As you probably already know, Forbes‘ Susan Adams contributed to the professors-don’t-really-work myth in naming “University Professor” the “Least Stressful Job of 2013″ (Forbes, 3 Jan. 2013). After learning that this is utter nonsense, Ms. Adams did at least have the decency to publish an “addendum,” in which she acknowledges that the survey on which she was reporting “didn’t measure things like hours worked and the stresses that come from trying to get papers published in a competitive environment or writing grants to fund research.”
That’s a start. But I want to refute this “oh, professors have it easy” myth once and for all.
I realize that’s a tall order. The myth persists in popular culture, aided — in America, at least — by a public that views knowledge with suspicion. So, I can document how many hours I work (as I did, here and here). Others can do this sort of thing, too. We can also speak up when we see alleged journalists spreading this nonsense. But how much effect are we having? And while we cannot spend our careers putting out the flames of ignorance each time they ignite, if we don’t do this… the fire spreads.
So, for instance, I’m ostensibly “on vacation” right now (because I’m not teaching), but it took me a few days to respond to this because I was in Boston, attending the Modern Language Association convention and at Harvard gathering materials for my next book. In the days before the Spring 2013 term begins, I need to finish assembling an American Studies Association proposal, get my syllabi together, get my course packs together, revise an essay and send it out, write an abstract for a summer conference (abstract is due Jan. 15th), send an abstract for a conference at which I’m giving a talk (this is due today), do some Routledge editing (I edit Children’s Literature and Culture series), get plane tickets for the two invited talks I’m giving in March, write at least one of two grants, start working on the Afterword and Notes for Barnaby Vol. 2, and… that’s all I can remember right now. But I’m sure there are items I’m forgetting.
While I doubt that this brief response will have any discernable effect on the general public’s level of knowledge about what professors do, responding seemed better than letting ignorance go unchecked. If there’s a better way to educate the public about academic labor, I’m open to suggestions.
When I started writing what was then a biography of Crockett Johnson (back in the late 1990s), I thought: When I finish this, I really will have achieved something. Even as I wrote other books, I continued to think of the biography — which became a double biography of Johnson and Krauss — as The Big Achievement. Sure, Dr. Seuss: American Icon (my third book, published 2004) was OK, and, yes, the media attention it received was certainly flattering. But the biography would be the Truly Important Work.
So, you might (or might not) be asking: (1) Why make this distinction between the biography and my other work? (2) Do I still make this distinction? (3) And, now that the biography is published, does it feel as “Truly Important” as I thought it would?
1. Why make this distinction?
The degree of original research required far surpassed that needed for my other books. I interviewed over 80 people, investigated over three dozen archives and special collections, read everything written by or about Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, and consulted additional hundreds of articles and books. I looked at birth certificates, marriage certificates, census data, property deeds, wills, century-old insurance company maps, and Johnson’s FBI file. If I hadn’t gathered (some of) this information, it would be lost forever. Coping with the mortality of one’s sources is a big challenge for the biographer. Maurice Sendak, Remy Charlip, Syd Hoff, Mischa Richter, Else Frank (Johnson’s sister), Mary Elting Folsom (author who knew Johnson in the 1930s), Gene Searchinger (filmmaker who knew them both), and so many others taught me much about Johnson and Krauss. They have since passed away. If I hadn’t recorded their stories, that information would be gone.
The biography has been more challenging than any other project I’ve tackled, bar none. As I’ve observed before (probably on this blog, and certainly in the talk I gave last month at the New York Public Library), a biography is a jigsaw puzzle, but this puzzle has no box, missing pieces, and no sense of how many pieces you’ll need. There are also the challenges of creating character, knowing which details to omit, and finding a narrative structure. Life has no narrative, but biography has to have a narrative. I have no training in creative writing, but — for this book — I had to try to think like a creative writer.
In sum, there are reasons that a biography takes so long to write….
2. Do I still make this distinction?
Sort of. The distinction reflects a tendency to devalue the discipline in which I was trained — the sense that Dr. Seuss: American Icon, though it does draw on considerable original research, is ultimately “just interpreting texts.” In contrast, rigorous historical research, actually uncovering new information, is much more important work. But I say “sort of” because of course there are truly insightful ways of interpreting texts, illuminating formal strategies, transformative critical approaches — Robin Bernstein’s Racial Innocence is one such book. It’s a paradigm-shifter. As I’ve noted before, I don’t have the kind of mind that writes a paradigm-shifting book.
