Thursday, February 12, 2009

Festive Friday Comes Early: Your Worst Job

by J J Cohen

We have an ancient tradition at In the Middle of bringing to the occasional Friday more frivil and festivousness than is our quotidian custom. Mentally I am already inhabiting Friday (mostly as a coping mechanism: if I keep telling myself I am not really imprisoned in Thursday I will potentially escape the meetings that are about to devour my day like so many keen toothed piranha). So, let the festivities begin.

Those of you who have spent any amount of time with me in the flesh know that in my ongoing quest to assimilate to ordinary earthly conventions I sometimes employ discussion-breaking questions of the kind that a good diner party host will, just to render the guests convivial: i.e., what is your Proustian food? (thanks to Betsy McCormick for that one). The problem is that I'm not actually good at such things, and have a way of asking something too penetrating or too personal. In New York, for example, I believe I made us go around the table to admit our moment of most extreme humiliation, the one to which instant death was in every way preferable. Or later that evening I asked each person for a credo, a statement of heartfelt belief. I now understand why people generally avoid sitting in propinquity.

But here is an actual question that led to some interesting answers: what is the worst job you ever held?

My answer: In order to afford college I always worked an after-class job. I had a federal work-study grant, but the pickings for such positions were slender when I was a new student. I thought seriously about taking a make your own hours job at the medical center morgue, removing the corneas from cadavers. But what I chose instead was to be the guy who files the various smears of sundry growths removed from the skin of those who came to a dermatology clinic. To this day I know my squamous cell carcinomas from my actinic keratoses. I also have nightmare flashbacks to their purple puss-soaked ooziness.

What about you?


Eileen Joy said...

My worst job came about after I was fired from McDonald's--yes, *fired*, for reasons I would rather not go into. My first job [in junior high] was at Baskin-Robbins, where my best friend Diane and I would secretly add rum to the Mau-Mau Punch [does anyone remember the horrific Mau-Mau Punch?], and my second job was at McDonald's, but my third job, which was my worst job ever was at the HUB Furniture Outlet, where I had to make collection calls. I was still in high school and the Collections Manager, who didn't want to make the calls, made me do them. It was so awful because I would get these really elderly senior citizens on the line and I had to tell them things like, "if you don't pay what you owe us, we are coming to your house and re-possessing all of your furniture." I was eventually fired from this job, too, because every time the person would tell me they were sick or out of work or had no money even for groceries but they would try, by god, they would try to make a payment, I would say, "oh, that's okay; don't even worry about it, you've got bigger problems." Every single phone call was a gut-wrenching experience and lucky for me, I was no good at it. My second worst job involved digging graves . . . no, just kidding.

Joseph Taylor said...

I grew up on a farm where I was castrator (and now I write about Freud ha!), executioner, shoveler, etc, but more notably I worked as a stock boy at a Roses Department Store. Yes there is heavy lifting, helping customers with hard to reach/handle items, and unloading trucks of merchandise, but we primarily cleaned things up, namely the bathrooms. It was always odd to me that the most frequent users of our bathroom came into the store precisely and only for that purpose. I don't have to explain what you get with people who go to a store and walk that far into the store solely to use the facilities. I will say though that I learned a lot about biology and I also learned that trash cans and other receptacles for waste really are hard to use/understand, that the floors, walls and sinks are better suited to handle wastes products because a stock boy will clean them up. I even had a guy apologize to me ('sorry about that') upon exiting a stall that I was waiting to clean at the end of the day. Most notable was a person suffering the pains of King John who left a "trail of evidence" from the bathrooms to the front of the store that I had to clean up. To make it worse, our manager refused to furnish us with rubber gloves saying that was something we needed to pay for ourselves. But at least now I know that I could make it (immune system aside) amidst the sights and smells of a real medieval town; and if you gotta go, you gotta go!

i said...

My job for a while was to call people and tell them they were due for dental cleaning. (Speaking of phone calls no one wants to hear.) But I'm surprised by the coincidence of this post, because just last night I was telling some friends about the horrible job a colleague from university had... he paid the bills one summer by working in an abattoir. His job was to wash the blood off the walls... at night.

Prof. de Breeze said...

I spent one night as a dishwasher at a seafood restaurant. It was a Monday, we closed at 11:00, and I was still washing dishes at almost 2:00am. Apparently my ineptitude (or maybe my distress) was visible, as I found out the next day that the manager had bet the kitchen staff that I wouldn't show up for a second day. The kitchen guys lost money that day, and for that, I still feel bad.

Got Medieval said...

There was once this call center where I worked doing outbound telemarketing for a National Geographic KIDS! VHS video series. We were required to "third effort," which meant that we could not hang up the phone unless we had gotten three No's from our "customer"--even if our customer's child had recently died.

I lasted half a shift before I left complaining of indigestion.

Eileen Joy said...

Okay, Irina's friend who cleaned the abattoir wins here [but do note that she did not tell us what *kind* of abattoir this was: chickens, pigs, goats, people?].

And Jeffrey, that's "pus-soaked," not "puss-soaked," but . . . hey.

prehensel said...

