Reproductive academic work and the land of lost projects

Invisible work

A year ago, I spent more or less two months writing a Marie Skłodowska Curie postdoctoral application that I didn’t get. This is by no means unfrequent, and will sound familiar to any researcher. The truth is that in academia, as it is in other creative jobs that are project-based and dependent on contingent funding, there is a huge amount of work that gets done to high quality standards and never sees the light. Work failing to attain the objectives meant for: unpublished papers, unfunded research projects, untaught syllabi.

This lost work is often experienced as a personal failure, in a time when feelings of inadequacy, lack of power, and of a sense of purpose are very common. This is due in part to the ideal of meritocracy that has been inoculated into us with the mantra “those who deserve it, get it”. Regardless of the never ending proofs of the contrary that we see in our daily professional lives, it is a lifetime struggle to get rid of this belief.

I have taken some distance from academia while developing a freelance initiative (Spanish only, for now). It was a breath of fresh air. This distance allowed for a more critical viewpoint on our work and the organisational system we depend upon. Having a break from the fear of the consequences of not “giving it all at each minute” has been an opportunity to learn how to live an academic life other than feeling as not being good enough and afraid of being disposed of at any moment.

For this particular MSC application, I carved out time from the rest of my obligations as a casual academic worker –my teaching and consultancy gigs, and paper writing– and I spent a considerable amount of hours reading, writing, reflecting, and doing other tasks implied in a project such as this one. I know how much time I spent –approximately 8 weeks within a 5-month span–, and how many readings I did for this particular project because I recorded this otherwise invisible work as part of how we, digital and freelance cognitive workers in neoliberal times, have internalised the responsibility and the methods to micro-manage our own production and productivity.

Reading track. Idea from Ellie Mackin Robbins.

During these weeks of intense work, a question came to me while I was writing: what if I don’t get any funding? Will all this work be a total loss of my time? Is this just going down an imaginary drain?

A drain that might suck you up


The invisibility of this work on possible projects is even more salient when you are applying for funds individually. Projects that only you, your supervisor or mentor –if you are lucky to have one– and maybe your family know about, and that’s it. In these cases, both the projects and your effort remain private, and this reveals the big problem of the lack of recognition of this work. It is work which is physically invisible –because it is performed at non-standard places of work such as your home, a coffee shop, a library–, but also willingly invisible by managers and decision-makers at universities or other kind of organizations, as anthropologist Jodie Lee-Thrembat discusses.

You did not get what you expected: so what?

I spoke informally about this to a friend who’s a software developer. He looked at me with a grim on his face saying: this is the story of the majority of projects ever!

So why is this an issue? I can think of two reasons, basically. First, it points at a worrying reality and it’s that knowledge and creative work is in the hands of neoliberal governments, advisers and managers who are not familiar with, nor supportive, and who don’t see the value of creative knowledge work –unless clearly profitable–. We have to show that we deserve a share of the meagering resources that are made available to us through speculatively inflated CV’s. These documents show the visible, tidy part of all this hidden work. 

Second, this is work that is just not paid for in most cases, and therefore not recognised. Precarity in work conditions at universities all around the world and the difficulty to get a stable job or income explains at least in part why we are willing to perform that non-paid, non-recognised work. And that is pretty serious.

Regardless of the above mentioned structural conditions, we experience those orphan projects as personal failures. These projects are originated from a personal or even a family investment that didn’t pay off. Even though we obtained positive rewards out of this work such as eventual human contact(s), new ideas, interesting theories reviewed or learnt, it doesn’t fall within the category of work that makes us feel good. It is amazing how our personal productivity is so intertwined with our perception of our own value/worth (Gregg, 2018, “Counterproductive”).

I was speaking some weeks ago to a woman colleague and friend who is an independent researcher about how she was feeling irritable these days and thought it had to do with her hormones. Regardless of the fact that hormonal changes can have an influence in how we perceive the world and what happens to us, our work and life conditions impact us and are an objective fact. Hormones might amplify the negative impact of those conditions. She was questioning the fact that she was spending a lot of time designing, writing, presenting and defending projects that were sometimes funded, but most of the times weren’t. She was resenting the fact that the contract for a project that was supposed to provide her with the money needed to pay for her bills until the end of the year wasn’t ready after a whole month. She said: “Maybe, with a bit of luck, we will sign it just before the summer. I don’t know if it makes sense to keep on working on things that don’t pay off”. Again, these are the consequences of precarious work conditions.

How to make this valuable or visible?

How can we make all this effort, the time and energy spent, valuable for us and others? I guess this blog post is a start.

With this blog post I am adhering to the initiatives of others, mostly researchers, designers, architects, taking advantage of their social media networks or their personal publication outlets to show the existence of this lost or invisible work. I am often impressed at the effort we put making all our work and work processes visible on the Internet.

Along this line of making visible our work, a bunch of scientists had the initiative to publish online their “CV’s of failures”, a brave initiative to counteract the negative consequences of rejections on our perception of ourselves and our worth (cf. We are all failures).

There is also Inger Mewburn’s bit on how her work time is really spent as a university professor. She is developing very interesting research that aims at calculating exactly how much time is spent on average by university staff on tasks not recognised as work. This example focuses on stable staff and not casual workers, so it would be interesting to check those figures for the less stable workforce, focusing on Melissa Gregg’s idea of how “immaterial workloads” are distributed along local hierarchies (2018: 4).

A subjective sense of worth and the impact factor

It is interesting how productivity can be a subjective perception influenced by objectified definitions created by powerful stakeholders. How vulnerable we are! Rosalind Gill’s research on the Quantified Self of Neoliberal Academia deals with this, showing the personal consequences of the systems for tracking productivity and success currently put in place.

I am, of course, thinking about university rankings determining what is valuable and what isn’t. In the case of unrecognised “productive” work, these indexes override our own sense of productivity and worth as workers and erase, in a way, the value of the actual work done –the number of hours spent hunched on a project, number of papers read, of words written, and so on–. This, of course, adds up to increasing levels of anxiety demonstrated in casual knowledge workers and university staff among them, and affecting our well-being altogether.

In a way, productive work becomes reproductive work through in the neoliberal university that focuses on status for economic profit.

Autoethnographic vignettes (see this blog post for references on what texts support my use of this method, and also examples) opened the way to explore other researchers’ experience of project-based, temporary and contract-bound,  unrecognised work.

These reflections can be further explored in the existing literature and developed focusing on how, in a capitalist context, academic work is similar to that of women’s reproductive, unwaged and unrecognised work, only that now it impacts both men and women in a differentiated way. I am sure interesting differences will appear through a feminist analysis that takes into  account gender differences.

Let me know of key texts I should include in such an exploration from your viewpoint here or drop me a line.

To be continued…


Una respuesta a «Reproductive academic work and the land of lost projects»

  1. If you want a stable job and income, then use your skills and qualifications to obtain employment outside academia. If you are serious about academia, then I suggest you need to take a hard headed approach to how you use your time. If you are doing things which will not provide a return to you on your investment of time, then don’t do them. Where you do make that investment make sure you maximize the returns on your time, and plan multiple ways to use the outcomes of your work. What you do for a project proposal which does not get accepted need not be wasted. You can turn it into some form of publication, or use it in teaching. I turn my notes into published papers and books. Odds and ends go into my blog:

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