“How could you have dignity in labor if you secretly believe your job shouldn’t exist?”

12 05 2014

The first post I wrote about on this blog after leaving my previous all-MOOCs-all-the-time format was about David Graeber’s short masterpiece on bullshit jobs. My focus then was about bullshit academic jobs. Graeber’s back talking to PBS’ NewsHour about precisely the same thing so I want to revisit the subject too.* This time I’ll consider the non-bullshit jobs of academia, better known as faculty positions.

I remember when I was younger and I was considering going to law school. I finally decided not to because I wanted to be able to look at myself in the mirror every morning. I think Graeber would conclude that I wanted to keep my dignity:

“How could you have dignity in labor if you secretly believe your job shouldn’t exist? But, of course, you’re not going to tell your boss that. So I thought, you know, there must be enormous moral and spiritual damage done to our society. And then I thought, well, maybe that explains some other things, like why is it there’s this deep, popular resentment against people who have real jobs? They can get people so angry at auto-workers, just because they make 30 bucks an hour, which is like nowhere near what corporate lawyers make, but nobody seems to resent them. They get angry at the auto-workers; they get angry at teachers. They don’t get angry at school administrators, who actually make more money. Most of the problems people blame on teachers, and I think on some level, that’s resentment: all these people with meaningless jobs are saying, but, you guys get to teach kids, you get to make cars; that’s real work. We don’t get to do real work; you want benefits, too? That’s not reasonable.”

In other words, we professors pay a premium to do work that doesn’t make us question our overall purpose in the world. Maintaining our dignity has real value. Without that dignity, I don’t see how any adjunct could do what they do for so little. Yet despite our comparatively poor salaries, we still drive ourselves to work harder even as what we do is valued less and less. Soon our dignity may be all we have left.

Using Graeber’s logic, this situation is the result of constant attacks from economic parasites who have nothing better to do with their time. These parasites are the people, Graeber suggests, who are paid:

“to sit in an office, and basically valorize the idea that everybody should look busy all the time, that work is valuable in itself.”

It’s summer now. Does that mean we professors stop working entirely? Of course not, it just means we work differently. Indeed, if I didn’t work during the summer I’m not sure I could afford to stay in my comparatively poor-paying job. The opportunity costs of not being a lawyer would have been too great.

What really makes my blood boil though is the way that the psychic benefits of being a professor are getting priced out of existence. Here, for example, is Historiann describing a situation common to many of us:

“Here’s my thinking: at least 50% of my pique comes from the fact that faculty at my university are dramatically underpaid compared to our “peers” at our own “peer institutions.” I also didn’t get a dime’s worth of a raise between 2008 and 2012, and when I finally got a raise in 2012, it was a measly $1,860! Seriously. Another 25% of the rest of my irritation stems from all of the unpaid labor I do that the university doesn’t even recognize (like donating time to the university archives, one of the causes I was asked to support tonight on the telephone!), and the remaining 25% or so comes from the fact that my research agenda has largely been self-funded. Yes, that’s right: humanities faculty end up paying for the privilege of doing more work, because we end up without any meaningful research or travel funds to help us move our projects forward.”

To make matters worse, administrative pay (to say nothing about the sheer number of administrators) is being driven up to an incredible degree. I don’t begrudge college presidents the first couple of hundred thousands dollars they make each year (after all, I don’t want to spend most of my day begging people for money), but anything above that is basically an obscenity.

So what can be done about this situation? I propose two responses – not solutions, just responses. The first is to rub your dignity in the faces of the undignified every chance you get. Don’t forward your administrators a link to Graeber’s work. This doesn’t have to be cruel. Next time you see your friendly neighborhood Associate Dean, just ask them exactly what they’ve been doing lately. Request that they describe their work life to you in some detail and ask them whether it has achieved any tangible results. If nothing else, this will make you more happy with the choices that you’ve made.

My second response is to value your own time more. I was recently making a fundraising pitch to a big local donor to my university.** Much to my shock, in the middle of a conversation about our university’s troubles, he asked me what I really wanted out of life. Answering that question took some time because the answer wasn’t money. Yes, an extra $20,000/year would be nice, but I’m more interested in time. I’m not talking about living to be a hundred years old here. I’m talking about having the time to do the things I want to do because they make me happy, rather than the things I have to do because somebody with a bullshit job tells me that I have to do them. As one recent study concluded:

“30 percent of faculty time “was spent on activities that are not traditionally thought of as part of the life of an academic.””

That’s meetings and e-mail, people. Not always the worst things in the world, of course, but how many of them really demand your immediate attention? Think how much better your life would be if you can pick and choose from them to a greater extent than you do now. Well, guess what? You can.

