Don’t Under-recognize Professors’ Emotional Labor

Recent discussion and research has found that women, especially women teaching diversity classes, like me, do more than our fair share of emotional labor with students.  Researchers say this labor should be recognized and compensated.  The emotional labor I’ve invested in my students has helped them stay at Western Illinois University and complete their degrees.


Professors of Diversity Courses invested emotional labor in these students to help see them through to graduation.

Consider Helen’s* story.  Helen was not an “A” student, but she was caring, kind, and committed, and I knew she had enough academic skills to graduate.  As a woman of color and first generation college student, she understood intersectionality, a complicated theory that students from more privileged backgrounds struggle to master.

When I crossed paths with Helen in the quad last week, she hugged me.

“I was just telling my psychology professor about you,” she said, “I told him about that terrible day I was having, and how you walked with me to the counseling center, and how much that meant to me.”

“I’m a Women’s Studies professor, so helping students is my job.  And I had faith in you, so how could I not help you?” I said.

The last semester I’d had Helen in class, she was a freshman overcome with obstacles. She told me she might quit WIU and return to Chicago to take care of her mom.  The city of Macomb, she said, was forcing her to pay a $500 fine for fighting and drinking, but, she told me, she hadn’t been drinking.

I asked her about the fighting.  “I have to defend myself,” she said, but added, “I get so angry.”  She’s lean and petite, like me, so I understood  her need for self-defense.

“Something’s not right about this,” I had told her.  “I know you and trust you.  If you have to go to court again, let me know, and I’ll come with you.”  It wasn’t the first time I’d offered to accompany a student to court.  I didn’t want my students to feel alone in the courtroom, and I wanted the judge to know that a professor was willing to vouch for them.  I wanted the judge to see them as I did.  Often, just knowing I was wiling to vouch for them was enough to help restore a student’s confidence and grit.

At WIU, we compensate advising staff for coaching students in the qualities necessary to persist and graduate. We also employ counselors and many other support staff,  so why not compensate professors who do this work, as well?  Or at least recognize our emotional labor.

A Board of Trustees member recently suggested that WIU under-utilizes faculty (and he may be correct), but I wonder if, first, we should ask if WIU under-recognizes faculty, especially the emotional labor that professors of diversity courses invest in to help see our students through to graduation.  Only after we recognize all the labor faculty do, including emotional labor, will we have enough knowledge to evaluate the utilization of faculty.

WIU struggles with nuance.  WIU prefers to consider data and rubrics over stories and mentoring relationships.  But a university is made of people and people have stories to tell.  I’m thankful for Helen and her story.

For more on emotional labor in the diversity classroom, see my post at Inside Higher Education’s University of Venus blog.


This alumna returned to express her gratitude to the Department of Women’s Studies

*Not her real name

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