My strength is that I work hard. A biography plays to that particular strength — and perhaps this is one reason that it interests me. It interests me for other reasons, too (the “detective work” part, for example). But it is one intellectual arena where I can do something well: work really hard. Superior intelligence may elude me, but I can put in the hours! So, in some ways I still make the distinction (the amount of research, the box-less puzzle, etc.), but in other ways I do not.
3. Now that it’s published, does it feel like such a Big Achievement?
That said, as I’ve documented on this blog, the editing process was not entirely harmonious. Some cuts were good ones; others were not. My copy-editor was an historian by training; I needed a writer of fiction. My changes to her edits resulted in some errors, including (as one audience member pointed out at the NYPL last month) a typo in the first sentence. The press refused to change some errors I found in the page proofs (though it did change others). The paperback is priced not at $27, as I had originally been told it would be, but at $40 — this makes it harder to schedule signings because who buys a $40 paperback? These problems make me not want to think about the book at all.
I realize that I should let this go. Publishers introduce errors into manuscripts. Bureaucracies do not always function smoothly. Humans are prone to error, fatigue, and failures of judgment.
Fortunately, despite my irritations, the book does feel like an achievement. Given how long it took to write (I started in 1999), it is thus far my life’s work. It is a big deal.
But there is little time to dwell upon one’s achievements. There are new projects (such as The Complete Barnaby, volume 1 of which is due out early next year), tenure-and-promotion letters to write, letters of recommendation to write, (other people’s) book proposals to review and manuscript to edit, (my) conference abstracts to create and talks to write, planes to catch, meetings to attend, syllabi to revise, syllabi to invent, papers to grade, classes to teach, students to meet. Being an academic is a great job, the work is rewarding, and I feel privileged to do it — even though I rarely have the time to notice those rewards or recognize that privilege. It’s one of the paradoxes of being a professor.
Here’s what Julia Mickenberg has to say about the book in her excellent Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States (Oxford UP, 2006), which (not incidentally) introduced me to this novel:
One of the few texts for children from this period that deals very explicitly with the conflict between capital and labor is Henry Gregor Felsen’sstory for young adults The Company Owns the Tools (1942), which he wrote under the pseudonym Henry Vicar. In this story, an honest young mechanic from a small town in Iowa gets a job in Motor City (Detroit), building cars for the war effort. There he receives a humbling lesson in assembly-line mass production, quickly deciding that the only way to maintain any dignity in his work as an individual is to band together with the other workers, despite the company’s harassment of the union and its efforts to divide works along racial lines. The logic of the union is dictated by the logic of mass production, in which each individual unit is essentially the same as any other. As one of the men puts it: “They can do without any one of us, but they can’t do without all of us.” (Learning from the Left, pp. 102-103).
Or, if you prefer a harder sell, here’s what the interior flaps of the dust jacket have to say. The front flap:
You’ll want a front seat at the gigantic struggle between Capital and Labor which young Hollis McEachron finds when he comes up from the country byroads face to face with Big Business — strikes, riots, company police, and union meetings.
If you are employed — if you are an employer — if you are just a spectator on the side lines watching this important development in the functioning of democracy — you’ll want to read this book!
Every man and woman in America today is vitally concerned with this question. Treated as it is here, from a neutral and unbiased viewpoint, each side is focused in its true perspective. Here are characters you will long remember, action you will not forget — a story which concerns you.
The back flap:
BORN on a farm, Henry Vicar, too, finally came to the city to live. So it is not just from his extensive research that he writes the story of Hollis McEachron; it is partly from his own experience. Mr. Vicar traveled widely in this country, Canada, and South America, gathering material and getting opinions from which to write this book. Authoritative in its details, it is also well-balanced in its treatment of the whole problem of relationships between Capital and Labor.
Keenly interested in all of the social problems which affect the functioning of our system of government, Mr. Vicar has made a contribution in THE COMPANY OWNS THE TOOLS which will be appreciated by every thinking American, no matter what his position may be. It is full of keen observations and good, hard-headed American straight thinking from start to finish.
During a research trip some years ago, I copied down both of those jacket-flap descriptions from the copy held by the Special Collections Research Center, E.S. Bird Library, Syracuse University. Thanks to Kathleen Manwaring for bringing it out to show me!
