An Open Letter to Higher Education Administrators

I’m a retired faculty member so I can afford to speak bluntly, unlike friends, colleagues, and clients currently teaching in U.S. higher education.

The pandemic has now lasted approximately 1.5 academic years—longer than most of you likely expected it to (or hoped it would) back in late February-early March of 2020. Staff and faculty pulled off a miracle; they pivoted an entire section of the educational institution in the US to a digital format in a very few weeks. You were surely there too, helping to create new policies or exemptions to old ones so that higher education could be as flexible in pedagogy and personnel matters as it needed to be. So congratulations. You made it through Spring 2020.

Then came Fall 2020 and Spring 2021—where some students were welcomed back and faculty had to deliver most content using face-to-face and online pedagogy simultaneously. Campus life—well it existed, sometimes even flourished—with some residential students, collegiate sports returning, and the campus social life reappearing (albeit hopefully in masks!).

But these classes were exhausting—balancing time between face-to-face and online students demanded more time, energy, and emotional labor from faculty. Staff too suffered, helping nervous students return and supporting them as they each found their relationship between the life they wished for and the COVID life they were living. Staff and faculty worked hard together to deliver excellence in teaching and learning.

And now Fall 2021 is coming up fast. So I have more than a few questions to ask you:

-How will you offer substantial assistance (not just “happy talk” or “we support you”) to exhausted faculty, some of whom are in emotional distress? And I don’t just mean a few individuals who you can encourage to go to the Counseling Center. I mean that many of the body of faculty at your institution are likely in need of administrative interventions to reduce their stresses. What programs will you begin immediately? Are you willing to hire new staff to do this, because the last thing anyone else needs is to get assigned such necessary but stressful programs and told to deliver them soon? Don’t wait for the faculty to ask you to consider again promotion and tenure timetables—you bring it up. Will you be educating department heads/chairs about what emotional labor is and how exhausting it can be? Don’t know what I mean? See the bottom of this post for some of what your summer reading list might want to include.

-How will you address a student body, many of whom are both demanding more from faculty while simultaneously wanting to be independent as college students are wont to do, and who are more motivated to speak out, speak up, and sometimes crash through normal boundaries when they do so? How will you find new voices and actually listen to them?

-Many (all?) campuses have long-simmering tensions about race, sexuality, gender, income inequality, and disability issues which are now coming more to the fore. Are you ready for meaningful discussion and then a firm commitment to change? Meaningful discussion means listening without having to “clarify” or “respond” – just feel your community’s humanity (and they should reciprocate) and how institutional “best practices” can cause hurt, confusion, and discrimination. Don’t justify—enter into dialogue.

-Are you prepared to enter into negotiations with a campus community that is now, more than ever, aware of the need for free or low-cost campus child-care for students, staff, and faculty? Your community is likely not just aware of the need but will be demanding it to teach and learn successfully (i.e., the mission of the university). That means, by the way, that child-care should be open whenever the campus is open, not just 9:00 – 5:00 p.m.

-Are you ready to be more present on your campus? Presence can build respect. Pro tip: being seen during the first day of class (with or without offering food) and at graduations, don’t count.

-And speaking of presence, are you being a faculty-scholar and teaching at least one class most terms? That would be a truly meaningful example of presence for the entire campus.

Please don’t cop out with “I have a busy schedule.” Can you look at faculty who taught, while homeschooling their children, while caring for their families, students, and others from their kitchens for sixteen months, and say that? Or look at some of your students who were essential workers in the worst of COVID and yet who logged into class and dutifully turned in their assessments on time? Or look many of your staff in the eyes—staff who kept the software running, the rooms disinfected, answered all the pedagogical and technological questions from the rest of the campus community—and say that you are too busy? That excuse will likely seem pretty lame from here on out.

So, administrators – your faculty and staff have been stepping up for the past fifteen months. They are exhausted, stressed, and need relief. I’m not saying you all have had it easy, but…. Now it’s your turn to put in the work to create a better campus environment for all by the start of Fall 2021. Are you ready?

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.

Some Suggestions for a Summer Reading List on Emotional Labor and Teaching

Allen, R., Jerrim, J., & Sims, S. 2020. How did the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic affect teacher wellbeing? (CEPEO Working Paper No. 20-15). Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities, UCL,

Answer, Megha. 2020. Academic Labor and the Global Pandemic: Revisiting life-work balance under COVID-19. Susan Bulkeley Butler Center for Leadership Excellence and ADVANCE Working Paper Series 3(2):5-13.

Bellas, Marcia L. 1999. “Emotional Labor in Academia: The Case of Professors.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 561(1), 96-110.

