Erin Wunker

Assistant Professor at Dalhousie University

Time Is a Feminist Issue in Academia, Too

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Image: A Day in the Life of a Munitions Worker, Britain, 1940 (via Imperial War Museum)

I love making schedules and lists. For me, the new year marks an annual pilgrimage to my favorite stationery store to purchase a day planner. A few years ago, I tried to move to an entirely digital calendar. It was a mess: I double-booked myself, neglected to set reminders, and forgot appointments. And I missed the satisfaction of crossing things off my to-do lists. So it was back to the day planner.

In January, as usual, I purchased my bright red day planner and started logging in important dates — university holidays, guest-speaker appearances, the few conferences I have to attend, and assignment due dates for the two courses I am teaching this term (200 students in each). Then I sat down with my partner, who is also a contingent faculty member, and we logged the dates when we each expected to have a lot of teaching prep work or revisions and page proofs due for forthcoming articles and books. Next I contacted our two baby sitters to figure out when we could afford to have them come watch our infant daughter, and plugged in those dates. And then I curled up in a ball on the floor.

OK, not really, but I wanted to. As I sat at my kitchen table looking at my new day planner — filled solid with commitments for myself and my partner as we seek to raise a family and maintain a research profile as contract faculty —I was struck once again with the unavoidable realization that time is a feminist issue.

In a brilliant 2015 essay, Brigid Schulte, a working mother of two,came to that same conclusion. She consulted a time-use expert who looked at her day planners and informed her that she had lots of time available for leisure: “The time expert looked through the messy time diaries I'd been keeping (one mysteriously went through the dryer) and found 27 hours of what he called leisure, and I called bits and scraps of garbagey time. Five minutes here. Ten minutes there. Listening to the radio, exhausted, trying to get out of bed. Getting some exercise. Waiting by the side of the road for a tow truck. (Yes, he said that counted as leisure.) The image that came to mind was this: time confetti.”

Time confetti is time that is fragmented and piecemeal. It flutters through the air, and through your fingers, unless you try very very hard to catch it.

For Schulte, time is a feminist issue because, as women, our time is “contaminated.” By that, she means, what leisure time women do have is taken up by what others want or need.

I thought about that as I negotiated extra baby-sitting time from one of our sitters so that I could go from office hours to a skype interview to teaching. My time is not my own — even when I am on my own. The creep of academic work has been met by the creep of caregiving duties. And what’s left? Me, my agenda, and a level of exhaustion that is disproportionate to where we are in the semester.

Nothing that I have outlined here is unique to academia per se. But I would argue that time is specifically a feminist issue for academics, given that critical thinking is inherent in what we do. Academic spaces are precisely designed as places where we think about systemic injustices, myopias, and imbalances — and then model equitable change. So why aren’t we?

In the academic profession, where work can creep into every facet of our lives, can we make some specific and conscious shifts to accommodate women and other academics with children and other care-taking responsibilities? For example, what kind of space would be freed up in your day planner if committee and department meetings were held during school hours rather than supper time? Or if service work was truly and equitably distributed?

What I am suggesting is this: Feminist academics have a long history of articulating the inequitable division of labor in society and working to change the material conditions to make that work more equitable.

As we move into 2016, let’s remind ourselves that time is power and not everyone has equal access to it.

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