Friday, December 14, 2007

Academy of Snivelling

God give me patience, but I am sick to death of hearing academics snivel about how hard their jobs are. Sure, there are occasional frustrations, but the bitter, hard-done-by moaning and kvetching about being exploited that I hear in some quarters is just totally incommensurate with a considered, measured view of reality.

My own view, having been a professor for fifteen years, is that this is the best job in the world. I love it at least 95% of the time, and I earnestly wish that those who disagree would move on and let just one of the many, many people who would like to replace them do so: because being a professor is a job for those who are inspired and driven from within, not for those who arrive at work sullen and resentful, feeling the lash of the administration upon their backs. But before anyone accuses me of being a Pollyanna, let me describe what I think is the realistic view I alluded to above and which I believe should temper all of our opinions.

Before I earned my PhD (but, in some cases, after I earned my M.A.), I worked at some truly horrific jobs. I did these jobs for the same reason that the vast majority of the world works: because I needed the money, and because these jobs represented the best chance of making honest money that I could find at the time. Now, thankfully, in my case, the jobs were temporary rather than permanent necessities. I was struggling to pay off my tuition and just stay alive while not deviating from the important life goals I had set myself; and this perhaps made it a little easier for me to struggle through. But the more important point is that, temporary or not, as is the case with most people, I did these jobs not because I had any delusions that they would be fulfilling, but simply because I felt that I had no better choices available. Three jobs which were certainly among the worst were: (1) cleaning up the site of a burnt building---prying valuable hardware away from charred remains and, over the course of a couple of weeks, gradually filling several large dumpsters with burnt junk, and a couple of oil drums with valuable stuff; (2) working for several weekends in the laundry room of an enormous hotel, where the piles of often disgustingly filthy sheets and towels were filled with all manner of imaginable refuse, including vermin and insects, and were, I assure you, even for a fairly strong young man, unimaginably heavy once they had been put in the huge laundry bags which had to be hoisted onto hooks to go in the automatic washers; (3) playing a "leprechaun" at a zoo around St Patrick's Day, in a totally ridiculous costume and make-up, without having been given any script, nor even any specific instructions but to entertain people, though I received plenty of abuse and mockery both from officials of the zoo and from the customers. At each of these jobs I worked for pay that was at or very slightly above minimum wage.

Now, truly, these are the conditions in which many, perhaps most people the world over, reguarly work: filth, physical trauma and humiliation. It is even worth considering that---pace Karl Marx, a great thinker to be sure, but a man, it must be said, who seems to have never worked a regular job, instead sponging shamelessly off his industrious buddy Engels, even while Marx mocked him for his bourgeois preoccupations---this may be the natural state of most human labour: filth, physical trauma and humiliation. For example: anyone care to try hunting down and killing a woolly mammoth? Or digging for roots and grubs? At any rate, the jobs I worked at certainly made me see quite clearly that, in terms of being exploited for one's body or lesser skills, and enduring degrading health and safety risks, prostitution probably falls well short of the very worst possibility one might be forced to consider---if nothing else, the work of the prostitute takes less time and is generally much better paid, considered as an hourly wage.

So the occasional unpleasantness in academia to do with tedium or lack of appreciation hardly seems so much to bear, does it? Moreover, even if marking or teaching or attending committee meetings could be compared to menial labour in any way, it has to be said that the hours at which we are actually responsible for being at a certain place and doing a certain thing are miniscule compared to other jobs: the rest of the time, we drive ourselves to fulfill our responsibilities in the way which seems most appropriate.

Still, I imagine that some people will object that, given the sort of extremity I have complained of, no one would last more than a couple of weeks in the jobs I have described: although that would be refuted by the reality of the indefatigably cheerful Columbian immigrant I worked with in the hotel laundry, who had been there eight years by that time, and from whom I learned the true meaning of stoicism. But even were that so, let me offer you what remains the more poignant touchstone of moral perspective for me: the thought of my late father, a steel-worker who, for the thirteen years that I knew him, on at least five and more usually six days out of the week, would rise at 5:30am and not return home until after 6:00pm, often with cuts and burns on his hands and legs, and always with parts of his body still a little dirty, despite having washed thoroughly. And that went on day after day for years on end. Yet I never heard him complain. So I imagine that, to him, for me to complain of my job would be completely absurd and even inconceivable.

Finally, I want to add that to my mind, the worst offenders of all are those academics who complain about the lack of time they have to do their jobs, and yet waste a good half hour making exactly that complaint. There are too many outside the university who automatically think of academics as being lazy, spoiled, impractical, self-indulgent, carping, pretentious flakes. Let's try not to prove them right


Shauna Dobbie said...

A+ for you!

Oonae said...

I too am conscious of my good fortune and amazed that I'm paid to do what I love. But I think you've missed the essential nature of the academic complaint. Since you've done real work, you are perhaps aware that there are people in the world at large who think that academics do shite all day long, take long vacations, and generally are parasites on the system. The Marxist insight that the bourgeois intellectual does not produce is carried to an extreme by some members of the working class -- and the middle class or business class is worse. Many of them scorn us, and some of them hate us. These sound like strong words, but I've been there and experienced it.

It is impossible to mount, to these people, an extended argument to the effect that our jobs are intrinsically worthwhile. So instead we emphasize how hard we work. This is not untrue. At least when you left the laundry you didn't take it with you, but tell me if today there is ever a five minute stretch when you aren't thinking about work? But the point is that the complaint is even truer if it's understood as a self-protective measure, preserving the academy from a sometimes hostile world, focused on competition and blind to the virtues of critical thought.