Not Your DH Teddy-Bear; or, Emotional Labor is Not Going Away

Last year, I had a conversation where I felt especially articulate about the collaborative aspects of my work. “I don’t write code for people,” I explained, “but it’s important to me to work with them; not only because I enjoy that, but also because my goal for them to be able to learn about technology/digital humanities without feeling isolated.” The person I was having the conversation with nodded knowingly and replied “Oh, so you’re doing the hand-holding. I won’t do that work.” I was aware of feeling nonplussed by that reply, but it took me a few minutes of thinking about it to figure out why. Then I realized that “Oh, you do the hand-holding” felt synonymous to a couple of other comments that I’d heard before, from various people: “You’re the faculty security blanket.” “You’re their DH teddy bear.”

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard these comments, but it was the first time that I had genuinely processed how negative they were, both in regards to my work, and to the people I was working with. It was the first time I fully recognized the pejorative views of emotional labor that circulate particularly in digital humanities and library-related contexts.

If I am sometimes the security blanket, then at other times I am the nightmare in their closet, a harbinger of mistakes in data curation or a spectre of the increased work that digital humanities scholarship requires.

Perhaps I was more alert because of the rise in discussions about emotional labor in the last year. While there is a growing body of academic research, at least some of the uptick is due to Jess Zimmerman’s article “Where’s My Cut?: On Unpaid Emotional Labor” in The Toast, and to the ensuing discussion on Metafilter, which contains 2,113 comments and when printed, is 857 pages long. While much of the Metafilter thread is oriented towards emotional labor in the context of marriages or romantic relationships, posts throughout discuss, contrast, and draw connections between domestic and workplace emotional labor.

Sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s The Managed Heart was the first book-length scholarly discussion of emotional labor, defining it as “induc[ing] or suppress[ing] feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.”1 Her initial example of emotional labor workers were flight attendants, whose jobs involve helping passengers feel safe and cared for while in transit.

Flight attendants’ emotional labor can involve people being afraid for their lives. The emotional labor I perform as a DH librarian is more focused on the lives of people’s projects; and specifically, I would define it as “managing people’s emotions so that they can make effective project decisions.” One reason that I was caught off-guard by the exchange with my colleague is that when I think of my work as a DH consultant and librarian, emotional labor is not the first label that I would use to categorize it. Instead, I would characterize my activities in a variety of ways, including project design, technology/method implementation, risk assessment, and scalability and contingency planning. These areas have aspects of design and logistical work—but they involve emotional labor because of the ways that they are closely entangled with optimism and expectations.

In DH, one of the most important processes that new scholars and practitioners go through/work towards is the realization that not knowing something, and not even knowing where to begin looking for the answer, doesn’t mean that you’re not a “real” digital humanist. It’s the equivalent of the process that Tilde Ann Thurium describes in her Model View Culture article on the emotional labor involved in learning to code: “Getting stuck on a problem bubbles up worries that I’m not cut out for my chosen career. In addition to debugging techniques, I had to teach myself how to calm down enough to get un-stuck.”

…the emotional labor I perform for scholars as a digital humanities librarian is partly about offering confidence that they can learn that skill, even if it feels strikingly different from their existing abilities.

The people I work with are still substantially teaching themselves to get un-stuck, though I provide some specific problem-solving techniques. In these contexts, the emotional labor I perform for scholars as a digital humanities librarian is partly about offering confidence that they can learn that skill, even if it feels strikingly different from their existing abilities. It’s also about transparently disclosing some of the potential obstacles they might face, and which are hard for newcomers to imagine in advance. My goal is to underscore that obstacles, like bugs, are par for the course; and also, to give people a sense of what digital work involves so that they can decide whether it’s something that they want to pursue. I’m not interested in being an evangelist. But if scholars feel that their identity as novice computer users is incompatible with DH, then they’re not likely to feel any more a part of the field when they have greater knowledge of technology and still encounter difficult questions, whether technological or not. If I am sometimes the security blanket, then at other times I am the nightmare in their closet, a harbinger of mistakes in data curation or a spectre of the increased work that digital humanities scholarship requires. In these instances, my goal is not to toughen them up via academic hazing rituals. Instead, it’s to render potential challenges less surprising, and to prepare scholars by having them practice speculative design thinking and problem-solving.

If I were a departmental professor engaged in formal supervision of graduate students, then this sort of work might be more readily characterized as advising, mentoring, or teaching; and valued as such. Instead, as a librarian, my consulting relationships are almost entirely voluntary,2 and could theoretically dissolve easily at any time. While I can make strong recommendations, the scholars I work with are the ultimate decision makers; and this is why my work is emotional labor, as opposed to pure technical advice. The way that I provide guidance and information will have an emotional impact, and people will make better decisions if they are feeling steady, resilient, and energized, rather than depleted, by their work.

People are often quite right to be thoughtful and cautious about embarking on DH research, and I am angry on their behalf about the linguistic implications of terms… [that] infantilize researchers, and reduce me to little more than a comfort object.

I happen to enjoy emotional labor, and feel fortunate to have supervisors who recognize my activities as valuable, and also know that my capacity for such work isn’t limitless. I’m all too aware that the acknowledgement and support that I receive is an exception to the norm. Perhaps the hardest part of this work is that so many DH endeavors inevitably involve unpredictable elements; and the stakes (tenure files, big grant applications) are high, and long-term. People are often quite right to be thoughtful and cautious about embarking on DH research, and I am angry on their behalf about the linguistic implications of terms like “hand-holding,” “security blanket,” and “teddy-bear,” which infantilize researchers, and reduce me to little more than a comfort object. These characterizations suggest that emotional labor shouldn’t be necessary, if only researchers were more competent.

