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She Works Too Hard for the Money

When all life is work, when should we get paid and for what? For showing up at work? For the time it takes to travel there? For making it back home? For (not) sleeping through the night?

                                                                                    —Leigh Claire La Berge[1]

Shortly after starting as an executive assistant in development at a nonprofit organization in 2012—my first nonacademic job following a three-year postdoctoral position—I joked to my new boss one night after everyone else had gone home that she should only hire former academics because we have no idea how not to work all the time. She laughed, as I guessed she would. Ever the court jester, I like to think I know my audience and I knew that, while not an academic herself, she could relate. We were there working late together and, from the start, I found that I could identify with the way she identified with her work.

Of course, our perceived similarity also gives the lie to the academic exceptionalism underwriting my joke.[2] Being on the clock most of the time was no less automatic for my boss, a woman who had spent years working in corporate marketing and then nonprofit fundraising. The difference between us (other than our salaries, experience, and authority) was that I didn’t think of either the organization’s work or fundraising for it as my work. That proprietary feeling was reserved for the unpaid work I did in excess of my job—co-editing a special issue of a journal, researching and publishing in modernist studies, and applying for tenure-track faculty positions in hopes that my job and my work might intersect again one day.[3]

Still, none of this stopped me from leaping to assure my boss-to-be during my interview that I was fully prepared to give 110%. The catch was that my empty rhetoric ended up being sincere. Even if I wasn’t doing what I loved, I loved doing it well and felt invested in ways and to a degree that couldn’t be neatly contained. I cared, and was not very good at keeping either my hours or my cognitive and emotional expenditure to the confines of the paid workday.

That’s been even truer during the past two and a half years in my role as an acquisitions editor at a university press, where the job I was hired to do intersects more obviously with “my” work. I care about the books I help create and the people, fields, intellectual engagement, and scholar-activism I serve in the process. But I also worry about the cost of that caring—especially now.

As I write this, we are scrambling worldwide—and all too belatedly in the United States—to confront and hopefully curb the horrifically vast threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic. In the midst of this escalating emergency, workers in and around academia have been called on to go remote and maintain business as usual while thoroughly overhauling our daily routines without so much as a pause. Though well aware of how relatively lucky and privileged I and other salaried white-collar academic workers are at this moment, I also worry more generally about the conditions of academic work. I worry about how the so-called new normal exacerbates the structural inequalities of the old normal while also setting new precedents for exploiting our care and extracting the gift of our labor.

Having finished my PhD amid the global financial crisis in 2009, when tenure-track searches were canceled, hiring frozen, and budgets cut, never to be replenished, I watch now as word of similar actions trickles out. Brown University has announced a hiring freeze for the rest of this and next fiscal year; Quinnipiac University is making cuts to faculty and staff salaries—none of which bodes well for public schools, small colleges that are already struggling financially, or the ever-growing reserve army of casualized instructors. We have long known what the COVID-19 crisis further makes clear: the status quo is unsustainable, especially for those in precarious positions.

How much and for how long can academic workers continue to give and give and give?

Virginia Woolf's Writing Desk
Virginia Woolf's Writing Desk, Lisa Unger Baskin Collection, Rubenstein Library, Duke University, https://library.duke.edu/exhibits/2015/baskin. The collection documents 500 years of women’s work and is intended to complicate our understanding of that term by highlighting activities such as writing. As the image indicates, the Stone Family Gallery, where the desk is on display, is currently closed due to the coronavirus crisis. As we know, however, women's work continues elsewhere.

Work Is Not a Gift

I repeat: The dissolution of work-life boundaries, a culture of overwork, a love-hate relationship to one’s work that can be as torturous as it is satisfying, a feeling of profound personal investment and an expectation and exploitation of that investment (or at least its performance) on the part of employers—none of these phenomena is unique to academia. But academia is the institutional universe I have opted to inhabit and orbit for the past twenty-plus years, even when I have not been on its payroll.[4] Having spent a fair portion of this time thinking about ideas of generosity and gift-giving in modernist literature—not to mention working with actual gifts in fundraising—I worry about how some forms of academic work don’t get counted as work but instead get treated as if they were gifts.