Beeman, Angie. 2021. ‘If only we are brave enough to be it’: Demanding more from diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts to support women faculty of color. Critical Sociology

Biber, Duke D., Melton, Bridget, and Czech, Daniel R. 2020. The impact of COVID-19 on college anxiety, optimism, gratitude, and course satisfaction. Journal of American College Health doi:10.1080/07448481.2020.1842424

Brown, Elizabeth Levine, Christy Galleta Horner, Mary Margaret Kerr, and Christina L. Scanlon. 2014. “United States’ Teachers’ Emotional Labor and Professional Identities.” KEDI Journal of Education Policy 11(2):205-225.

Cardona, Gema. 2020. The emotional labor of race-gender dialogue in higher education. Berkeley Review of Education 10(1),

Devault, Marjorie L. 1999. Comfort and struggle: Emotion work in family life. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 561(1), 52-63.

El‐Alayli, A., Hansen‐Brown, A.A., and Ceynar, M. 2018. “Dancing Backwards in High Heels: Female Professors Experience More Work Demands and Special Favor Requests, Particularly from Academically Entitled Students.” Sex Roles 79(3–4):36–150. 

El-Sabawi, Taleed and Fields, Madison. 2021 The Discounted Labor of BIPOC Students & Faculty (March 22). 109 California Law Review Online 2021, Forthcoming. or

Hayden, Sara, & Lynn O’Brien Hallstein. 2021. An ode to academic mothers: Finding gratitude and grace in the midst of COVID-19. In Mothers, Mothering, & COVID-19: Dispatches from the Pandemic, edited by Fiona J. Green & Andrea O’Reilly. Demeter Press.

King, Molly M., & Frederickson, Megan E. 2021. The pandemic penalty: The gendered effects of COVID-19 on scientific productivity. Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World.

Lachlan, Lisa, Kimmel, Lois, Mizrav, Etail, and Holdheide, Lynn. 2020. Advancing quality teaching for all schools: Examining the Impact of COVID-19 on the teaching workforce. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research.

Levine-Brown, Elizabeth Floyd. 2011. Emotion Matters: Exploring the emotional labor of teaching. Doctoral dissertation. University of Pittsburgh.

Mahoney, K. T.,. Buboltz, W. C, Buckner V, J. E., and Doverspike, D. 2011. “Emotional labor in American professors.” Journal of Occupational Health Psychology 16(4), 406-423.

Minello, A. 2020. “The Pandemic and the Female Academic.” Nature. 

Newcomb, Michelle. 2021. The emotional labour of academic in a time of a pandemic: A feminist reflection. Qualitative Social Work 20(1-2):639-644.

O’Reilly, Andrea. 2020. ‘Trying to function in the unfunctionable: Mothers and Covid-19.” Journal of the Motherhood Initiative 11(1):

Pope-Ruark, Rebecca. 2020. Beating pandemic burnout.

Power, Kate. 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the care burden of women and families. Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy 16(1):67-73.

Pressley, Tim. 2021. Factors contributing to teacher burnout during COVID-19. Educational Researcher

Ravitch, Sharon M. 2019. Flux pedagogy: Transforming teaching and leading during coronavirus. Perspectives on Urban Education 17:1-15.

Staniscuaski, F. , Reichert F., Werneck F.P., de Oliveira L., Mello‐Carpes P.B., Soletti R.C., Almeida C.I., Zandona E., Ricachenevsky F.K., Neumann A., Schwartz I.V.D., Tamajusuku A.S.K., Seixas A., and Kmetzsch L. 2020. “Impact of COVID‐19 on Academic Mothers.” Science.

Topping, A. 2020. “Working Mothers Interrupted More Often Than Fathers in Lockdown—Study.” The Guardian.

Viglioni, G. 2020. “Are Women Publishing Less during the Pandemic? Here’s What the Data Say.” Nature.

Vincent‐Lamarre, P., Sugimoto, C. R., and Larivière V. 2020. “Monitoring Women’s Scholarly Production during the COVID‐19 Pandemic.”

Wiegand, K., Lisle, D., Murdie, M. and Scott J. 2020. “Journal Submissions in Times of COVID‐19: Is There a Gender Gap?” Duck of Minerva.

Wharton, Amy S. 1999. The psychosocial consequences of emotional labor. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 561,158-176.

Wharton, Amy S. 2009. The sociology of emotional labor. Annual Review of Sociology 35, 147-15.

Yin, Hongbiao, Shunghua Huang, and Gaowei Chen. 2019. “The relationships between teachers’ emotional labor and their burnout and satisfaction: A meta-analytic review.” Educational Research Review 28\

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s