While many aspects of digital humanities emotional labor are related to working with researchers entering the field, it would be a mistake to characterize it as merely a start-up cost: emotional labor is a component any time that a question or decision can’t be easily reduced to a straightforward answer of numbers or costs with no risks involved; or in any situation that involves changes from standard procedures—so, most questions. Many people in academic environments feel some sort of risk associated with DH, whether they’re embarking on a new type digital research and worrying that a methodology will fail (i.e., a researcher who has worked with text mining, but is beginning to work with GIS), or are fearful that their colleagues will see their efforts as service rather than scholarship; or, alternatively, concerned that a colleague’s digitally-based research will make non-digital scholarship seem less valuable.

I think of those situations as institutional contexts, but there are research contexts as well: emotional labor is a factor in the choices that are made around data/metadata creation, normalization, and analysis. The choices made in categorization and controlled vocabularies are frequently about human subjects. While much of my DH emotional labor is about the individual or personal impacts if a project succeeds or fails, I also regularly find myself prompting researchers to consider the emotional ramifications of their choices for other people. If a project is built on objectification or othering, if it veers towards technosolutionism, then I have a responsibility to raise concerns—and when I raise them, I’m aware that the response will be affected by the level of trust that I’ve built in the relationship. The outcomes of these conversations can have higher stakes than are immediately apparent, because digital research (especially when it includes data curation and creation) is positioned to become infrastructure that is used and reused. As Deb Verhoeven observed in her recent keynote “Towards a Model of ‘Digital Infrapuncture'” at the Digital Humanities Oxford Summer School, cultural infrastructure catalyzes—and even tiny pieces of infrastructure can have substantial impacts.  Considering those impacts fully requires empathy and emotional contemplation—and someone who, if necessary, can channel those emotions into productivity.3

… messiness can be synonymous with complexity and, in that regard, can be generative rather than unproductive, and generative of engagement, rather than just tidying.

For a variety of reasons, too numerous to discuss at length in this essay, digital humanities work (whether it involves developing research or infrastructure) is frequently and accurately described as messy. Any time that a situation can be characterized as messy, or in any situation where changes in practice are warranted, emotional labor will play a role in how smoothly those changes are implemented and how lasting they will be. My position is focused on research; however, other contexts for this work include transitions between technological systems such as library catalogs. “Mess” has negative connotations that intersect with gendered labor: messes are things that women clean up; emotional labor, if we think of it as merely dealing with emotions, is just another type of mess that people assume women can/should handle. However, messiness can be synonymous with complexity and, in that regard, can be generative rather than unproductive, and generative of engagement, rather than just tidying.

Emotional labor is needed in academia and libraries—whether because it plays a part in working through difficult and potentially groundbreaking research questions, or because it is necessary in dynamic situations, and neither technology nor academia show signs of stabilizing any time soon. It has correctly been characterized as a labor problem that frequently results in burnout, anxiety, and depression. More wide-ranging discussions like those that have occurred in the last year can play a part in improving the situation—but also risk sequestering emotional labor as women’s work, rather than less gendered forms of expertise, and consequently, relegating those who engage in it to lower-paid positions with fewer opportunities for advancement. Understanding what type of labor problem emotional labor represents, and the possible solutions, will depend on how we classify and name the activities that fall within its scope.

If emotional labor is ongoing, and acknowledged as work that deals with risk-focused, administrative, and scholarly decisions, then it can contribute to reframing the relationship between scholars and librarians as one of more equal partnership, rather than mere service provision.

For librarians, and digital humanities librarians in particular, the question of whether this labor is part of start-up or ongoing support is a key question, and not only because it affects the ability to scale and assess how much labor is needed (and how much any laborer is able to provide without transgressing their limits). If emotional labor is ongoing, and acknowledged as work that deals with risk-focused, administrative, and scholarly decisions, then it can contribute to reframing the relationship between scholars and librarians as one of more equal partnership, rather than mere service provision.

While I can point to activities that involve emotional labor, I am hesitant to try and set firm parameters on its boundaries in libraries. Some of these components are more malleable than others. For example, I strongly suspect that the voluntary and informal nature of librarian consulting relationships contributes to emotional labor going un- or under-acknowledged. I see a tendency to conceptualize a librarian’s role as being available for research collaboration, rather than actively involved. And yet, merely formalizing the consulting relationship isn’t the answer, because the voluntary nature of working with a librarian also has a positive influence on the emotional context in which librarians and scholars work, specifically because I informally advise, rather than formally direct; and I would hate to relinquish the freedom that characterizes my interactions.

Emotional labor is not going away. The real question is what it will become.

 

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Show 3 footnotes

  1. Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 7.
  2. Except for the occasional instances where I teach graduate and undergraduate courses.
  3. “Infrapuncture” is Verhoeven’s combination of “infrastructure” and “acupuncture,” and derived from Marco Casagrande’s theory of urban acupuncture, which blends urban design with micro-interventions in order to effect larger change. For a concise summation of Verhoeven’s principles of infrapuncture, see slide 21 in the set linked above.

About the author

Paige Morgan is the Digital Humanities Librarian at the University of Miami. Previously, she was a CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Humanities at the Sherman Centre for Digital Scholarship at McMaster University. Besides building infrastructure for digital scholarship, her research focuses on database creation and linked open data.