Ethics of Accepting Student Volunteers

Posted on August 8, 2016


Today, well now Yesterday but when I wrote this it was Sunday and then I scheduled it to post for 10:30 on Monday, but I am digressing. Today/Yesterday, I had a conversation on Twitter with Dr Donna Yates, who you will know from such blogs as Anonymous Swiss Collector and Stolen Gods and her Culture Crime Newsletter/updater (?). It was the latter that brought up this conversation:

Which led her to ponder about getting volunteer help but Donna saw some issues with that-

Lots of people joined into the conversation and it touched on many different topics. But, it is Twitter and the 140 characters limits the depth of what you can cover. So this post expands upon several ideas that were too large for 140 characters.

Student Volunteering is Mostly One Sided

Donna was concerned that if she took on a student volunteer to help with the Culture Crime News she would be taking advantage of the student. She would get work done, mainly data entry, and they would get very little other than a letter of recommendation, if it didn’t go horribly wrong. This touches on the conversations around #freearchaeology which is the concept of people giving their time and money to do archaeology i.e. unpaid internships, paying for field schools, working after hours, etc. Basically, Donna was getting something that she believes should be paid for “free” and thus not ethical. Or I could be putting words into her mouth but that is what I took away from the conversation and I think it is worth talking about that idea (even if that is not what Donna meant).

Student volunteering is almost always one-sided but it is usually to the students advantage. Students will get lots out of volunteering, like:

  • social engagement- depending on the project it can be very social. On field schools you meet tons of people and develop friendships;
  • publication, credit, etc. for work done – it can be very good for CV building;
  • determine if they actually want to do the work as a career before they spend years of their life pursing a career in something they don’t like;
  • learning new skills- many times students will pick of skills that they would not learn otherwise.

Volunteering Helps Women!!!!! … and Men too.

Those are only a couple of benefits but I think one of the best, in my opinion, is confidence. As a white American male, God has ordained upon me more confidence than I should ever need or that is probably good for me. I see a job description in which I meet 60-70% of the requirements and think, ‘yeah, that will be fun let’s give it a go.’ Unfortunately, for my non-merica (the A is silent) male friends they look at a job description and think, ‘oh, I have never done that before. I wouldn’t want to apply to something I am not 100% qualified for.’ Studies have shown that while this affects all cultures, genders, creeds, etc. it is particularly bad for women.

The twisted irony is that if you will only pay people to do work than a portion of the population will never be able to do that work because they don’t have the confidence to apply for the job having never done it before, of chickens and eggs and what not. I can’t tell you the number of conversations I have had with new graduates that go something like this:

Me: Why didn’t you apply to job X, you would have been perfect?

Them: I wasn’t qualified.

Me: Wait, what? what are you talking about? It is an entry level job. It is what you are suppose to apply to.

Them: It said previous experience desirable.

Me: Desirable, as in not required?

Them: But I don’t have it so I didn’t want to apply and waste anyone’s time.

Me: …

Me: …

Them: Doug, why are you hitting your head against the wall?

Let me be clear- you don’t need to match 100% of a job description speck to get the job, let alone apply. However, many people still don’t feel comfortable  unless they meet the requirements 100% and so they need to get that somewhere.

Volunteering is easier for people to do as there is no the expectation that they need to have the skills (not if it is volunteering, see definition below). There are very few jobs these days whose description starts out with- ‘no experience needed, we will train you’. While in theory I agree that all work should be paid work, in practice, until Universities or other organisations provided training and experience for ALL common tasks in archaeology, and most fields of work, paying for work will actually exclude a good portion of people from ever getting involved in archaeology, many times through self imposed barriers but they are still barriers.

Students are so Studenty and That is Good

Over the years I have helped plan and run community and training excavations mainly aimed at students. 100% free and in some cases I have even provided the transportation. The training is done by professional archaeologists. One of whom is David Connelly who runs BAJR and thus knows every commercial archaeology employer in the UK. You can’t get a better connected archaeologist. A brilliant opportunity right? Completely free and quality train and yet, consistently people would sign up and then not show up…  £$£*%$” students… but not really.

