Work it, baby

by Carl Dyke

The subject of academic work (often filtered through the issue of tenure) is all over the blogosphere, e.g. here and here. I also hear from my own colleagues about this regularly. In general, the consensus seems to be that academic work is hard, poorly paid, and underappreciated, with special tortures at tenure and promotion time.

This is not how I see things.

It’s true that academic work is hard at times. I’ve read over 4000 pages of student work so far this year, mostly in introductory World history — which will make one’s brain melt out one’s ears if anything will — and I’m feeling a little ptsd about the roughly 1000 pages of final papers and journals that will be coming in over the next couple of weeks. Committee work is often mere drudgery, and academic advising offers few inherent rewards. It’s also a bit of a strain to hold a clear thought in my head for long enough to write this blog, let alone produce quality scholarship.

Yada yada. Work is work. There’s always something ‘hard’ about work if that’s what you want to focus on. Golly am I glad I’m not working at a sewage treatment plant or mopping other people’s floors. As for getting paid more, what lawyers do looks pretty unappealing to me (I was married to one for quite a while) and I’d rather eat bark than be other people’s boss for a living.

As I wrote to a valued colleague with whom I disagree about all this, work is an ordinary feature of life. It’s a thing everyone does because they have to as responsible adults. If they don’t, they’re getting away with something. Most work, because it’s ordinary, is neither good nor bad, hard nor easy, it’s just a fact. Complaint is always available, but it’s not self-evidently a value, nor does complaining per se count as ‘critical thinking’.

Getting praise or recognition for ordinary work is really beside the point. It’s like wanting recognition for breathing or having two arms. You work, I work, everyone works, it is what it is. We get paid at market rate like anyone else. It’s all equally important and equally “hard” and equally ordinary to our general getting along together.

This all being said, there are kinds of work that seem more privileged or desirable than others, where the ordinariness of work is (occasionally) enhanced by an inherent feeling of fulfillment and accomplishment and value. (“Unalienated labor” in the marxist tradition.) Academic work is one of those, by common social agreement. Again, the job is what it is, so it’s really beside the point to talk about how hard it is or to expect recognition for it, although that’s always nice. But in a world full of ordinary jobs it’s odd to expect special recognition for doing work that is in itself especially rewarding. Not to mention the status.

In short, this work is a pretty sweet deal. I think it’s always a bad argument to try to claim sympathy for privileged work. It’s bad because it’s a quick way to get people who understand work to be an ordinary feature of human life, like university administrators, to stop taking you seriously.

This consideration leads to another. I read and hear colleagues talking about ‘how much’ they work, as if this is the point. See above for why it’s not. But let’s say that it is. Now the discussion is about quantitative measures of work. So my colleague says she works 60 hours or more a week. I actually doubt this; but it does depend on how you count, and since counting has been introduced as the standard, the way to settle the discussion is for her to start keeping timesheets in which she accounts for all her time. Just like lawyers or factory workers. And there should probably be some standards of efficiency — it’s not just how long you work, but how well (you don’t get sympathy or compensation for noodling around aimlessly on the clock for hours).

So now, if I’m a reasonable person faced with complaining about workload from someone who looks to people who work for a living like a spoiled privileged clueless twit, I’m going to have a strong incentive to install all manner of workplace reporting and surveillance and scrutiny to see that this work is, in fact, happening and efficiently too. We’re going to have to start talking about tangible work product. We may need to devise quantification schemes and tables of equivalence for different sorts of academic output. Let’s talk productivity. Welcome to the modern academy.

Well, fine. Accountability is a nice idea, in principle. But notice that the venerable vocation of teacher and scholar has by a strange and awful alchemy been converted into a mere job subject to the same managerial supervision as any other. No doubt this is comfortingly familiar to the academicized working class who entered and now dominate the profession as a result of the expansion of higher education in the U.S. over the last fifty years. At this point there’s nothing left but to join a union, the ultimate gesture of workplace proletarianization, to haggle over the details of this self-alienated labor.

Around here we’re going through an accreditation. Lots of scrutiny about what we do and how we do it. Everyone hates it. But we have very little to resist it with. It would be nice if we at least had our professional dignity, but no; instead, we ‘work hard’.


5 Responses to “Work it, baby”

  1. As you notice, the disconnect isn’t so much between “the work” and “the value” as it is between “the lofty goals” and “the current environment.”
    Provoking colleagues doesn’t tend to help much, in this case. It only digs a deeper trench around the Ivory Tower.

  2. AE, you make a wise and tactful point as always.

    Just to clarify, I know I’m being provocative and I’m not much committed to ‘helping’. One reason is that this is my own dang blog and I’m just sayin’. I’d also point out that the provocation is mutual. But that’s bratty Carl and there’s more to it than that.

    For one thing, I apply different standards to people who are on ‘my team’. I’m not normally disappointed by the wide range of odd notions that float around in the world. They are sometimes teaching moments for me, sometimes entertainment, always a ‘fact’ about the human condition. But I am deeply disappointed when people who fall into my ‘should know better’ category don’t get it. I came by this honestly through watching my dad struggle with his colleagues my whole life. He has his ironic moments about that and I’m almost completely paralyzed by irony, but when I’m thinking about the disconnect between the sort of balanced thoughtfulness academe promises at its best and the kind of dopey narrowmindedness ‘we’ typically produce, it gets me sad.

    From watching him beat his head against the wall and then trying it some myself, I know that not only is provocation no help, but nothing else is either. There are some disagreements we’re stuck with. As both Robespierre and the Thermidorians realized, sometimes the wrong thinking is fundamental and has to be treated accordingly. So I say what I say in full knowledge that it will not and cannot make sense to a certain fraction of the audience; I’m not actually talking to them, but I don’t know who they are until I try.

    Your trench-digging metaphor is interesting. My point is that my colleagues who want to talk about how hard and much they work are actually filling in that trench as fast as they can, by rejecting the vocational professionality of our work in favor of a shop-floor model. They bemoan the demise of the ivory tower, but they’re up on the roof dismantling it brick by brick, hurling the debris into the moat while making quite the raucous sound. This lumpenbourgeoisie seems to have no idea that they’re themselves violating the first principle of status work, which is to think of it and ‘sell’ it in terms of moral engagement rather than brute labor. In such an all-too-human way they are actively making the very world they decry. And of course this feeds right in to the anti-intellectual prejudices of students, administrations, and boards of trustees. See, it is a job like any other, only they’re more pampered and whiny about it.

    You’re absolutely right that what I and my colleagues on the other side of this question share is a mismatch between our lofty goals and the current environment. Oddly enough our school of Arts and Humanities is currently involved in considering the question of ‘happiness’. We all recently watched a video that explored the happiness of Danes, who are the happiest people in the world by some measures. The secret seems to be low expectations. When they have mismatch between their goals and the environment it’s because things didn’t turn out as badly as they expected. I’m actually happy that way most of the time, but as I say I’ve got this tic about people on ‘my team’.


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