Jeez, these are some bad, bad jobs. Whenever someone complains about the Ivory Tower, I'm going to point them in this direction!

My contribution? Piano mover. Some days we'd work from 7am to 8pm, which is bad anywhere but worse in Texas. In August. We would sweat so much that we'd bring 2 shirts per day: after lunch when all the sweat had dried, the t-shirt would actually be stiff with it had been heavily starched.

Like JJC, I retain memories of that job and I can indeed tell you how to get that baby grand out of the upstairs music room and down the spiral staircase.

(NB: If you're a piano person and you move often(ish), for the love of God and the patron saint of hernias do not buy a concert upright. We actually broke a lift gate on our truck with one of those because they are so heavy.)

Anonymous said...

My student money-earning job was working as a cleaner is a large psychiatric hospital. Mostly I worked on locked wards where the patients had been 'sectioned' (incarcerated by compulsion). I started off on psychiatric geriatric wards with women who had been in the hospital for many decades, sometimes hospitalised for 'moral' offences when young and then gradually they had become institutionalised and 'truly mad' (the first sound of the noise on that ward is not easily forgotten). Then there were the normal geriatric wards for those with various forms and stages of dementia. Later graduated to locked wards with younger, psychotic, potentially violent patients. Most challenging in many ways though were the unlocked wards in 'cottages' in the grounds for 'voluntary' patients with depressive illnesses.

All of these institutions (there were several in the London suburbs then) have now been closed, demolished and redeveloped. The whole range of experiences isn't something I can summarise pithily in an amusing email, except to say, and now, dear reader, I work in a University ...

Jeffrey Cohen said...

"puss soaked" = "wet with the remnants of crushed kittens." It's extra disgusting, far worse than "pus soaked."

Rick Godden said...

When I was in High School I spent 4 days as a telemarketer. It's all I could handle. The lead guy had a planet sized ego and firmly believed he was giving me the secrets to salvation. He would have fit in perfectly on The Apprentice. After every call, he'd come on my line and badger me about not following the "psychologically tested and researched" call script.

After I spoke to a bunch of drunk men passing the phone around, I quit.

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: you made me laugh out loud [and I *like* cats!].

Has anyone else notices that one of the common threads here has to do with having to make telephone calls? What . . . medievalists aren't chatty , or don't like it when people hang up on them?

Sarah now ties with Irina's friend for first place. I mean, Sarah, that sounds unutterably sad. I just think of all those women--lost in time.

Rick Godden said...

Got Medieval, I hated having to verify someone's identity twice. For example:

Me: "Is Jack Smith home?"
JS: "This is Jack Smith."
Me: "Jack Smith?"
JS: click

I was told that a certain amount of time needs to pass before people really pay attention to your sales pitch. Asking the name twice was a tried and true method, and we were scolded if we skipped over time two.

dan remein said...

So, this is not going to sound so bad after all of the heart-wrenching phone calls and blood-cleaning or puss-filing that is listed above. So, I won't actually offer the justification of my choice of worst job, I'll just name it and ask you all to believe me as to the nature of its status: Retail and Inventory at The Container Store, Columbus, OH. That's right, Dan Remein, planning your unnecessarily $1500 closet shelving and counting how many of each item we had at 4 am.

Karl Steel said...

These are great stories all, heartwrenching in some cases, but in this conversation, as with its previous appearance about a year ago, I also think how many of us here have terminal degrees and either have tenure, have tenure-track jobs, or are almost certainly headed for a TT job. This constitutes all of the official bloggers here, and, to my knowledge, all of our guest bloggers.

Despite our hardluck stories, we're all now or future members of at least the cultural elite, and many of us, myself included, in the upper 30% [at least] of American incomes [I can't speak for our international readers], which surely puts us in the top 5% or so of world incomes.

And then I think of the highly fungible academic underclass that constitutes most American academic labor, or the indignities shoveled upon even those in TT jobs ['furloughs' w/out pay imposed on folks for the days they don't teach, which I understand is happening in some state systems], or, well, the various stories recounted here. I also recall my own roots, the 'there but for the grace of Rick Emmerson go-I' of working class Tacoma, which I could call a pit of despair--which is was for me and which it still is I presume for those who didn't get out--had I not been set upon immediately by the thought of the work (or nonwork) suffered by the global underclass of the great slums (see, for example, Zizek, "Nature and its Discontents," SubStance 37 (2008): 37-72).

I know I'm raining on parades here, but someone has to take on the official role of ITM griefer from time to time. At the same time, I know I'm also highly suspicious of the cultivation of outrage by liberal academics [myself included most of all for the entirety of my animals project, which may well be sustained aloft only by gusts of feigned grief]. Furthermore, I know I'm highly suspect of the Four Yorkshiremen aspect of my claiming, at various convenient times and w/ a Columbia PhD [boo-hoo!] and w/ a TT job in the best of all possible American cities, my workingclass roots. Thus, all I can ask, here, is for some reflections upon both the conditions of our articulation of these various stories and also of the particular fun or desires we're seeking in telling these stories.

i said...