In most countries, the legal definition of a volunteer is someone who has no obligation to complete a specific task, show up at a particular time, or to even complete the work. Those that do have to follow those obligations are called employees and you have to pay them. A volunteer can look at a task and say, ‘nah, not today’, an employee can’t, well not and still be employed for long. Most people confuse unpaid work with volunteering- they are not the same. Looking back at the twitter conversation I realise that the term unpaid labor and volunteering was used interchangeably. So it is worth putting up some definitions:

  • Worker- someone with obligations to an employer.
  • Volunteer- someone who has no obligations to anyone but themselves.
  • Unpaid Worker- someone with obligations to an employer but is not compensated for that work with money. This violates the Law.

This distinction gives incredible benefits to the volunteer. Years ago I worked at an organisation, Community Experience, in which my job was to get University students to undertake volunteering in the community. Our turn up rate was between 50-60%. That means if we booked 100 volunteers to undertake a project we would expect maybe 55 to show up… on a good day. One of the greatest benefits to students when volunteering is that they don’t have to show up and they don’t have to complete a project and this flexibility is good. Maybe you (the student) have taken on too much work and need to drop something. Well you can’t drop the thing that is paying your bills (a job) but you can stop your volunteering. Volunteering is learning at its best and few things compare. The closest thing is probably MOOCs when 100,000s of people sign up but only 5% complete it. Everyone is so concerned about the completion rate of MOOCs when in reality it is the best of learning. You sample something and if you like it you continue to learn, if not, you walk away having wasted almost nothing, maybe a few hours of your time, certainly not $20,000 in tuition. Volunteering allows you to learn, explore, test out new things for the cost of only a few hours of your time. You rarely get a better deal than that when it comes to learning.

Student Volunteering is an Act of Charity… on your part

Student volunteers are probably the most unreliable of any volunteers because they have so much going on and so working with them usually means that you put in more work than you get out of the students. This can be incredibly infuriating, especially as students don’t tend to call and let you know they won’t be there today to volunteer like they said they would. But, I always remind myself to take a deep breath and remember ‘they are students’. They have no experience and limited knowledge. They don’t know that the opportunity you are providing them could be a once in a lifetime. They don’t know that choosing to get drunk the night before a dig is not a good idea, they are learning that now. Realistically, when you take on a student volunteer (different than other types of volunteers) you are not taking on a volunteer, you are taking on child and that is a much greater responsibility. In all likelihood you will need to:

  • ensure they know why they are volunteering and what they will get out of it- usually they are just told to volunteer and have no idea how to actually volunteer so they randomly ask people, organisations, etc.;
  • train them- they might know some things but probably not much;
  • teach them life skills- can’t finish something, let someone know.

Basically, I would say that Donna should not be concerned about a volunteer not getting something out of the experience. They will, be it something tangle like a job reference or an experience like finding out they really don’t like digging. No, the question that should be asked is if Donna has enough time to take on a volunteer? Well volunteerS, as chances are many of them won’t last long and even the best of them will graduate and get a job and so no longer have time to volunteer.

There Are Ways to Get More Out of Your Volunteers… just not legal ways

That of course assumes that you are ethical with your student volunteers. I think the biggest problem people have with volunteering is that they think it is unpaid labor and treat it as such. In reality, you need to look at taking on a student volunteers not as an opportunity to get labour in exchange for X but as a chance to give back to the community by helping the future generations. Otherwise you will almost always be disappointed with your student “volunteers”.

Really there are no ethics of accepting students volunteers- the title of this post is a miss direct. There are ethics of using unpaid labor and really there aren’t ethics of that because it is illegal.

Other thoughts

It was a wide ranging conversation and so I would like to briefly touch on some other ideas that came up. In the Twitter conversation Ethan Watrall gave a link to ‘A Student Collaborators’ Bill of Rights‘. It is a good guide and I agree with most of the points but I disagree, vehemently, with the very first point,

“As a general principle, a student must be paid for his or her time if he or she is not empowered to make critical decisions about the intellectual design of a project or a portion of a project (and credited accordingly). Students should not perform mechanical labor, such as data-entry or scanning, without pay.”

