What Counts as Proximity?

Conversations about expanding options for working remotely are just a beginning when it comes to the future of academic telework, argues Marissa Greenberg.

February 26, 2020
 
 
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This past fall I began my fourth year of academic telework. I am neither contingent faculty nor an emeritus professor, and my institution does not operate primarily online. Rather, I am an associate professor with tenure at a flagship state university with very high research designation. I have no formal agreement with my department chair, dean or provost. Every year I negotiate the terms of my telework, introducing a distinct kind of precarity to an otherwise stable career.

In telling my story, I hope to provide other faculty members with leverage for conversations about expanding options for working remotely. I also want to arm them against administrations that might promote academic telework to save on infrastructure costs rather than to reinforce a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Academic telework is a feminist issue and a matter of social justice. While promising to benefit women and minority faculty members in particular, it has the potential to lift everyone.

In fact, conversations about expanding options for working remotely are just a beginning. What we need is a revolution in perceptions of what counts as proximity in institutional life. Ultimately, I am advocating for wholesale cultural change.

Discussions of working remotely tend to focus on its benefits for students. As educators, we home in on the number of students who pursue higher education alongside full-time employment, military service and child- and elder-care responsibilities. We champion this mode of instruction as enhancing access, equity and security for students who face unreasonably long or costly commutes to campus, whose disabilities are accommodated best by online courses, or who have unresolved immigration status.

Yet student success online is made possible not simply by new technologies but also by faculty labor. As colleges and universities rush to offer a variety of courses, and increasingly entire degrees, online, they must remain cognizant of working conditions for faculty members on the other side of the screen. Faculty marginalized by gender, race, ability or institutional status, in particular, often need the same things as students, such as flexible working conditions and multiple points of access.

Firsthand Experience

My understanding of the benefits of academic telework for faculty and students is a result of firsthand experience. In spring 2015, after receiving tenure and being promoted, I applied for and was granted a sabbatical leave. At the same time, my spouse was offered an interim position in Washington, D.C. As a scholar-teacher of early modern English literature, the chance to spend a year near the Folger Shakespeare Library, one of the premier collections for my field, was an unanticipated blessing. So we rented out our house, packed up our two young children and our dog, and drove across the country.

Eight months later, my spouse’s section head asked him to remain past the initial 14-month appointment. My spouse wanted to accept the offer, as he had enjoyed and found purpose in his new job. And I wanted to support him. My spouse had followed me to graduate school and then to a tenure-track job, and I felt strongly that it was my turn to prioritize his career goals. Nor could I disregard the region’s historical, cultural and educational resources and opportunities, including a large Jewish community for my children.

But I was unwilling to make a cross-country commute that would mean extended stretches of time away from my children, both of whom were under the age of 10. A chronic health condition also made the prospect of routine air travel daunting if not impossible.

To this point, my story is not unusual. It echoes the experience of many faculty members -- mostly women, to my knowledge -- who are stuck between the rock of interstate or international commutes and the hard place of leaving the profession. My story took an unusual turn when I began working remotely. Over the past few years, many of my colleagues -- again, mostly women -- have asked me about academic telework. Here’s what I tell them.

Teleworking empowered me to grow my teaching, research and service in new directions. As other associate professors looked to the next monograph or an administrative position, I brought renewed focus to my pedagogy. For example, I developed innovative undergraduate and graduate courses that take advantage of online tools and environments, like podcasting and affinity groups. Fellow online instructors applauded my pedagogy as dynamic, forward-looking, rigorous. They asked my permission to adapt my assignments and other materials, and they continue to solicit my expertise for the purposes of course design and tenure review.

Online instruction also became part of my scholarly agenda. In addition to continuing to publish regularly on early-modern English literature, I initiated projects on distance teaching techniques and resources. This scholarship, which is a direct result of working with students in virtual classrooms, has led to collaborative research, conference presentations and publication. I have thus become part of a wave of scholar-teachers building the future of online higher education.