Though I often attempt to dispense advice from this blog, I now have a question of my own. How much is too much?
There’s one request that I never turn down: when I am asked to write a letter on behalf of someone going up for tenure and/or promotion, I always say “yes.” I don’t care how busy I am. This sort of request is simply too important to decline.
However, I’ve just received the fourth request for such a letter, due in September. I’ve already said “yes” to three (one for promotion to full, two for tenure) that are due this fall. On top of that, this will be the busiest fall semester I’ve ever had. Three different invited talks in three different countries (one of which is the U.S.), two conferences (one in Maryland, one in Puerto Rico). I’m hoping for some publicity surrounding the publication of the Crockett Johnson-Ruth Krauss bio. and (a couple of months later) The Complete Barnaby Vol. 1. Having just edited my first full manuscript for Routledge’s Children’s Literature and Culture Series, I discovered Monday that three more full manuscripts await my attention. I’ve also started another book project, for which I’m working on a proposal & have a planned research trip (also this fall). And, obviously, there will be teaching, committees, and many things I can’t right now recall — things that will announce their due dates unexpectedly, and too promptly.
So. It’s easier to turn down (for example) invitations to contribute to books, or to join this or that committee. After all, rarely is anyone’s job is at stake there. But is it ever OK to say “no” to a tenure-and-promotion request? My general sense is “no,” & that I should just do it. As I wrestle with my guilt and sense of obligation, I think about the other people have written such letters on my behalf & who continue to write for me. And … I conclude that I should keep “paying it forward.”
One of the many pleasures of Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (2010) is its evocation of the thrill of research. As he traces the history of his family’s netsuke (small Japanese ivory and wood carvings), de Waal describes great-great-great grandfather Charles Ephrussi’s art-collecting in nineteenth-century Paris as “‘vagabonding’ … done with real intensity”:
Vagabonding was his word. It sounds recreational rather than diligent or professional…. But it does get the pleasure of the searching right, the way you lose your sense of time when you are researching, are pulled on by whims as much as by intent. It makes me think of the rummaging that I am doing through his life as I track the netsuke, the noting of other people’s annotations in the margins. I vagabond in libraries, trace where he went and why. I follow the leads of whom he knew, whom he wrote about, whose pictures he bought. In Paris I go and stand outside his old offices in the rue Favart in the summer rain like some sad art-historical gumshoe and wait to see who comes out. (72-73)
That’s exactly right. Writing a biography — or, truly, intense research of any kind — is detective work. It’s extremely absorbing, getting a lead, following it to a new source, finding connections between lives and ideas. You are on a quest, and you must keep going until you finish!
But dedication to the quest also takes its toll. As Charles McGrath reports in today’s New York Times Magazine profile of master biographer Robert Caro, researching and writing the third volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson had taken so long that Caro and his wife went broke. She sold their Long Island home, found them a cheaper apartment in the Bronx, and got a teaching job to help pay the bills. The biographer — obsessive, driven, seeking every last detail — often depends upon a patient, supportive spouse. It’s no coincidence that my forthcoming biography, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature, is dedicated to Karin. Who else but one’s partner would put up with such fanatical devotion to a book?
This process recalls a line in a recent Times Higher Education piece on academics: “the idealised academic has no ties or responsibilities to limit their capacity to work.” This is equally true of the biographer. For both the professor and the biographer, there is no boundary between life and work. Your life is your work and your work is your life. Or, in the case of the biographer, your work is someone else’s life.
I’m not arguing that one’s work should be all-consuming, though I would note that Caro’s work on LBJ and Edmund de Waal’s absorbing family history are both excellent because each writer is so very thorough, obsessive, and meticulous — in both the research and the writing. McGrath notes that Caro and his editor Robert Gottlieb “argue about length, but they also argue about prose, even about punctuation.” As Gottlieb says,
You know that insane old expression, “The quality of his defect is the defect of his quality,” or something like that? That’s really true of Bob [Caro]. What makes him such a genius of research and reliability is that everything is of exactly the same importance to him. The smallest thing is as consequential as the biggest. A semicolon matters as much as, I don’t know, whether Johnson was gay.
Beyond providing a helpful context for my own battles with Walter (my editor for the bio), this explains my own process to me. It’s not just about perfectionism. It’s about getting it right. And everything matters: Structure, word choice, punctuation, which detail gets retained and which one gets cut.