Karl, your call to think about what kind of fun we seek in this storytelling is more than fair... and is thought-provoking. I wonder if your comment is also referring, perhaps obliquely, to a recent discussion on Mediev-L about the academic job market, and, to some extent, about the responsibility of professors to warn would-be graduate students off of pursuing a career in the academy.

I think part of our pleasure here is certainly in recounting stories about miserable jobs we no longer have to do. And yet, I wonder if some of the pleasure doesn't also lie in recognizing that we had some experience of a variety of jobs, that those jobs shaped who we were, and that despite the knowledge of what it's like to work outside the comparatively safe bubble of doctor/lawyer/I-banker-ness, we still chose an inherently risky profession.

Speaking of reality, there was a car crash outside my window, just as I was typing. So, um, I'm a little distracted now...

Eileen Joy said...

Karl: what does it really mean to be part of the cultural elite? I mean, we would have to define what that is, local context by local context, I think. I am in no way part of a cultural elite [especially as someone working in the most marginalized field within literary studies, which is itself marginalized within the university proper]; if anything, I'm more like the object of a satire written by Woody Allen, in which a bunch of intellectuals gather on the Upper East Side [pick your event] and make it evidently clear that their knowledge and elitist posturing isn't as effective as bricks and bats at a Klan rally, plus they have no sense of humor [citation: Allen's "Manhattan"]. I make less money now, in 2009, then I did from 1996-1999, when I was on hiatus from academia. When I returned, in August 1999, I worked as an adjunct for three years at a school in a swamp for a pittance per course, teaching only composition [4-4], and also pulling a stint at Target during the summers [oh yeah, that's embarrassing, because I can't say: I was in high school--I was ABD!]. And all this when I was about 40 years old. When I finally got a tenure-track job, the starting salary was below, not the national average, but the *regional* average: in the Midwest, that is really really low. In the 6 years I've been there, there have been no merit raises. As a result, the cost of living has outpaced my income steadily over these six years and I am now more cash poor than when I started, yet I am one of the most productive persons in my department [translation: I write for free]. But I have good retirement benefits. I have great health insurance. I have job security. I love what I do and there is no corporate or other "man" breathing down my neck and exploiting my labor, my body, and my mind [and maybe my soul]. I get all that [as well as I get your point about not whining so much when you don't really have it that bad, as "fungible" as our situation in the American university might be right now, but here is where I would also say: I pretty much never whine, anyway, and I've never held on too tightly to either a job or a conception of myself that might be tied to a specific job or occupation or *profession*].

But I do not in any way think of myself as someone who "has it great," or who is part of a cultural elite [that's more like Stanley Fish, or the guys who publish "The Nation" or "The Believer," or the film producers, or something like that]. Also, I'm a little confused about the statistic that most of us are supposedly in the upper 30% earning range--I looked at the Wikipedia link you provided, but I don't come up with the same figure, and in any case, wherever I might fall on the scale [I make more than 70% of everyone else?--is that it? that doesn't seem right, and if it is, man oh man is this country's economy fucked, seriously], the real critical issue is how far this money will actually go. I mean, isn't the real issue, as always, that a really small percentage of the population own most of the wealth and the rest of us are getting by somewhat okay, or barely, or not at all?

I *do* think that maybe we sometimes like to tell these stories about past, always-non-academic jobs because maybe they lend some kind of "authenticity" to our supposedly "now removed from everything" academic selves, or because we want to say, "look, I suffered in a job, I know what that's like, I was down the the Real, etc." [when we don't really know what's it like if we can walk away from it; we are not migrant workers held hostage in a meatpacking plant--point well taken].

Eileen Joy said...

Karl: I just thought of something else that makes my relation to this conversation, and maybe to our peers [but not necessarily all of them], a little strange, especially vis-a-vis your comments. My only experience of the kind of jobs being recounted here, for the most part, was in high school and college [when I was an undergraduate]. As soon as I graduated college [1984] I immediately went into the business world, and until starting a PhD program in 1993, every position I had was upwardly mobile and well-paying and white-collar [and mainly in accounting and business management, plus I owned three businesses of my own]. I made really good money and had no qualms about that, but I was bored, too. So, basically, I did the corporate/business/cubicle in an office building thing for about ten years, then decided to go back to school to be an academic. The choice was, economically, a downwardly mobile one, or so I sometimes like to joke, but it was still a choice I could make, without any real pain.

Karl Steel said...

I know the tools for saying what I'm saying are available someplace: I'm ashamed to say I haven't done the reading.

In terms of cultural elite, I mean that I have a doctorate from one of the most prestigious schools in the country; I live in the cultural capital of America (and while I don't write for The Nation or N+1 or the Times, I have colleagues and friends who do: that may more a factor of living in NYC than anything else, though]; I can get up in a room w/ a bunch of other people w/ doctorates, and talk, and they'll take seriously what I have to say. I'd say that counts for something.

Being a tenure track professor also still counts for something, even outside the empyrean air of medieval studies. Teaching has become an increasingly prestigious gig over the past few years, and coupling that with a doctorate--also admired--puts us in a profession that, despite the efforts of Horowtz et al., ranks in the upper rungs of respected jobs.

