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Making the Invisible Visible

Kimberly A. Truong describes how her institution has taken a key step toward acknowledging the invisible labor of faculty of color -- and why others should do so as well.

May 28, 2021
 
 
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/digital vision/getty images plus

Faculty of color have continued to engage in disproportionate amounts of invisible labor in higher education, especially when it comes to supporting justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) efforts on college campuses. While colleges and universities recognize service as part of tenure and promotion processes, usually only certain types of service count, such as serving on committees and formal advising opportunities.

This does not capture the time faculty of color devote to supporting BIPOC students navigating racist encounters and differentiated treatment from faculty members, peers and supervisors; coaching those students about adjusting to a predominantly white campus and feelings of isolation; mentoring and encouraging them to see potential within themselves that they may not yet see; and connecting them with prospective BIPOC students who are interested in learning more about the institution. And it certainly does not include speaking with students about ongoing racist incidents within our society and how it impacts students’ mental health, well-being and academic performance. This critical work is aligned to institutional missions and essential to the recruitment and retention of our student populations.

Last summer, after the highly visible deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, colleges across the country released statements to condemn anti-Black violence and made commitments to support faculty, staff and students of color. At the MGH Institute of Health Professions, we, too, released our own statement with the action steps we were going to take as well as updates. Those steps included our transition from DEI to JEDI, an institutional commitment to equity and antioppression, and the recognition of faculty of color for their service. This was our institution’s first step in acknowledging faculty of color’s invisible labor.

The invisible labor faculty of color engage in is not limited to supporting students, but also supporting and mentoring colleagues. Faculty of color participate in ad hoc and informal committees and contribute to them. They also share insights with newer and more junior BIPOC faculty to help demystify the hidden curriculum of navigating racialized spaces and situations. They support white colleagues who are new to learning about JEDI issues by sharing resources and advise them on how they might respond to microaggressions that happen within their classroom.

Yet as institutions, we take faculty of color's invisible labor for granted. In fact, we even penalize faculty of color who do this work because it impacts their productivity in research. Institutions may also punish faculty of color for simply challenging the status quo and exposing spaces of inequities.

The invisible labor that faculty of color continually perform was an ongoing issue that the faculty themselves brought up for years at our institution and then discussed at a meeting soon after my arrival in 2019. Yet it was not until June 2020 when the dean and I met with the Black faculty in our school of nursing about the inequitable amounts of invisible work they were engaging in and began brainstorming with them about what acknowledging this work would look like. A full-time workload is usually 18 to 21 credits, and we all agreed that faculty of color should be given a maximum of an 18-credit load -- acknowledging that they engage in at least four credits of invisible labor already. I drafted a literature review and policy proposal based on our conversations and received feedback from faculty of color and our dean, president and provost.

MGH Institute of Health Professions approved and implemented the proposal in April 2021 as a guideline, not a policy. As far as I know, this is the first institutional guideline of its kind to acknowledge faculty of color’s invisible labor in higher education. The guideline allows for more flexibility in workload allocation. For instance, some faculty of color who engage in more invisible labor could potentially be assigned fewer than 18 credits during work planning. Other faculty of color who may not be affected by the guideline will continue to be assigned 18 or more credits.

It is the actual implementation process of this plan that allows for us to make the invisible labor visible. The academic department chairs and/or program directors are responsible for having explicit conversations with the faculty of color in their department regarding invisible labor while they discuss the work plan. Academic department chairs and/or program directors also have received institutional resources to support the hiring of term lecturers to teach courses previously taught by faculty of color who now have reduced teaching loads.

The guideline is not perfect, as the target credit hours could have started lower than 18, given the amount of emotional labor involved in the work. But it at least helps us to start the conversation about the significant contributions that faculty of color make to our institution. The guideline finally draws attention to the systemic issue of inequitable workloads long reflected in the lived experiences of faculty of color and allows us to work toward resolving that issue. Other faculty are still able to have individual conversations with their department chairs and/or program directors about their own workloads as they always have.

The guideline does not take away from the capacity-building work we are doing with all our faculty about how to better support all students, so that the burden will be more equitably shared. This includes workshops, such as Power, Privilege and Positionality and Brave Dialogues, to help faculty facilitate and engage in conversations about JEDI issues, and syllabus auditing to help faculty to (re-)examine the implicit and explicit messages they convey in their syllabi and modify their pedagogy, course content and assessment approaches. We are also working with faculty to help them to recognize and respond to microaggressions -- to better understand how commonplace they are and what they can do when they have committed a microaggression or they see someone else commit one. They are also learning about the relationship between microaggressions and systemic oppression.

This also includes our collaboration with partners in academic affairs to revise the advising handbook to include content related to JEDI issues (e.g., cultural relevance and cultural responsiveness) and to identify how faculty can better support marginalized and minoritized students. And we will soon be convening a community of practice as an outgrowth of the syllabus auditing workshop to continue our work with departments in infusing JEDI concepts in course content.

I invite institutions that have drafted statements acknowledging and denouncing anti-Black racism and, more recently, anti-Asian racism to take this step toward acknowledging faculty of color for their invisible labor. As institutions, we espouse diversity, equity and inclusion, but when we don’t recognize the valuable contributions faculty of color make to supporting our mission, and when we are not taking these contributions into account and equitably allocating workloads, we are perpetuating the very racism that we denounce.

Bio

Kimberly A. Truong is executive director of the Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Office at MGH Institute of Health Professions and an adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She also partners with organizations interested in engaging in JEDI work as part of XEM Consulting Services LLC.

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