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.