivalent. Faculty like Ella had already integrated asynchronous/remote components into her classes before 2020, as a way to increase flexibility for both herself and her students. Ansley, who teaches upper-level writing-intensive courses with relatively small class sizes, found that her remote teaching experience was more or less the same as it would have been in person. She even expressed some positives in terms of being able to screen share and more easily provide feedback on her students’ papers.  

A common theme is that a silver lining of this pandemic is that faculty are more deliberately reflecting on their pedagogy. Georg explicitly argued that faculty are becoming better at teaching, even if the transition has been rough. The forced transition online has made faculty ask questions like: What are the most essential components of this material? How can I more effectively engage students? How can I be more flexible and accommodating? How can I more efficiently and fairly evaluate students?

The re-thinking of pedagogy is also associated with a re-thinking of the role of emotion work in academic labor. From my vantage point, it seems like the traditionally feminized aspects of academic work beyond research and publications including mentorship and even teaching are shifting. These are dynamics of academic labor that other academics have written about as “academic care work” (Cardozo 2017). Others have written about the way that feminized aspects of academic labor are undervalued (Park and Park‐Ozee 2020; Özkazanç‐Pan 2020). Sarah expressed her frustrations on this issue candidly. 

Academia values flashy, publications and books, products. You can tell that academia does not value service, advising, and mentoring. When you go to any workshop on advising or mentoring, you will see 90% female… Once you start counting you can’t unsee it. You will look around the room and you’ll know that women make up less than the majority of the faculty and they are wholly overrepresented in all the surface components. What that tells you is that that service is not actually recognized. They may pretend to but not actually. Academia has not found a way to pay women for the efforts that they’re doing and that’s why there will continue to be unequal burdens. 

Other faculty expressed similar frustration about the gendering of academic labor. Although, as I have suggested, these dynamics are in flux for several reasons. 

First, the paradox of formality/informality encourages greater awareness and reflection on the role of emotion work. This paradox was a feature of this past year that all faculty I spoke with brought up. Aspects of academic care, such as checking in with students and colleagues and mentoring, have to be constructed as a kind of work and scheduled if they are to be done at all. The basic structural feature of our Outlook calendars, creating invites and sending reminders, adds a dimension of formality to what is often considered the most informal aspects of academic labor. Many faculty expressed that building relationships with students simply requires more work, more deliberate effort, on both sides. That is not to say that academic care is becoming entirely formalized; there is a countervailing trend. The way informality from our home lives bleeds into our Zoom calls is inevitable for some faculty. This normalizes the idea that both faculty and students have lives beyond our role at the university. When not in a small black box, these mediated presences encourage thinking about students and faculty as whole persons—perhaps deserving of empathy. This dynamic is most important for parents of young kids for whom normalizing family commitments is crucial. These two dynamics force issues of equity and empathy in novel ways. This has encouraged faculty to, as Steve put it, “create a space that is humanizing, that gives people the benefit of the doubt, and that recognizes that we’re all impacted by things happening outside of this place”

Second, there has been an intensification of diversity, equity, and inclusion work and awareness over this past year. Sarah suggested this is leading faculty to reconsider their role of ‘academic care work’. All of the faculty I spoke with discussed how the external circumstances of racial violence and an inequitable pandemic response weighed on them. Social justice-oriented classes have become more emotionally charged. They feel more salient. As Emma says “it feels like a matter of life and death”. This is one of the reasons many of the faculty I spoke with described checking in with students before class got started. This might mean having an opening slide asking students to describe how they are doing. There is perhaps more 

Third is the general ‘existential’ quality of life these days. The daily reality of a global pandemic, isolation, and racial violence over this past year has forced reflection on relationships, work priorities, and sustainability. There is something fundamental about the way the pandemic hangs in the background of everyday activities. John reflected on the fact that he eats lunch together with his children because “we’re afraid one of us is going to get sick and die”. And Lilly, Emma, and Steve described hitting a low point when they realized what they were currently doing in their family and for work was not working. These low points became opportunities for change and reflection on what really matters. Steve describes how this reflection accelerated how he was already trying to change his teaching,

I began being really intentional about classroom space or the online space being a place of kindness and understanding and compassion. And realizing that it is impactful. It not only makes me feel better about being there and makes them feel better, hopefully, about being there. 

