Emotional Energy

Emotional labor and diversity courses. 

April 9, 2019
Now that the academy has begun to talk about the emotional labor drained from professors of diversity courses, I am recalling the way I felt after teaching each Women’s Studies class:  mentally and physically drained.  When I taught Spanish, which was not emotionally taxing, after class, I’d chat easily with a colleague, grade papers, write up research, or answer email. 
My diversity courses colleagues and I missed the signs that we were spending emotional energy too quickly.  We asked each other how class went because we knew that things could easily go wrong, but we did not ask for institutional support. We feared they would say, “if Women’s Studies requires too much emotional energy, then maybe we should get rid of it.”  
After class, one colleague would shrug and say, “Teaching makes me really hungry.” The rest of us would join in:  “I squirt whipped cream straight into my mouth,” or  “I tear into my salad at 10:50 am.”  We didn’t ask why a class that lasted only 50 minutes and required no physical exertion made us ravenous.  
I was never heckled when I taught Spanish, but students heckle professors of diversity courses.  The possibility of a heckler disrupting my class made me feel anxious, but I refused to censor the intersectional feminist facts and theories that elicited heckling. 
Once, a white male student, sitting on a high tier in my little lecture hall, asserted that sexism does not exist, that life is hard for everyone, and he asked what grounds feminists have for complaint.  
At the bottom of the room, I planted my feet, lengthened my spine, rolled my shoulders back and down, and told the class the story of the sexual assault I sustained by a boy in the hallway between classes in 8th grade. I stopped eating and was scared to go to school.  
“Does that answer your question?” I looked up to the high tiers of the room and tried to turn the ends of my lips up just so. I knew that students disapproved of too much smiling, so I was careful to neither frown nor smile, and this self-surveillance, too, made me tired. 
My student’s face and voice softened: “Yes.”  I had succeeded in teaching my white male student that sexism is real, but at what cost to my dignity and emotional energy stores?  Feminists say that educating the oppressor class about oppression is degrading and exhausting.  And yet, that was my job. 
After students emptied out of the room, I curved my spine over the computer desk, planted my elbows on it, and rested my forehead in my hands until my wrists ached. I went outside to soak up sun before taking the stairs to the Women’s Studies suite, where I leaned on my mentor’s door frame and sighed.  In my office, I opened my top desk drawer and broke off pieces of chocolate—dark mint and 70 percent with sea salt and caramel.
My emotional energy reserve drained to empty one afternoon in the spring semester when my office phone rang.  I raised the corded handset to my ear and heard hesitancy and disappointment in my dean’s voice:  “Could you come over to the office this afternoon to talk about your nomination for the college diversity award?” 
I pushed back tears and swallowed their saltiness.  
“Just tell me over the phone.”  My speech cracked.
I was the only person nominated for the college’s diversity award, but the committee said my chair’s letter wasn’t strong enough.  The award criteria did not recognize emotional labor. No one would represent my college for excellence in diversity teaching.
When I dropped the handset onto its chunky base, it talked back:  rrrriiinngg.  I waited for my tears to dry, took the empty stairs down to my bike, and cycled hard uphill until my quads ached.
Within months, my institution eliminated its diversity majors and fired professors who taught diversity courses, including me.  I’ve been separated from the diversity classroom for nearly two years, but occasionally, I cross paths with a former student who hugs me, tells me I was a wonderful teacher, that my class was phenomenal. 
“Thank you. You don’t know how much that means to me,” I say, the gratitude in my voice matching the gratitude in hers.  For the rest of the day, my spine lengthens without effort. 
Dr. Holly Stovall is an independent academic and writer who holds a Ph.D. in Spanish Literature and an M.A. in Women’s History.  Prior to being laid off at Western Illinois University, she was tenured in Women’s Studies.  She blogs about her layoff at  http://laidoff.blog.


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