Inspired by the Council’s Rachel Tanur Memorial Prize for Visual Sociology, we ask prominent scholars to discuss a visual artifact of this time that will help future researchers understand the Covid-19 crisis. In this installment, Lauren Klein (Winship Distinguished Research Professor and associate professor in the Departments of English and Quantitative Theory & Methods, Emory University) spoke with Jason Rhody (SSRC program director) about what data can and can’t tell us about the pandemic’s effects on research productivity, care work, and academic labor.
Jason Rhody (JR): As background, we came across your tweet and thought it was perfect for the time capsule—it seemed to capture so much of the ongoing conversations about caregivers in the workplace, particularly in the academic workplace, and women’s research productivity. So we asked you to submit it to the Time Capsule for Social Researchers. Could you talk a little bit about the context of the tweet and why you posted it?
Lauren Klein (LK): The photo in the tweet is showing a cardboard box that my younger daughter calls her “robot,” which she has been painting and repainting and affixing things to for the past 18 months. It’s in our living room, which is also where I’ve been working for the past 18 months. In the background, there’s assorted child detritus. I paired the photo with a calculation I’d done about the number of hours of childcare that I’d had during the pandemic as compared to a regular year.
One of the things that I think about in my research is the relationship between lived experience and data, and about how data, if it is intentionally collected, can lend additional support to what people know already to be true about their lives. When I posted the tweet, I was in the process of writing up a Covid-19 impact statement for my institution, so I had been thinking about how best to capture my experience of being at home with my two kids with very inconsistent and intermittent childcare. I decided to count up the number of hours that my kids would normally have been in in-person school and aftercare, as they had been until March 2020. Then I looked at my calendar and I counted up the number of hours of childcare that we actually had. And then I compared the two.
What I discovered was a reduction of 75 percent. The year had felt hard, of course. But I still wasn’t expecting to see such a significant decrease, in large part because I had been working at night and on my phone and having my kids watch way too much TV so that I could do my teaching and my advising, and keep my commitments to students who have been working on projects with me, and do some of my own research. So, 75 percent fewer childcare hours did not mean 75 percent fewer work hours. But even still, it felt almost shocking to see this statistic that I had calculated about my own life.
Before we go further, I do want to acknowledge that, while this year has been hard for me, it has by no means been the hardest that it could be for a person tasked with caring for children, or caregiving more generally, during this time. I am a tenured professor. I am exceptionally privileged. And I had the financial resources to try (if unsuccessfully) to fill in the gaps left by this total collapse of our nation’s basic childcare structures. Most caregivers, even most caregivers working in academia—contingent faculty, staff, postdocs and students across all levels—do not have the resources to even attempt to seek out additional childcare support.
JR: You have written a lot in your work about what is and what isn’t revealed by data. What do you think are some of the most obvious things that Covid-19 has revealed about caregiving—and what are some of the less obvious things we have learned?
LK: One of the things that we know from several decades of feminist labor studies scholarship is that there are many different kinds of work involved in caregiving—emotional labor, affective labor, cognitive labor, and so on. This is on top of the actual physical work that is required. But very, very few of these forms of labor are ones that we can see. Even fewer are adequately compensated. This is both a cause and effect of our capitalist society, in which the social or cultural worth of any particular form of labor is directly connected to the price we pay (or are paid) for it. This equivalence remains true even as these same forms of labor are necessary to ensure that all of us can live, survive, and thrive. One of the impacts of Covid-19 on the academic workplace has been to make many of these previously invisible forms of so-called “reproductive labor” visible. One obvious thing that we’ve learned, I hope, is that it’s reproductive labor all the way down.
Another thing that we’ve learned that is maybe less obvious is that the so-called “crisis of caregiving” is a structural one, and it’s fundamentally tied to all of the other issues of health and precarity that the pandemic has brought to the surface. For example, certain well-intentioned and well-resourced institutions attempted to address the gaps in the childcare (and eldercare and other caregiving) that they knew to exist by making available additional funding for paid childcare, additional backup care, or subscriptions to Care.com and the like. But money could not solve that problem, because for a long time daycares were completely closed, and most schools were taking place virtually, so there were no places to send children where they could be cared for, even if there were funds available to pay for it. Meanwhile, the professional teachers and caregivers who had previously worked at these places were faced with their own impossible choices, often between bringing home a paycheck and wanting to protect their health and the health of their families. Childcare workers are already among the most precarious—again, because of how care work has been historically undervalued, and also not coincidentally, as Angela Davis reminds us, because it is most often performed by women of color. But instead of channeling federal and state resources towards these essential care workers—and here I have in mind both increased pay and increased attention to mitigating their own workplace health hazards—the tremendous value of their work as well as the risks they were taking went almost completely unacknowledged by policymakers at all levels. Even with the change in administration, it’s still largely unacknowledged today.
JR: A lot of recent studies have called attention to Covid-19’s impact on academic researchers, particularly on women and caregivers. Many of these challenges existed before, but the pandemic has put them under intense scrutiny. Are there any solutions that have particularly resonated with you as potential ways to address this challenge?
LK: Just to put a finer point on your comment about these challenges having existed before, I think a large part of the reason that academic researchers are paying attention to these questions of gender and care right now is that, before the pandemic, many academic parents were able to use their privilege and access to stable (to them) support structures to evade the precarity that the majority of working parents have always had to deal with.
