2016 Rhetoric Society of America (RSA)


Many Hands Make Invisible Work: Volunteerism and the Female Academic

In her keynote address for the Console-ing Passions Conference in 2015, Elizabeth Losh addressed the role of female labor in support of the “information revolution” (e.g. telegraph operators, data entry clerks). In her address, entitled “Many Hands Don’t Make Light Work,” Losh tracks a history in which necessary roles were systematically overlooked or undervalued in the historical narrative. This presentation examines parallels in academia, suggesting that the modern institution of higher learning is buoyed by an infrastructure in which female labor, in the form of volunteerism and service, is necessary, but effaced.

This presentation examines the invisible labor of female scholars, both as it is perceived by women themselves and as it is (often tacitly) accepted and even endorsed by departments and institutions. The presentation also investigates issues of hierarchy, looking at ways in which more senior faculty and administrators, many of whom who view themselves as champions of marginalized groups, often unwittingly co-opt and even take credit for that labor. This presentation ruminates on identifying ways in which the institution functions as a mechanism of effacement and on looking toward strategies for correcting those imbalances. Can we identify the systemic ways in which volunteerism and service is feminized, and erased through institutional assimilation? If such an identification is possible, how might we actively intervene without damaging careers or programs or continuing to replicate more labor as part of the counter-actions?

We offer an interactive roundtable, in which a series of brief narratives from the moderators serve as an invitation to the audience (both in the room and online) to add their voices to the conversation with their own experiences. As a result of this interactive conversation, both in the room and online via Twitter, the moderators work with the audience to establish a matrix that identifies shared patterns in the narratives and well as a list of strategies for mitigating some of the frustrations and obstacles revealed in these stories. The goal, then, is both to honor lived experiences and also to advance a dialogue about strategies and solutions for both individuals and institutions.

Download (PDF, 1.07MB)