Recognising voluntary labour in Higher Education: More things I learned from Girl Guides

I was a Girl Guide once. Not for very long, but there were a few things I learned there that have stayed with me as useful for life. Here’s the first in a new mini-series of posts about it. 

Badges for volunteering

This came back to me the other day as I was sitting in a ceremony of the Order of St John (the chivalric arm of the St John’s Ambulance Brigade). On the one hand, it was clear that if you worked for the St John’s organisation, you were also expected to volunteer extra hours. You might offer first aid for major events, or take part in competitions, or help out with the cadets. So far, just like most higher education jobs. However, these volunteer hours are counted. And when you’ve racked up enough of them, you get a pin or a certificate. 

And because they have a system to count them, it is part of the system to count everyone’s extra work. Unlike many other situations, where women are expected to take on extra service tasks, and both disadvantaged by not taking on those extra tasks and not advantaged by taking them on and those tasks are rendered invisible… You don’t have to make a big song and dance about working overtime for people to notice you are doing extra, or accept that it is extra. You just log your hours of service.

This is similar to what happened when we were Girl Guides.

You had to put in lots of extra time outside the set meeting times, gaining experiences and skills. You baked cakes, and learned to tie knots, and build fires (all skills that have been part of invisible service I have rendered to organisations over the years). You were required to put in that time–but when you did, you were recognised with a badge that you could sew onto your uniform and display to the world.

One of the major issues for hourly-paid academics is how much preparation, administration and marking they are doing for free. Essentially, hourly-paid academics are propping up the higher education system with free labour, they are volunteers. This is iniquitous because they are not being paid a living wage, so they really can’t afford to give us more for free.

But many academics and administrators with full-time and ongoing positions are also volunteering: mentoring, attending social events, peer reviewing, acting at beta readers for colleague’s grant applications, blogging, offering advice on social media etc. Some of these activities can currently be measured and recognised by organisations and peers, and many aren’t.

The skills, hours, effort and impact of this volunteer labour is sometimes dismissed or erased. If it’s not grant funding or a peer-reviewed publication, it often doesn’t count. Or, just as often, it is assumed or expected. Of course you will help out with these committees. Of course you will write references for your students. No-one stops by and says ‘Thank you, well done, this makes such a difference to our work place.

I don’t know that I want a ‘peer reviewer’ badge to sew onto my academical robes, but I do know that someone saying ‘this is great’, or ‘thank you for the work you do’ makes a huge difference. When my boss says ‘thank you’ or (as she did recently, handed me a bottle of champagne), it made me feel that my work was valuable and worth doing. 

So, think about what you do that might be doing that deserves recognition. And think about how you might get that. Could you use a system like Open Badges? Can you add those tasks into your Key Performance Indicators? Can you work with your Union or management to get recognition and pay for the free labour of hourly-paid staff?

And if all else fails, get your own elephant stamp:

Lion, tiger and bear stamps. ArtsWrite 2015.
Lion, tiger and bear stamps. ArtsWrite 2015.

Well done, you’re doing a great job!


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