Unseen Work

I tend to mistrust “how-to” books. I think they’re too sanitized to be trustworthy, reducing complex and contextual circumstances to linear recipes. Much more interesting are the “how-it-happened” books, in which some person talks about how their amazing life got to be so amazing. Filled with stories and accidents and roads not chosen, these are the books that I’ve found more reassuring and helpful. There’s a reason The PhDictionary isn’t structured as a how to get a job book…

One of my very favorite “how it happened” books of recent years is Bill Bruford: The Autobiography (2009, London, Jawbone Press). Bill Bruford was the drummer for the band Yes in its early years of huge success, then jumped ship for King Crimson during its early years of huge success, and then pursued a succession of personal projects (Bill Bruford’s Earthworks) and fun side jobs (Bruford Levin Upper Extremities, or BLUE). He’s one of these players who revolutionized his instrument—contemporary drummers do things a little differently because of him, they have more possibilities at hand (so to speak…).

Bruford’s structured his book around a series of common questions he never wants to answer again. What’s it like working with Robert Fripp? Do you just play anything you like? Do you like doing interviews? And one of those questions was “Oh, you’re a musician. So what do you do during the day, then?” He never actually does the arithmetic in the book, but as I read, I came to estimate that maybe 30% of his professional working life as a drummer was spent behind a drum kit, practicing or rehearsing or performing or giving lessons. The substantial majority was engaged in the business of music:

  • auditioning and hiring other players
  • arranging practice venues
  • scheduling studio time
  • reviewing designs for t-shirts and CD labels
  • managing product distribution
  • scheduling tours and organizing transportation
  • getting paid by promoters and venues
  • shipping musical instruments and sound equipment around the world, and setting them all up when he arrives
  • doing interviews, signing autographs, working his own merchandise table after the shows

Here’s a fraction of the setup for a concert in Cadiz, Spain (after he’s rebuilt his own drum kit, a job the technicians had bollixed up wholesale):

After about 30 minutes, I take time to mic and position the grand piano, mic and position the bass amp, position and monitor the music stands, and complete the thousand-and-one other tasks that will make the stage ready for the arrival of my colleagues. This is, of course, the job of the production manager, for which I am now wearing the seventh of my nine hats. The drum kit is functional and soundchecked with minutes to spare; the others walk in. Unnecessarily sensitive to the collective mood, my radar scans the arriving group and gratifyingly registers laughter, stories. Next up, then, for the next hour and everyone’s amusement, is the bilingual soundcheck, with no translator.

While not as glamorous, academic life also has its unseen logistical worlds, jobs no one ever teaches us but that we must know how to do in order to do the work people think we do. We need to learn to operate and modify software, to set up and calibrate equipment. We need to learn how to respectfully ask permission to engage the archives of a crabby family, or a justifiably resentful subjugated culture. We need to learn to book our own travel, to act as our own literary agent, to act as our own promoter, to be our own tech support when we’re on the road and our laptop acts up. We manage down, when we bring the recalcitrant student into some degree of engagement with our course; we manage up, when we bring the recalcitrant dean into some degree of acquiescence with our research plans. We organize schedules, write budgets, manage expenses, build and supervise teams. We manage hurt feelings and encourage new partnerships. All of those are learned skills, too often learned in shame and secrecy by screwing up unnecessarily and repeatedly.

One of the goals of The PhDictionary was to make those logistical skills at least visible, so that younger readers could know that these problems were coming and that they could ask about them in advance. But a second goal was to make those logistical skills newly visible to older readers who already do them—to remind advisors and chairs and deans of their own responsibilities to teach the logistics and the culture of our profession, not merely the 30% of working life that has to do with content.