I know there are bad academic jobs; yours sounds like it might be one of them, despite all your--considerable! hard-earned!--successes. I also want to emphasize that I'm distinguishing TT from non-TT. Our situation isn't actually fungible, at least not compared to the adjuncts, lecturers, and other contingent faculty who constitute the majority of the academic workforce. With that in mind, I'd say your 4/4 adjunct + Target job counts as a 'worst job"; with that, and your particular life trajectory, you're certainly allowed--not that you need my permission!--to talk about whatever you like!

I should also emphasize that I'm distinguishing between the cultural elite and the wealthy and indeed the wealthy from the financial elite. Hedgefund managers were [at least until recently] in the wealthy; but an academic in a job like mine, depending on how you do the math, is already in the financial elite and will almost certainly get there eventually.

I can thank my union for making my job a lot better than it could be: we won a good contract in a bad year, and we're managed to stave off merit increases and preserve our automatic annual raise (which just allows us to keep pace w/ cost-of-living). I strongly encourage all faculty to unionize. Now, in terms of $, I misread the chart. Right now my household income (and this is a single-income household, since one of us choose to quit her job to be a full-time writer) puts me in the top 37% of American incomes, according to the 2005 census. No doubt I'm in an even 'better' position now, since Americans are on the whole doing a lot worse than they were in 2005. Certainly cost-of-living counts. My income would let me live quite well in Missouri, and, in NYC, while I can't afford to buy a place, my household's still at the mean of my borough, and we're doing far, far better than the medium. Am I an exemplary TT junior faculty member in terms of income? I don't know, but I'd like to find out. But I do know that I have a great job now, and such a great job that I feel really awkward talking about the bad jobs I've had.

With all that in mind: please don't take this as disingenuous, but I don't mean to accuse other people of insufficient liberal guilt or consideration for the plight of the exploited through whose impossible labors our lifestyle is sustained &c. Mainly, I'm trying to determine, in a very public and therefore kind of embarrassing way, my own relation to my past, my family, my former and current class, and my present as a relatively well-heeled American citizen. I'm also trying to break a taboo in the academic professions, among others, about talking about income. I also trying to determine my own thoughts about the cultivation of outrage by foisting a theater of awkwardness on this conversation. I must stress that I don't mean to say anything exemplary or to enact any categorical imperatives, at least not just yet.

[now, so far as telling the stories: agreed, I do think the 'authenticity' thing comes into this, although of course, I'm by disposition and by training, as we all are, suspicious about "authenticity." I do know, also, that I've cited bad jobs I've had (not as bad as others here, not by a stretch), as a badge of my efforts and am therefore not "innocent." And I'm grateful that I didn't keep at the kinds of state work I'd still be doing if I never left the Pacific NW to enter this 'risky' profession, so it is a great delight to remember the manager at the Washington State Department of Emergency Management in 1992 who told me that a degree in English wouldn't 'feed the bulldog' and who tried to get me to switch to a business career..I might have fed the bulldog, but I would have been desperately unhappy]

Anonymous said...

Hmmm...I was primed to tell you about my worst job when you all moved to theory. What I have to share, then, will seem redundant if not irrelevant. I'm reminded of the scene in "Notting Hill" where everyone competes for the last brownie by sharing the worst thing about their lives.

I had many jobs until I started graduate school -- all of them very physical and dead-end. I worked on farms shoveling either hay -- to which I am terribly allergic -- or manure, worked as a welder, as a medical photographer and, even, as a morgue attendant (talk about dead-end). I also worked in a slaughter house for fancy game birds.

But the worst was working on the night shift at Gerber Baby Food. My job was to haul layers of baby food jars from a conveyer belt to the cookers in gigantic baskets. A full basket weighed about 400 lbs; the baskets were on rollers.

I worked there for two days when a wild cat strike occurred. When I arrived in the late afternoon to work, the men were standing outside on strike. I went to the shop steward who said it would be ok for me to go in being a high school student and needing the money (I didn't belong to the union having just started). The strike lasted one day; at the end of the week I got a pink slip!

I never worked as a telemarketer because they didn't have them in the 1950s.

I can honestly say that I went to college and then to graduate school to avoid such jobs. Like Eileen, I felt I had no control, no possibilities, no future and very little hope.

dtkline said...

Does committee work count?

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Well, I was an office manager for boilermakers at a large pulp mill in Tacoma once -- working a shutdown, so 14-hour shifts, 7 days a week, 6 weeks straight. That kind of sucked, but it wasn't as bad as the 4 weeks before the shutdown -- have you ever smelt a pulp mill?

Working as a fry cook and dishwasher in high school?

i said...

Karl, I just want to clarify, quickly, what I meant when I wrote this was a "risky" profession. Obviously it's not risky in the sense of a risk to personal health (unless we include the debilitating back pain that can come along with academic work). And it's not risky compared to what migrant workers suffer.

But I'm also not comparing jobs teaching at the university level with all other jobs in this country. I'm comparing them to careers one might go into with a BA, and to careers one might pursue through graduate work. Certainly BA's, especially those earned by students at non-Ivy league colleges, where banks are not breaking down the doors to hire them, aren't coupons for steady lifetime jobs. But I think it's fair to say that most graduate degrees provide their students with a helluva lot more job prospects and security than a PhD. (Obvious exceptions: anything in the performing or fine arts.)

