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Shining a Spotlight on Invisible Labor

January 20, 2022
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Dr. Eleonor Pusey-Reid remembers being the only Afro-Latina faculty member in the MGH Institute’s nursing program when she joined the Institute in January 2008. Almost immediately, a steady stream of Black, Latinx, and underrepresented students began arriving at her office. They were seeking help, advice, and direction from someone who looked like them, someone who could understand what it was like to be one of just a handful of people of color at the school. 

“My colleagues used to say, ‘You need to put a limit on your time’,” recalls Pusey-Reid, who recently was promoted to distinguished teaching associate professor in the School of Nursing. “But students, if they had a need, particularly students of color—I could not just focus on my own journey without helping them start their own.” 

What Pusey-Reid was doing is called invisible labor. In higher education, invisible labor means assisting students and alumni who look to professors that possess knowledge and skills deeply informed by their identity for help in navigating the challenges of campus life and beyond, undertaking many forms of undervalued or unnoticed labor as well as assisting institutions themselves with pursuing their equity goals, and not getting recognized or compensated for it as part of their formal roles. 

profile photo of eleonor, she wears her hair natural, with glasses and a grey collared shirt

Higher education faculty are overwhelmingly white—at the IHP, for example, over 90% of the faculty, or 120 out of 140 faculty members, are white, although close to 30% of students identify as non-white. This means that the 20 faculty members faced a choice between ignoring requests for help or spending dozens of extra hours mentoring, coaching, and counseling students and alumni of color outside the classroom. The vast majority of professors of color chose the second option despite not receiving acknowledgment or renumeration for their additional work. 

In addition to assisting students and alumni, faculty of color also support their white colleagues to learn more about JEDI issues and coach/counsel them about various JEDI topics. They support each other through racialized experiences. They also work within their departments and across academic programs to improve the experiences of students of color, and are also called upon to participate in many ad hoc committees where a person of color is needed. 

However, things are starting to change at the MGH Institute. Last year, school leaders approved and implemented a guideline to recognize the importance and impact of invisible labor. The guideline, considered to be the first in the United States, would trim up to four credit hours from the teaching workload of full-time faculty of color to acknowledge the extra work they are already doing.

“Across the country, few colleges and universities have taken concrete steps to remedy this situation,” wrote President Paula Milone-Nuzzo in a message to the IHP community announcing the guideline. “The Institute would like to take a leadership role in this area by formally recognizing this invisible labor.” 

Drawing Attention to an Ongoing Problem 

To Dr. Kimberly Truong, the school’s chief equity officer who oversees the Office of Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI), now is a chance to meet the problem head-on. “Our faculty of color are a valuable part of the Institute, and it’s important we’re listening to them and the challenges they face,” she says. “What needed to be done was to level the playing field.” 

“The guideline finally draws attention to the systemic issue of inequitable workloads long reflected in the lived experiences of faculty of color and allows us to work toward resolving that issue,” Truong wrote in a recent article in the publication Inside Higher Ed. “We espouse diversity, equity, and inclusion, but when we don’t recognize the valuable contributions faculty of color make to supporting our mission, and when we are not taking these contributions into account and equitably allocating workloads, we are perpetuating the very racism that we denounce.” 

As the article later says, “While colleges and universities recognize service as part of tenure and promotion processes, usually only certain types of service count, such as serving on committees and formal advising opportunities.” 

This narrow definition of service, she wrote, fails to take into account helping students navigate overt or subtle racism and manage feelings of isolation, mentoring students of color, connecting them with prospective students, educating colleagues about JEDI issues, and supporting newer and more junior faculty of color. Reducing their formal workload will allow these faculty more time not only for mentoring but also to pursue their own academic scholarship by publishing research findings and applying for grants—the kind of results that help advance careers. 

Invisible labor has been discussed in hushed tones among higher education faculty for more than 30 years, after a 1987 article by sociologist Arlene Daniels first used the phrase to reference work that goes unrecognized and unpaid. 

“This is not an unfamiliar issue,” says Dr. Paulette Granberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education. “It’s increasingly a part of conversations on campus, especially when we talk about equitability.” 

