Tuesday, September 05, 2006
Groves of Academe
"All hands drunk"
On paper, the academic life looks great. As many as 15 weeks off in the summer, four in the winter, one in the spring, and then, usually, only three days a week on campus the rest of the time. Anybody who tells you this wasn't part of the lure of a job in higher education is lying. But one finds out right away in graduate school that in fact the typical professor logs an average of 60 hours a week, and the more successful professors work even more -- including not just 14-hour days during the school year, but 10-hour days in the summer as well.
Why, then, does there continue to be a glut of fresh Ph.D.'s? It isn't the pay scale, which, with a few lucky exceptions, offers the lowest years-of-education-to-income ratio possible. It isn't really the work itself, either. Yes, teaching and research are rewarding, but we face as much drudgery as in any professional job. Once you've read 10,000 freshman essays, you've read them all.
But we academics do have something few others possess in this postindustrial world: control over our own time. All the surveys point to this as the most common factor in job satisfaction. The jobs in which decisions are made and the pace set by machines provide the least satisfaction, while those, like mine, that foster at least the illusion of control provide the most.
Left to our own devices, we seldom organize our time with 8-to-5 discipline. The pre-industrial world of agricultural and artisan labor was structured by what the historian E. P. Thompson calls "alternate bouts of intense labor and of idleness wherever men were in control of their working lives". Agricultural work was seasonal, interrupted by rain, forced into hyperactivity by the threat of rain, and determined by other uncontrollable natural processes. The force of long cultural habit ensured that the change from such discontinuous tasks to the regimented labor of the factory never went particularly smoothly.
In 1877 a New York cigar manufacturer grumbled that his cigar makers could never be counted on to do a straight shift's work. They would "come down to the shop in the morning, roll a few cigars", he complained to The New York Herald, "and then go to a beer saloon and play pinochle or some other game". The workers would return when they pleased, roll a few more cigars, and then revisit the saloon, all told "working probably two or three hours a day". Cigar makers in Milwaukee went on strike in 1882 simply to preserve their right to leave the shop at any time without their foreman's permission.
In this the cigar workers were typical. American manufacturing laborers came and left for the day at different times. "Monday", one manufacturer complained, was always "given up to debauchery", and on Saturdays, brewery wagons came right to the factory, encouraging workers to celebrate payday. Daily breaks for "dramming" were common, with workers coming and going from the work place as they pleased. Their workdays were often, by 20th-century standards, riddled with breaks for meals, snacks, wine, brandy and reading the newspaper aloud to fellow workers.
An owner of a New Jersey iron mill made these notations in his diary over the course of a single week:
"All hands drunk."
"Jacob Ventling hunting".
"Molders all agree to quit work and went to the beach".
"Peter Cox very drunk".
"Edward Rutter off a-drinking".
At the shipyards, too, workers stopped their labor at irregular intervals and drank heavily. One ship's carpenter in the mid-19th century described an almost hourly round of breaks for cakes, candy and whiskey, while some of his co-workers "sailed out pretty regularly 10 times a day on the average" to the "convenient grog-shops". Management attempts to stop such midday drinking breaks routinely met with strikes and sometimes resulted in riots. During much of the 19th century, there were more strikes over issues of time-control than there were about pay or working hours.
I was recently offered a non-teaching job that would have almost doubled my salary, but which would have required me to report to an office in standard 8-to-5 fashion. I turned it down, and for a moment I felt like the circus worker in the joke: he follows the elephant with a shovel, and when offered another job responds, "What, and give up show business"?
Really, though, I'm more like Jacob Ventling and Edward Rutter. I don't go out 10 times a day for a dram of rum, but I could. And in fact, maybe I will. Next summer.
The New York Times