It’s standard in the world of academia to register clout by outcomes such as publications, degrees, grades, awards, job offers, or tenure. These outcomes symbolize an individual’s personal and scholarly successes, which we assume they earned via dedication, intelligence, hard work, and other nouns that stand for “excellent.” It will probably not surprise you to learn that I have complicated feelings about this exchange system.
While we are apt to openly acknowledge and rewarded such accolades “in the scenes” of our resumes, CVs, online bios, and introductions, we are less likely to recognize our “behind the scenes” labor. In fact, we may downplay our hidden labor to others. We may feel guilty about the amount of resources we expend, or we may privately resent the background work that we must complete before we can do the “real” work of writing and revising.
Why do we do this?
We lack a clear guide for how to value certain behind the scenes labors.
A large percentage of my readership are graduate students who are working on outcomes-based projects, but I think this post will be helpful to anyone who is working on projects that include behind the scenes labor processes. While this week’s blog post will not offer all of the answers, I hope my practical guidance can contribute to your personal recognitions of behind the scenes labor and contribute to a larger shift in academia and creative business.
A Note on Privilege & Behind the Scenes Labor
When I talk about “labor” in this post, I refer to the expenditure of resources—emotional, physical, focus, energy, stamina, patience, willpower, money, etc.—in service of reaching a goal. It is important to note that while I do experience challenges that require specific kinds of labor (for examples, chronic pain, mental illness, recovery from workaholism, and my struggle to balance work/healing/grad school), I do not share some difficult labor that others may experience, such as parenting, care-taking for loved ones, or working a job that requires a lot of physical output. Also, as a white, upwardly-mobile, coupled, “normatively feminine”-presenting, cis, thin woman with multiple graduate degrees and access to salaried work, I have a lot of privilege that many people do not have access to due to racism, classism, xenophobia, transphobia, and other systemic oppressions. This doesn’t erase my struggles, but it absolutely affects the amount and type of behind the scenes labor that I perform. For an important take on how white people and people of color experience behind the scenes labor and burnout differently, please read Tiana Clark’s “This is What Black Burnout Feels Like.”
Valuing Process Versus Product
As you know, I am fascinated with learning how to best approach and tackle a big project. This is both because I’m writing a dissertation and a biography (two big projects) and because I want to coach others in completing big projects from start to finish—with a big emphasis on the messy in between part of the process.
Alison Miller breaks down the differences between “process” and “product” in her piece, “Stop Confusing the Dissertation Process with the Product.” She writes that “[w]hen you read someone else’s dissertation, published journal article, or book, you only see the end product without bearing witness to the false starts, rough drafts, feedback from others, and many rounds of revision that occurred” (emphasis added). I love Miller’s use of the phrase “bearing witness” here. Like tend, the verb “bear witness” has a dual definition:
1. to show that something exists or is true ( [i.e.,] His success bears witness to the value of hard work; Rising ticket sales bear witness to the band’s popularity.)
2. to make a statement saying that one saw or knows something ([i.e.,] asked to bear witness to the facts; She was accused of bearing false witness at the trial.)
When we bear witness to the process work that we and others do, we honor effort and practice, rather than simply honoring output.
What Behind the Scenes Academic Labor Looks Like For Me
In the scenes labor to be expected when writing a dissertation includes reading thousands of pages or spending a vast amount of time in a lab, analyzing material, developing a theory or method, drafting, revising, editing, and defending your dissertation. Outcomes are usually measured by word, page, and chapter length, one’s ability to communicate their progress and their project to others, and hitting deadlines. Any graduate student can complete the call and response of “a good dissertation is a done dissertation,” but let’s please recognize that if a done dissertation outcome is hundreds of pages, that it took immense labor to get to get there. In my case, a lot of this work is emotional.
As you may know, I am learning every single thing I can about a queer femme ancestor whom I love and respect so that I can write her biography. Before I do that, though, I’m using my archival research to write a dissertation in a Rhetoric program.
Academic elevator pitch time: My dissertation utilizes a queer rhetorical lens and theories of circulation and argues that Lisa Ben’s multiple creative genres (1) rhetorically challenged dominant discourses about gender/sexuality and thereby (2) reeducated audiences about “the lesbian” by (3) circulating counterdiscourses about sexuality during the 1940s-1960s.
