What Kind of Future are We Making?

Last fall at my home institution SUNY Buffalo, amidst a crisis in college-wide decisions about graduate education, two of my colleagues called a faculty meeting by petition. This was no light matter; they activated a section of the bylaws of the College of Arts and Sciences that had not been touched in decades. The meeting was fascinating, as were the discussions and actions that ensued. But what stuck with me most at the time was an encounter the afternoon of the meeting with a colleague, who chattily remarked that he would not be attending the meeting. Instead, he was instead headed home to paint his house. At the time I was shocked by what seemed to me a dereliction of duty. Since then, however, I have come to think of his choice in other terms. I’m fairly sure that the willingness to make the trade—home improvement for faculty governance—is a symptom of a basic understanding of tenured faculty work at a public research university. Our hierarchized forms of work privilege research, then teaching and, finally, service (which includes everything that does not fall into one of the other two categories). That service is understood to be highly optional and can even look like uncompensated labor. This is a set of values, a kind of valuation, that I learned when I entered the university and have shared at many points since then. This brief paper is about that basic understanding of work and about how Enlightenment thinkers might help us as faculty members to consider our own ideological obstacles to working toward a better future.

The Enlightenment is famous for its destructive thinking about the future. As Fredric Jameson put it, the Enlightenment is the context for the “empty conception of some future terminus which we sometimes call progress.” The Enlightenment is also the origin of the concepts of intellectual labor that continue to undergird our own notions of professional work, both inside the academy and in the middle-class professions of those trained in the academy. I am particularly interested in two writers who respond directly to the new definitions of intellectual labor circulating in the early eighteenth century: Stephen Duck and Mary Collier, the thresher and washerwoman poets, respectively. Duck and Collier are good guides when it comes to pushing questions around the kind of thing intellectual labor is: how it is related to other forms of labor, and how it privileges the individual in relation to the community.

Anyone who has ever struggled with nonacademic family members’ questions about whether academic work is “done,” and anyone who has ever had to explain to an outsider a phenomenon as banal as the lack of required attendance at faculty meetings, has a good sense of the complexity of conceptions of academic labor. There is a long history to this complexity, as Christopher Newfield points out in his first book-length study of the history of the university. In Ivy and Industry Newfield identifies the roots of American conceptions of academic labor in the “free labor” or “craft labor” that make freedom central to work. The academic, writes Newfield, is “in most ways a nineteenth-century small producer,” supervising her own work and setting her own goals. “The old college resembled the workshop, rather than the factory,” Newfield writes, and senior colleagues would teach junior colleagues in such a way as to ensure their own work would be under their own control. As Newfield goes on to suggest, unlike the workshop, the academic’s version of craft labor proceeds through a highly individualist model, especially in the context of the humanities where work is rarely collaborative. When talking to that outsider friend about how it’s possible to skip faculty meetings without consequences, then, it would be right to say that faculty labor is so free and so individual in its conception that it cannot be required even in the maintenance of the workplace.

As Newfield tells it, this free work coexists with but does not disturb the university’s business-minded bureaucracy, producing a “submissive individualism” that insists to the academic that she is subjected to bureaucratic forces beyond her control but that those same forces allow her what she needs: independent research. In such a world, the value of faculty governance is hard to recognize. The institution’s own logic, then, suggests that writing an article—or indeed, painting a house—might be a better time investment than attending a faculty meeting. For Newfield, however, this need not be the end of the story. He returns to craft as a way for us to reconceive of the potential for agency and action. The hopefulness of Newfield’s Ivy and Industry, then, is that by reconceiving our own labor, we will be able to use that labor in ways that upend the current bifurcated structure of academic work and administration. Craft labor might help us assume that management is also our work. In one of his most radical conclusions, for example, Newfield asks us to consider what the university might look like if we were to consider administration in terms of “process,” as itself a crafted or made thing.

I agree with the endpoint of Newfield’s argument: that academic laborers would be more powerful in their institutions, and beyond them, if they considered themselves as workers. At the same time, Newfield’s craft metaphor (which he pulls from the American context) risks making it seem as though we can avail ourselves of this new form of agency quite easily. The eighteenth-century British context allows us to see our predicament more clearly. Historians have shown us that craft labor is already baked into concepts of intellectual labor; for this reason, our own return to and recovery of craft is bound to be difficult. We can see an early version of craft intellect in the seventeenth century—in the construction of the Royal Society’s brand of experimental knowledge, which relies on artisanal labor to undergird accounts of the Society’s novel turn toward experience. Despite its reliance on the senses, however, Enlightenment science “would elide the bodily epistemology” of the artisan, as Pamela H. Smith observes in The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution. We see the tension between the artisan and the philosopher in Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society (1667), where the artisan is alternately a model for philosophical thought and a disparaged figure whose philosophy cannot rise above the material products of his workshop. When Sprat imagines the mechanic’s philosophy as “consist[ing] of Springs, and Wheels, and Weights,” he participates in a long philosophical tradition, going back to Plato and Aristotle, in which the artisan is called in to help structure of a new form of knowledge, only to be displaced by the philosopher and his theory, ensuring that the head continues to dominate the hands. Artisanal knowledge, it seems, must remain securely metaphorical.