Caro had to cut 350,000 words from The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. He tells McGrath sadly, “There were things cut out of ‘The Power Broker’ that should not have been cut out,” and then shows him “his personal copy of the book, dog-eared and broken-backed, filled with underlining and corrections written in between the lines. Caro is a little like Balzac, who kept fussing over his books even after they were published.” It would be an understatement to say I can relate to that. Though I had to cut far fewer words from my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, there were things cut that should not have been cut. And I’ve seriously thought of marking up a published copy (due this September) to fix those omissions, or infelicitous changes in phrasing introduced during the copyediting (the copyeditor was unusually fond of passive voice). In looking at the proofs, I thought: Why did I allow the excision of Johnson’s favorite book, George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody? My main reason was (and is) the fact that I can include it — and its satirical style’s influence on Johnson — in one of the afterwords for the 5-volume The Complete Barnaby. It’s hard to let this go, and I’m fortunate to have the luxury to hang on a bit longer. As de Waal writes near the end of his book, he has the feeling that he should “Just go home and leave these stories be. But leaving be is hard” (346).
Most of all, when reading Caro or de Waal, I think: my God, I wish I could write like them! I’m not in their league. Indeed, my league couldn’t find their league on a map. Describing the motorcade in Dallas on 22 November 1963, Caro writes,
Lyndon Johnson was far enough behind the Presidential limousine that the cheering for the Kennedys and the Connallys — for John Connally, some of it, for his onetime assistant, who had become his rival in Texas — was dying down by the time his car passed, and most of the faces in the crowd were still turned to follow the Presidential car as it drove away from them. So that, as Lyndon Johnson’s car made its slow way down the canyon, what lay ahead of him in that motorcade could, in a way, have been seen by someone observing his life as a foretaste of what might lie ahead if he remained Vice-President: five years of trailing behind another man, humiliated, almost ignored, and powerless. The Vice-Presidency, “filled with trips . . . chauffeurs, men saluting, people clapping . . . in the end it is nothing,” as he later put it. (“The Transition,” The New Yorker, 2 Apr. 2012, 35-36)
Masterful. I favor tighter sentences myself, but his epic style works well with his subject. We readers know that, in a few moments, President Kennedy will be assassinated; later that day, LBJ will become president. And Caro knows we know. So, he allows our knowledge to inform the scene, and instead focuses on creating Johnson’s (likely) experience at that moment — enduring the relative powerlessness of the Vice-Presidency.
De Waal writes lyrically and with great insight into what it means to be human. Early in the book, he observes, “Melancholy, I think, is a sort of default vagueness, a get-out clause, a smothering lack of focus. And this netsuke is a small, tough explosion of exactitude. It deserves this kind of exactitude in return” (16). Later, he considers his great grandparents, in Vienna, in the early 19-teens. The “more assimilated Jews [the great grandparents] worry about these newcomers,” he writes: “their speech and dress and customs are not aligned to the Bildung of the Viennese. There is anxiety that they will impede assimilation.” At the end of this paragraph, de Waal concludes, “Maybe, I think, this is anxiety from the recently arrived towards the very newly arrived. They are still in transit” (188). Describing his grandmother’s decision to burn letters from her mother (in part, he suggests, because they may mention the great-grandmother’s lovers), de Waal confesses, “There is something about burning all of those letters that gives me pause: why should everything be made clear and brought into the light? Why keep things, archive your intimacies? … Just because you have it does not mean you have to pass it on. Losing things can sometimes gain a space in which to live” (347).
This is the big conundrum of the researcher. To throw out or to keep? I tend towards the latter. (If I throw it out, I might need it later.) But de Waal is right: being encumbered by research (books, articles, photocopies from archives, etc.) grants one little space to live. Further, the time required to sustain research affords little time to winnow out and throw out. It’s hard to manage your archives and move forward with the next project — to say nothing of grading, teaching, editing, committee work, or, say, having a life.
So we keep things. However, as Robin Bernstein observes in her Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (2011), things are bearers of stories. And, as de Waal notes, “It is not just that things carry stories with them. Stories are a kind of thing, too” (349).
They are. And they’ve been on my mind because — for any of my readers who may be in or near Manhattan Kansas next week — I’m giving a talk on this very subject, at 4pm, Tuesday, April 24, in the K-Sate Student Union’s Little Theatre. The title is “Collaborating with the FBI, Reading Other People’s Mail and Taking Children’s Literature Seriously: Tales from Writing the Biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.” Free and open to the public. My talk will run about half an hour. There’ll be lots of stories.
