Happy Labor Day!

Phil Ford

Tom Lutz, author of Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers and Bums in America, has a piece on the op-ed page of the New York Times today. The Times has decided to put all its opinion columns behind a pay wall (way to harness the power of the blogosphere, guys), and it is poor blog etiquette to link to a firewalled article, so I will summarize. Academics are sort of like 19th-century agricultural and artisanal workers. We work long hours for relatively little pay — an academic job “offers the lowest years-of-education-to-income ratio possible” — and though the standard explanation is that we’re making a trade-off between pay and the luxury of doing what we love, Lutz points out that much of the work, like grading and serving on committees and whatnot, is just ordinary workaday drudgery. And he might have added that academic jobs are hard to find and fraught with anxiety when found, with ever-inflating tenure demands hanging over the head of every assistant professor.

But the reason people are still willing to put up with all this to become professors, Lutz writes, is that our time is still our own. There’s a lot of work to do, but we can do it in our own way and in our own time, and there isn’t some asshole office manager asking why we’re taking so long at lunch. Which is sort of the way it was for 19th century workers:

In 1877 a New York cigar manufacturer grumbled that his cigar makers could never be counted on to do a straight shift’s work. They would “come down to the shop in the morning, roll a few cigars,” he complained to The New York Herald, “and then go to a beer saloon and play pinochle or some other game.” The workers would return when they pleased, roll a few more cigars, and then revisit the saloon, all told “working probably two or three hours a day.” Cigar makers in Milwaukee went on strike in 1882 simply to preserve their right to leave the shop at any time without their foreman’s permission.

In this the cigar workers were typical. American manufacturing laborers came and left for the day at different times. “Monday,” one manufacturer complained, was always “given up to debauchery,” and on Saturdays, brewery wagons came right to the factory, encouraging workers to celebrate payday. Daily breaks for “dramming” were common, with workers coming and going from the work place as they pleased. Their workdays were often, by 20th-century standards, riddled with breaks for meals, snacks, wine, brandy and reading the newspaper aloud to fellow workers.

An owner of a New Jersey iron mill made these notations in his diary over the course of a single week:

“All hands drunk.”

“Jacob Ventling hunting.”

“Molders all agree to quit work and went to the beach.”

“Peter Cox very drunk.”

“Edward Rutter off a-drinking.”

Just like my workday!

Academics don’t really have this kind of liberty, but Lutz’s point is that we feel the absence of chains, and this makes up for a lot of the other stuff we have to put up with.

There is one way in which the analogy breaks down, though. A guy working at an iron foundry in the 19th century presumably didn’t think of his work as a “calling,” the outward expression of some inward authentic being. But academic labor is always conceived of (and defended) in these terms.

I’m one of the faculty fellows of the UT Humanities Instiute seminar in labor and leisure, and in our first meeting this past week we discussed a book by Russell Muirhead, Just Work. Muirhead argues that work is just when it satisfies the requirement of “fit,” which is something like this notion of a calling. In our seminar, Tiffany Gill made the point that Muirhead’s notion of what endows working life with dignity is hardly universal. African American women in domestic service a century ago did not think of their work in these terms — it was what they did to earn a living for their families, and they found their sense of “fit” in other parts of their lives (being a deacon at church, for example).

I think of this as the “compartmentalized” idea of work, where work is work but life satisfaction comes from the work we do in a clearly-defined zone outside of one’s job. Muirhead’s conception of work life might be called an “integral” one, since on his account “fitting” work flows from one’s particular interests and desires and therefore is integrated into the total pattern of one’s life. The “integral” approach assumes, among other things, that what we do is to some extent who we are, and when you think about it this is kind of terrifying. It radically expands the zone of work within life and radically shrinks the domain of private life, leisure, or family. Ask any musician: the idea that you are your work can be tyrannical in ways that no office manager could hope to be. My wife just pointed out that my own “calling” is making me pound out this long blog post on a Labor Day holiday at 10 in the morning. The notion of “fit” makes you internalize workplace displine; you monitor yourself like some panopticon-dwelling sucker out of Foucault.

To which the proper response is to make the little finger-rubbing motion that signifies the world’s smallest violin playing a sad sad song. It’s a trade-off, like everything else in life: in exchange for doing something that’s kinda-sorta fun for a living, our “free time” is no longer free.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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1 Response to Happy Labor Day!

  1. Adjuncular Misfit says:

    Does the NY Times article make any comment about the fact that it seems many academics are too afraid to leave the supposedly safe confines of academe? This notion of a job for life seems to draw many, no matter how unhappy the situations around them become. As I move from what was supposed to be a rewarding career in academia to a search for a non-academic job, that seems to be the primary question: how could you consider giving up the unique benefits of tenure? What about stability? To me, it seems more like a recipe for stagnation.
    I’ve also been told that perhaps I would ‘fit’ better outside of the academy, which I consider a load of horsepoop. There are good things and bad things about academic life, just like everything else; I can choose to adapt to them or not (many years of adjunct positions, for example, is not something I am willing to tolerate…and no one else should either). If you are fortunate — as virtually anyone with a Ph.D. is — then you can choose what kind of job you want to try. How unfortunate that so many of us only see academia as the correct path, cutting off options before even giving them a chance.

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