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When Love Becomes Self-Abuse: Gendered Perspectives on Unpaid Labor in Academia

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During the 1970s, feminist scholar Silvia Federici maintained that one of the main challenges in the Wages for Housework campaign lay in the fact that women’s domestic labor was presented as an act of love, a natural attribute of the female personality that required no monetary compensation. Today, academic labor is often presented as a labor of love. Especially for young, female academics, scholarly labor is treated as a form of self-expression that fulfills an affective need, hence turning the actual conditions of labor into afterthoughts. In this chapter, I tell the stories of precarious academics in Italy: researchers, postdocs, and adjunct professors who often work long hours in hopes for nebulous rewards such as co-authoring papers, receiving recommendation letters or vague promises of future employment. Drawing on data collected during an online survey administered to 1864 precarious academics and 20 in-depth interviews, I show how adjunct professors and precarious scholars in Italy barely make a living, often live in overcrowded homes and on occasion turn to deviant behavior to make ends meet. Although the mainstream discourse tends to present academic labor as being both elitist and out of touch, the privilege of young scientists that “do what they love”, these interviews often portray academia as a de facto exploitative labor market where young women are expected to provide high-skilled labor for extremely low or no wages. Trapped in the urge to be competitive in the labor market, young women often endure financial hardships and long periods of isolation while they accept the promise of future employment as the affective currency of unpaid work (Bascetta, Economia politica della promessa. Roma: Ilmanifestolibri, 2015). Rather than a labor of love, academic labor sometimes appears as an abusive relationship, an exploitative system chronicled by costly sacrifices and uncertain prospects.