I don’t enjoy flying, but I do like traveling. There is pleasure in being somewhere else, in experiencing a different city or country. All that is taken for granted in daily life cannot be taken for granted — and this is especially true when in another country, when the food, language, and culture differs in varying degrees from one’s own. Prior to dinner, the Swiss have apero, a kind of extended meal of hors d’ouvres. In a Japanese restaurant, shoes get left at near the doorway, and hands adjust to eating with chopsticks instead of a knife and fork. But even in one’s own country, cities are not identical. Normal, Illinois (where I am flying from, as I write this) has three independent record stores on the same block, and a superlative used bookstore — with lots of children’s books — on the same block. And I ran along a trail I’ve never run along before.
When traveling, daily work does not vanish. The draft of the panel proposal must be edited and rewritten, via a series of email exchanges with a colleague at another university. The invited talk itself must be timed, polished, cut, honed, rehearsed. Emails from students, colleagues, editors, and others require answers.
But all of this work happens out of context, in a different space — on a plane, in an airport, at the hotel lobby, in the back of the taxi, in the hotel room. Because it is happening in different locations, it acquires a slightly different flavor, even a greater sense of clarity. This sharpness of perception may derive from the simple fact of being somewhere else: because they are unfamiliar, surroundings demand more attention, perhaps heightening attentiveness more generally. It may also derive from urgency: being a conference attendee or invited speaker creates a daily schedule that reorganizes time in ways that cannot always be anticipated.
I like that, though. And, since I’m almost always traveling for business, I enjoy the interchange of ideas — in the Q+A session of the talk, or the conversations over dinner, after the panel session, and so on. During the past few days, talking with Jan Susina, his wife Jodie Slothower, their son Jacob, my former graduate student Elizabeth Williams (and other University of Illinois grad students, faculty, and families), I’ve learned about lots of books and articles I need to read: Theories of affect, collections of comics, young adult novels. Beyond that, there are ideas that lodge in my subconscious, emerging later, sometimes long after I’ve forgotten the source. At some point, I’ll ask Jan to elaborate on the connections he sees between Paul Klee and Crockett Johnson.
Though academics work long hours (as I’ve documented elsewhere) for less compensation than we’d like, I feel privileged to have a job in which I get to learn, share what I’ve learned with other people, and learn from other people.
Combining these intellectual exchanges with the displacement of travel brings the experience of learning into focus, sustains a degree of clarity absent from my workaday life, prods me to keep moving forward into new areas.
And it’s especially nice when someone else picks up the cost! (I pay for most conference travel myself, but I’m coming back now from two invited talks, both of which were covered by the host institution.) So, thanks to the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of English (especially Marah Gubar), and to Illinois State’s Department of English (especially Jan Susina and Roberta Trites), and to everyone who hosted, chatted, came to the talks or otherwise participated. It’s been a great few days! Until next time!
One wonders if David C. Levy came by his ignorance naturally, or whether it’s a state of mind that he has cultivated carefully over the years. His piece in the Washington Post is so poorly informed that I suspect ignorance may simply be something with which nature has endowed him. He claims that “Happily, senior faculty at most state universities and colleges now earn $80,000 to $150,000,” that faculty don’t work in the summers (according to him, we work only “the 30-week academic year, which leaves almost 22 weeks for vacation or additional employment”), and bases his ideas for expanding our workloads on the notion that we work roughly 40 hours a week.
All of these claims are false. I recognize that this is an opinion piece, but shouldn’t the Washington Post provide some basic fact-checking?
1) Faculty salaries vary widely by discipline. I don’t doubt that a senior faculty member in Business may earn between $80,000 to $150,000. That’s very very rare for those of us in the Humanities. I am a senior faculty member (tenured, full professor) in English at a state university, and that’s more than I make.
2) Faculty do work in the summers. Some teach to supplement their income. All of us devote some of that time to research and writing. There are three components to the job: teaching (which includes grading, planning classes, teaching classes, meeting with students, writing recommendations, etc.), research (researching, writing and publishing articles and books), and service (serving on committees both within and beyond the university, reviewing manuscripts for presses and journals, leading programs/departments/professional organizations, etc.). Some aspects of teaching (grading, class prep) begin and end with the school year — unless you teach summer courses. But other aspects do not: designing new courses, revising the syllabus for a future term, reading new books so that you can improve the syllabus. Still, it’s not unreasonable to assume that (unless a faculty member teaches in the summer) we’re doing less teaching work in the summer.