Students Should do the Boring Stuff

One of the benefits of volunteering is that it helps you determine if you actually want to do this work for the rest of your life. Many students attend a field school and then realise, ‘oh no, archaeology is not for me’. Part of that experience is undertaking all of the work, including data entry, which is a big portion of archaeology and many other subjects. Giving them a rose tinted view of the world, ‘archaeology is always fun, especially because I never have to do paperwork!’, will not be helping out the students and just lead to heartbreak later in life.

‘But what about if it is the only thing they are doing?’

Well that is you making a judgement call for the student without consulting them, usually based on your personal preferences. Some people really like data entry; I am one of them. Not always, but sometimes I like to just set my brain into low gear and grind through some mechanical labo(u)r for a few hours. It give me a chance to turn off most of brain for a few hours in a way that I can’t with TV/video games. I can think of several examples of when data entry is the best form of volunteering:

  • While not a likely to occur with students, with older volunteers they really just want to get out and be social. Which means they don’t want something complex that requires lots of attention, they just want something that will get them out of the house.
  • Autism – for some on the spectrum being responsible for decision making or having to interactions with people is their Vietnam. They would much prefer to have a repetitive task with very clear instructions than anything else.

Of course, for some people repetitive tasks are hell on earth. I am not saying one type of volunteer task is better than the other. What I am saying is you need to have that conversation about what they want and what you hope to get done and then go from there, not make blanket assumptions about what is good or bad.

‘Course Credit is slavery, just with extra steps in it’ (Rick from Rick and Morty, modified quote)

Ok, not quite slavery but giving course credit for volunteering is employment, just with extra steps. I am 100% against giving course credit for volunteering because that is not volunteering- that is a work placement or course work. At some universities it is possible to earn course credit for “volunteering” but by definition that is not volunteering. To get that credit you will have to finish a task, usually within a time frame and to a certain standard. That is NOT volunteering. That is employment but instead of being paid in money you get paid in course credits which have a monetary value i.e. employment with extra steps.

What I find particularity in poor taste with this practice is that these are not free credits. The University will still charge the student a set fee to earn that credit that they pay with their own money or scholarship or loan, etc. Not only is that not volunteering but it is paying someone for the privilege to do work for them. In this case, I am in agreement with the Student Collaborators Bill of Rights:

2. Course credit is generally not sufficient “payment” for students’ time, since courses are designed to provide students with learning experiences.

3. We encourage senior scholars to familiarize themselves with the literature on unpaid internships. At a minimum, internships for course credit should be offered as learning experiences, with a high level of mentorship. Those employing interns should be prepared to spend substantial face-to-face time with the student.

You Killing Volunteering… You’re Not a Murder but Definitely a Mugger 

Honestly, in my opinion it’s a toss up of which is worse, having students pay to do work or making them think that doing that is what volunteering is. By offering course credit one is helping to perpetuate the notion that volunteering involves obligations and the need to finish the work. Later in life when a student is being taken advantage by those people who do abuse “volunteers” by having them do unpaid work, the student won’t be able to recognise the abuse.

You would have normalised practices that can be abused. If you do offer course credit for work, NEVER call it volunteering. Don’t say, ‘if you volunteer at this conference you will get course credit’. Instead say, ‘if you work at this conference you will get course credit’. Call it what it is, work- the exchange of services for something in return, not volunteering. This is true of anything you formally offer a “volunteer” in exchange for their work be it a letter of recommendation or course credit.

Offering to pay for travel to the place they volunteer is not the same though. With that you are supporting them in their task like giving them gloves to handle artefacts. Please do support them as much as you can, just make sure it is support, not an exchange.

Final Thoughts

Ok, it is one in the morning and I should head to bed now. But in case I have not annoyed you yet with my repetitive ramblings, volunteering is not free labor. Volunteers are usually the ones that get the most out volunteering and you host students volunteers as an act of charity. If you are not feeling charitable than don’t have volunteers and NEVER EVER have free labor.



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