The Feminist Ethics of Care: Community Building in Academia

Sarah Banet-Weiser 0:02
ICA presents

Sarah Banet-Weiser 0:03
Hi there and welcome to Feminist Networks and the Conjuncture, a podcast brought to you by the International Communication Association Podcast Network. My name is Sarah Banet-Weiser. I am a joint professor in the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. Over the course of this podcast series, I've been talking to feminist scholars about our current moment of social crisis, and asking them to think through with me what this crisis means for feminism and the possibility for social change. Today, I am honored and thrilled to have my friend and colleague Sarah Jackson from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania to talk to me about the place of care in the academy. Sarah and I talked about how we would like to embrace a feminist ethics of care in our academic community, and what it might mean, and how it might allow us to reimagine what academia might be.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 1:20
I am so happy and honored to have not just my colleague but my dear friend, Sarah J. Jackson, from the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School for Communication here to talk with us today about networks of care and what caring means for us as women in the world, as academics, as people who are dependent on us in different ways, and how we can think about caring differently in the future. So I want to introduce Sarah. She is a Presidential Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania at the Annenberg School for Communication. Her first book, which was called Black Celebrity, Racial Politics and the Press examined the relationship between Black celebrity activism, journalism and American politics. It's an amazing book, and one that I have taught students, she does such a wonderful job of weaving theory in with actual events and different celebrities. Her co authored second book is #HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice. She's also a 2020 Andrew Carnegie fellow, she's working on a third book on the power and innovation of African American media makers. And she's just all around a wonderful person and brilliant scholar, and I'm so happy to have you. So thanks for coming.

Sarah J. Jackson 2:40
Oh, thanks so much, Sarah. That's such a lovely introduction. And I'm looking forward to seeing where the conversation goes.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 2:46
Yeah, me too. I think we all have been thinking a lot about care over the past couple of years. Obviously, care was something that we thought about before the pandemic, but it really brought into bold relief, some of the complexities and the problems with how we understand what care work is about. So I want to talk a little bit about that today. And also just think with you about how care work and caring in general, it can be considered a feminist issue and what that means to consider it as a feminist issue.

Sarah J. Jackson 3:16
Yeah, I mean, I think that through patriarchy, and power, and all these other things, often women scholars, and really scholars at the margins in general, I think, but especially scholars who identify as women or non binary, are doing a disproportionate amount of care work in their personal and home lives, we have tons of data that backs that up, we know that as a fact. But at the same time, the norms of academia suggest that it's not professional to talk about or reveal those kinds of work, because that kind of work is seen as lesser than because it's feminized or because it's personalized as a family problem or family issue. I agree with you that the pandemic drove this home, but this is certainly a preexisting issue and will continue until we change the framing of what we talk about and how we structure and understand labor and feminized labor, in particular, in academia.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 4:11
I think you're right that what is needed is a broad scale reframing and reimagining of how care should be valued as work and I think care work can be compared to the well documented statistics of service work in the academy where people who identify as women and scholars of color do such a vast disproportion of the service work. And it's not just committee work, though, of course, as you know, women and people of color are the first ones to be asked to be on task forces for gender inequality or sexual harassment on campus or any DEI issue, but it's also the kind of care work that we do in the academy that is about car and compassion for our students. In the UK, they call that kind of work pastoral care, and I thought that was kind of interesting because it both recognize the specifics of that service — you're like literally a kind of shepherd for students. But it also by naming it something else, it separates it from work. It's just the kind of thing that some of us do. And so caring is not supposed to be work. But that's precisely what it is. And it takes its toll on us. It's exhausting.

Sarah J. Jackson 5:19
I've experienced this so many times in my own career, for example, I've had women students confide in me about their abortions, or about domestic abuse that they've experienced. I've had Black students come to me in tears the day after a police officer murdered another Black person, and everybody else is going about the day like it's a normal day. And they're thinking, how am I supposed to give this presentation that is doing this class today? What am I supposed to do, and in all these situations, it falls on the faculty who are understood to be the caring faculty, and who are understood to be also experiencing those things to try to say and do the right thing. And I think one of the things that's hard about that, of course, is that we're also experiencing that. The week after the 2020 uprising started, you know, after George Floyd was murdered, I remember a student calling me in tears. And I remember saying, I'm debilitated by this too. I wish I had something that I could tell you that would make you feel better. But I actually can't think of anything to make myself feel better. And it's not that we don't want to be doing those forms of labor. That's part of the feminist ethic that you mentioned earlier, and why care work is very much a feminist issue is that this kind of work is important. And it's part of building the types of fully inclusive and fully humane communities that we should be building in the academy. But it's that then that same day, I'm getting emails about, can I do this, and I haven't responded to that thing. And I'm like, I have students on the phone crying, I myself am in tears. And nobody has considered that I'm doing this whole extra set of labor. This is something that I think about pretty much every day, honestly.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 7:03
Yeah, yeah, me too, to have students be crying in the class, it makes it a different kind of an environment. And I think that that is a feminist environment, and doesn't have to be that kind of situation every week, but the world keeps giving us material.

