Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Affective Labor, Service and Privilege

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I do lots of stuff for free. And other stuff, I would refuse to do for free. It’s an intentional choice every time.

Recently, AMICAL awarded me this, which I am so proud of because they highlighted the work that I value most, work towards inclusivity and equity.

It reads volunteer service. And it’s sort of true. I don’t get paid directly for my work in AMICAL committees or the coordinating committee. But I do it with a lot of love for the community. However, I do get rewarded financially all the time, because I apply for grants to organize events or attend professional development and AMICAL covers this for me, and I get opportunities through AMICAL (not just me, but others also). It’s a really good and fair relationship where my affective labor is compensated, not super directly, but it’s kind of like this feeling of “we’ve got your back”. Part of it is all the social and cultural capital you develop from working deeply within an organization and community, but part of it is also AMICAL’s ethos of giving back to active members. It makes a huge difference and makes those members even more active. I would naturally give quite a bit. But the relationship really truly encourages me to keep giving more. It gets exhausting, sure. But it gives back, indirectly and directly, all the time.

I mention this because I recently recommended a couple of folks to do peer reviews for a journal. And they (early career folks) asked what the deal was, was it paid, how would it benefit them.

Now reviewing book proposals and books, you get paid for. Surprisingly little (get paid same for reviewing an entire book as I do reading a proposal, but !!!!). But articles in journals, you almost never get paid for. Occasionally, I get a discount voucher from the publisher.

I originally started doing peer reviews because it’s part of academia and I soooo wanted to “be an academic”. I still do. It’s silly. I mean, I am an academic, but it’s silly how much I want it. Anyway.

I am on the editorial board of like 6 journals, 3 of whom ask me to do peer reviews a lot. A few ask me occasionally. And I get invitations from all over for article reviews and book proposal reviews. It’s something I am proud of. An honor, right? It feels like an honor. And I honestly love doing the work. It’s something I love and dread at the same time. I love it because you learn so much from peer-reviewing! You learn what you’re reading which you may not read otherwise; if it’s something smack in your specialization, you read it earlier than it’s published! How cool is DAT! And you read it more critically than you normally would and learn to articulate your feedback in writing, hopefully constructively. The only journal that ever trained me on how to do peer reviews was Hybrid Pedagogy btw who do open peer review. But aside from everything here… you become an “insider” into the peer review process and again, part of academia.

If people stopped reviewing, where would we all be? If all the important busy ppl refused to review, we would end up w mediocre reviewers and thus lose the whole concept of credibility based on peer review. I mean, this system is entirely questionable. One of the reasons I participate in it is that my cultural position as a minority in the edtech field (woman from Egypt) allows me to include my perspective, one that would rarely be heard otherwise.

But this comes from privilege. Although I am an alt-ac (faculty but faculty developer role) mom, I somehow seem to make time for this. It is so often stressful to make these deadlines. I am often late doing it. I admit this to my students. Of course it is never my priority but I get around to it.

The one thing that helps me restrict how much of this I do is that I mainly review for open access journals. I do for a few that aren’t, but this is rare. The OA mandate, for me, is I’ll give my labor for free if you make the fruits of my labor free for others to use. Which is a way to pay me back by paying the world. Kinda.

So while I absolutely believe those of us who are privileged, or sufficiently privileged to peer review should continue to do this service, this unpaid affective labor, I wonder if it’s fairly distributed (Ok, I don’t wonder, I know!). And I know not everyone can afford to do it for free. And some who can afford to, choose not to.

Is it selfish? I think for every paper I publish, I am maybe doing 3 or 4 reviews. This seems fair, since my own papers get 2 or 3 reviews (I once got which was a nightmare, but that’s all behind us now and the paper is better for it. Whew).

But what is worse is when people agree to review then do a crappy review. Write a one liner that a paper is good or rubbish, or tick all the good boxes when it’s a mediocre paper.

One time, a journal editor emailed me to thank me for the thoroughness of my reviews. He said they don’t mind that I am often late, because I am usually so thorough. I was happy to hear it. But also realized i never get more than a perfunctory, automated thanks email most times. Except from Hybrid Pedagogy, but that’s an entirely different situation because we’re a community with close personal ties aside from the actual work we do together. But that’s also something. What if affective labor could be paid back by affect, the way the Hybrid Pedagogy community works for me? The moral support we offer each other, the other ways we recognize and amplify each other.

I guess maybe Virtually Connecting is that kind of space. It’s a heck of a lot of affective labor to make it work. But it’s a heck of a lot of affective labor coming back to each of us as well, and cultural and social capital that can eventually get you conference fee waivers, or job opportunities or keynote opportunities and so on.

The thing with double and single blind peer review is that no one but you and the editor know. Single blind (or double blind when you can guess the author) is particularly difficult in niche fields because you’re like, reviewing a book or article by a person at the same time you’re tweeting to them or guest speaking their class or meeting them at a conference or something. It’s kind of uncomfortable but also funny.

I recently examined two theses. I don’t belong to a department so I can’t supervise a thesis but I can be a reader/examiner and do it for several different departments when the topic falls within my general areas of expertise (pedagogy or technology, broadly speaking). I often enjoy these. It’s again so stressful to do it on time and it is unpaid and it is v emotional because you wanna help the student but you won’t pass mediocre work, etc. And one of them got in touch w me awhile after I examined her, with gratitude (she also said she heard I had a reputation of being difficult to please, which surprised me, but I just remembered now about another recent one I read where I did indeed ask for a lot of changes). Anyhow. She did say people also thought I was “nice” despite that (I am wondering if this is like feedback from a Rate AUC Professor facebook group because where would all these students find each other to talk about me when I examine like 3-4 theses a year only?).

I was wondering, though, how many people read the entire thesis and leave detailed in-text and overall comments? How many ppl are thorough in feedback but also gentle/constructive for the learner (two times I wasn’t, but it was not directly to the learner’s face, it was to supervisors who were personal friends). But here is more affective unpaid labor that is really loads of work.

In the same way that some academics are better researchers than teachers and vice versa, why isn’t anyone talking about those who are actually GOOD at service? Isn’t there value in serving the institution and the public? How little weight is put on this affective labor that literally makes the academic world go round.

And the last bit of affective labor of helping people deal with emotional problems and stress at work. Whether within department or outside it. Even maintaining a cheerful, positive outcome even as you protest injustice within the organization – that is a HECK of a lot of affective labor that makes the world go round.

And so I am inclined to believe that service should not be asked of those who don’t have privilege to afford it (that’s not me in most cases, but in a few extreme cases it’s me) and for those who can afford it but choose to do it poorly or not at all, I think part of it is they prioritize their own research (which you know would not make it to a conf if no one organized them, and would not make it to publication if no one reviewed it) or whatever. No one ever trains you on how to handle this whole service thing. It’s like it’s volunteer work and people can choose to skip it or lay it all on the junior faculty or whatever.

Not sure where I’m going with this. But needed to urgently publish this stream of consciousness.

Added 22 mins later. Found this from bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress:

Those of us in the academy from working-class backgrounds are empowered when we recognize our own agency, our capacity to be active participants in the pedagogical process. This process is not simple or easy: it takes courage to embrace a vision of wholeness of being that does not reinforce the capitalist version that suggests that one must always give something up to gain another.

bell hooks, p. 183 on Kindle

3 Comments

  1. Congratulations!!! Truly respect any act of volunteering and/or altruistic behaviors.

  2. Congratulations!
    A true inspiration for people around you ya Doctor, hope I have the same great growth mindset :))
    A real role model..

  3. I attended your session of students’agency yesterday at the AUC and you are really exceptional.

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