We’re all colleagues: On toughness, labor, and respect

The absence of external validation or positive feedback. Long, often grueling hours. The uncertainty of promotion. The lack of a regular schedule. The physical toll of working in the field. The fact that your work isn’t valued — and is even the butt of public jokes! The physical and emotional abuse by people who have power over you and your job security. Entitled, demeaning comments about your appearance. The expectation that you go above and beyond to perform emotional labor. The expectation that you spend personal money on things you can’t afford, just to get by. Soul-draining busy-work and morale-busting red tape. Crap pay.  The inability to just leave everything at the door. The expectation that you be constantly available. This job can be really, really hard.

I’m going to bet dollars to donuts you thought I was talking about academic jobs.

I wasn’t.

Everything I said was true of the retail, food service, and farm jobs I’ve had before I started grad school.

It doesn’t make those statements not true about academia. But that’s my point.

Often, academics talk about how tough we have it as though we have a monopoly on difficulty. I am not saying that academic jobs aren’t difficult or that we shouldn’t be valued, fairly compensated, supported, or treated with respect. I know I’ll get blowback in the comments on this, so I’ve put this in bold, just to highlight this point. Remember that I am an assistant professor assembling my tenure package. I was a graduate student and a postdoc on the job market in this decade. I have experienced the toughness of this job. I get it.

What I’m saying is that we often don’t realize that the ways in which we talk about the challenges of academia can be incredibly alienating, both to non-academics and to our students and colleagues from working-class backgrounds.

I get job insecurity. I was fired from a retail job at an independent bookstore I loved because the owner thought I was having an affair with her husband (I wasn’t, and didn’t want to). I was fired from another job at an independently owned restaurant, after reporting my supervisor for groping me — it was during my 6-month “grace period,” so they didn’t have to give me a reason. I was fired from a major retail chain because I missed several days of work due to having migraines, but because I couldn’t afford the health plan (half of my hourly wages) I couldn’t get a doctor’s note each time. I’ve had my hours cut back to two shifts, when my budget is for five, because of something handed down from corporate. I’ve worked for four companies that don’t even exist anymore.

I get hard work. I have worked 12-hour shifts on my feet, running back and forth and sweating in a kitchen with no air conditioning. I have worked 10-hour shifts on my knees picking strawberries, swarmed with black flies and mosquitoes. I have gone to the doctor with repetitive motion injuries from opening boxes, hoisting two gallons of milk in one hand, and carrying crates in a cold room. I’ve canvassed houses with a kidney infection, unpacked books with excruciating tonsillitis, and made lattes with debilitating cramps, because I couldn’t afford the day off.

I get being disrespected. I was told repeatedly that working at a food co-op was a “lifestyle choice” and being paid a livable wage would just encourage me to “not better myself” (I was in college at the time, but whatever). I have had customers throw things at me because they found them cheaper at Walmart down the hall. I’ve had bar patrons grab my ass, or leave me large tips and then verbally assault me when I turned them down for a date (and take the money back). I’ve been told to my face that I’m a moron for working retail, instead of in a job that benefits society. I’ve been left religious pamphlets in lieu of monetary tips.

I could go on, but you get the picture. I don’t regret my time as a service worker. Each of those jobs taught me something valuable that I’ve carried with me to academia, whether it’s a thicker skin, a better understanding of people, a passion for service, an ability to handle shitty supervisors, physical resilience, or a cultivated knack for leaving shit at the door at the end of the day. I also have an appreciation for flexible schedules, great benefits, and getting to do what I love, even when it’s not always cupcakes and rainbows.

But as I shifted to academia, I found that some (not all*) folks talk about our job in such a way that you can just tell they’ve never done any other kind of work. A lot of that, for me, came down to discussions of money. When I started grad school, I was the most financially stable I’d ever been. I could pay my bills, with a regular salary! I could afford the benefit package! I had health and dental insurance after years! I could take time off during the week to go to the doctor’s, the post office, the bank — during business hours. I wasn’t going to be fired for getting the flu! What was this new devilry?

It’s worth repeating that I am not saying that academic jobs aren’t difficult or that we shouldn’t be valued, fairly compensated, supported, or treated with respect. But I would like us to have a little bit of compassion for other folks who struggle, often without the same safety nets we might have. I also get salty when my fellow academics demean service workers, or treat them poorly in front of me. Services workers are the people we outsource our labor to (childcare, lawn-care, house cleaning) so that we can have better work-life balance. They are our students and even our colleagues. They might photocopy our teaching materials or deliver our lab supplies. They are the people making our caffeinated drinks or serving us our craft beers when we gather to vent after a tough day. They’re providing our self-care pedicures and delivering the Thai food so we don’t have to cook when we have a grant deadline.

Some people may be surprised to discover that retail employees and professors can bond over some of the harder parts of our jobs. Our shared humanity should be enough, but we know that’s not always true. As a service-worker-turned-professor, I’d love to see us do a better job of acknowledging that, there but for the grace of the universe go we. Life sucks sometimes — but it’s always better with awesome co-workers. The person ringing up your groceries could be your future grad student, your elderly parent who can’t make ends meet with social security, or your gap-year kid. It could be you. Maybe it was you.

We all have our own challenges. But the ways in which we deal with our struggles, and how we talk about them, matter. Don’t punch down (also, service workers are more likely to be women and people of color, so this is a social justice issue, too). Don’t advocate for your own humanity at the expense of others.  It’s that simple.

We’re all colleagues.




*Adjuncts are a notable exception — they are exploited and abused by the system, often impoverished and without any of the benefits I mentioned here, and their complaints are not what I’m talking about here.