*GASP FOR AIR.*
With less jargon and more feeling: I am fascinated with the impact queer creations have on building, nourishing, and protecting queer communities. Queer art, writing, performance, creation, etc. matters very much to me. Recording and sharing queer and feminist histories means very much to me. Lisa Ben’s story means very much to me, and I want to share her story with others, because I think it will mean very much to them.
Although we often think of things like publications, presentations, and dissertations as outcome-based, their behind the scenes labor can take physical, emotional, mental, and psychological tolls if we do not acknowledge them as labor.
I am extremely emotionally invested in this project. Anyone who has seen me present on my Lisa Ben research at departmental meeting knows that I almost always cry. Not because of fear or anxiety (although, if that was the case that would also be okay), but because I just love and respect her so damn much. (Did you know that when she passed away there was no obituary? It absolutely breaks my heart. We owe her more than that.)
We do not usually talk about our emotional connection to our research. Why is that?
Having read Ben’s archive from her youth until her elder years and death, I’ve beared witness to a number of powerful things: she pulled back from the queer community as she aged, she had cancer and underwent a mastectomy surgery, she kept records of the books she read and movies she saw, she had her heart broken as a young woman when her lover left her for a man, she dedicated herself to caring for stray cats in her older age, and perhaps most powerful to me, she was a lifelong creative who used writing and music to process emotions, entertain others, and challenge oppression. It is often difficult for me to objectively read her materials because reading her archive requires reverence. This means that I need to take regular breaks from my research to ground myself in the present, to walk around, and to process what I’ve read with someone else. This also means that I cap my archival reading to 2-3 hours/day.
How to Start Valuing Your (& Others’) Behind the Scenes Labor
Recognize that your “zero drafts” are real drafts. Whenever I write, I start by concept mapping and outlining. These tasks require focus, energy, time, and critical thinking, and they actually work much better for me than simply sitting down to crank out prose. Thus, I value them as drafting, and I allow my students to submit concept maps and outlines as first drafts of papers. (Writing teachers, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the critical thinking you receive if you value these types of writing as drafting.)
Monitor and recognize ALL of your labor output. If you’re in academia, you probably are required to exchange reports or papers for outcomes-based rewards, such as grades and the permission to progress in your degree. While all of your time in the lab or the library may feel counterproductive, it definitely is labor.
Hadassah Damien, the kickass financial coach who taught me how to pay off my credit cards once and for all, drops some satisfying truths in her recent blog post “Four Ways to Keep Your Hustle from Leading to Burnout.” She asks her readers to value their behind the scenes labor when it comes to building new things: “Don’t let those instagram ladies mess with your head: Getting a fabulous (or any) career, trying to run a small business, or stewarding a project is L-A-B-O-R and it takes time and energy.”
One of Damien’s methods for preventing burnout is to “Compare the money a hustle brings in against ALL the hours it takes.” Here’s one way she does it: “I account for EVERY hour – not just billable/client/on stage ones. The hours writing, admin, working, learning … every hour. And, I track revenue after material costs.” For a writer or creative, this means counting reading, research, and taking courses as labor—not just the outcome of a final draft or a job offer.
Educate others about behind the scenes labor. I used to feel a lot of shame around my chronic pain. I wanted to hide it from my professors and my colleagues. Once I started writing about it openly on social media and this blog, I felt more empowered to talk about it in scholarly spaces. I requested a standing desk at work, informed my bosses that I could only work in shorter shifts, and told trusted advisors and colleagues about my chronic pain journey so they had a better idea of what to expect from me. If you also experience chronic pain or illness, it may be helpful to use the spoons theory to communicate with others about hidden labors (I cover it here).
Measure labor in time or effort, not outcome. I measure my dissertation labor by time, not by outcome. Although I have long-term goals (my January goal is to read through all of my Lisa Ben archive documentation), instead of saying “read one folder of materials,” I say “read for two Pomodoro sessions” (25 minutes on, 5 minutes break). Some days, I hit my daily goals for my dissertation work within an hour. Sometimes, I work for hours and only hit one goal. I am working hard on shifting my perspective around what counts as “doing work” by reseeing it as an ongoing process.
Acknowledge other people’s behind the scenes labor. Shift away from an outcomes-only perspective by inquiring about other people’s behind the scenes labor tasks. Ask them about their processes. Tell them you are proud of them for all of their labor, not just their final outcome. This is particularly important for friends who are applying for jobs, submitting proposals, or trying new challenges. Try to make discussing processes the norm in public settings or meetings where it may seem taboo to do so. This is how we can shift the system.