I don't think noticing this means that we are not thankful for the circumstances which made it possible for us to attend university and grad school in the first place. In fact, I am incredibly thankful to be in this field, and was so even when I had no idea what my job prospects might be. But for someone who doesn't have much of a financial cushion or special connections from family, spending so much time and money on my education, when this education might lead to no job at all, was a risk. It was a risk I have thought about constantly. I have spent many years justifying to myself and to my family why I might choose to study English (when I began in science), and why I would do a PhD in English (when I could have done law).

Anonymous said...

Hi guys--

Great discussion--your jobs completely sucked. I would add to the list, but I also had some awful jobs, and I find it kinda depressing to revisit them.

After reading the full exchange, I wonder about a situation (which I'm currently confronting) that I don't know how to deal with. What I'm about to say is not responsive to any particular comments, but it is prompted by Karl's thoughtful considerations of our lot in academia.

I have a great job, which I love in every way (students, colleagues, you name it, even administration). I've always thought myself fortunate, especially because I know many of the perks of my teaching derive from the labor of those adjuncts we underpay. I always thought it would be a more just workplace (and that's a really dodgy way to put it, but I can't think of another one right now) if we used less adjunct labor for our teaching needs. I thought a dept. that taught its own students with a TT faculty would be better, all around.

But now I wonder if I thought that because I thought such a scenario was impossible--we would never get to the point at which we had a large enough TT faculty to cover all our courses without adjuncts. Well, now, through a combination of factors (past hiring expansion plus current budget crisis), I'm in a department that is facing this very possibility. Our TT faculty are increasing enrollments by a few students per class (from 32 to 35), which has cut our number of classes, and thus our need for adjuncts. The result, to my dismay, is that we are cutting people who have worked for us for a number of years--these are people who have not been adequately represented or compensated, but who have been part of our department nevertheless. Many of them, for various (good) reasons, saw adjunct teaching as a career. So, I guess I wonder what others might think about this situation--maybe it is such an oddball occurrence that it is not worth notice. But going through this situation (I'm an administrator, so I'm directly involved in implementing these changes) makes me wonder about how "efficient" we want our depts. to be--do we want a few adjunct slots (represented adjuncts, ideally) to accommodate people who have other relations to teaching at the university level? What I think of as a bad job, in other words, might be the job that someone wants to keep (even if it is exploitative). Again, I'm probably out there on this one, but it has prompted me to have a real confrontation with my "liberal guilt/liberal presumption" now that I understand that I've been willing/wishing away other people's jobs because they are exploitative.

cheers, h

Karl Steel said...

Irina, gotcha. Thanks for the further explanation; it's very much appreciated, and it emphasizes--although I don't expect that this was your intention--how much I really am speaking only for myself here.

ADM: you worked at the Pulp Mill in Tacoma? You gotta be kidding me. Was it St. Regis or Simpson or was this still earlier? Assuming there's not another pulp mill I didn't know about, my dad worked there as a machine tender (swing shift) for [at least?] 20 years, so I know very well what a pulp mill smells like. It smells like my dad.

prehensel said...

I can't speak for anyone else, of course, but I like swapping stories with people. Sometimes the superlatives (worst, easiest, top-5-desert-island-albums) are the best ways to begin telling those stories. It becomes like a themed anthology in conversation.

I don't think of mine as a hardluck story at all. I was 22, I needed beer money, and I wanted to be outside, not in an office. I had a BA from Univ. of Texas, but moving pianos with a coked-up owner and a guy that would start drinking at about 4 in the afternoon whether or not we still had work to do is where I found myself. Maybe I tend to romanticize it, but I kind of miss it...and I certainly miss my fellow movers.

You may be interested in Dews' book This Fine Place so far from Home. (

dan remein said...

Karl and others--I'd like to notice, briefly, the weird position of Ph.D. student in eng. visa vise the idea of a 'job.'

NYU students are lucky to get a, relatively speaking, generous stipend which, when coupled with my partners' income still makes for a tight situation when living in NYC. The thing about being a graduate student though, is that its hard to represent my situation as a 'job' in the way of a paid job. Currently, I'm not teaching. I have to do well in classes to maintain my situation as a student and thus paid as such, but I am not exchanging my time or labor for someone else at the moment. Yet, one still feels that financially, its a rather touch and go sort of place to be in. When I taught while I was at U Pittsburgh, I at least felt like a had the prestige of a 'job' as in 'a task performed for someone else's imeediate benefit other than my own [as in, education, remaining in 'good standing' etc]. So, I guess what I'm trying to ask is what the 'staus' of the student it--is it a kind of gentry poor (regardless of one's socio-economic background prior to grad-studentdom?); and also just to bring up the issue of prestige and power realtions between students and faculty. There can of course be the colleague-in-training model (but even this bugs me because 'in training' makes me sound like a dog that's being scolded to get into line in order to survive in the discipline).