Assuming you have the power to determine your own schedule (and most of you professors out there reading this probably do), then do more of what you enjoy and less of what you don’t. This is hardly the same thing as going on strike, but if more of us assert the prerogatives that we’re supposedly paying for through the opportunity costs of doing meaningful work, it may have the same effect.

* For some reason, I’ve been having trouble getting to that PBS link on Chrome since I tweeted it on Saturday. It does, however, work when I switch to Firefox. I have no idea why.

** No, I haven’t sold out completely. This donor is a pro-labor Democrat who I’ve known for over a decade now. The fact that it was for a labor history function explains why I got an invite to the meeting.



9 responses

12 05 2014

OMG. So much to think about here, Jonathan. I like your idea of faculty holding admins accountable for their work! However, having had some friends cycle through those lower-level jobs, the associate deans are hardly overpaid for the work they do. A colleague of mine applied for one of those jobs, and when we looked at how she’d actually have to spend her time vs. what Baa Ram U. was going to pay her, we both agreed that she’d be crazy to take the job.

It’s the associate vice provosts of blibbity blab-type jobs that represent the real admin bloat at our uni. I need to read/watch Graeber now & think some more. I think I have at least 20 minutes to think today, in-between meetings with students, emails, and the like.

12 05 2014

that blanket stereotyping of all lawyers sounds a lot like the professor version that encourages the uninformed to the think of adjuncts, lecturers and lower tier tenured as lazy, overpaid pointy-heads. If your union ever goes into arbitration, you’d better hope for an arbitrator like my daughter and be glad she (and lawyers like her, they do exist—just like ten fac with a conscience about adjuncts) never had the same kind of looking in the mirror epiphany.


12 05 2014
Jonathan Rees

Cut me some slack, Vanessa. I was like twenty at that time.

12 05 2014

always — always… and who really knew then for sure where academia was heading

12 05 2014

Reblogged this on National Mobilization For Equity and commented:
what tenured, FTL and adjunct faculty do have in common

12 05 2014
Laura Gibbs

Your comments about time ring SO TRUE for me. I have no regrets about leaving a TT position for a lectureship that is 100% teaching because, for me, the look-yourself-in-the-mirror honesty comes from teaching, not from research or professional service. So, with a 100% teaching job, I can feel 100% honest about what I do, which is of inestimable value. Sure, I make half as much, but if I am twice … or three …. or four or more times as happy, then it works for me. (And kudos to my dean at the time – 10 years ago now – for coming up with a full-time teaching job, reasonable load, 9-month appointment w/ benefits when I told him I was leaving my TT job in despair.)

13 05 2014

Much to think about here — that question about what we want out of life is a real show-stopper. I’ll be thinking about that for some time. While I love teaching, and love research and writing, I also enjoy — and am good at — administrative tasks. I’m good at looking at the big picture, and thinking about how a group of people can flourish, not just myself. And I’m at a stage in my life where this is generative work: it feels like a real legacy.

Because of the work I do administering a research center, I have many administrative friends. There are good administrators and bad ones. But I’m very aware that just as we chafe under the pressures of the modern university, so do many of them. Many of them got into administration from teaching, from their commitment to certain kinds of learning, or other activities. Many of the assistant provost for paper pushing positions are themselves direct responses to the regulation of the university — from accreditors, from health and safety regulations, from all sorts of federal reporting. Every time someone asks for accountability on anything — from federal grants, financial aid, chemicals, student learning, or just basic purchasing — I see at least one new staff member. Much of the administrative work that we don’t want to do (and I really don’t) we push on to staff people: for accreditation, we may do the basic assessment, but few of us want to spend our summer synthesizing what we have learned from the assessment process across the campus.

That’s not to say it’s all useful work — the system I work in has incredible levels of bureaucracy that I’d love to reduce — but I guess that I’d say it’s not just our jobs that are shaped by the modern corporate university, but also the jobs of administrators: theirs are shaped even more by the regulation of the modern corporate university.

16 05 2014
The edutainment chronicles: comedy gold! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

[…] the transition from education to entertainment pretty much complete?  (Isn’t this the very definition of a bull$hit job?  To paraphrase Rees:  if you can be replaced by an actor, you’re not doing your job […]

6 05 2015
The edutainment chronicles: comedy gold! | Historiann

[…] the transition from education to entertainment pretty much complete?  (Isn’t this the very definition of a bull$hit job?  To paraphrase Rees:  if you can be replaced by an actor, you’re not doing your job […]

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