Sarah J. Jackson 7:17
I mean, it's not just that this labor is labor that we're doing for or with students. This is often labor that faculty and academics who are called upon to do or have an ethic to do do with their peers, and do with other faculty, you know, you mentioned #HashtagActivism and part of why the collaboration between myself, Moya and Brooke came about is because at that point in our careers, we were all Junior, we were all at the same institution. And we each found ourselves isolated from spaces that had feminist politics in our individual spaces. And we came together and decided to start a feminist writing group for junior faculty at that institution. This is a safe and confidential space where we can also talk about the sort of heinous things that happen sometimes in academia. We included others and invited others into that space so that folks felt that their work was valid, felt their experiences were valid, they can bring their whole selves and they could cry during the check in before we got to our quiet writing. Faculty at the margins are doing that kind of labor all the time — creating our own spaces, creating informal mentorship networks.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 8:31
I'm really glad that you shared that story, because I don't think I knew that about you and Moya, and Brooke and how you came together to write this book. And writing collaboratively is not often rewarded by the university.

Sarah J. Jackson 8:43
And by the way, Sarah, many people said, don't write a collaborative book, just focus on your individual things. And this is another example of where folks who are engaged in care work can be punished because people might look at it and see it a certain kind of way. Because it's a collaborative project. One of the reasons I'm really happy about the success of the book is because it proves that, one, junior women can co author with each other and it can still be a killer, award winning thing that people have to take seriously. And two, it has been amazing how many junior folks particularly women, particularly people of color, have said oh, I've been advised not to collaborate. And I think that that is such a sad testament to the lack of community building that can sometimes exist.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 9:28
I agree with you about #HashtagActivism. It is an example of how we can reimagine the way in which we do scholarship. And I think that one of the things about feminist care work at the current moment is precisely this is about reimagining and how can we shift the ways in which we relate to each other we build community we do our work we teach so that it actually does look more like a community and less like atomized individuals. As we've know we both lost our mothers last year. I remember I was living in London, and my mother died. And my brother called me in the middle of the night to tell me from California that she had died. And the next morning, I had a faculty meeting, and I was the head of department. And I know, I have colleagues who would have said, Sarah, don't do this. But it didn't even occur to me like I had that choice. And of course, it was a total disaster, because sometimes it's just too much to bear. I just began sobbing immediately.

Sarah J. Jackson 10:28
Sarah, I remember you telling me this story. And I just was like, Why did you do that? You know, that is a great example of how even those of us who are in the academy who have feminist politics, who recognize the politics of care, we have been sometimes so deprived of receiving that care ourselves that we just enter into situations without expecting it, or we have been so drilled into the idea that we can't bring our full selves to work or it's unprofessional, that we put up this compartmentalization or this wall. And frankly, I mean, this is toxic. And this harms us. I sort of had the exact opposite approach to everything when my mom passed. And it's because I sort of learned the hard way. My father passed my first year of my PhD, and it was sudden, and I was young. And I did the thing that you're talking about, I got on a plane, I went to my dad's funeral. I compartmentalized my grief, I pulled it together. And I went back to my political communication class to talk about Kant, or whatever we were talking about the day after the funeral. And I didn't even tell anyone that my father died, I have lived a life as a marginalized person, as a Black woman, as a first generation college student as someone who grew up low income. I had lived a life that had taught me that in order to be taken seriously in these spaces, and survive in these spaces, I just couldn't acknowledge my humanity. And I had an awesome advisor, Catherine Squires was my advisor. She's amazing. She's one of the most caring scholars that I've ever known. And it wasn't until years later that Catherine actually said to me that she heard from someone else that my father died, and she was just heartbroken. I hadn't told her myself, and that I hadn't been in a place where I could ask for support that she wanted to provide me as my advisor. And so this past year, when my mother died, I just threw caution to the wind. Part of that may be, I now have tenure, I feel secure all these things that people shouldn't have to have to be their full selves. But I would run into colleagues who hadn't seen me in a while and they'd say, How are you doing? And I'd say, Well, my mother died in my arms. How are you doing, and it made people really uncomfortable. But one of the things that was remarkable about this was that I had, I'm not kidding you, I had dozens of scholars, dozens of other academics send me emails or direct messages telling me about their experience taking care of their loved ones, when their loved ones are dying. And so many people reached out to me basically, behind the scenes to say, I know how exhausting This is, I know how heartbreaking This is, I know how soul sucking it is to feel like, you still have to be working while you're doing what is fundamentally the hardest thing you've ever done and the most exhausting thing you've ever done. And I think that that speaks to what we're missing by not having care work be front and center in how we engage in academia. Because it really changes how you relate to people and how you understand people and how you build relationships, when you can recognize that people are going through a lot.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 13:41
You put it so beautifully just now. And I will say too, it's not that I didn't have people in my community that would support me and my grief and support me in these moments. But it is that we work in a place in a structure in a space that has really instructed us quite well, that women and people of color, marginalized people, it's really risky to show vulnerability.