Steve made an explicit connection between his life philosophy, which he has thought about more these days, and how he approaches teaching and his emotional presence. For many of the faculty I spoke with, there is a correspondence between reevaluating the importance of interpersonal connections in their personal lives and the way they approach the interpersonal dynamics of being a professor. As Lilly told me, there is a lot of reflection on “what it means to have a relationship with someone”. With so much uncertainty in the wider world and in their own lives, many faculty I spoke with turned to their long-term relationships with family and close friends. Particularly Emma and Mia discussed valuing the meaningful adult relationships in their lives more deliberately. For Lilly, this was both a deeply rewarding and painful process. Spending more time with her husband and child was not something she chose but was forced to contend with nonetheless. 

And lastly, many faculty described how this pandemic has changed the temporal quality and organization of their daily routines. While this has certainly not been true for all faculty, it is a dominant theme. Steve described how faculty have really appreciated “the way that the pandemic has slowed life down; it’s less complicated”. Spending more time with family, even families with young kids can be pleasant, even relaxing. This reconfiguration of daily life encourages more introspection, even if that was an unpleasant process. And the majority, although not all, faculty I spoke with described having more time for activities like gardening, going on walks in nature, and spending quality time with their partners.  I argue that a slower and more relational organization of daily life has encouraged many faculty to ask “why” questions about their work. It seems like this is related to wanting to re-evaluate what the meaningful aspects of their work are beyond research productivity. Many of these faculty want to create a post-pandemic future where emotion work and ‘academic care’ are meaningful priorities that enhance their professional roles. 

  1. Shared silver linings and substantive joys 

I have already discussed many of the silver linings for faculty during this past year; there have been more. The two dominant framings of the silver linings of remote work are flexibility and accessibility. I have described some of the ways the flexibility of remote work has allowed faculty to be with loved ones, Oliva and Laura, when they otherwise would not be and travel to visit/care for aging parents, Sarah and Amelia. I have also described some of the ways forced flexibility can be undesirable, even painful, Lilly and Ella. The components of accessibility in remote work are more unproblematically beneficial. Olivia, who identifies as a part of the disability community, told me “it feels important to me that there are a lot of people in the disability community who have been asking for things to be remote for a long time”. Having meetings on Zoom is accessible to a broader range of people. It is also easier and therefore cheaper than going in person for a conference or flying a speaker to campus. Many faculty agreed that much of scholarly communication can effectively be done online. This is a theme that came up in many of my interviews. John in particular, discussed how he has been able to bring in speakers from all over the world for his classes. And as Emma says, “this pandemic has forced us to figure out how to make things as accessible as possible”. Ella described how she felt like senate meetings have been more accessible for non-Senators and have seen drastically higher attendance. Many faculty echoed this viewpoint by referring to their department meetings. I know from my vantage point as a student, classes, and professors largely feel more accessible in this online format.

Many faculty would tell me about their individual hardships and frustrations but conclude by affirming that on balance the university response, teaching, and research productivity have all been as good as could be expected. Like John, who told me he is still just getting by, wanted me to know “I think it’s all going remarkably well”. Some of the reasons for this include being able to avoid what Steve calls unwanted “entanglements”, which has arguably been a boost for faculty productivity. Not having to spend time commuting, going to obligatory department events, and engaging in casual conversations. Generally, part of the flexibility component is faculty having more control over their time, especially those who do not have additional care responsibilities.

Many faculty do not frankly do not miss face-to-face interaction on campus. Many chose their career path in part because they are somewhat introverted. As Ella says, I “don’t need a whole huge social life”. She went on to say,

The fact that I’ve had fewer social interactions is a good thing. That’s one of the things I like about work. It’s structured social life, right. Like these are my roles in the meeting, that’s what we’re doing. I know the norms and the parameters.

In this context, not having to fulfill the everyday social obligations of interacting with colleagues has been a positive for many faculty. And even though Ansley is a self-described extrovert, she expressed some joy in not having to go to department meetings in person and not feeling obliged to attend graduation events. For Ella work is more structured than her home environment and relatively free of distractions. But as discussed earlier, the opposite is true for many faculty.