Clifford Siskin excavates the origins of intellectual labor in the eighteenth century, focusing on how literature and literary criticism—the “work of writing”—come to be conceived as the best, because deepest, kind of work. Although Siskin’s primary concern is the figure of the Romantic poet—his demystification of Wordsworth’s Prelude as “résumé” remains memorable—he locates one origin of this new leisurely labor in John Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s Georgics (1697). There, Siskin observes, the “work of writing” becomes “heroic activity,” formulated as the better work in contrast with the agricultural labor Virgil’s poem (and Dryden’s translation) describes. Labor in this new intellectual form remains “arduous,” but “Wordsworth returns to the land, but not to till it.”

When we take up our own intellectual labor, it comes to us already bound to artisanal craft knowledge. Now, as in the Enlightenment, the move toward the intellectual not only retains a trace of the physical and the practical but also uses these elements in establishing a hierarchy within intellectual labor. One can see this in the research university’s virtually unshakeable hierarchy of research, teaching, and service. Even the word “service”—used as a catchall term, covering everything from obligated committee labor, to advocacy work for students, to faculty governance—insists on the practical, the practice-oriented work that can be contrasted with the theoretical, philosophical brainwork of the scholar. Indeed, we all casually reinforce this kind of division in a variety of ways, as when I many times have described the return from teaching or committee work as a return to “my own work.” I am not contesting the value of research work; now more than ever, especially in the humanities, we must insist on it. In our insistence, however, we remain aware that an embrace of the research-teaching-service hierarchy stands to reinforce the notion that practitioners need have no say in the institutional values and decisions that support their work.

It is at this point that I find helpful the labor-focused poetry of Stephen Duck and Mary Collier, poets who wrote in the context of a new definition of intellectual labor that formed in the Royal Society as well as in the Georgic tradition revitalized (by Dryden, among others) in that same scientific context. The two poets often are spoken about as antagonists; Collier rose to fame through The Woman’s Labour (1739), an explicit critique of Duck’s The Thresher’s Labour (1730). But in terms of the relation between poetry and work, both writers move along the same axis by restoring to poetry the body of the poet. These poems stress the body in the verse: the ubiquitous “sweat” of Duck’s thresher, Collier’s female laborer’s body that cannot exist without a child at its hip. To the Royal Society and the Georgic poets who followed its lead, propping up its new disembodied knowledge on the laborer’s body, Duck and Collier insist that their bodies are still present, still central to the making of poetry as well as to the reaping, gleaning, or threshing.

This embodied poetry is not a solution to what we are facing, but the kind of thinking behind it shows us a way forward, even within our own supposedly-refined sphere of professional, intellectual labor. To acknowledge the presence of embodied craft labor in all the forms academic work takes is to disturb the hierarchy long enough for us to formulate questions about value. If we look more skeptically at the old theory/practice binary that keeps our research work separate from other forms of labor, it might be easier to discriminate between forms of “service,” asking more clearly about which populations are served and by whom. It might allow us to imagine revaluing forms of service that do important ethical and community work. It might allow us to privilege—rather than finding ways to penalize—intellectual projects that are based on integrated research and advocacy, the kind of work that many BIPOC and LGBTQ scholars have been doing for decades. The “we” here is necessarily a complicated one, and in order to transform the stakes for work in the academy, tenured white cis-gendered academics (I am one) need to examine the ways in which they benefit from others’ labor and how they might reconfigure systems not just for greater inclusion but for greater equity, for a good that exists beyond themselves.

Moreover, whereas Newfield calls on craft to suture together different kinds of work, Collier, in particular, insists that a turn toward craft be combined with a reflection on the forms of embodiment available to different bodies. Collier’s poem turns on a series of revelations that show the reader of Duck’s Thresher’s Labour the ways in which women’s labor is rendered invisible. And Collier begins her poem by making clear that the inequity perpetuated by Duck’s poem can be traced back to “Our first Extraction from a Mass refin’d,” that is, to women’s own embodied state as rendered in religious discourse. If we return the body to intellectual labor, then we must summon, too, questions about which bodies are called on for which kinds of work. Female and BIPOC scholars have been writing for years about the disproportionate service roles academic settings of all kinds require for them.  If we are to address different forms of inequity in the academy, the solution is not to cling to a disembodied ideal of intellectual labor; instead, we should clear the way for an accounting of the effects of a workplace in which not all bodies are socially privileged enough to allow their easy abstraction. Returning the body to intellectual labor might make it easier to ask about the privilege and the politics involved in the distribution of that labor along with the other forms of work that structure our working lives.

Articles on the humanities often end with a command to fight harder. Sometimes these calls to action are meant to be terrifying. Remember the end of Stanley Fish’s 2018 article “Stop Trying to Sell the Humanities,” where he admits his lack of a positive solution, telling us that we’d better come up with something or suffer the fate of Wisconsin’s Stevens Point campus. Eric Hayot’s article, published that same year, is more hopeful: “There’s still time to fight.” Fighting makes it sound as though we need to drop what we are doing and get out into the streets. I’m sympathetic to that rhetoric and the sort of responsibility it has us imagine. But these calls to battle have become hackneyed, producing at least as much despair as action. Many academics are still closing their office doors and finishing research, as the university collapses around them. Before we try to rally, let’s try to rework work. If we were to focus on embracing the agency and the interrogations of practice that craft brings up, we could start making the future we want to see.

Ruth Mack is Associate Professor of English at SUNY Buffalo. She is completing a book on craft knowledge in the British Enlightenment.

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