Sarah J. Jackson 14:09
I'm sort of in the camp of one of the only ways we can make this normal is by doing it, by modeling it. I mean, there are all sorts of ways to rethink how we do things. And sometimes I think we just keep doing things the way they've been done because it's almost lazy. It's almost become a shortcut. Well, this is the way we've always done it. So we have to keep doing it this way, even though we have all the data to know that for particular groups of people that is especially harmful. And so I think we can change this and I think that's where the feminist ethics come in to academia.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 14:41
I've been completely privileged and blessed in my career to be working with people who have acknowledged this allowed me spaces for this kind of thing. I mean, one radical way for us to think about it is actually to adopt that language as part of a mission statement for a school or for university. We have a feministethic of care. I think that's a long way off.

Sarah J. Jackson 15:03
There's so many ways big and small that people can enact it. You know, I'm just thinking about informal mentoring and peer to peer care. I have a good friend I went to graduate school with who is faculty at a university in New York. And basically, at various points in my own career when I've had job offers, instead of saying, Oh, here's like this, or here's this, you know, the usual quippy advice, he will send me his line by line contract. So I can see what a man at his particular rank at a particular type of university is getting paid and is able to negotiate. And I would argue that that's a form of care work. In fact, I would argue that's a form of feminist care work. But it's also about making sure that the people who you value, the people who are part of your community, have what they need, are being valued equally. It's so unusual for people to do something like that in the academy.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 15:54
I think that's a great example of care work, actually. And again, part of this radical reimagining is about recognizing when transparency is really important. Transparency for the sake of community. I think the peer to peer mentoring is just as important as student mentoring. And all just — it's like you said, it's about building community.

Sarah J. Jackson 16:15
During our careers, during the time we've been in academia, we have seen some of the ethics and politics around this stuff shift. We have seen it shift in 10 years. So particularly, I'm thinking about the way that when COVID hit many universities immediately started thinking about the question of how their faculty and staff were now engaging in child care at home. And I know that I received several surveys, both from my institution, but also from larger professional organizations that were basically asking questions about do you have full time childcare, how many hours you're spending, because institutions were being pressured, and have been being pressured for years, particularly by women, faculty, and feminist and queer, non binary faculty to think about the differences in labor that are happening at home and how that affects the expectations of productivity. Then, of course, there's tons of work still to do there in the academy. But we've seen the conversation become mainstream, I would say fairly rapidly in the last decade or two. Clearly we can get there.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 17:18
We can get there. We've seen it, we've seen changes we've seen, you know, they're not fast. But sometimes in times of crisis, like the last two years, those issues surface up and we say we have to do something about this. I also think that taking as a model, the ways in which Black feminism has incorporated care work into all of this scholarship for years for decades, is a model for us. It speaks across demographics, across nations across borders, and boundaries. And like you said, there are so many different ways to care. It doesn't happen linearly. It does it grief comes to us and waves, there are ways in which care work doesn't fit neatly into a neoliberal box, where you can just you know, put a care app on your phone, and, and like listen to it, and the morning and think boom, I'm good, right? I figured this out. And so I think a more humane and human centered way to think about this as part of our lives and part of our labor and part of our work is the way in which we should kind of radically reimagine ourselves in the space of the university.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 18:29
Yeah, absolutely.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 18:30
Well, thank you, Sarah.

Sarah J. Jackson 18:33
Thank you.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 18:34
You'be been amazing, amazing as always.

Sarah J. Jackson 18:36
We could talk about this for hours you know.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 18:39
I know.

Unknown Speaker 18:55
Feminist Networks in the Conjuncture is a production of the International Communication Association Podcast Network. This podcast series is brought to you by the Annenberg Center for Collaborative communication established as a joint effort between the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Southern California. Our producers are Lucia Barnum and Jo Lampert. Our production consultant is Nick Song. Our executive producer is Aldo Diaz Caballero, and the theme music is by Lance Conrad. To learn more about me, my guest today and our podcast series, check out the show notes in the episode description. Thanks so much for listening.

The Feminist Ethics of Care: Community Building in Academia
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