Sunday, 29 September 2019

Emotional labour: crying in the classroom

My A level English Literature teacher was a man by the name of Omi Gumbeer. He had been born in India and had, as a child and teenager, fallen under the spell of certain books. One was Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, which, he told the class, had made him cry at the famous point at which the bodies of Little Father Time and the other children were discovered. Hardened 16-year-olds, we found this a bit strange, even absurd. Crying at a book?

I was reminded of Omi Gumbeer this week when my wife Deniz started to re-read Jude. (I found it a frustrating novel, when I read it some years ago, because Hardy's reading of the social scene seemed to have no gaps, no space outside.) Deniz, who teaches literature at a university and has done for over 25 years, often cries when she reads books. She sometimes feels emotional in the seminar room, discussing them with students. I never do. Well, almost never: I cried once, reading The Amber Spyglass to my daughter.

I have been wondering why that is, considering I've been teaching literature for 20 years and studying and reading it for nearly twice as long. I'll cry at the most shamelessly manipulative emotional cues during children's animation films, while recognising the most hackneyed set-ups for what they are. But powerful emotional writing? No.

I think the reason is that I have a very complicated relationship with words. In a way, for me words have been a way of not communicating emotion. I have hidden behind words. But words have also failed me at times of stress or upset: when I feel anxiety, it often goes to my jaw, which becomes clenched tight; and as a boy, after moving schools, I developed a stutter for a short time, which I eventually grew out of or moved past (though occasionally traces can be heard). I remember this as feeling that words jammed together, got stuck, and couldn't come out.

I don't tend to show deep emotion when I teach or lecture, though I have been known to make classes laugh, and I am quite animated/ enthusiastic. It is, in many ways, a performance, one I've become quite expert in, and one whose techniques have kept me afloat in the worst days of anxiety and depression. I don't think I'm alone in this, in academia.

As is well known, when it comes to emotional labour in academic life - the pastoral care of students in particular - that work is gendered. Women colleagues do far more of these jobs than men, and the work they do is commonly under-valued. I think this is symptomatic of a general suppression of emotional bonds in academic life that has been accelerated by the bureaucratic changes of the last decades, with REF, TEF, audit culture, league tables, and grant application metrics setting colleague against colleague, institution against institution.

Last year, at our departmental away-day, I made an impromptu and impassioned speech/ plea in favour of increasing collegiality, of trying to sustain the affective bonds of care and friendship that had been so visible and sustaining during the 2018 strike. I think my colleagues were surprised by it, but were sympathetic to the sentiments I expressed, and in some ways it was the first breach in the dam of feelings which came to a head by the end of the year.

Reading today about the egregious and exploitative behaviour of the current Prime Minister in relation to young women, it only strengthens my sense that the affective boundaries in situations of power have to be very strong - between lecturer and student, between supervisor and supervisee, for instance. Being in loco parentis is a position of trust that myself and my colleagues take very seriously. But as I have said above, in relation to pastoral work, there is a relation of care that is absolutely vital in the academic setting, both between colleagues and between staff and students.

Something that doesn't often get mentioned these days, I think, partly because the government has long encouraged students to think in terms of their relation to their studies as an economic one (they are customers for our services) is that many students care for us, their lecturers. It was incredibly heart-warming to find students on the picket line with us last year, but even without this level of political commitment, the relation between teacher and student is more than an economic one: we're not shopkeepers. In fact, it has to be more than an economic one to be successful.

As we know, the university system as currently constituted is a sick system: it makes students unwell and it makes staff unwell. The veneers of 'professionalism' mask a re-organisation of higher education that repressed the affective bonds of the community in favour of what Carlyle called the 'cash nexus'. This leads to problems with mental health, with depression and anxiety; it leads to burnout and colleagues leaving academia; it leads to a shrinking and diminishing of what the university should be.

I don't think I will be crying in the classroom - I'm not wired that way, as a cyberpunk character once said. But I will be thinking about those affective communal bonds when I teach, and I will when I begin my MA classes tomorrow.

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