I’ve been trying to think through this, and the racialized dimension of it drew me to Robin Bernstein’s idea of racial innocence—the idea that, in a world of anti-Black racism, white people are shielded from, are allowed to remain innocent about, the effects of that racism because they do not personally experience those effects. I think there’s a version of this innocence being exposed in tenured faculty and administrators right now, those who never before had reason to believe that their support structures might fail them. But the majority of people working in academia are not tenured or even tenure-track faculty members. If you talk to staff, if you talk to grad students, if you talk to postdocs, they are not shocked that their support structures were proven to be so tenuous, and that their institutions could do nothing to protect them (or if they could, that they would choose not to do so).
Another thing I’ve been thinking about is what Jenny Davidson has called “ghost scholarship“—by which she means the scholarship that could have been produced had had the people who could have produced it been given actual jobs and resources. She was writing a few years ago with respect to the decline of tenure-track positions for humanities PhDs, and she was trying to capture a sense of the loss of future knowledge brought about by the increasing adjunctification of the university. The idea still holds, and it extends to the pandemic, I think—all of this potential research will never take place, and therefore that knowledge will remain unknown, because of the cascading effects of a lack of solid, structural support.
Which is a long way of saying that, on the one hand, I’m very appreciative of the proliferation of studies that have shown the pandemic’s effects on research productivity, especially on that of women and other primary caregivers. I’ve seen data disaggregated by age of kid, by stage of career, and by gender–although I should say that haven’t seen any that consider gender beyond the binary. (PNAS did publish a report that took an intersectional approach). Each of the issues mentioned in these papers are real, and they should absolutely be acknowledged. But on the other hand, methods that involve counting up journal submissions or even polling faculty directly don’t capture the full impact of the pandemic on everyone who makes research happen, or who even allows institutions to function at all. In the same way that numerous forms of invisible, reproductive labor go into the act of caregiving, the university relies on all sorts of invisible, unacknowledged, and undervalued labor in order to continue to do what it does.
Then there’s the work of research staff, librarians and archivists, grant managers, financial administrators, the people who make sure that student workers get paid—all of these people have been impacted by the pandemic, and have kids or elderly parents or other caregiving responsibilities at home, and their work has also become that much harder to do. But it’s much more difficult to quantify this impact because, again, much of this work is the reproductive academic labor that makes research possible.
One of the efforts that’s been inspiring to me, that is related to the idea of difficult-to-quantify data, is the Campus Caregivers Project. Rather than throw up their hands, this group took it upon themselves to say, “Here is a thing we can do, which might move us forward.” Very early on in the pandemic, they identified issues of stress and exhaustion, and the emotional labor that has gone into maintaining all of our jobs amidst the backdrop of Covid-19. They sent out a series of surveys to get a sense of how caregivers were feeling. They collected data and also left space for longer narrative accounts. And they compiled the survey data into a series of charts that confirmed what everyone, individually, already knew to be true: that campus caregivers were exhausted, overwhelmed, and largely unsupported. But they didn’t stop there—they also shared information for advocacy: who you might reach out to, depending on your position, to ask that certain needs be met, what you might suggest to different institutional actors—again, depending on your position within your institution—that might lead to a reduction in some form of labor for you or for others, and then suggestions for how to organize in solidarity with others on campus, and across campuses. They took a broad and inclusive view of how change takes place, which is of course working in solidarity with all of those impacted, with an emphasis on improving the conditions of those who are most directly or most profoundly impacted first.
JR: What do you think the long-term impact of the pandemic will be, on not only research productivity, but research labor. If we’re not returning to normal, what might a new normal look like?
LK: I think we have yet to fully acknowledge that the pandemic is not just a temporary shock to the system. It will have a reverberating impact. I was reading an article on the impact on postdocs who could not work for months because so many labs were literally shut down. As a result, they couldn’t pursue their research, which will mean that they won’t have enough publications to compete on the job market in the future. This is a sobering example, and it’s an instructive one, because it shows how even people who have full-time positions, who are being paid to stay home as they should, will experience a long-term impact on their careers. Another example of this is all of the adjuncts who were fired or whose contracts were not renewed—so even career or long-term adjuncts—because certain institutions used the pandemic in the way that crises are so often strategically employed, in order to radically restructure their teaching faculty in ways that, in a normal time, would be confronted with more resistance. These academic workers, these scholars and teachers, are not coming back. And their loss is something that we’re all going to be living with for a long time.
One would have hoped that we would all use this inflection point to try to stage a different future. That we would see the benefits of solidarity, of organizing. Some of this is starting to happen. In Georgia where I live, for example, where the state-appointed Board of Regents has prohibited mask or vaccine mandates on campus—even as these same board members require them at the companies they personally own—there is beginning to be some momentum building on campuses and through the state’s United Campus Workers union and the AAUP. But there is so much more work to be done. I’ve been quoting Robin D.G. Kelley a lot recently, who says something to the effect of, “You need to imagine a future worth fighting for.” But at this point, we need to imagine very quickly so that we can get to the fight.
JR: Finally, what do you hope that future researchers themselves might take away from your image?
LK: What I would hope is that it prompts future researchers to reflect on the range of experiences of everyone involved in our collective scholarly project—to reflect on what we don’t see, and to be careful not to make assumptions about what might going on behind any particular Zoom background. The pandemic has been impossibly hard for just about everyone, and few things in the past 18 months have been easily won.
In the post-pandemic world of our future, in which we’d take collective action to mitigate the many structural inequalities, and structural failures, that have led us to this point, I’d hope that researchers who work with quantitative data would still be attentive to what is not captured by the data, and to the range of experiences—and the range of labor—that undergirds all of our work. Some of this we might ultimately be able to make visible, and some of this, we should remember, will remain forever out of sight.
This conversation was conducted on August 12, 2021. It has been edited for length and clarity.