Make sure the background is clean and generic, and make sure to remove any family photographs, or anything that might be a distraction.

I try not to write much about the place where I work, but this week my employer has produced a video about how to video from home, and I’ve watched it, open-mouthed. As we’re prompted to more thoughtfully stage our houses for teaching and meetings, the illustration of what can go wrong is a blurry woman picking up laundry in the background. She’s using a laundry basket that would barely fit a pair of boots. He’s right: it’s so wrong it’s distracting.

Who is this in the background of your home working space? Is it you?

This comes at me on a Friday evening, five weeks in to working from home. I’m sagging at the desk where I’ve been sitting all week, turning off my camera in meetings so I can stretch my shoulders and rub my eyes. Video meetings and their to-be-looked-at-ness—to bring back a very retro bit of feminist film theory—are really draining. We’re all sharing stories of headaches, eye strain, insomnia.

This desk where I now spend all my time is wedged between the bathroom and a bedroom. Visible over my shoulder, there’s a small freezer that we never figured out how to fit in the kitchen—not the stylish home office furnishings that my employer hopes to see. I am so close to the wall shared with the bathroom and washing machine that anyone meeting me on video can hear the jaunty electronic chirp when the cycle’s done.

Because I spend time on video calls, my family has developed a signal system involving a rainbow flag jammed into a jar when the camera’s on. When it’s up, they’re meant to stop themselves from wandering into shot accidentally, cleaning their teeth, carrying laundry. But all through the day, video meetings pop up unscheduled and our signalling system fails.

“Are you talking to someone?” they shout from the kitchen, when they need to pass through the background of the space where I work.

“Are you wearing pants?” I whisper back.

2.

In April, an unfortunate column in Inside Higher Ed also zoomed in (if we can still say this word innocently) on the visible laundry problem.

Your piles of unattended laundry are not trophies for the amount of time you are putting into your coursework. They are distractions, signs of disorganization and, quite frankly, unsightly and off-putting. Educators, please rethink your approach to your students. In these trying times, the last thing that they need to see is their adult, professional, highly educated instructor falling apart at the seams.

Readers responded harshly to this. The adult, professional, highly educated instructor was so obviously gendered it was exhausting. Comments closed, and the writer retreated. She was joking, she said, the nuance of her tone was lost in her words.

But she didn’t invent the disembodiment of academic work, or the fiction that the endless emotional labour of academic collegiality is a professional disposition. Nor did she necessarily understand that this emotional labour is the fume on which universities have been running for years, because this reality has been very well hidden.

It’s just that now the whole salaried class of the global university workforce is camping at home (where academic casuals have always been making do), and women are still being asked to focus on being presentable. We know that the equation of visible domestic demands and “falling apart at the seams” isn’t a novel or emergency framing. Parents have known this all along. People who manage work with disability or chronic illness or caring responsibilities or what we coyly call “mental health issues” all know this. We are only ever a heartbeat away from our professional competence being judged as “falling apart at the seams”.

We also know that the responsibility for managing the boundary between home and work is gendered, even if there are individual households (including same-sex households) where it isn’t. We know that article submissions from women researchers are falling off a cliff in this time, and that this will have a disproportionately gendered career impact in an already inequitable profession. (If you want to know more about this, please read the open letter from the FemEdTech collective to journal editors.)

So I don’t believe it helps for universities to pile on with this sort of advice, inviting us to sustain their fictions with more attractive staging of our homes.

And yet, here they come.

3.

A week or so after Inside Higher Ed scolded us for not brushing our hair, another Australian university put out a “how to work from home” article, similarly illustrated with stock photographs of women. After some social media pushback against the advice to wake at 7, eat oats, and give your children something to do till lunchtime so that you can work uninterrupted, the article pruned its tin eared parenting advice.

Now we slide straight from oats and list making into our ergonomically organised home office. But still, the article scolds, “One of the biggest mistakes you can make when working from home is blurring the line between work and life.” Only now this blurry line is a wellbeing risk. So at lunchtime, when the airbrushed kids make a comeback, the most important thing is to leave the office space: “Challenge yourself to keep your break light-hearted – will you play hide and seek with the kids, have a picnic in your backyard or listen to your favourite podcast?”

Alt-text: “Happy Woman Lying on Green Grass Reading a Book in the Park (Outdoors)”

Well, will you? will you?

Is this what universities think working from home looks like: a happy woman lying on green grass reading a book in the park (outdoors)? While presumably some other blurry woman rushes around the house trying to get the laundry picked up.

We could analyse this as a care labour chain, if it wasn’t in an entirely made-up world.

4.

None of this is new.

I first wrote about academic dress codes in 2011. Liz Morrish and I were both thinking about academic professionalism in the context of care labour in 2016. We both had plenty to draw on.

What has changed under conditions of emergency is that we’re being coached on the propriety of what’s in shot because our lives are cluttering the view of the employer’s virtual estate. Before being sent home, the way we dressed up for “going to work” was just one of the routines that marked the unsteady progress of the self along the tightrope of career time. Mostly, we were assumed to have some competence in all this. Now, in the guise of helping us with our wellbeing, we’re being advised on how to organise our time and our backgrounds as our private resources and our family hospitality have been fully requisitioned in service of emergency business continuity.

Fiona Jenkins, philosopher and convenor of the ANU Gender Institute, writes about the impact of this requisitioning, this other “blurring of the lines between work and life” as universities have themselves been forced to conduct their core business in our houses. Their promotional images of technology rich teaching spaces and elegantly designed campuses, their never-ending coverup of the realities of academic work, have been substituted with our cluttered backgrounds, our dodgy internet, our laundry.