Holly: thanks for bringing up adjuncts. I'm getting a Ph.D. at a school that one hopes will evantually help me get a 'job' other than adjuncting, but I also have an MFA--a position (prof. of creative writing) for which its perhaps even harder to get a job than as a medievalist. A good deal of my creative writing colleagues subsist on adjuncting 4 classes a term, sometimes working between 2 or even 3 universities. Sometimes people need to do this if they need to remain in a paritcular region/city, or if, simply, they are deemed unacceptable by the institution for one reason or another (some good, many of course frightening).

For both adjuncters and grad student teachers, the issue of prestige is certainly a troubled one. I mean--a good deal of these folks are without health-care etc.

Just wanted to bring that up as long as we we're being serious. The container store job was much much worse than being paid to be a student, thought.

Anonymous said...

Hi Karl. So funny. I had forgotten that first round. Just goes to show how much I think about (and gained from that experience) - and no, I don't regard it as my worst job, more (as jjc expressed it the first time round) as 'a path not taken', which is entirely different.


Eileen Joy said...

Holly, thanks for sharing what is happening at your university vis-a-vis NTT faculty; the same thing is happening at my university right now. We are both raising enrollment caps in some courses, asking TT faculty to take on more 101 and 102 courses than they usually do [I don't teach either but may soon], and letting NTT faculty go [not all of them, but a fairly sizable number]. As you point out, not all NTT faculty desire to be tenure-track or even full-time. We routinely have open Instructor lines that are full-time and come with benefits [and are not exploitative, course-load-wise] and many of our NTT faculty are not interested in those appointments; some are, of course, and they're always competitive. One of my best friends is an adjunct instructor at a community college in Tennessee, teaching 2 or 3 courses a semester. She likes it that way, but she is also married to someone who makes plenty of money so that she can teach just as much as she wants to. She never ceases to bitch about the low pay, though, and who can blame her? [She also has a PhD, by the way, but opted out of academia a long time ago as too much of a rat race.] I am also one of the administrators in my department so I have been a part of all of these decisions, including the one, last week, that took release time away from the Director of Grad. Studies, which is me.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Karl -- it was the Simpson plant. In 2001-2002, right before I came back to teaching. Even after the EPA crackdown, the fumes were still pretty bad on site. And I don't even want to think about piles of various chemicals that must have been washed out into the Puyallup R.

Rick Godden said...

I'm glad that such a lively discussion is happening here about segments of the "academic underclass." I think it's all too often overlooked, or people don't want to look at it too directly.

It's something I feel quite keenly at the moment, being a soon-to-be PhD from a decent program, but not necessarily one that will get me a TT job. All of this is made worse with the economic downturn as funding is drawn back and positions disappear. In many ways, I've already entered into adjuncthood as I've lost grad funding. I hope this is just an interregnum between grad school and a TT, but who knows?

Questions abound though. How is teaching valued in the University? I have met several undergrads where all of their formative faculty relationships come from adjuncts or lecturers, and not the Tenured (or TT) faculty. I think an ambivalence toward teaching contributes to an academic underclass. But more on that perhaps another time.

I also wanted to pick up on something Dan said, about the lack of healthcare and the classification "job". In general, my grad program has not been exploitative in terms of teaching. One course a semester, 14 students or so. Not bad by many standards. But we get access really only to the campus health center. Hardly anything in terms of prescriptions or preventitive care. And for someone in my situation, an individual policy is fairly impossible to attain.

This is of course part of a larger conversation about healthcare in this country, but I wonder about whether or not the category of "grad student" is or should be a job or not. In many ways, I wish it was more like a job. I don't necessarily want more hyperprofessionalization, but I would like healthcare and more consistent, year-round funding. Maybe then I wouldn't be emerging from grad school awfully in debt and a few years too late.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I am a little uneasy at how quickly a conversation about worst jobs became one about academic adjuncting. The slide from grave digging to a "highly fungible academic underclass" needs some reflection.

Holly gets at the heart of the issue when she brings up adjuncting not as a theoretical construct (where it is too easily assumed to be the invisible sweatshop that sustains the lovely clothing that is the TT job) but as a complicated, lived experience. The reasons for adjuncting are multiplex, so that the blanket assumption "eliminating adjunct positions is an inherent good" actually has terrible consequences for many who see their jobs evaporate.

Like Holly I think about this issue a lot. I hire some adjuncts in my department, after all, so I'd better think about it. Adjuncting probably isn't the best life, I admit, but I'm not going to insist upon that truth to those who through whatever economic necessities and/or compromises and/or desires choose it.

As far as grad student labor goes: that one does not need to be nearly so nebulous as Dan outlines, but (like all academic work) it will always remain somewhat foggy at the boundaries. A big mistake is to act as if adjuncting and graduate student teaching are one and the same thing ... or that "training" is preferable to mentorship within collaboration.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Returning to my last comment, I think that came out wrong: it was not my intention to imply that Karl conflates adjuncts with gravediggers!

What I meant to say, simply, is that adjuncting is not an inherently "worst job," and that we who have TT lives shouldn't suppose that everyone else would naturally prefer such a life to their own. It does bother me that a discussion of NTT teaching -- an important discussion to have -- surfaced in this thread, of all places.

Lori Witzel said...

With some trepidation, I've decided to move from "lurker" to "commentator."

