Recognition of academia’s ‘invisible labour’ is long overdue

We must ensure that academic citizenship becomes a key part of our job descriptions, on par with teaching, research and management, say Shari Boodts and Fleur Jongepier

Radboud University's avatar


6 June 2021
Time pressure. Many in academia are putting in huge numbers of hours that are not rewarded or even recognised
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Meet Harry. Harry is an assistant professor, no tenure yet − hopefully in a few years. According to his contract, Harry is supposed to spend 60 per cent of his working time teaching and 40 per cent on research. Academic reality, however, tells another story.

In the past two weeks, Harry was part of a hiring committee (which took eight hours), contributed to a report on student evaluations (two hours), peer-reviewed an article (six hours), attended an editorial board meeting (two hours) and had a number of chats with students who needed extra attention (three hours).

He was also invited to brainstorm postgraduate courses that his faculty wants to organise (two hours) and organised virtual drinks to boost morale (two hours). Furthermore, because all student papers are now required to be read by two sets of eyes, he corrected 20 extra papers (12 hours).

The university is thinking hard about open science policies − something Harry is very passionate about. He volunteered for the thinktank (two hours every two weeks). Finally, Harry co-authored an op-ed about rewarding invisible academic work (six hours). Harry’s total over the course of two weeks: 45 hours. That is, well over 50 per cent of his actual working time.

These 45 hours are considered simply “part of the job”. But none of those 45 hours is formally accounted for, nor are any of them properly recognised or rewarded. Because Harry does many so-called “extra” tasks in his working week, he ends up doing most of the core tasks outside paid working hours.

Also, when Harry is up for tenure, he will be assessed on his teaching and research output. As a result, Harry will soon realise that he has little incentive for doing all of this extra work. Of course, Harry is not alone − we’re all Harry in many respects. For most of us, our contracted workweek is a joke compared with what our actual work week looks like.

Much of this extra work, however, does constitute our core job. All of Harry’s extra activities have one thing in common: in doing them, he contributes to safeguarding and improving the quality and efficiency of academia in general and his university in particular. They are requirements of good academic citizenship. Many of these activities are indirectly linked to teaching, research and management (which is not even part of Harry’s contract) but are not part of those official categories in any straightforward way. Nevertheless, they play a fundamental role in making the university a desirable place to work and study.

It’s time we recognised them for what they are: crucial elements of being a good academic that deserve their own category and their own rewards. Right now, whether you do all of them or none makes no real difference to your chances of securing a tenured position or advancing in your career. A good academic, we are still inclined to think, is the top-publishing academic bringing in the money. And yet it’s clear that if everyone decided to stop doing all of the so-called extra work, the academic system would come crashing down.

To be clear: not all the invisible labour at universities is time well spent. Just as there are bullshit jobs, to borrow David Graeber’s phrase, there are ample bullshit tasks within the university’s (digital) walls. Bureaucracy in academia is still booming, and some rigorous decluttering is necessary. We need to look critically at our bureaucratic processes and how they have intensified, especially in (post-)pandemic times.

We also need to make sure that academic citizenship becomes an essential part of our job descriptions, on par with teaching, research and management. Ideally, when Harry comes up for tenure review, his dossier will include a record of his contributions to academic citizenship, and he and the tenure committee will have a conversation about how he works to safeguard and improve the quality of academia in his university and beyond.

Make no mistake, though: academic citizenship should not become yet another set of criteria on which we are evaluated. Not unless we actually get time allotted in our regular workweek to devote to these tasks.

The importance of proper recognition for academic citizenship applies not just to Harry and others on temporary contracts but also to tenured staff, such as Harriet, who’s on Harry’s tenure committee. Harriet is a full professor and department chair and has yearly performance reviews with her chair group (30 hours annually), is on the board of the women’s full professor network (two hours per week), has a mentor group of young female PhD students (two hours per week), organises lunches for young supervisors (one hour per week) and has been on 10 hiring committees this year – a lot more than her male colleagues because of the need for gender balance (100 hours so far). Also, as has been well documented by now, much of the care work both at her university and at home falls more heavily on Harriet’s (female) shoulders.

Harry and Harriet are exactly the types of colleagues we would want to have working beside us. But right now, the Harrys and Harriets of the academic world are getting depleted, and they will be – and are – leaving us.

It’s high time that invisible labour is made visible so that it might fall more fairly on everyone’s shoulders, so that genuinely good academics may be recognised and rewarded as such, and so that maintaining academia’s intellectual and moral standards does not require its workforce to sacrifice their precious free time.

Shari Boodts is senior researcher in medieval history at Radboud University Nijmegen, Netherlands, and co-chair of the university task force to rethink the recognition and rewards in academia.

Fleur Jongepier is assistant professor in digital ethics at the same university and co-chair of the Radboud Young Academy, which aims to improve working conditions, open sciences, diversity and social safety in academia.


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