I would define a gift as an expression of creativity or care that is irreducible to circuits of exchange and which harbors meaning or worth in excess of any commercial value. But I do not assume, as Lewis Hyde does, for example, in his incredibly popular book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, that gift economies necessarily exist apart from market economies. If anything, I tend to think (and Lee Konstantinou has suggested this, too) that Hyde’s claim about works of art—that they are above all gifts and not commodities and hence exist in two economies—is a late modernist expression of masculinist ideas about aesthetic autonomy that feed all too easily into the contemporary exploitation of creative work, including academic work.[5] For Hyde, the gift is fundamentally a free gift. By contrast, for someone like the French sociologist Marcel Mauss, whose 1925 Essai sur le don is often credited with inspiring a twentieth-century turn to theorizing gift-giving across disciplines, the idea that gifts are free—that they are unconstrained, disinterested, outside the market—is a Western and especially modern one.[6] But the Maussian gift is free and obligatory, generous and interested, contradictory and even impossible though such a thing may seem to us. For Mauss, work is a gift but that means it is bound up with exchange, that it deserves adequate compensation, that unemployment insurance should be widely and systematically institutionalized. The gift is a social and structural phenomenon, one best represented in the modern era by the rise of the welfare state, not the individual acts of kindness with which we tend to associate it.

It is precisely because we tend to think of gifts as things and gestures that radically break with our workaday routines and market logic that I worry about the increasingly commonplace idea that academic workers ought to be more generous in their thinking and actions. In some cases, these calls for generosity are aimed at tenured faculty who occupy relatively secure positions and can afford to be more generous—in their engagement with junior colleagues and staff, in their mentoring and support of graduate students, in their service work. Still, what it means to be tenured or tenure-track can vary dramatically from one institution to the next and the security of many is far from guaranteed, especially in this moment. In part for this reason, I cannot help but wish more such calls would begin with the recognition not only that we are all people but also that we are fellow workers with shared interests. I wish more such calls were—and hope they will be—issued in concert with adjunct, student, university press, librarian, departmental, dining, and other workers who make up the majority of the academic workforce and keep academia running under conditions of forced scarcity and austerity. I hope together we can aim them at the state governments, senior leadership, and administrators gutting our institutions and giving lip service to employee morale while withholding the thing that might actually boost it—i.e. money in the form of living wages, salaries, guaranteed stipends, cost-of-living adjustments, benefits, budget allocations, and access to scholarly resources.

Indeed, I fear that we have become so used to thinking of academic institutions as thoroughly corporatized, neoliberal entities that we neglect to see the extent to which they are already sustained and subsidized by the generosity of their workers. Colleges and universities depend on and exploit our genuine concern for students, authors, and colleagues; our love of teaching and scholarship; our commitment to education and knowledge. Roopika Risam has drawn attention to the role that academic generosity (and, with it, academic insurgency) has long played among scholars of color and argues that we would do well to recognize their contributions in our collective efforts to recover the value of higher education. I mean to register how generosity is generalized among and expected of academic workers more broadly, especially but not exclusively the 70% of instructors in non-tenure-track positions who shoulder the bulk of teaching but remain grossly undercompensated. The treatment of their labor as if it were a gift should give us pause before we idealize generosity without also asking who and what it serves.

Contingent labor was quite explicitly treated as a gift in two recent job ads for “volunteer” adjuncts at Southern Illinois University and Tulane Law School. Addressing the ads in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Leigh Claire La Berge writes, “The specter of a class of volunteer adjuncts arrives on the U.S. academic scene as the logical but no less haunting conclusion of four decades of stagnant wages, decreased funding for public education, and a problematic, oft-repeated assumption that teachers, and other ‘laborers of love,’ can always do more with less.”[7] 

We see more immediate examples of this assumption in the institutional responses to the coronavirus pandemic and the imperative to move all instruction online. The imperative to make other functions, like mine, remote came later, but carried the same assumption that workers would maintain continuity whatever their personal circumstances. In contrast to the volunteer adjunct listings, these imperatives are anything but voluntary; however, we might also ask just how voluntary so-called volunteer adjuncting is if it carries the implicit promise of experience and seems like it might someday be parlayed into a paying gig.

Anna Kornbluh notes that the shift from face-to-face to online instruction during the coronavirus crisis “conceals a tremendous labor intensification.” Yet in so doing it also reveals just how unfree, i.e. constrained, the gift of academic labor is. That is, the extraordinary breadth of the demand issued under the cover of continuity brings into relief how so much of our love for what we do is routinely coopted to serve the same corporatized institutional norms to which we are often vociferously opposed.