First, my worst job? Graveyard shift waitress at Denny's -- mostly because I was so painfully incompetent. It was one of seven jobs I held in one year fresh out of undergrad BFA degree. I was laid off from each of the other six jobs, and then left Phoenix for New York City where I hoped to learn more despite starving faster...and where I did learn more, sans starvation.

Why the trepidation about no longer lurking? I'm in the very early stages of a Master of Liberal Arts program (the only way I could pursue humanities and art history where I live while keeping my daytime work), and so feel my credentials for responding are weaker than most of those posting.

That said, one of Eileen's comment made me want to share some thoughts and experiences of my own.

Eileen wrote:
"And yet, I wonder if some of the pleasure doesn't also lie in recognizing that we had some experience of a variety of jobs, that those jobs shaped who we were, and that despite the knowledge of what it's like to work outside the comparatively safe bubble of doctor/lawyer/I-banker-ness, we still chose an inherently risky profession."

My livelihood currently comes from doing marketing work for a software company; before that, I was an advertising art director, a publishing company communications manager, and a direct marketing manager for a technology firm, among other similar jobs.

I'm pursuing the MLA as a first step towards the advanced degree I need to teach humanities and art history at college level.

I have never seen a position in the business world without risk -- while I was very fortunate (after that first year) to miss being laid off or fired, I've seen that happen frequently to others. My dad was a dentist, and while he had a successful dental practice, I know how worried he was about cash flow, and whether he could sustain his practice and meet his family's need.

So, despite my reading here and in other places how risky pursuing an academic career may be -- and how if one wants a job, much less a secure job, one should seek it in the business world or as a professional such as physician or lawyer -- I can affirm there is no such thing as a secure job in those worlds. One can hope one's skills and luck are sufficient, but the jobs themselves are never secure.

I started along my early career path because I loved visual art, and I enjoyed seeing how it fit in the world of commerce. When I was a student I was told, correctly I believe, that fewer than 5% of people who got a BFA would find work in the arts and communications fields. I still pursued that path.

The path changed over time -- the more responsibility I was given as a manager, the further it put me into the land of budgeting, and spreadsheets, and forecasting. And while I do these jobs well, and am grateful for them, I am thirsty for visual art, and am thirsty to share what I love with others.

Will I get a teaching job that I can live on? Odds are against it. Just like the odds were against my doing so in arts/communications.

But I still must try. After all, I was a lousy waitress, and can't fall back on that. ;-)

Karl Steel said...

ADM: thanks, that was the plant all right. It was St. Regis before it was Simpson. Wasn't aware that they had shut it down, but I suppose that's because I've almost made a career out of not going to back to Tacoma....

Lori, thanks for your comment, and I hope we don't create an environment here where folks are nervous about joining the conversation.

I wish I more time to respond, but I'm in grant-applying, article-reviewing, monograph polishing, grading jail today, but I have to respond quickly to this: It does bother me that a discussion of NTT teaching -- an important discussion to have -- surfaced in this thread, of all places.. I'm glad it surfaced here, but then again, I'm the one who brought it up. The 'worst job' thread may not be the best place for discussing adjunct labor, but it seems a natural place to think through the conditions of our employment, since, after all, we think of our worst jobs in relation to our current or future longed-for jobs. I know that Jeffrey, Eileen, and I all had a few years or so of contingent academic labor [whether pre- or post-doctorate] before we landed TT jobs, and I imagine all of us wanted TT jobs. I can speak for myself, and I expect for others, that I saw getting the TT job as getting out of a bad situation. Hence 'bad job,' so far as I was concerned, since I imagine, for example, if I hadn't landed my current job, I would have pieced together a couple of courses at Barnard, another at the New School, and another in CUNY, and I would have been barely making it and terrifically disappointed with how my dreams had turned out.

Now, for various departmental reasons I won't go into here, the question of adjuncts has been on my mind lately, and Holly's comments, and yours, as well as my own thoughts, have helped complicate my understanding and attitudes about adjuncting. So I'm ultimately not bothered, apart from the reasons I express above, because this conversation and others like it have been useful to me in helping me develop a more sensitive and ethical politics. The question then becomes how we conceive of adjuncting more complexly without inadvertently helping accelerate the transformation of academic labor into a contingent workforce by the corporate university. How can we think these things through responsibly, which means determining the proper way to negotiate private selves and political (which is to say statistical) realities?

dtkline said...

Provocative discussion to which I will add just a couple of personal comments about my own academic trajectory:

1. I earned my MA in English in a "cooperative education" program--working full time for the US Army Corps of Engineers one quarter and then taking a full course load the next. I finished in two years, and I would be materially much better off if I'd stayed a technical writer and never gone on to additional graduate degrees.

2. My first two years of teaching were as an adjunct after I got my MA. I taught 2 courses at three different institutions each term for 2 years, 6 courses per term. I know what it means to be an adjunct and an academic laborer.

3. I taught for 10 years at a community college (and earned tenure) while teaching a 4/4 and 5/5 load, with one lit course per year. There rest were 100 and 200 level comp courses. In addition, I worked on my PhD full time while I taught full time and commuted 100 miles one way from Louisville to Indiana for course work. It took me 7 years to complete the PhD and the only student loan debt I took on was for the PhD, largely because I was married and had two kids. I'm still paying on that debt.

