Invisible labor takes toll on faculty of color

This past March, 13 senior faculty members at Yale withdrew from the University’s Ethnicity, Race and Migration (ER&M) program. The faculty cited a lack of university support for the program as the impetus for their withdrawal and expressed concerns that they were expected to “volunteer their labor” to continue the program. As a result of their departure, the program lacked tenured faculty and was forced to limit faculty support to current third- and fourth-year students. Days later, the 13 professors who left ER&M returned after public outcry lead to negotiations that granted the department five additional hiring positions.

The phenomenon described by Yale’s ER&M faculty might be referred to as “invisible labor,” a term originally employed in gender studies to describe the domestic labor of women. Because the labor performed is attributed to the inherent qualities of the laborer, it is undervalued and overlooked. For example, a woman’s role as child-bearer might be framed as the performance of a biological predisposition, rather than actual labor.

Yale is not the only institution where faculty of color point out an underappreciation of their work. On Dec. 2, Harvard students protested the tenure denial of Associate Professor Dr. Lorgia García Peña, who they claimed was the victim of “procedural errors, prejudice, and discrimination.” A petition demanding greater administrative transparency at the institution has, as of Dec. 5, received more than 2,700 signatures. In an op-ed published in The Atlantic, Montclair State University associate professor of English Dr. Patricia A. Matthew wrote, “…when faculty of color are hired, they are often expected to occupy a certain set of roles: to serve as mentors, inspirations, and guides—to be the racial conscience of their institutions while not ruffling too many of the wrong feathers.”

Professor Molly McGlennen serves as the Director of American Studies at Vassar. She spoke at length about the ways in which she, as a Native American woman who teaches Native American Studies and created the discipline’s correlate, feels that she is held responsible for representing Indigenous people on campus: “It has been taxing being the only one, a lot of times, to be able to specifically address or to do that work. So, beyond teaching the courses that I teach, I’m also this point person on so many other things, anything regarding Native people.” Yet her sense of responsibility also stems from her [pedagogical] commitments, which include advocating for her students. McGlennen went on to say that she has been embraced by a community of professors of color on campus, which she described as her saving grace.

Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Jasmine Syedullah, creator of the Prison Studies correlate, commented on her own visibility on campus: “More often than not, the ways that I, and not just here, but in my life, represent what’s not being included has to do with representing either the students…or representing a perspective.” She elaborated, “I just feel it in my body; there’s something here that is not being represented and I have a choice to represent it and how to represent it, to teach people how to see the thing that they’re not seeing.” Sometimes, this might mean helping students see themselves. Reflecting on when Syedullah approached them and offered them mentorship, Joshua (Shalissa) Otero ’20 said, “She personally told me that she saw something in the ways that I move inside and outside of the classroom, the life experiences that I bring into the classroom, and she saw worth in it.”

Mentoring is just one manifestation of invisible labor—an important one at that. This is especially so for students of color who might look to faculty of color for both academic and social support. Eugene Lopez-Huerta ’20, who works with McGlennen, also remarked on the importance of her mentorship to him as a first-generation student of color. He said, “The way that she’s framed her personal investment in the program here at Vassar, it made me kind of inspired, in a way, to feel more invested in anything that I’m studying here…it makes me feel that I can make demands to the institution in the way that she holds intellectual space.”

Lopez-Huerta said that other students of color helped him find faculty “who know a little more about where I’m going with my truth.” Otero said that they seek out faculty of color while selecting classes. They described their desire to work with professors who had intimate and genuine connections to their work because of their identities. “I guess what I’m looking for is authenticity,” they continued. “I’m aware of the ways that the institution will theorize about certain types of experiences while making that information inaccessible to those same people. So if anyone’s going to teach me something, it’s going to be the people that are theorized about.”

Gender, in combination with race, might also render faculty members’ labor invisible. Otero mentioned that they are cognizant of higher expectations of availability and access that might be projected onto Black women in their interactions with Syedullah, saying, “It’s not always her job to do the heavy lifting.” McGlennen concurred, saying that there might be a gendered aspect to the invisible labor she takes on. She said, “The behind the scenes work that needs to be done, we’ll do it. But it’s not always glamorous or gets the attention.”

Syedullah and McGlennen suggested that administrative changes could potentially better support faculty of color. McGlennen mentioned that greater peer mentorship among faculty members would help ease the burden on professors of color to navigate challenges unique to this group. Syedullah stressed the importance of hiring administrative staff to lead the programs to which faculty members of color currently donate their labor. Both said that the expansion of mental health services available to students would help to mitigate the excess labor of faculty members of color who often take on the role of counselor when working with students.

Administrative recognition of the unique ways in which students interact with faculty of color might enable faculty to better balance duties of teaching, mentorship and research, an endeavor which both Syedullah and McGlennen noted is near-impossible given the current demands of their work. Of the invisible (or, rather, invisibilized) labor that she performs, Syedullah said, “I think it is seen and I think that it’s understood—I don’t think that it’s seen as a problem though.”

[Correction: A previous version of this article printed on Dec. 5, 2019 did not include the full titles of Professors Molly McGlennen and Jasmine Syedullah and did not fully identify Joshua (Shalissa) Otero.]

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