Free Agent

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I just saw Michael Moore’s movie Where to Invade Next with some friends on Saturday night. It’s a terrific movie, as he usually delivers, though not I think as powerful as Roger & Me or Bowling for Columbine. But one of the ideas that he hopes to “colonize” for America is control on our culture of overwork. He talked with an Italian couple who each have approximately eight weeks of paid leave per year, between vacation and public holidays. He talked with Italian factory owners who support that model of labor sanity, and manage to remain profitable within it. And he discussed another nation (I don’t remember whether it was France or Germany) in which workers are not expected to be available by phone or e-mail after working hours or on weekends.

I wholeheartedly support this concept. Our grandfathers fought in the streets for forty-hour weeks; we should honor their spirits and their goals.

But we don’t, and so salaried workers in every field regularly put in ten and twenty and more unpaid hours of work (!!!!) every week, struggle to hold a single day for themselves and their families rather than two. Honest, let’s think about this. If you’re salaried, you’re expected to essentially WORK FOR FREE for the equivalent of a quarter or more of your paid time. Sorry, that’s just nuts.

When I was a kid, my dad was in the machinist’s union at his factory. I come from union stock. I come from an era where labor was protected, and we kind of fended for ourselves as consumers. Now those roles have utterly reversed. We are demanding and easily led consumers, sucking up low-cost goods produced everywhere. And in return for that, we have made the too-often-unspoken bargain to leave ourselves to the wolves as producers. We all have those two roles, you know… we make, and we consume. And we privilege which to protect.

I’m thinking of this in respect to faculty life. The model of workforce protection we most often claim is individual, through the mode of tenure and intellectual freedom. I can say what I want, and if I do it with sufficient quality to be peer reviewed, my employer can’t retaliate against me. Awesome. Yay for that. But we do a terrible job in higher ed of looking out for one another. We abuse our graduate students, we have a massive and poorly paid contingent workforce. We academics are trained to see ourselves as free agents, working in isolation and responsible only to the grail of intellectual truth. So it’s every man (and occasionally woman) for himself out there in the academic labor world.

And when those isolated, lone scholars become administrators, do they suddenly become more community-minded? If they do, they’re swimming upstream against all of their training, against the culture that surrounds them. There are very few forces that lead us to common good in higher ed, and tons that lead us to scattered self-interest.