Thursday, June 1, 2017

At and To the Heart of Teaching: Thoughts on Emotional Labor

I was supposed to be devoting the evening to my own self-care because like most students and instructors I am exhausted. I should have closed my laptop, but I was lackadaisically pulling together a lesson plan. The ache in my fingers and burn in my eyes told me I shouldn’t be doing this, but it was week nine and I had to keep going. Sometimes we sacrifice self-care for the classroom. My plan was to shut my computer off at 9, have night cap and read some science fiction.

But the email came at 9:10pm. The subject line read, “Dropping the Class.” What little emotional energy, I had for the night was gone. For the last couple of weeks, I had reminded students of important dates—or as I called them in class Immovable Deadlines. This list included the deadlines for final papers and portfolios. The deadline to withdraw has long passed. I had no idea how to respond. I wondered if the student needed a) kind words of encouragement b) firm orders that she would finish the class c) some vague acknowledgement of her autonomy. Each student needs a tailored response. And I fear that the wrong response might discourage the student from completing the class or her degree.

Educators are so often expected to engage in a wide variety of labors. The article “A Glimpse into the Lives of New Writing Center Directors” reminds us that Writing Center Directors engage in three forms of labor: disciplinary labor, everyday labor, and emotional labor. But these types of labor are far from the exclusive domain of Writing Center directors. Educators regardless of function face similar types of work. But it is emotional labor that I find most arduous since it requires “mentoring, or nurturing of others; work of building and sustaining relationships; and work to resolve conflicts” (Caswell, Grutsch, and Jackson A4).

I am jealous of educators who seem unfazed by the psychic demands of their students or those instructors who cultivate a phlegmatic façade. Pegeen Reichert Powell suggests that emotional labor is important in composition and first year seminar classes as a tool for promoting student access to education. These issues are critical for our population at the School for New Learning. In the auto-ethnography “’Where is Merlin When I Need Him?’”, Benie B. Colvin notes that low self-esteem acts as a barrier to education for adult students. He acknowledges, “How the older student perceives him or herself, however, is critical to academic success” (23). Our emotional labor, our reassurance, can influence that perception and help students realize that they belong in the classroom.

As a college, we face new opportunities in which our emotional labor may be even more important. It can help us create a supportive environment that can promote both access and retention. Powell suggests “[i]t might be useful to think of access and retention as two sides of a Möbius strip—at any single point, each appears to be on its own discrete path, but if you follow a line on either side through to its endpoint, you realize that there is actually only one path and no real endpoint” (670). Our emotional labor can help our student negotiate this continuum even if we have to have a good night’s rest before we can respond to a frantic email.

Works Cited

Caswell, Nicole I., Jackie Grutsch McKinney, and Rebecca Jackson. “A Glimpse into the Working Lives of New Writing Center Directors.” Forum, vol. 18, no. 1, 2014, pp. A3-A7.

Colvin, Benie B. “Where is Merlin When I Need Him? The Barriers to Higher Education are Still in Place: Recent Re-Entry Experience.” New Horizons in Adult Education & Human Resource Development, vol. 25, no. 2, pp. 19-32.

Reichert Powell, Pegeen. “Retention and Writing Instruction: Implications for Access and Pedagogy.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 40, no. 4, 2009, pp. 664-682, Accessed 22 May 2017.

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