  1. Conclusion 

Much of the literature I am engaging with emphasizes how the blurring of intimate and working lives is mutually reinforcing. Moreover, specific affects that shape immaterial labor have culturally specific meanings and genealogies. Mannevuo’s study of women academics in Finland argues that it is “through love as affect that a powerful attachment to work is formed” (2016, 76). In the accounts that Mannevuo collected, many women used the language of a love affair to describe their work: feeling transgression and pleasure when making time for it when at home or on maternity leave. I also found that many female academics described making time for their work at home with similar language. Many of the mothers I interviewed described feeling guilty when making time for themselves when prioritizing their own well-being or professional obligations. The language of love was also pervasive. Mannevuo indicates love and romanticism for work demands a kind of suffering, overextension. This sort of affective attachment to overwork is, she argues, the substance of alienation for many in today’s economy. Paralleling these findings Beckman and Mazmanian argue that the employees in their study genuinely found a sense of loyalty and collegiality in their work and were, therefore, willing to strive for an ideal that is ultimately unattainable. Yet, they write that the love affair employees have with their work ultimately serves the organization and that at the end of the day “the organization cannot love you back” (2020, 45). I argue that many faculty are finding more realistic and sustainable ways to understand the role of ‘myths of perfection’ in ordering their lives. The same faculty who expressed feeling guilty about taking time for themselves, also expressed that they are learning when to set boundaries. Faculty like Steve indicated that through this process he was able to help “break down unhelpful myths” about athletic standards of productivity and work for both his kids and students. I believe this has the potential to make faculty better teachers and parents. These dynamics are intimately connected to the reasons why many faculty are re-evaluating the importance of emotion work. In that sense, the blurring of intimate and working lives under pandemic conditions has enabled meaningful reflection and positive change. I want to convey some of Emma’s final reflections:

The pandemic made faculty think about how important it is that we care for our students. When we were in it and they’re like, “What do I do?”. You have to talk to your students; you have to ask them what they need. We have to be flexible, we have to care. It just means seeing students in their as their whole beings, right. Not just biology or anthropology or women’s studies students, but instead they’re people who live in homes, who have families who are worried about getting sick. I hope that that will be a change that will stay in higher ED. I don’t know if it will. But I hope some people will realize they can’t go back. We need to understand our students and the way our students learn more broadly.

A post-pandemic future that takes these dynamics into account will be one where faculty and students express and receive more empathy. This means finding ways to ‘normalize the struggle’ in all of its differentiated forms. Part of that empathy is learning from the silver linings of this past year and acknowledging that many faculty are leading happier, more fulfilling lives than they were before the pandemic. The faculty I spoke with want to continue to use digital communications technology like Zoom when feasible. This applies to a wide range of meetings, talks, and conferences. However, it does not apply to a teaching environment, with several key exceptions. Helping both faculty and students into the new routines entailed in this future is also crucial. This study demonstrates the significant burden of reconfiguring scaffolding for differently situated faculty. As Ella puts it, “thinking about creating a whole new routine is exhausting”. I hope that this study will help in creating intelligent and compassionate ways to support faculty, like Ella.

A student’s perspective

I was in virtual classrooms for over a year, watching my peers and professors struggle and largely succeed in creating a new normal. While I feel as though the social aspects of the classroom have been diminished, I have found that it is easier than ever to develop meaningful relationships with faculty and lean into academics. The transition into the second half of the spring 2020 semester was as rough on me as it was for many of the faculty I interviewed. Going home meant a non-ideal living situation where I did not have my own room and I attended class from the kitchen table. The empathy I received from faculty during that time was indispensable. But I want to emphasize that the most helpful aspect of being a student at Emory during that time was being able to focus on academics. Office hours felt more accessible and I ended up going every week. I know for many of the faculty I spoke with, having the structure of work and their research projects helped keep them going. This is not universally true, but it was for me. I also want to share some of my reflections on remote learning over the past year. 

My experience has been a varied one. My peers and I have noticed pedological techniques and classroom dynamics that work and those that fall flat. My economics classes, which record lectures, post notes online, and have a highly accessible Canvas page are highly effective. I even imagine they function better and that I am learning more effectively than if these classes were in person. However, I empathize with professors who are disappointed with the relational dynamics of this type of class. In my 8 am Econometrics class, there is one student (out of forty-five) who consistently turns on their camera. When the professor asks for feedback typically only a few students will provide an emoji reaction and even fewer will unmute. Mia expressed frustration that her sixty-person class students are les engaged than in her twenty-person class. This dynamic has generally applied to my classes. In my graduate anthropology class, I noticed that in many ways, like in Ansley’s classes, there was no meaningful difference in the relational or education quality. My other classes have been somewhat on a continuum between these two extremes. There have also been some additional unique benefits to remote learning. Some of my professors have been able to bring in speakers from across the world when that would normally prove all but impossible. 

At the end of this year, I find myself excited for having classes back in person, but also hopeful we can all learn from the nuances of how differently positioned faculty and students experienced this past year.


I want to thank Professor Carla Freeman, my research mentor, for her support, inspiration, and kindness, without whom this research would not have been possible. I also want to express my gratitude for all of the faculty I spoke with who gave me a window into their lives and complex experiences. 


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