What comes next

Today marks the end of the current round of UCU strike action and it’s been an unsettling few weeks in more ways than one. I didn’t join the strike until half way through the first week as I had already agreed to present a keynote at the Wikimedia in Education summit at Coventry University before the strike dates were announced. This is the second time I’ve broken a strike to participate in an event of this kind and in both instances it wasn’t a decision I took lightly. However as the event, and my keynote, had a strong focus on equity and social justice, and addressed some of the issues that the UCU strike has been highlighting, I took the decision to go ahead.

Since then I’ve withdrawn my labour from my university and have done what I can to support the strike. I haven’t been picketing because I can’t afford the travel costs on top of the eye watering loss of wages, but I’ve been trying my best to observe the digital picket, by not tweeting anything directly related to my work at the University of Edinburgh. Although I’ve continued tweeting information related to the strike, and sharing posts on #femedtech, withdrawing from the open education community on twitter has been quite an isolating experience.

Because I work part time for my university, I also contribute my labour to several other oganisations on a voluntary basis, so I’ve continued to participate in some events and activities in a personal capacity, however it’s been a constant struggle to decide where to draw the line. So, for example, although we didn’t plan any Open.Ed activities for Open Education Week, which fell in the middle of the strike, I did participate, as a member of the #femedtech network, in an asynchronous event Open Policy – Who cares? organised by the ALT Open Ed SIG.  Was that the right thing to do? I have no idea. I also participated in two VConnecting Missed Conversations that explored some of the themes we discussed at the ALT / Wikimedia DE Open for a Cause event in Berlin in December, wrote a blog post about “women’s work” and the femedtech quilt, and an article about the labour of care in Higher Education for WonkHE.

Care was one theme that emerged repeatedly during the strike. Care for ourselves, care for our students, care for our colleagues, care for our profession. And now that diligence of care is going to take on a whole new dimension as we do our best to care for each other in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Going back to work next week in these exceptional circumstances is going to be difficult and challenging for everyone so I hope we can hold onto that ethic of care over the coming months.

Sharing the Labour of Care

This article was originally posted on WonkHE under the title We need to recognise where the burden of care falls in higher education.


Most of us work in higher education because we care; we care about our students, our colleagues, our subject specialisms, we care about learning, and we care about sharing knowledge.  Many of us even care about our institutions, even if that care is increasingly unreciprocated.  Our profession is distinguished by emotional commitment, compassion, and a strong ethic of care, but this burden of care is unevenly distributed across the academy.  This critical and largely invisible labour routinely falls to those who are already marginalised in the system; women, people of colour, early career researchers, those employed on precarious and part time contracts, those on lower pay grades.  Caring has always been regarded as women’s work, and as a result, the labour of caring is habitually devalued and taken for granted.  There is an assumption that caring is low skilled work, that anyone can do it, but of course that is far from true.  Despite the toll taken by the exploitation of this invisible labour, we all continue to do our best, to go the extra mile, to pick up the pieces for our students and our colleagues, which inevitably leads to stress, anxiety and burnout. In a timely twitter thread about the current round of UCU strikes, Máiréad Enright pointed out that

“There is emotional labour involved in knowing and being reminded that others will have to face the everyday crisis, because you aren’t there. It’s important that we recognise that this emotional labour is part of what’s distinctive about the neoliberal university. We govern ourselves and each other through emotion. Disunity, competition and compulsory individualism in the university ensure that.”

The reason many of us are striking, to protest universities’ failure to protect our pensions, and adequately address the gender pay gap, unrealistic workloads, and increasing casualisation, is not because we don’t care about our students and those who rely on our emotional labour, it’s because we care too much. And I am fully aware of the irony that I am writing this article while allegedly on strike. Withdrawing our emotional labour is a hard thing to do.

As with many other aspects of our employment and our practice, much of this burden of emotional labour has become mediated through and exacerbated by technology.  Whether it’s spending weekends answering e-mails from distraught students, peer reviewing journal papers and conference submissions, writing blog posts, taking part in twitter conversations, contributing to hashtags, writing Wikipedia articles, or keeping up with social media.  In a provocation recorded as part of Open Education Week, Leo Havemann argues that there is a lack of appreciation for the kind of labour and expertise involved in digital practice.  All too often digital labour is unrecognised and unrewarded invisible labour.  Of course there is a gendered aspect to digital labour in higher education too, which is largely unacknowledged and under researched. A notable exception is research undertaken by the Association for Learning Technology to analyse the results of their sector wide ALT Annual Survey through the lense of gender.  ALT’s research has provided some evidence of different priorities for men and women particularly with regard to dedicated time and recognition for career development.

While much of our invisible labour may be undervalued by our institutions, grass roots initiatives have sprung up to acknowledge, celebrate and support the contribution our digital and emotional labour makes to education.  One such initiative is femedtech, a reflexive emergent network of people learning, researching and practising in educational technology. The femedtech network is informal, unfunded, and cross sector and our resources are our passion, kindness, knowledge, enthusiasm and volunteer commitment. Our name, femedtech (feminist education technology), aligns us with a critical perspective on education and technology. We are alive to the specific ways that technology and education are gendered, and to how injustices and inequalities play out in these spaces.

Despite the burden of care that we carry, there is strength and solidarity to be gained from shared labour and a sense of community and belonging that traditionally derives from women’s work.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the femedtech Quilt for Care and Justice in Open Education project.  Created by Frances Bell in collaboration with members of the femedtech network, this craft activism project takes its inspiration from the themes of the 2020 OER Conference; The Care in Openness.  Women and men, from all over world have contributed quilt squares representing personal reflections on care, openness and social justice. You can find out more about the femedtech quilt project here https://quilt.femedtech.net/

#femedtch quilt, CC BY, Lorna M. Campbell

References

Association for Learning Technology, https://www.alt.ac.uk/

Enright, M., (2020), #UCUstrikes twitter thread, https://twitter.com/maireadenright/status/1234456632681168896?s=20

Femedtech, http://femedtech.net/

Femedtech Quilt for Care and Justice in Open Education, https://quilt.femedtech.net/

Havemann, L., (2020), The need for supportive policy environments, https://flipgrid.com/f61bc14c

Hawksey, M., (2019), #ThinkUHI #BalanceforBetter look at enablers/drivers for the use of Learning Technology (#femedtech), https://mashe.hawksey.info/2019/03/balanceforbetter-look-at-enablers-drivers-for-the-use-of-learning-technology-femedtech/

OER20 Conference: The Care in Openness, https://oer20.oerconf.org/

University and College Union HE Action, https://www.ucu.org.uk/heaction