But research and service happen all year. I do not stop reviewing manuscripts in the summer months, nor do I stop serving on committees for professional organizations. I do not abandon my research. Indeed, the summer months grant me precious time to work on books and articles — I’d be a fool if I didn’t take advantage of that. At some point I need to do a version of “What Do Professors Do All Week?” for the summer months. I guarantee you that, even during the months I am not paid (because I elect not to teach in the summer, Kansas State University does not pay me during the summer), I am working at least 40-hour weeks. I would be willing to make this claim for my fellow faculty members, too. YES, we do take holidays, when we can. However, for me, at least, often those holidays are a day or two tacked on to the beginning or end of a trip to an academic conference.
Moments after I finished my the oral portion of comprehensive exams, Professor Michael Kreyling (a member of my committee) turned to me and said, “You’re going to want to relax. But you can’t.” He then listed many reasons for not relaxing: I needed to write a dissertation proposal, start working on the dissertation itself, send out articles to journals, and so on.
In the decade and a half since then, I’ve often thought of those words. The longer I’ve been in academia, the busier I’ve become. Indeed, had you told me in graduate school that, in a single semester (this one), I would be giving two different invited talks, delivering one conference paper, writing another (for MLA in January), writing an afterword (for The Complete Barnaby vol. 1), posting twice weekly to a blog, editing a book series, writing two book reviews, heading up the children’s literature track of our M.A. program, serving on various committees, teaching a couple of classes, and that this would be a laughably incomplete list of my activities,… I’d have thought: Yeah, right. No one can do that much in one semester. (I would also have thought: What? Me? Employed as a professor? You must be joking.)
Life was not always this busy.
Once upon a time, I was — to put this generously — not very industrious. As a young person, formal education held little interest for me; indeed, I was at best an indifferent student. I had interests, but they tended to fall outside of school curriculum: reading and writing stories, working out songs on my guitar, playing games on the computer. Then, at about the age of 18, I applied myself, improved my grades, went on to college, and have been working hard ever since.
But, for many years, I still retained (and, in some measure, still retain) the perception of myself as lazy — or, at least, as having tendencies towards sloth. Empirically, I realized that (as a brief look at my CV confirms) this notion is absurd. So, I’ve also had a competing perception of myself as at least somewhat accomplished in my field of endeavor. These perceptions have competed with one another for years. At present, the latter view is in the ascendant.
One motivation for taking on so much was to combat my secretly slothful nature. If I signed myself up for a lot of different projects (books, essays, invited talks, conference papers), I reasoned, then I’d have to rise to the challenge and get it done. As Jim Infantino sings,
I’m addicted to stress — that’s the way that I get things done.
If I’m not under pressure, then I sleep too long,
And hang around like a bum.
I think I’m going nowhere and that makes me nervous. (Jim’s Big Ego, noplace like Nowhere, 2000)
Though (contrary to the song) I don’t actually drink coffee, this “motivated by pressure” approach has proven quite a successful strategy — if a rather exhausting one.
These days, I’m not “addicted to stress.” Indeed, I would welcome fewer tasks. And yet… I have more to do than ever before. Rarely do I get 6 hours a sleep per night (I function best on at least 7, although that hardly ever happens anymore).
Having said that, to complain about this predicament (especially in these dire economic times) would seem churlish in the extreme. After all, I am an academic with a tenure-track job. Heck, I’m an academic with tenure. For any non-academics reading this, here’s a little context: 50% of students in doctoral programs drop out before earning the Ph.D. Of those who do get the doctorate, job prospects within academe are few and shrinking. Each year, the academy produces five times as many Ph.D.s in English as there are tenure-track jobs for Ph.D.s in English. When I got my degree (1997), the stats were slightly better — annually, four times as many Ph.D.s as there were jobs for Ph.D.s.
Beyond having “beat the odds,” I also have an interesting job. Let me say that again: I also have an interesting job. Of the people fortunate enough to be employed, how many have jobs from which they derive meaning? I don’t have the stats on this question, but I suspect the answer is: very few. It’s a great privilege to have a job from which you gain more than a paycheck. True, such intrinsic motivation is especially important when your last pay raise came in 2007. (I’m told we’re getting one at the end of this year, though. Here’s hoping!) But my point is that being a professor is a really great job. I get to learn stuff, and then share what I’ve learned — in the classroom, at conferences, in my books and articles, and even on this blog. How awesome is that? (Answer: very!)