Meanwhile, I have continued to serve my institution on the departmental, college and university levels. Using web-conferencing technology, I have led and sat on numerous committees, directed graduate students, and mentored junior colleagues. I have also attended virtually, in both senses of the word, every department faculty meeting. My point isn’t simply that I have taken on more responsibilities to demonstrate my undiminished commitment to my institutional communities. It is also to establish why I believe that all faculty members stand to gain from taking governance, mentorship and committee work into the virtual meeting room.

Everyone Has a Seat at the Table

Effective meetings, whether online or face-to-face, share the same characteristics: precirculation of materials, efficient time management, purposeful organization, inclusive arbitration. Taking service online has the potential to maximize effectiveness by interrupting systemic inequities and more evenly distributing authority.

In the virtual meeting room, everyone has a seat at the table. Web-conferencing technology, including synchronous collaboration on e-documents and anonymous comment functionality, prioritizes expertise and encourages participation regardless of faculty status. The voices of nontenured, women and minority faculty may be heard with fewer fears of professional reprisal or prejudicial labels.

A similar derooting of assumptive privilege and power takes place in the virtual classroom. My university is officially designated a Hispanic-serving institution; it also serves significant numbers of Native American and first-generation students. Financial support is available to in-state high school graduates and GED recipients who enroll full-time at any of the state’s public postsecondary institutions. For many of these students, online education offers unprecedented opportunities to speak and be heard.

Supporting academic telework means supporting faculty members who share with their students the conditions of living and working in a complex, integrated world -- a shared identity arguably as important as gender, race, class, sexuality or ability. But I found that many institutions resist the option for faculty members to work at a distance and maintain the fiction that “real” teaching and service take place only on campuses. In doing so, they communicate that their priorities are students and faculty with boots on the ground.

Put simply, the issue is a bias against working from a distance. The perception remains that academic telework is something that tenure-stream faculty “don’t do.”

Instead, teleworking is increasingly associated with contingent faculty. Generally contingent faculty do not have service obligations that require their physical presence, so they often teach, just as their students learn, from anywhere. Of course, as institutions look for more ways to save money, this situation may exacerbate the abusive working conditions of contingent faculty. For example, it becomes easier to keep salaries depressed when contingent faculty are not expected to live in the same expensive areas as other faculty members and students. Or, citing the physical absence of contingent faculty, institutions might withhold from them necessary technological, infrastructural and human resources.

Some readers may bristle at my advocating for more expansive options for tenured and tenure-track faculty, who enjoy long-term contracts, health care and (sometimes) livable wages. But I hope that those same readers will agree that mere employment isn’t the goal. Other readers might point to potential for abuse by faculty; few of us are unfamiliar with the faculty member who teaches their classes but is otherwise disengaged from institutional life.

Of course, academic telework is not a cure-all. But by revolutionizing how telework is currently conceived and practiced, we may begin to negotiate more equitable structures that benefit both students and faculty, including the most vulnerable.

For female and minority faculty members, expanded options for working remotely hold out new avenues to professional success and personal well-being. Women and people of color tend to bear a disproportionate amount of mentorship and service responsibilities within their institutions. They also often bear primary responsibility for daily operations and life-cycle events in their families and communities. Teleworking assists those faculty by empowering them to choose and participate fully in meaningful institutional labor, while physically removing them from often toxic environments. It promotes their physical and mental health, as well, by supporting their pursuit of life-work balance. In these respects, working remotely is a feminist issue and a social justice issue.

Academic telework isn’t right for every faculty member, just as online learning isn’t a good fit for every student. Yet for me and many others, it offers a way to achieve genuine job satisfaction and greater personal fulfillment in general. In this respect, teleworking is like partner accommodation and family leave, and it should be as much a part of college and university culture and practice.

Higher education, like every other industry, needs to embrace telework as a legitimate and sometimes better way to get work done. Indeed, as colleges and universities seek partnerships outside academe, they would do well to bring their labor practices into line with private and public sectors in which telework is routine.

Academic telework must thus become not simply available but also normative. To this end, we must revolutionize our perception of proximity. What counts ought not to be physical presence but meaningful engagement. For our students, the future is here; working at a distance is their new normal. Now is the time to validate academic telework for faculty members, as well.

Bio

Marissa Greenberg is associate professor of English at the University of New Mexico.

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