I say this not to elide the tension many of us feel between the generosity we try to bring to our work, on the one hand, and, on the other, the university in its current guise as neoliberal marketplace. This tension has been especially apparent to me of late on social media. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, contingent faculty and graduate students in particular have expressed feeling torn between a desire to serve and support their students, frustration with institutions that don’t deserve their fealty, and fears about their own uncertain futures. Eventually something has to give.

Myths of Modernism and Academic Work

My hunch is that some of our commonly held ideas about academic work being a gift of sorts—a labor of love, a calling, a passion—owe a debt to modernism. More precisely, I think they draw inspiration from a monolithic understanding of modernism as hostile to the market, an assumption that the field of modernist studies, and especially feminist modernist studies, has been chipping away at for decades now.

Though she does not use the term “gift,” the feminist philosopher Robin Zheng helpfully outlines the ideological conditions of academic work’s obfuscation as work in a way that will lead us back to the question of modernism.[8] Focusing on the United States, Zheng argues that, while linked to broader socioeconomic changes, such obfuscation is enabled by “factors internal to our own disciplinary ethos”—namely, the myth of meritocracy and the myth of work as its own reward (“Precarity,” 237). The first, as we know all too well, is the persistent, pernicious idea that “individuals’ varying levels of innate scholarly ability” determines their fate on the tenure-track job market (238). The second is the idea that academic work is “intrinsically gratifying” and hence “inherently different from other kinds of paid labor” (240).

This second myth inverts the imperative to Do What You Love (DWYL) theorized by Miya Tokumitsu. Tokumitsu argues that the DWYL credo invisibilizes unlovable work—“labor that is done out of motives or needs other than love,” i.e., most labor. By contrast, Zheng argues that the myth of work as its own reward renders lovable work invisible as work. It’s not work but something one feels fortunate to get paid to do—that is, if one gets paid much or at all to do it.

These myths contribute to the gendering of precarity and feminization of academic labor. Feminization is twofold. It means that women are overrepresented in non-tenure-track positions and that the conditions—and, indeed, the value—of traditional women’s work are generalized. As Zheng puts it, “growing casualization means that increasing numbers of faculty, both male and female [italics and binary in original], are now subject to the precarious, low-prestige piece-work conditions long endured by women and workers of color”—but not universally or evenly so (“Precarity,” 242). Though precarity is increasingly common among academic workers in general, the fact remains that women and faculty of color are underrepresented in tenure-track positions. And arguably those in tenure-track positions end up assuming a disproportionate amount of administrative and affective labor beyond the research, teaching, and service required for tenure.[9] But Zheng’s point stands: the gendered division of tenure-track versus non-tenure-track labor—and with it of research and writing versus teaching and service—is supported by comparably gendered myths of meritocracy and of work as its own reward. Merit is something that men are supposedly more likely to have, while women are “assumed to lack the ability, talent, motivation, or commitment to be scholars” (“Precarity,” 244).

If women are thus fated to fail in an academic meritocracy, they are nevertheless naturally inclined and drawn to the intrinsically rewarding carework of teaching and service—or so the story goes. It’s an old mythos just newly refashioned for the neoliberal academy. Men produce; women reproduce. Men create; women care.

According to this ideology, both masculine and feminine forms of academic work constitute gifts but not the same gift. Whereas men possess an individual talent (the myth of meritocracy), women make an offering for the sake of an offering (the myth of work as its own reward). As my allusions to T. S. Eliot’s essay on tradition and to Mrs. Dalloway’s party in Virginia Woolf’s novel begin to suggest, I suspect a myth of modernism can be and has been marshalled to support these myths of academic work.[10]

In a talk at the MSA conference in Toronto last fall, Laura Heffernan drew an explicit link between modernism and contemporary academic work. Recent rallying cries for post-critique, new varieties of formalism, techniques such as “surface reading,” and defenses of aesthetic experience are framed, she argued, as “a return to what has always been at the core of our profession and has been most ‘engaging,’ to use [John] Guillory’s words, to undergraduates in this era of engineered enrollment decline and other forms of devaluation and defunding.” As such, they supposedly mark a return to modernism and New Critical practices of apprehension and evaluation after a generation of critique and (new) historicism.