4. I gave up tenure to take this 4/4 job at UAA (which I've successfully petitioned to a 3/3), and when I arrived I found that my salary--get this--was a *poverty wage* in Alaska, literally and not figuratively or metaphorically. My salary got my kids free lunches at school (if I'd applied) and would've qualified us for Section 8 housing. When I mentioned this to my chair, her reaction was, "Your wife is going to work, right?"

5. I've taught full time for 22 years and I have yet to break 50k/year. If I teach during the summer, I am paid the adjunct rate, but even that is prorated based upon enrollment--with the adjunct rate decremented according to the percentage of empty seats.

It does feel like breaking a taboo to lay all this out in the open for my friends and colleagues, and at one level it's terribly embarrassing. And it also reads like a shameless gambit to elicit pity, which it is not. I work harder and longer for less than at any other time in my life.

But--and it's taken me a long time to get here--I cannot in good conscience recommend the profession to my students. Or let me say that differently: I cannot currently recommend a PhD in the humanities as a profession because I think a lot of jobs are like mine.

This is the worst job I have ever held, yet I am grateful for it, love it sometimes, and feel it as a calling. It's only the relationships like these and exchanges like this that make it livable.

Karl Steel said...

DTK, still in grading jail, and about to go out for the evening, but in this little window, I want to say thank you for your comment, and I also want to say how much I admire you for, well, becoming the guy I know you to be under such circumstances. Your vita also makes me aware of how 'fortunate' I am to be in the position I am [but given that we're talking about political and economic forces that determine in part how much educators earn, and given that the forces are in part sustained through our ignorance of the working conditions of our colleagues, the term 'fortune' is pure obfuscation]. You've given me a lot to think about.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Dan, I think that is amazing story -- and illustrates in its closing observation the point I was trying to make ineptly: for many of us our profession is a calling, and so I am reluctant to judge the situation of (say) someone who agrees to be underpaid and overworked, even when they do so without hope of things getting much better. That doesn't mean we should not work as hard as we can to ensure that every academic job -- actually every job -- comes with an adequate wage and health care, but automatically according adjuncting or high teaching load jobs low status says something about the innate elitism of the academy. The long and the short of it: brilliant people like Dan Kline often find themselves in less than ideal teaching situations. They are to be admired for the intensity of their vocation.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Karl, I take your point, and am glad that this discussion has been useful. But I'm sure you see my own idee fixe breaking through here: "Festive Fridays" are a celebration of the trivial, and in this case of fairly horrendous jobs. NTT issues are neither trivial nor well served by finding themselves in the company of worst jobs -- thus my objection to finding that important discussion under this header. As long as adjuncting/NTT jobs are discussed as a problem, the solutions will be likely be unsatisfying to those who hold them (eg elimination).

I know we all know this, but it bears repeating: adjuncts are not the problem -- but they are often made to feel as if they are. Pay and benefits are the problem, and they are addressable issues.

Karl Steel said...

Jeffrey, thanks for your comment and idee fixe. I still wonder what is at stake in these conversations [and I'll say, again, what's at stake for me]: what am I doing when I think back on bad jobs I've had, or bad jobs I would have had had I not escaped my class roots, especially when I do so from a plum academic job? I don't think I've yet figured that out adequately.

Also: For me, or for me until this conversation, NTT academic jobs are the hideous underside of the job I'm quite happy to have now, so a conversation about 'worst jobs' thus necessarily leads me to wonder about them. Now I know, and thanks, that I need to think much more carefully about NTT positions, and that listing NTT under this topic of conversation is 'getting off on the wrong foot.'

The issue might be clarified if I distinguish between two types of 'worst jobs': one is a worst job because of pay and/or relationship to the object or substance being produced by work, and another worst because of the job [or the object of the job] in itself. Some jobs [NTT positions] could much improved w/ better pay and [presumably?] increased ability to contribute to the life of the academy [which can either be read as 'committee work' or, more blandly, 'active engagement with the conditions of their employment']; some jobs--and these may be the ones more suitable for frivolity--just can't be much improved [e.g., working at a pulp mill, which is, yes, awfully stinky].

Anonymous said...

I'm an outsider here, so I will post anonymously for the moment. I'm an academic who has worked as a janitor, cleaned houses, served as a personal assistant to the very rich, and done some things that I can't discuss (legal, but yucky). I had all but 2 of these jobs when I was a grad student, or during the time I had a brutally low-paying TT job, in which I calculated my hourly wage at $2.50.

The janitor job was the worst because of the oblivion and outright cruelty of the students where I worked. But the good part of these job experiences was learning that actually, I could quit my TT job and leave academe and still support myself. So I decided that no way was I going to teach a 5/5 adjunct load or whatever; I'd try the market for a pretermined number of years and then if I didn't get a liveable job, quit. It was enormously freeing. No judgment on anyone who has made different choices; just my story.

Anonymous said...

The UCU's campaign against casual employment in higher education in the UK may be of interest.

prehensel said...

2nd panel...