Making Academic Labor Public

In primary school, I was always puzzled by students who claimed their parents (usually fathers) were in “business.” “Business” had a self-explanatory power that remained mysterious. In contrast, I knew my father was an OB/GYN: I visited him at work, I flipped through his medical books, and while I could not have explained what he did with any degree of sophistication, I had a fairly solid idea.

In part, of course, “business” was “explained” by structural frameworks or, more precisely, the assumptions attending those structures. “Business” was suits and suitcases, meetings and conferences, 40-hour weeks, and regular paychecks. That it was also self-owned businesses, commission-based sales, petty forms of trading, and thievery was beside the point. Structures make possible and thinkable.

This “business” structure continues to have an unfathomable explanatory power. All one needs to say is that one works in “business” or that one has a 40-hour-a-week job to receive credit as a laborer, to make “public” one’s labor. And in this terrible economy, hard-fought gains are being taken away—60-80 hour weeks are more common than they should be, with little promise of overtime to make them “profitable.”

Of course, not all 40-hour-a-week positions are equal. Work weeks fluctuate—at one clerical job, the labor would be anywhere from 10 to 60 hours a week. When it got slow, and this always happened, I dusted and re-filed. At yet another job, the labor assigned for a specific period was laughable. So much so that after a while, I started creating new labor, including putting together a training manual for work processes—uncompensated labor, but I was incredibly bored. And, in the one job where I worked for overtime, I handed out electronic devices to “guests” at the EMP in Seattle. Of the three jobs, one at a University, the other at an insurance company, and the third at a museum, the third was the most physically demanding—it also required the least education. My co-workers were 16-year old high school students saving to buy cars.

My labor was “visible”: guests to the museum would ask about our hours, sympathize that we had to be on our feet, acknowledge that we “were doing something.” In the grand scale of things, I’m not sure what we were doing qualified as something “necessary” or “useful.” But it was visible labor, made even more so because we wore uniforms.

At the same time, it was seasonal, temporary, and we all craved something better. We understood that labor to be a means to get “something,” perhaps a new used car, or to get somewhere else, a chance to “make connections” in “the industry,” or as the mindless dreck that would enable us to pursue other passions, be that creating music, writing poetry, or biking on the weekends. We applauded and envied those who accomplished their goals—the 16-year-old girl who worked massive amounts of overtime and bought her car; the college student who saved enough money to buy books and returned to school; the temp who found a job that paid $12 an hour, $2 more than what we made.

Those who worked the hardest and the best were also (frequently) those with the plans for how to “get out,” “do better,” “be different.”

The visibility of our labor made it “valuable” in ways I am still trying to process. We shared a common language of uniforms and time cards and difficult clients and excellent clients and overtime. And the 40-hour week. We were recognized as “hard working,” marked by what we wore as “hard working,” no matter what we actually did. Many times we did nothing.

Along with my colleagues, I am interested in the question of what it means to make academic labor visible. Clearly, we cannot all be “public intellectuals,” even as we can be more public about our intellectual labor. Yet, I also wonder what it would take to make academic labor visible. Many of us develop eccentric working patterns: I have spent more hours reading and writing in the early hours of the morning, from 2-6, than I have sitting in offices. Electronic communication means that I now collect and evaluate students’ work online—certain “paper trails” are virtual. While I appreciate those who post their reading, writing, and revising schedules online, to keep track of their progress, I also know that those schedules bend and flex, just as our labor does. We are hired as much for our flexibility as our expertise. It is worth noting that, at least in my discipline, all faculty can teach broad introductory classes in a range of historical periods—contrary to what some may think, we are neither our dissertations nor our books, but the accumulation of all our education.

I have suggested, jokingly, that a live camera feed of academics at work might help to make our labor “visible.” But I cannot imagine anything more dull than watching people search on JSTOR and Project Muse, write conference abstracts, watch TV, grade student work, and write papers and books. Though, perhaps, some committee and departmental meetings could be interesting.

While it is true that we have done a terrible job of explaining what it is “we” do—not to mention the radically different expectations that stem from field and departmental requirements to school aims and goals (tenure requirements and research and teaching expectations are not at all uniform across universities and colleges)—it is also true that “what we do” does not translate easily, if at all, into “uniforms,” “40-hour weeks,” and “timecards.”

It is difficult to explain, for instance, how a 7,000-word article can take longer than a year to write. And why that matters. It is hard to explain that the 10-40 references used often suggest a much broader process of reading and selection—that what appears highly specialized emerges from an expansive knowledge base that translates into other scholarly and non-scholarly activities.

But it is also true that this justification is not asked of the 40-hour-a-week laborer in some “definable” position. Typists, to use an outmoded characterization, “type.” Those who “process” data, “process” it. That this may simply mean punching in numbers into a database so that more people can receive junk mail is irrelevant. There is an explanatory power granted to “business” and other professional activities that is often unavailable to academics.

I am not sure that making public a careful accounting of one’s hours would suffice to “demystify” what “we” do, in part because that “we” is so very varied in what it does and how it works. We are also, always, working with and alongside different groups of people: how one works in a department is related to but also quite distinct from how one works in a field. How one works for an institution is related to but also quite distinct from how one works in a discipline.

I am now becoming interminable.

I started writing this post a few days ago to think about what it means to make academic labor visible. I believe that such labor can and must be made visible: I think this is good for all of us. Whether this will take the form of inviting legislators to attend classes, of offering “public classes” to all who are interested, of making our academic work publicly available online (as is happening increasingly), of detailing our labors in ways that “translate” to non-academics, I do not know. I do know that some of these efforts are difficult—friends who work in economics have given up trying to explain what they do to me; I just “don’t get it.”

Perhaps I still buy into the “mystique” I learned as a child. “Business” is important. It need not explain itself.

Uncomfortable with this “mystique,” I would prefer to learn how to explain “what I do” better.