Yet as Heffernan demonstrated in her talk and has argued elsewhere in her collaborative work with Rachel Sagner Buurma, these disciplinary creation myths misrepresent the history of both modernism and English literary study. In a 2018 essay in PMLA, Heffernan and Buurma show how Eliot’s own individual talent in The Sacred Wood was actually shaped in previously unacknowledged ways by his experience teaching working class adults in an extension school.[11] In their conclusion to their forthcoming book, they further acknowledge the post-World War II institutional changes that “left both humanities faculty and the general public with a sense that humanities teaching and humanities research were vastly different, even incompatible activities.” Against the assumption of their incompatibility, Buurma and Heffernan show how English classrooms at all kinds of institutions have actually shaped the discipline, and how “classics of literary scholarship . . . were fundamentally shaped by classrooms in which professors turned their teaching to the particular interests, lives, and needs of particular groups of students.”[12]

For my part, I argue in my book, Returning the Gift: Modernism and the Thought of Exchange, that modernist women writers, including Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway, used figures and narratives of giving to counter gendered divisions of labor—divisions I would argue are parallel to those between research and teaching and between lovable and unlovable work. In the writing of Woolf, Jean Rhys, H. D., and, in a different way, Gertrude Stein, modernism is not, as is still sometimes assumed, synonymous with hostility to the market. Rather it works to give form to the “society” in market society at a moment when “the market” and “the economy” were coming to be understood as holistic systems. While often feminized and cast as women’s work, the various gifts at play in their writing—parties, looks, thoughts, kisses, artworks, words, favors, books, spiritual inheritances—are not antithetical to the world of exchange but intimately bound up with it.

Simply put, in modernist women’s writing, gifts saturate and sustain life under capitalism—and they still do for us, albeit in ways that continue to be obscured by the idea that certain kinds of work are gifts that exist outside exchange.

Coda: The Work of Writing

In her inaugural post on the In These Times blog, Debra Rae Cohen asks, “How can we insert the urgency of activism into our models of composition?” Given my reflections here on the mystification of academic work, I would ask a related question: How can we insert our labor into our models of composition?

As scholars, we have taken care to argue for a messier and more variegated modernism that dispenses with old gendered antitheses—modernism versus the market and mass culture, art versus commerce, production versus consumption, and, I would add, gifts versus exchanges. But I wonder how we as authors sometimes continue to presume and prop up these divisions, to think of our research as “our” work and diminish the traces of our labor in our writing, presenting our articles, monographs, and edited volumes as if they were gifts created ex nihilo. Our models of modernism have continually changed over the past forty years. Have our models of composition kept pace?

I come to this question as not only a scholar but also an editor who sees far more clearly now the full range and volume of creativity and care required for the publication of a single book—the conversations behind the scenes, the contingencies authors may happily never hear about, the sheer number of people who touch a manuscript both directly and indirectly, each of whom has their hands in dozens of other books at different stages. Far clearer, too, are the similarities in the institutional situations of many authors and publishers. As I am wont to say: if you are in a humanities department and find yourself juggling more and more work amid attrition, hiring freezes, and budget cuts, and there is a university press at your school, you can bet that it is confronting similar conditions.

As an editor, I am convinced that publishing has a potential role to play in challenging the ideological divisions that so often subtend scholarly work and conceal its legibility as work. I find myself thinking more and more about how we might inscribe the conditions of scholarly production in our writing. I don’t just mean in notes and acknowledgments, the two places for registering debts and labor that typically come to mind when I tell people this. Are those enough? Where can we make room in our essays and books for other people—co-authors, collaborators, interlocutors, and influences? Where can we create space for activities like teaching, service, and the myriad forms of labor that make the labor of writing possible and at times impossible? How can our genres be reworked to accommodate the actual breadth of our work?

To be clear, I ask these questions having done none of these things in my own monograph. I wrote a book about gifts while working in fundraising and, while I can see the latter’s imprint everywhere, a reader would never know it beyond a couple gestures of gratitude toward my former supervisors in the front matter.

I did not practice what I am now preaching. But I am also wary of preaching what one should or should not do when it comes to scholarly writing. Having spent years—years—figuring out how to get a peer-reviewed article published, I’m reluctant to impose prescriptions, as if cracking the codes of academic genres weren’t hard enough. I’m also all too aware of how far a job can take one from one’s chosen field and how gratifying it can feel to immerse oneself in the specialized work one has trained to do.

Nevertheless, I think it crucial for us to ask at this moment, as we see our colleagues in fields like Romanticism and Medieval and Early Modern Studies asking, who is our collective work for? What shared interests do we want our generosity to serve?


I owe very big thanks to Alix Beeston, Ben Wilson, and Debra Rae Cohen for their thoughtful and speedy feedback on this essay, especially during such an exceptionally stressful and scary time, and to Jackie Ardam, Manu Chander, Heather Froehlich, Deanna Koretsky, Anna Kornbluh, Kathryn Nogue, and many more comrades and friends online for their support and encouragement during the writing of it.

