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Shadow Labor: students, professors affected by emotional labor surrounding sexual assault

Westminster College sociology professors Kristjane Nordmeyer (left) and Nicole Bedera (right). Nordmeyer and Bedera research sexual violence and explore the topic in their classrooms which can lead to excess shadow labor – unpaid tasks people do on behalf of business and organizations – in the form of emotionally supporting those around them, they said. (Photo courtesy Jenna Sandberg)

This story is the first of a two-part series following the experiences of those performing shadow work to support survivors and prevent sexual violence. You can read the second story here. For Title IX and support resources at Westminster College, please visit this webpage.

There is work—shadow work—that exists secretly in most people’s lives: self-checkout lines, pumping gas or putting together IKEA furniture.

Sociologist Craig Lambert describes shadow labor as, “all of the unpaid tasks we do on behalf of business and organizations,” in the book “Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day.” This labor is the smaller and seemingly invisible tasks that most people do.

Shadow labor can also be more serious such as in the case of the emotional labor people do to help others after a traumatic event.

Nicole Bedera, adjunct professor of sociology who currently teaches the sociology of sexual violence course, said certain types of shadow work disproportionately land on marginalized groups.

For instance, people that support students after sexual assault are primarily women, according to Bedera.

Bedera said the first place she heard about shadow labor was in academic advising.

“It was when somebody’s advisor was terrible,” Bedera said. “Usually it was a very masculine professor who didn’t value relationships […] sort of a, ‘You’re having trouble, go out there, figure it out, suck it up.’”

When students inevitably still needed mentorship and assistance, they sought out help from other sources. Often, they’d go to a woman who will not get credit for advising that student, and they won’t be able to put it on their CV, Bedera said.

“That labor takes away from time that they have to do their own research,” she said.

Bedera, who is trained as a sexual assault counselor, said that while performing shadow labor makes her a more empathetic professor, it also takes away from her time spent preparing for class.

Kristjane Nordmeyer, professor of sociology, said she’s recognized shadow labor in her work as a professor.

“A lot of it’s real practical stuff […] I do a lot of research advising and giving people feedback on projects and [Institutional Review Boards at Westminster],” Nordmeyer said.

But there’s also an emotional requirement to her labor, Nordmeyer said. Sometimes it means supporting students as they deal with traumas associated with their research or just talking and listening.

Bedera and Nordmeyer research sexual violence, and explore the topic in their classrooms which can lead to excess shadow work of emotionally supporting not only students, but friends and acquaintances that experience sexual violence, they said.

“It’s women and it’s people who are talking about [sexual violence] in a kind, compassionate, protective way towards survivors,” Bedera said. “Overwhelmingly we know universities don’t have that compassionate touch. That through the guise of neutrality, it’s not really a safe space to address the violence that has occured, and so it’s falling a lot on professors, academic advisors, and frankly a lot of these people are not trained.”

Topics like sexual violence can be hard to navigate in a classroom and leads to excess shadow work for those that do choose to talk about them, according to Bedera. Professors are often unprepared the number of students who disclose their experiences of violence to them, she said.

There’s layers to supporting students including mandatory reporting, that both Bedera and Nordmeyer said can be restricting.  

Bedera’s said her hope is that institutions will provide a safe environment for survivors of sexual violence. This way, professors wouldn’t have to pick up excess shadow labor.

This labor isn’t easy to leave behind when they leave campus, either, Bedera and Nordmeyer said. It has emotional ramifications that seep into their home lives. It could be staying up late doing work that would have been done had they not had to perform shadow work, missing time with their families, or emotional energy spent worrying about students, they said.

“I carry this with me,” Nordmeyer said. “I worry about students and projects and deadlines, but I also worry about students and their lives a lot.”

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