Truong first raised the issue of invisible labor when she arrived at the IHP in 2019 after some faculty of color raised their concerns with her, and continued this conversation with the Black nursing faculty and other faculty of color after the June 2020 racial reckonings. Professors and staffers in other programs were soon talking about rectifying a problem that many white faculty and staff hadn’t realized existed. As these discussions gained momentum, Truong set up a meeting with President Paula Milone- Nuzzo to recommend that the school address the toll of this unpaid, unacknowledged work. It took less than five minutes for Dr. Milone-Nuzzo to agree that action was needed to address the long-standing problem. 

“Through discussions with IHP faculty of color, reviewing current literature, and consideration of current IHP practices, we recognize that IHP faculty of color—like many of their colleagues across the country—are taking on an inequitable amount of invisible labor,” wrote Milone-Nuzzo in her message. “Many of these interactions and conversations can take an emotional toll on faculty as well as time to understand the complexities of the situation to help to advise students.” 

While the new guideline limits teaching workloads, it gives school deans and program chairs the final decision on the number of hours faculty can reduce their teaching load. The guideline will be implemented for the 2021-2022 academic year starting this fall. Part-time faculty will be hired to cover the classroom hours for which faculty of color no longer will be responsible.

profile photo of john wong, he wears glasses and a grey plaid shirt

“It’s Not About the Money”

For associate professor John Wong, the president’s message and the new guideline serve as a bright spot in an often-challenging profession. One of just a handful of Asian faculty members, Dr. Wong teaches in both the School of Nursing and the Department of Occupational Therapy. He serves as the faculty advisor of Students for Racial Justice in Healthcare and a member on the advisory board of International Student, Scholar, and Alumni Club; accompanied students of color on tours to examine Boston’s checkered racial history; found apartments for visiting Chinese scholars; and developed an exchange program for IHP students to learn about clinical practice in China. He’s even hosted Chinese scholars at his home for Thanksgiving. 

“Recognizing this work is not about the money,” says Wong, adding that it’s also not about special treatment for certain groups. What it is about, he adds, is making people more aware of the amount of invisible labor professors of color do outside their daily classroom routine. “We’re not looking for any specific awards or rewards for this invisible work, but there are ways to recognize teaching and advising and scholarship.” 

He notes compensation could come in the form of performance measures designed to evaluate and acknowledge such service by faculty members who are on track for promotion. “These are opportunities to recognize our diverse faculty and the work that all those faculty have been doing,” he says. 

An Opportunity to Help 

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As one of only a few Black students in the Master of Science in Speech- Language Pathology program six years ago, Indigo Young says there were so few faculty of color at the IHP that seeking one out as a mentor never crossed her mind. Today, as an assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders, the 2015 graduate counsels students of color, providing them the support she lacked. 

“Students looking for guidance will be looking for people of color,” says Young, who spends countless hours counseling students on everything from juggling their academic and clinical requirements to navigating life in a city with a poor reputation for its treatment of people of color. “I want to provide the kind of mentorship that was not available to me.” 

Pusey-Reid says that while recognition may be the common goal, there’s still more that needs to be done to bring equity to the IHP and to higher education in general. “The guideline is a great start, but it will need to have ongoing monitoring in order to become a permanent part of the school’s culture,” she says. 

The Institute will continue to hold workshops and events to discuss JEDI issues, educate faculty, staff, and students about how to recognize and respond to microaggressions, and revise the advising handbook to include content related to JEDI issues. A curriculum task force will continue reviewing courses and materials to ensure inclusion as well. 

For Truong, the new guideline is significant, not only because it recognizes the contributions of the school’s diverse faculty, but also because it acknowledges the value they bring to the IHP. She notes that while the guideline is not perfect and more credit hours could have been reduced, it’s the start of an important and long overdue conversation— one on which the goal is for all faculty advisors to share in mentoring students of color. 

Looking ahead, her office asked faculty and staff members of color to identify the types of invisible labor they’re engaged in to give IHP administrators hard data of this work. “I think this is going to be an eye-opener for how much they contribute to the Institute,” says Truong, who is reviewing the data. “It will allow us to continue the conversation and recognize the invaluable work that faculty of color are engaging in to support our institutional mission. It’s definitely going to change things for the better.”