[1] Leigh Claire La Berge, Wages Against Artwork: Decommodified Labor and the Claims of Socially Engaged Art (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), 27.

[2] Though the term “academic exceptionalism” is widely used, I’m personally grateful to Alex Corey for adding it to my vocabulary.

[3] In an essay for The New Inquiry, Nick Mitchell calls attention to the tendency of academics to think of their research and writing as their own, particularly during so-called summer vacation. Summer “marks that moment in the seemingly natural rhythms of academic life when I can, at long last, throw myself into my own work, the logical conclusion [being] that teaching and other forms of ‘service’ belong to something other than the self.” I haven’t had an institutionally designated summer vacation since 2012 but I’m still subject to the illusory appeal of the summer self. Then again, my not being employed by an academic institution while continuing to do academic work potentially shifts the terms of Mitchell’s discussion. In some respects, my work has been truly my own, but especially early on that feeling of ownership went hand in hand with feeling disowned by academic institutions.

[4] Though it may surprise many readers, this is actually the case now as well in my role as an acquisitions editor at a state system university press. I am not a university or state employee. Rather, press personnel and business functions are administered by a private nonprofit research foundation that is connected to the university system. We are, however, an academic unit of, and report to, the system’s Central Administration. What all of this means most immediately for me as a scholar is that, while I have physical borrowing privileges at the local campus library, I don’t have a NetID, which is the gateway to electronic resources and services such as Interlibrary Loan. I do have select access to some Project MUSE and JSTOR resources via the press and my undergraduate institution. I am in what many consider a “gatekeeper” role but continue to face challenges in getting past the gates myself.

[5] See Lee Konstantinou, “Lewis Hyde’s Double Economy,” ASAP/Journal 1, no. 1 (2016): 130–02, and Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World (New York: Vintage Books, 2007).

[6] Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. W. D. Halls (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990).

[7] Both La Berge’s article and the article by Anna Kornbluh I link to later in this section were published in the Chronicle Review and are behind a Premium paywall. In the case of La Berge’s this is especially ironic given its focus on adjuncts, many of whom may not have access through their institutions depending on the conditions of their employment. That’s assuming the institutions for which they work have access, which, given shrinking library budgets, they may not. (I have access through a system administration subscription.) See Leigh Claire La Berge, “From Low Wage to No Wage,” Chronicle Review, 8 Nov. 2019; and Anna Kormbluh, “Academe’s Coronavirus Shock Doctrine,” Chronicle Review, 12 Mar. 2020.

[8] Robin Zheng, “Precarity is a Feminist Issue: Gender and Contingent Labor in the Academy,” Hypatia 33, no. 2 (2018): 235–55. I am grateful to Alix Beeston for sending me a copy of this article when I was unable to access it.

[9] Kim F. Hall calls attention to the expectations placed on tenure-track faculty of color at her home institution of Barnard College, which is unique in granting tenure through Columbia University, meaning candidates essentially must satisfy the demands of both a liberal arts college and a Research-1 university. Faculty of color additionally perform various forms of “hidden labor” (e.g., mentoring students of color and white students interested in race, “fixing” the problem of diversity on campus, being a role model for black students). Kim F. Hall, “Making Labor Visible,” in Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure, ed. Patricia A. Matthew (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 277–79.

[10] Notably, Alix Beeston also draws on Zheng to connect modernism to academic precarity. In her introduction to a recent issue of Feminist Modernist Studies, Beeston writes, “To the extent that contemporary precarity receives from and redoubles the historical conditions of women’s work, the experiences of contingent academics and other casualized workers today refer to, and are imbricated with, the experiences of women workers in the past – including in modernism.” If for Zheng, precarity is a feminist issue, for me, as for Beeston, it is also a modernist issue. See Alix Beeston, “Introduction: Working the Trap,” “Modernist #MeToo and the Working Woman,” Feminist Modernist Studies 2, no. 3 (2019): 304–13.

[11] Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan, “The Classroom in the Canon: T. S. Eliot’s Modern English Literature Extension Course for Working People and The Sacred Wood,” PMLA 133, no. 2 (2018): 264–81.

[12] Many thanks to Heffernan for permission to cite from her MSA talk, and to Heffernan and Buurma for sharing a draft of, and letting me quote from, the conclusion to their book.