“You’re not interrupting my real work. You are my real work.”
What does all of this mean for the way we think the labour of an academic feminist? If we coalesce the above examples of building students’ critical thinking skills and meeting students where they are in the process of discovering feminism, a primary theme emerges: teaching is student-centered and often requires privileging student process over the instructor’s political agenda. It’s all about the students.
I include a line in my syllabus that reads, “You’re not interrupting my real work. You are my real work.” And that’s where the divide between the visible and invisible labour of an academic feminist breaks down. The students are the real work. It’s impossible to belabour this point. There’s this myth that teaching is a vocation — that people do it because they love it, and if you love your job you’ll never work a day in your life. But I’m here to tell you that it’s hard work. Students — and the rest of the feminist community — often don’t see it as such because it looks like real life. Stay with me here…
In some disciplines, students easily separate classroom content from the “real” world. For example, when I took Algebra I spent most of the semester wondering how I’d ever use that information in real life. Women’s Studies doesn’t often have that problem, because we talk about real life. We bond. We share and struggle together. It’s even sometimes fun. But those classroom experiences don’t happen organically. We design and curate learning experiences for students — those “ah-ha” moments in class don’t happen by accident. We read student writing, carefully crafting comments that will both encourage them, correct logical leaps and sweeping analyses, and (sometimes) gently steer them away from stuff that’s just plain wrong. We sit on curriculum committees, advocating for inclusive courses and diverse learning experiences for students. We fight like hell for students to be able to sit in a Women’s Studies classroom, because that opportunity is almost always under attack. Much of this work is invisible to students and the larger feminist community, who are often disappointed in the way we show up (or don’t) in more visible activist circles and online debates. But here’s where the proverbial rubber meets the road: our labour is present, even when we’re not.
I have a dear friend and colleague who also works in higher education, teaching students to be activists and community organizers. When her students post on social media about their activism, she’s started responding with #JanesLabor to make the work she does visible. The students are our real work. I’m not trying to take credit for the work students do — rather, I’m making visible the product of the biggest time and energy investment made by many academic feminists: students in the world making a difference. You are the work we put forward in the world. And we love the work we do. We love you! But give us a little credit. If only because much of women’s labour goes unrecognized and is undervalued. We taught you that — it was on the exam.