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Home » Clarion » 2018 » June/July 2018 » The politics of workload and suicide

The politics of workload and suicide


Recently, the media has highlighted a rash of suicides by well-known celebrities such as chef and travel journalist Anthony Bourdain and fashion designer Kate Spade, but it was the coverage of a non-celebrity’s suicide that caught my attention. A Cardiff University tutor, Malcolm Anderson, took his own life at his workplace precisely because of the interrelated issues of workload and overwork. Every working professor and teacher recognizes that their individual workload is unsustainable, but the question is, while mental health is also a factor, what are the political-economic factors most contributing to this ever-increasing workload and what can be done about it in conjunction with our union?


The political answer is not necessarily the “common sense” answer. The supposedly common sense answer looks for individual solutions because it is based on the wrong assumptions. It ultimately fails because it does not recognize the structural factors, which most determine our time use and time poverty. Overlooking these factors only increases pressure on individuals who by themselves have little to no actual control. In other words, individual time management and time-saving technology are not going to cut it.

Neoliberalism’s tendency toward “responsibilizing subjects” means that more and more aspects of what used to be considered public goods – such as education, housing and healthcare – and which were once regulated and subsidized by the state, are being annihilated. As isolated individuals, we have even less control than neoliberal ideology would lead us to believe.

Academic workload is increasingly difficult to negotiate at the individual level because the politics of time in general is shaped by structural tendencies, described by political theorist Wendy Brown, among others, toward “privatizing public goods and responsibilizing subjects.” How this translates into the politics of higher education is fairly straightforward. First, it means funding for public education is under attack in general, but more specifically attacks against higher education target the most secure jobs made possible by tenure and unions. Second, it means that work that was once distributed more equally across the greater college community is being piled up on fewer and fewer people. At least in relative terms, the number of full-time faculty available to fulfill administrations’ service demands is fewer. Meanwhile, adjunct faculty earn meager salaries that force them to teach more courses, often in different institutions across metropolitan areas to make ends meet.


In his chapter on the “The Working Day” in Das Kapital, Karl Marx recognizes that under capitalism all time is considered as the source of profit, which means that if the state puts no limits on the length of the working day, people will work themselves to death out of necessity. For this reason, we should recognize suicide, premature death and slow death as fundamentally political and very much related to workload and overwork, even if it is not mentioned in a self-authored suicide note, as was the case with Malcolm Anderson.

As human beings who must sell their labor time in order to survive, we must be ever vigilant to the ways the system and its agents commodify and profit from almost every single aspect of our lives, both inside and outside of the workplace through the related processes of production, consumption and leisure. But we should be especially aware and critical of how overworked and underpaid our fellow adjunct faculty are in our own departments and across higher education.

The fight for $7,000 per course per semester for adjunct faculty across CUNY is especially important in this regard in that it might allow adjunct faculty to teach slightly less for the same amount of money. It is a step in the right direction, but as the labor slogan goes, “We want bread, but we want roses too!” Why should adjunct faculty pick up the extra teaching that full-time faculty will pass along to them because of the newly won course reduction? How do we strategize going forward so that a win for full-time faculty doesn’t automatically become a burden to adjunct faculty? Full-time faculty should demand that more full-time faculty be hired.

Please take a moment to read about the suicide of Malcolm Anderson so we can begin to think collectively about what we can do to decrease workload for everybody across the board.

Nichole Marie Shippen is the author of Decolonizing Time: Work, Leisure and Freedom and an associate professor of political science at LaGuardia Community College.

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