Still, I also have the suspicion that might enjoy life more if I did not work 60+ hour weeks. I often think of that New Yorker cartoon, where, with a hamster wheel in the background, one hamster says to the other: “I usually do two hours of cardio and then four more of cardio and then two more of cardio.”
So, despite all that I love about my job, I sometimes want to ask: Will I ever get off the treadmill? On the other hand, I do prefer my treadmill to the one in the cartoon.
Yesterday, songs. Today, a poem. There are many poets to whom we might turn (Whitman and Sandburg rush to mind) for Labor Day, but I’ve opted for the title poem from What Work Is (1991) by America’s new Poet Laureate Philip Levine (b. 1928). When you hear him read, he often shares a story about the poem — indeed, these succinct autobiographical narratives would make for a great collection of prose (were he so inclined). So, here’s a recording of him reading “What Work Is,” including one of those introductions (he starts speaking at around 12 seconds in):
He’s a wonderful reader of his own work. And here is the poem itself:
We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours of wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.
Levine’s third line says “You know what work is,” and his final line says “you don’t know what work is.” Between those two statements, the poem proves that we don’t know what work is… by giving us a deeper knowledge of what work is. It educates us in order to expose the depths of our ignorance.
Offering a nuanced examination of “work,” labor of the type celebrated by Labor Day oscillates between background and foreground. The speaker is at “Ford Highland Park,” his brother “Works eight hours a night,” and “somewhere ahead” a man can deny them work “for any / reason he wants.” This sort of physical labor creates the setting for and underwrites the intensity of feeling behind the emotional labor the poem’s speaker works through — the necessary, vulnerable act of expressing love for another person. ”How long has it been since you told him / you loved him,” the speaker asks, before admitting to himself “You’ve never / done something so simple, so obvious” because he doesn’t know “what work is.” The work of loving a brother, he suggests, is not just the harder work, but the far more important work, and a work that we do not, cannot, fully understand.
I like, too, how the tonal shifts create not distance from the brother, but intimacy — both by conveying the speaker’s feelings, and by offering specific details about the brother’s life. In the first shift, the speaker changes the reference of the pronoun “you,” moving from his audience to himself: “Forget you. This is about waiting,” he says, returning to a different “you” a few lines later. The deliberate affront of “Forget you” evokes an emotion from the reader, setting the stage for another tonal shift later on. After describing his brother in sympathetic terms, our speaker reports that he “Works eight hours a night so he can sing / Wagner, the opera you hate most, / the worst music ever invented.” The frank rejection of his brother’s taste in music suggests both that perhaps the two have argued about it, and that the speaker dislikes Wagner with a comparable passion to his brother’s love for Wagner. This abrupt criticism’s context — expressing admiration and love for the brother — drains the remark of any animosity, suggesting instead that the speaker’s love is that much deeper because he dislikes his brother’s favorite composer, and admires the brother for singing it anyway.
Though the referent of the pronoun “you” shifts from audience to speaker, it also does not shift. With each invocation of that pronoun “you,” the speaker interpellates the reader into his second-person subjecthood. When he says, “suddenly you can hardly stand / the love flooding you for your brother,” he asks us to experience that intense love for our brother (or sister or mother or cousin or best friend). When he says “you don’t know what work is,” he is not just accusing himself; he is accusing us, too. And he makes a convincing case. The work for which we are paid robs us of the time to be with, and sometimes to be loving towards, the people who are most important to us. How much of our daily life do we spend away from the people we love the most? When will we next see that sibling, parent, old friend, niece, uncle again? (Indeed, will we see them again?)
It’s a powerful poem. And Levine is one of our great poets. I recommend What Work Is, The Simple Truth (1994), and — if you’d like a larger collection of earlier work — New Selected Poems (1991). I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve not read his most recent collection, News of the World (2009). But I’ve just ordered myself a copy.
Today, the first of three Labor-Day-themed posts. Here’s a mix of songs about work. And, yes, I’m aware that many other songs that could be included here — I came up with enough additional songs to fill a second CD, and then some. Since much of this blog is devoted to children’s literature, I should also note here that a couple of the songs later in this mix have lyrics that include obscenity (mostly f-bombs): I’m thinking specifically of Cake’s “Nugget” and Cam’ron’s “My Job.” To begin the mix, here’s a song from the start of the Great Depression….
