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Emotional Labor
May 8, 2012 - 5:52pm

I sat on a pedagogy round-table at the International Studies Association in March, and one of the speakers referred to the high cost of emotional labor for the Women's Studies instructor. Many heads nodded around the room. I do think that emotional labor does not discriminate and that many women faculty, faculty of color and other marginalized groups put in more time with emotional labor. Anecdotally, I perform as much or more emotional labor in Political Science compared to my years in Women's Studies, but this might be influenced by the fact that I am an Undergraduate Advisor. Now, I know that some readers will agree and a small number might comment, "Show me the data." Well, there is a genre of higher education literature dedicated to women in academe and other groups noting this phenomena. I am certainly not the first or last to speak to emotional labor.

Last year my teaching observation date was slated for a lecture on violence against women. I had already given the class a trigger warning via email and verbally noted that the array of readings might trigger emotions from students. My colleagues sat at the back of the class, while I lead lecture and facilitated discussion. I ended the class about five minutes early and thanked everyone. The reason for ending the class early was that a student was in the back of the class quietly crying. We chatted and walked back to my office. I will say that I had the appropriate office numbers nearby so that I could give her the referral. This was not the first time in my teaching career that I've dealt with this issue and had to help a student in need.

I've accompanied students to the police department to report a sexual assault and listened to students explain that the readings or discussion in class triggered old memories for her or him. This is part of the emotional labor of the job. Granted for some students, it's not issues of violence, but issues related to coming out, finances, a bad break up, eating disorders, and more. My degrees are not in mental health, so I know that it's best if I listen and then make a referral. Here is the thing - I had never attended a professional development seminar about students and mental health until I was more than 10 years into my career! I am not qualified to help the students with the array of issues that they might have, but I can listen and then find the right person or office that can help them.

Now, thanks to my role as the Chair of the Academic Women's Caucus, I sit on more committees than I care to count and I have had ample opportunity to go to workshops related to mental health, inclusive work environments, dealing with difficult situations, and other important issues. I do feel better prepared for these moments and here I am, mere months from celebrating my fifteenth year teaching. What I long for though, is more honest conversations about emotional labor in our work. I also want more training on how to deal with the weight of emotional labor, as it is a heavy burden to carry some days.

Victoria, British Columbia in Canada

Janni Aragon is a Senior Instructor of Political Science in the Department of Political Science at the University of Victoria. She is an occasional blogger at University of Venus and her areas of interest are varied: Gender and Politics, Women and Technology, American Politics, Feminist Theories, Youth Politics, and Popular Culture. Currently she is working on a co-edited Introduction to Women’s Studies textbook and when she has time, she blogs at


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