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Issues of Class

Today, Tobias Buckell talks about Time Isn't Spare. He's reacting to a recent post talking about asking for money for activities associated with being a well-known author. And this morning I saw this tweet:

@sarahkendzior If you are being paid in 1) debit cards 2) exposure 3) a line on the CV 4) promises, you have an abusive employer.

I'm reminded of a conversation I had with Phil and Tom many years ago, at the tail end of another recession, when we saw an article describing someone, who needed experience to get a job, and wished he'd found work as a student -- even unpaid work -- in order to show something to a potential employer. Tom was very offended by the idea of letting people work without paying them, and building a model in which people work for free -- or for "experience" or whatever else you want to call it.

Today, I'm realizing the extent to which this is an issue of class. There are exceptions -- where a young person has so much native talent or cunning that they can invert the power relationship and use the opportunity to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. But those are the exceptions. For most, working for free means helping someone else who's higher in the foodchain get a larger reward for themselves. Unless they're a member of an elite class that isn't dependent on the relationship between their "work" and their economic state. Nowadays, that's mostly only the independently wealthy -- with a few exceptions.

In fact, I regularly do work for people for a line on my CV -- or for even less. In some ways all of the work I do is for free. I receive a salary from the University but the exact nature of the work I do is not particularly well defined. When I was hired, teaching was not part of my initial job description. In fact, there really wasn't a job description: They had built a computer lab and I was hired to come in and do what needed to be done. I had to report to a steering committee, which turned out to be like my own personal pep-squad, but otherwise had broad latitude to choose projects and work with faculty as I saw fit.

What do I do? Well, I run the BCRC: I hire, schedule, train, and supervise staff for the BCRC. I select, install, and configure software for the computers in the BCRC and a bunch of teaching labs. More generally, though I do a lot of other stuff: I answer a lot of questions in person and by email. I help people print posters, use projectors, solve technology problems, and make technology choices. I attend meetings and try to influence the University to support (or at least not interfere) with what the Biology Department is trying to do. I keep parts of the local technical infrastructure up-to-date and have been, if not the architect, than a consultant in selecting, installing, configuring, and supporting many of the technical services for the department. I support, more or less directly, a bajillion websites. And I spend a lot of time just educating myself: trying to stay current on trends in technology, education, and life sciences. And beyond that I perform various kinds of service for the community. I sometimes give talks, teach classes, conduct workshops, provide technical support, serve on boards and committees for local, national and international organizations.

As I say, when I was hired, teaching was not part of my original job description. In consultation with the steering committee, I found that I could make time to teach a class and so I started teaching partly to offer something to the department and students, partly as a way that I could illustrate to other faculty in the department forms of pedagogy that weren't just lecture, and partly to enhance my own skills and experience -- if I needed to look for a different job. I'm teaching a class next semester, but am I getting paid for my teaching?

This semester, I have also agreed to take over being the coordinator for the junior year writing program. I'm not getting paid anything (extra) for doing that either. When I was asked to do it, however, I asked about potential remuneration because, as it turns out, some people in the department do get extra compensation for taking on extra work. I figured it was worth asking, although I wasn't really expecting it -- because there's not a strong connection between what I actually do and my compensation.

Our thinking about it gets tangled up in issues of class. Are you a proletarian? Or a member of the Bourgeoisie? Are you doing this as a fee for service? Or is this just part of your activity in managing your enterprise? What would you do if you were given free rein to just try to make things work better?

Faculty are in a weird place -- we are among the last who get paid to work on what we're interested in. And who often want to blur the lines between their job and the rest of their life. Others often strive for work/life balance whereas faculty often want their work to be their life.

I've been very grateful to not have to look at everything I do and decide whether to help someone or not based on whether that's what's paying my salary today. I don't have to check to see if a question is from a Chemistry Major or a Biology Major -- or even from someone at UMass. Or whether the email came at 8am or 8pm. I've been given wide latitude to use my best judgment to just make stuff better.

This way of thinking is coming to an end. Most corporations want everyone to be contingent, freelance employees that only do work that gets paid for. Universities are moving toward "Responsibility Centered Management" where the goal is for units to understand where their money comes from and to make sure that everything they do is "adding value" (or contributing toward the bottom line.)

Years ago, I had a friend who had studied business and he would periodically describe the owner of the company we were working for as "a good businessman". But he would spit it like a curse or an oath and it was only after weeks of hearing this that I came understand what he meant. He meant that a good businessman was someone who always maximized the bottom line, even if it came at the expense of his friends or morals -- or even common sense. I've written a lot in my blog about the fact that capitalism encourages this kind of thinking.

But we desperately need to not get caught in this trap. We need the courage to do what we think is right. We need the freedom to live a human life and pay attention to other values. We need to use our reason to apprehend the world and value things according to more than just their monetary ROI. An ecosystem, a wetland, a human life -- these things can all be given a monetary value, but that value is a lie.

Perhaps the only reason the progressive movement was as successful as it was, back in the 30's and 40's was due to the oligarchs being terrified of communism. And, in the 1980s, when communism collapsed, the gloves came off. Everyone's standards of living have stagnated or declined (except for the 1%) -- I understand why people feel compelled to play their game. I recognize that I have been sheltered from this and may be among the last who enjoys the freedom to tell the capitalists to stick it. But I say, I will do what I think is right and necessary. I will give that talk in spite of the pathetic honorarium. I will spends hundreds of hours without additional compensation to organize and run the Hackathon or Drupal Camp, because I think those things are important and necessary and I can do them.

For now.

Tomorrow, I don't know.