In the present crisis, policymakers are mostly quite unreflective about this core pillar of our mitigation strategy – perhaps because they are used to taking the home for granted and to imagining it in a certain way. Acting as if home is a costless resource that is free for appropriation in an emergency, ignoring how home functions as a site of relatively invisible gendered relations of care and labour and imagining home as a largely frictionless site of interpersonal relations, come all too naturally, especially in a crisis.

Fiona Jenkins, ‘Did our employers just requisition our homes?’ Canberra Times, April 2 2020

It’s not that the realities and relations of care and labour are impacting on us for the first time. It’s that the lines that maintain the hygiene of hierarchical organisational culture are really blurring, as we blunder into each other’s homes, and try to shield ourselves from the institution’s proctoring gaze.

5.

The idea that the family is a distraction from performance is a very old one. There are so many examples of this thinking across the twentieth century history of the corporation, and it’s a longstanding truism in the management of elite sport.

There’s a passage in Robert Winder’s Hell for Leather: A Modern Cricket Journey that gets at the heart of it:

Back in the 1960s when the spinner Tony Lock said he wouldn’t tour Australia unless his wife came with him, Wilfrid Wooller, one of the old greats, said: “It is a sign of the times that the star player is making so much money … that unless Aunt Clara and the two poodles are allowed to tour with him he is not disposed to represent England overseas.” That’s what the wife amounts to — Aunt Clara and the two poodles, a ludicrous, embarrassing burden. (169-170)

I’ve had the opportunity this week to spend reflective time in the company of a team at another university, thinking about the value we place on caring labour and the opportunities that we can make for ourselves to refuse its moral burden.

We all find refusal hard to do, hard to name, and hard to hear in others. The obligation to those for whom we care as service workers are deeply felt. Academics who teach mind about the wellbeing of their students, and are working all hours to try to compensate for the isolation, alienation and frustration that students are feeling. The reality of our working from home experience is that it’s cramped and improvised, and I think it gives students a chance to see something about us that they may need to know.

When we come back from this, let’s remember that we learned that having lives beyond our work is neither distracting, ludicrous or embarrassing. Our lives are just what they are. And if we can continue to see the impact of this, we can really start to think about rebooting a much fairer and more inclusive university system, including for our students.

Quick update

I really want to be clear that I don’t believe individual writers of these pieces—or video scripts—are our problem. They’re people like us, and their perspective is what it is. But their choices of words get made into published pieces, into video, because a supply chain of advice givers all think: yes, this makes perfect sense. This is how the world should be. Discourse 101.

6 Responses

  • Oh Kate! – how I have enjoyed following the links in your post, to some before I even knew of you 🙂 I am grateful for your acknowledgment of the Femedtech Open Letter. There is nothing new in the gender/race/sexuality/class/etc. inequality of our current situation. COVID-19 helps focus attention on how things can be different, and I’m thinking about structural changes. If health/social care workers had been regarded as unskilled, then we may now know that isn’t the case. If grocery/hospitality workers were disgarded as unimportant, then we can now appreciate how we need them. If precarious HE workers are regarded as temporary/disposable then we can think about the work they do that is missed.
    But I just want to share with you a post that enraged me muchly https://theconversation.com/how-i-wrote-and-published-a-book-about-the-economics-of-coronavirus-in-a-month-137489 – oh FFS
    But let’s be encouraged by the responses https://twitter.com/snappyalligator/status/1256406668444708864
    I am not sure we are coming back from this unless we resolve to make a new future for our health/ caring/ education /etc. systems. Let’s imagine a new future where megacorps pay taxes to support their contexts of profit, where the work of caring (in health, social care, education, hospitality, etc.) is valued.
    I’m angry and tired but crafting the fuck out of this situation. Love you Kate.

    Reply
    • Kate Bowles

      You too. “Crafting the fuck out of this situation” is a badge waiting to happen.

      Reply
  • Sherri Spelic

    “let’s remember that we learned that having lives beyond our work is neither distracting, ludicrous or embarrassing.” Yes, let’s. Thank you, Kate for this deeply affirming essay that perfectly illustrates the very gendered assumptions about higher ed employees working from home. I am stunned at the tone deafness of the communications you describe , although I’ve seen similar from other sources. Now that so many of us are working in front of a camera, appearances become all the more important. Especially for the institutions we represent.
    “our lives are cluttering the view of the employer’s virtual estate.” Our lives as clutter, our struggles to meet some administrator’s vague notion of what ‘home office’ looks like described as ‘falling apart at the seams.’ The politics of appearances again falls on the shoulders of women which is where and why the case for refusal becomes essential. Thank you for making plain exactly what we are up against now and for years to come.

    Reply
    • Kate Bowles

      Sherri, I’m reflecting on “years to come” as I feel one of the most important things we are doing in this time is figuring out what to take forward, and what to leave behind. We’re hearing a lot in Australia about business “snapback”, and apart from everything else that’s wrong about this fantasy, I’m fixed on “back”. What if we are trying to move forward, to make something new that isn’t based on a hasty online approximation of what we did before.

      Reply
  1. Background as foreground | Academic Irregularities  May 15, 2020

    […] This blog post came about as a result of swapping Twitter messages with Kate Bowles who has written a wonderful piece about the difficulties of camouflaging the reality of our homes when they feature as the backdrop […]

  2. Refusal – readywriting  May 18, 2020

    […] lovely friend and colleague Kate Bowles has a beautiful post on exactly this issue, the pressure to “professionalize” our homes under these conditions. We connected over this and she gave me a word to describe my behavior, no, to describe my […]

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