This One’s for the Workers: Labor Songs, 1929-2010
Probably the best-known song by West Virginia singer, songwriter and fiddler Blind Alfred Reed (1880-1956). Ry Cooder recorded it on his self-titled debut album (1970), and Bruce Spingsteen recorded a revised version of it for the reissue of his We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (subtitled American Land Edition in this version). Springsteen retained only the first verse from Reed’s original; new verses address the failed government response to Hurricane Katrina.
To give you a sense of how popular this song was, two versions were hit singles in 1932 — one recorded by Crosby and the other by Rudy Vallee. With music by Jay Gorney, E. Y. “Yip” Harburg’s lyrics tell of working people abandoned by the country they helped to build, and for which they fought. During the third year of the Great Depression, the message resonated with the public. Harburg may be better-remembered today for “Over the Rainbow” (and other songs from the 1939 MGM Wizard of Oz), “Old Devil Moon” (and other songs from the musical Finian’s Rainbow), or for “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” but this is one of his most powerful lyrics.
Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and Millard Lampell — the Almanac Singers — recorded this song for their second record, Talking Union (1941; re-released with additional songs, 1955). Written by Seeger, Hays, and Lampell, the song uses a “talking blues” style later adopted by Bob Dylan.
An idol of Bob Dylan and sometime member of the Almanac Singers, Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) here sings in support of Henry Wallace, Progressive Party candidate for President in 1948. As the liner notes to Hard Travelin’: The Asch Recordings Vol. 3 (on which this song appears) tell us, Guthrie “was certain that if farmers and laborers joined together they could elect Wallace; they didn’t.” Guthrie is best-remembered today for his “This Land Is Your Land.” Of songwriting, he once said:
I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling. I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built. I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.
A #1 hit in 1958, the Silhouettes‘ “Get a Job” has an upbeat sound that masks the more serious subject matter — unemployment. As the song’s protagonist says, his girl is “tellin’ me that I’m lyin’ about a job that I never could find.” The band Sha Na Na took its name from the backing vocal.
Another pop hit (#2 on the U.S. pop charts), this one about prison labor. Written by Cooke (1931-1964), the song is said to be inspired by his encounter with a chain gang. Cooke’s biggest hits — “Wonderful World,” “Cupid,” “Twistin’ the Night Away,” “You Send Me” — tend to address more conventional pop-music subjects. But “Chain Gang” and the posthumously released “A Change Is Gonna Come” display Cooke’s social conscience.
The half-sister of Pete Seeger and an accomplished folksinger and songwriter herself, Peggy Seeger sings of how gender discrimination prevents women from getting the jobs (and salaries) they seek. Compelling narrative, strong message.
Joe Strummer sings about jobs he doesn’t want to do. “Career opportunities are the ones that never knock. / Every job they offer you is to keep you out the dock.” Co-written by Strummer and Mick Jones (who actually had worked a government job opening letters to make sure they didn’t contain bombs), the song appears on the Clash’s self-titled debut album.
Bragg covers Leon Rosselson’s song about the Diggers, English agrarians (1649-1650) who sought to establish a more egalitarian society whose members could farm the common land for their mutual benefit.
In his cover version, Waits recasts the song as a minor-key lament, reminding us that those dwarves in Snow White were in fact miners. And mining is a tough job. From Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films.
Inspired by John Ford’s film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (novel, 1939; film, 1940), Springsteen‘s song paraphrases Tom Joad’s speech near the end of the film. Joad, played by Henry Fonda, says: “I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look, wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build, I’ll be there, too.”
According to Classic Labor Songs (Smithsonian Folkways, on which this song appears), “Californian Jon Fromer has spent a career working in television and radio. He is an active officer of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and the Communications Workers of America…. He is a member of the Freedom Song Network, an organization of San-Francisco-area musicians dedicated to social change.”
“It’s the flight of the salesman, death of the bumblebee, nothing left for the attorneys and the tumbleweeds.” A song about the Great Recession, featuring a rap from one of the best lyricists working today: Dessa.
25) Money Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings (2010) 3:22
“Money. Where have you gone?” On I Learned the Hard Way, Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings contribute another song to the music of the Great Recession.
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