In The Sweatshop Or Reaping The Lottery Win

Are you feeling overworked these days? Do you feel the pressure to publish, present and serve on a dozen different committees? Does it seem like you are trying to do the work of two librarians, and that you just never have time to get much of anything truly constructive done? If so, welcome to the “Ivory Sweatshop”. That’s the term used in an article in this week’s Chronicle [Paywall Alert!] to describe the current academic workplace – or at least the way it feels to many faculty. What the article really attempts to do, is to frame the way today’s junior faculty feel in comparison to those who went through the tenure process a decade or more ago. The consensus of those interviewed appears to be that faculty are under much more pressure now to produce – and are being held to a much higher standard than colleagues who have already achieved tenure. I hear from academic librarians who know they aren’t keeping up with the latest news and developments as well as they should because they are challenged to find the time. This is reflected in one of the comments in the article: “This job has gotten a thousand percent harder than when I started out,” says Mr. Bergman, who began teaching in 1967. It takes a lot more time now, he says, for scholars to keep current with advances in their discipline.”

In the very same issue of the Chronicle there is a personal essay [Paywall Alert!] that presents a quite different picture of what it is like to work in academia these days. The author, a tenured faculty member at a rising research university, shares the process he went through in working out a midlife crisis resulting from that perennial question – what should I do with the rest of my life. His ultimate epiphany about his lot in life and what to do about it could be described as anything but feeling like working in a sweatshop. He writes:

That led me to the moment of clarity I had been searching for: I woke up to the fact that achieving tenure and promotion are like winning the lottery. With the odds against landing a tenure-track job in the humanities growing longer every year, I had hit the proverbial jackpot and been granted an opportunity that very few people have: the freedom to pursue my own interests on my own terms. Within the constraints of my job obligations, I could do whatever I wanted with my life.

That’s sounds like a pretty good deal. Who wouldn’t like to be in a position where they have many options and could take advantage of any of them. How many of you feel like you’ve hit the lottery in your position? Or do you feel like you are working in an academic version of a sweatshop? Which is it in academia? Depending on what you observe and who you talk to you will hear both versions. More likely you’ll hear from someone who feels like they are in the sweatshop complaining about a colleague who they believe has hit the lottery. It’s the “why I’m I working so damn hard while that co-worker seems to be barely doing anything at all?” I don’t know if the difference is simply an outcome of being on the tenure track versus having survived it. There’s no question that those on the track are feeling enormous pressure to succeed. But it would be a bad case of generalization to suggest that everyone who has made it shifts their career into neutral.

I have a good friend at a research university that has a very rigorous tenure process. Although he received tenure two years ago I’ve noticed no slowdown in his work or research agenda, and if anything he seems even busier. The difference I observe is that the pressure has shifted from external – exerted by a tenure process – to internal – the pressure one puts on oneself to achieve beyond the normal expectation. I wonder if there are also differences in perceptions based on being on the front line versus being in the administrative office. I know that reference and instruction librarians can feel overwhelmed trying to keep up with the demands placed upon them. I can also tell you that it’s no picnic for administrators these days, especially when we are all expected to be doing much more with fewer resources.

My own philosophy is that it’s always better too have to much to do than not enough, and it’s not that hard these days to come up with more than enough to keep the pressure cooker on medium to high range. Doing so doesn’t have to mean that you are working in a sweatshop though. In fact, I think that on the average day, a faculty member or an academic librarian, no matter how many deadlines there are, no matter how many committee reports are due and no matter how many classes there are to prepare for, is incredibly fortunate to have a challenging and rewarding career – and that’s why so many new professionals seek to enter this arena despite the odds of landing a job and why many who are past the age of retirement refuse to leave [Paywall Alert!]. And when you compare the work of many employed in academia to those individuals performing jobs where there is considerable physical labor or unpleasant or dangerous working conditions, you can’t help but conclude that those of us working in academia are more lottery winners than sweatshop toilers. How would you describe your situation? Sweatshop loser or lottery winner?

6 thoughts on “In The Sweatshop Or Reaping The Lottery Win

  1. I think it is unfair to categorize any job in academia, particularly in an academic library, as fitting neatly into either one of these categories or another. We’re kidding ourselves if we really think it’s comparable to a sweatshop, and most days it really doesn’t feel like winning the lottery. I think it falls somewhere in between, like most things. I like my job a lot, but find the tenure process ambiguous and confusing. I see the positives in engaging professionally and contributing to the profession and the community but struggle daily with prioritizing my day to day duties (which students/school administrators see the immediate results of) with the need to publish (which only the tenure committee really pays attention to.) So I guess I would categorize academic librarianship as a juggling or balancing act – some days, all the balls stay in the air, some days they all come crashing down. And some days you get new things thrown at you that don’t seem to fit but you have to keep them in the air as well. Not a new metaphor, granted, but an appropriate one, at least for me.

  2. I enjoyed this post, Steven, thanks.

    Rather than an either/or, I see the lottery-sweatshop issue as a scale with different institutions falling at different points along that spectrum based on their unique atmospheres and administrative pressures. While in theory one would expect a standard among tenure processes in academic libraries, I think we’ve all seen a lot of variation across institutions based largely (or wholly?) upon the top-down performance expectations. Where your library falls on the spectrum will greatly affect your experience of how difficult the job has become.

    Of course, outside of institutional pressures, any individual may perceive their own job as a sweatshop or lottery based solely on their view of the universe! Half full or half empty?

    I’m going with full. One lottery winner, right here!

  3. I like the people I work with, I have plenty of variety in my work, and if I make a mistake, nobody dies as a result. Whenever I start complaining I remind myself of how it would feel to have to work at a job I hate, or to have no job at all.

    Sometimes I think we (as a society) have made frantic busyness a virtue, one that nobody much enjoys, a stern virtue, like temperance and diligence; we’re too busy for the more generous virtues of patience, kindness, and charity. In that context (and considering another old-time virtue, humility) I’m not sure what achievement means.

  4. I really enjoyed this post! Like Sarah said, working as an academic librarian is a juggling act.

    One thing that I do not understand (from the perspective of a new librarian from large research university) is the following: we are asked to do a lot with a little especially given the economic climate, however, we librarians are asked to serve on lots of committees or working groups of 10 or more people. Why do we need such large committees especially when our time is already crunched? And why can’t committees, who are usually made up of reps from various departments, make the decisions instead of sending the committee’s recommendation to the entire library system for review? Maybe these patterns that I see come from academic library culture beliefs….like the need to gain consensus from everyone in order to move forward.

    Just like any job, my time as an academic librarian is full of ups and downs. Still, I feel lucky to be in this position.

  5. There’s an interesting article on how frustrating this kind of decision-making is for many emerging leaders in our field. I hope it’s widely read and used to change libraries from inner-directed, consensus based management, hierarchies, or corporate management to more effective “adhocracies.” Of the options, it’s the only one that seems to treat members of a library organization as intelligent adults.

  6. Thanks for the thoughtful comments on the sweatshop/lottery post. Yes, it’s usually neither all of one or the other, but some mix – especially depending on a particular day and what’s going on. I happen to feel good about what I do on almost any given day and while I wouldn’t necessarily say I feel like I hit the lottery I certainly know it’s far from a sweatshop. Thanks Barbara for pointing to the C&RL article. I just looked that one over last week and it will require a deeper reading. The ideas are attractive, but in some settings there are barriers to achieving the adhocracy.

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