Tuesday, June 16, 2009


I always set aside a little time to read new explorations about the nature of work, both to understand my own sense of work and to muse over just what my students are facing in their own future endeavors. I discovered two new interesting books on the nature of work.

The travel writer and social commentator Alain de Botton has written an engaging inquiry into work in his The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (New York: Pantheon Books, 2009). Some of this resonates with my own experience. In the last few years I have taken up landscape painting. In discussing little-known painter Stephen Taylor, de Botton writes: “Taylor found his teachers on museum walls. The great dead masters are generous instructors: it is not uncommon for one of them to impart a piece of technical wisdom to a pupil born five centuries after him. Works which ordinary gallery visitors might regard as inert entertainment are, for artists, living prescriptions” (p. 176). I understand this better myself, as now when I wander into a museum I find myself having a new appreciation of the work of long-dead artists, as I try to examine more closely how they achieved what they did (although I have found museum guards eyeing me more suspiciously as I peer more intently at the paintings).

De Botton also provides insights into the routines of work, encompassing even the mundane activities of the academic world. “To see ourselves as the centre of the universe and the present time as the summit of history,” de Botton muses, “to view our upcoming meetings as being of overwhelming significance, to neglect the lessons of cemeteries, to read only sparingly, to neglect the pressures of deadlines, to snap at colleagues, to make our way through conference agendas marked ’11:00 a.m. to 11:15 a.m.: coffee break,’ to behave heedlessly and greedily and then to combust in battle – maybe all of this, in the end, is working wisdom” (pp. 124, 126). He later continues, “Our work will at least have distracted us, it will have provided a perfect bubble in which to invest our hopes for perfection, it will have focused our immeasurable anxieties on a few relatively small-scale and achievable goals, it will have given us a sense of mastery, it will have made us respectably tired, it will have put food on the table. It will have kept us out of greater trouble” (p. 136). It all sounds like a typical academic’s day of faculty meetings, encounters with students, and the filling in of forms.

Another book gets closer to us because it is written by an academically trained individual who, in part, is reflecting on work as defined in our knowledge era. Matthew B. Crawford has a Ph.D. in political philosophy, prepared for an academic career, and gave it all up in order to run a motorcycle repair shop. I guess it is not altogether surprising that he has written a book on manual work and its value in our society -- Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (New York: Penguin Press, 2009). Crawford critiques the notion of knowledge work, in part because he finds “manual work more engaging intellectually,” and his book is his effort to “understand why this should be so” (p. 5). Crawford explores the notion of what a “good job” entails, and he puts some of this into a historical perspective (for example): “White-collar professions, too, are subject to routinization and degradation, proceeding by the same logic that hit manual fabrication a hundred years ago: the cognitive elements of the job are appropriated from professionals, instantiated in a system or process, and then handed back to a new class of workers – clerks – who replace the professionals” (p. 44).

So, as you might imagine, Crawford has a lot of uncomfortable things to say about our ideas of the information society, the knowledge era, and computer literacy. He wonders if it isn’t the case that “college habituates young people to accept as the normal course of things a mismatch between form and content, official representations and reality” (p. 147). Crawford hasn’t inspired me to take up tools and build something – I am a total failure at this, but he has made me reflect a little more on the relationship between the theory and practice aspects of what we deal with in our classrooms.

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