Sunday, November 25, 2007

Work and Togetherness

I really love this posting on chores from Robin M's blog, What Canst Thou Say? There is a lot of wisdom here. One part that especially struck me was this:

"Another Quaker family I know with three boys, ages 10-15, has instituted a policy that no one should do a chore alone. Then everyone knows how much work there is and none of it takes as long or feels as thankless."

This way of explicitly connecting work with togetherness, helpfulness, and mutual appreciation is brilliant.

Much of the work that academics do is done in solitude. While being in the classroom is a communal experience, the hours we spend actually in the classroom are few in relation to the rest of our work. It takes hours to prepare for every hour in the classroom, and those hours are spent reading and thinking and taking notes, and grading student work. It is necessarily solitary work, in a certain kind of way.

But there is another way that this is not solitary work. The time spent grading student papers is time spent in a kind of dialogue with those students. The time spent reading for class is time spent in dialogue with famous philosophers of the past.

And yet, it is still not the same as scrubbing the floor with a friend or family member.

I have been fortunate enough to have frequent opportunities to co-teach courses. While some would think that this reduces the work, it does not. You have to put as much time into preparing as when you solo-teach, and then add in time to meet to plan together. So there is still the same time spent in solitary work, but added on is a little extra time of togetherness that I really treasure and value. There really is something wonderful about witnessing to the normally invisible, behind-the-scenes hard work that each other does. And being able to work together to solve the problems that come up is invaluable. My load does feel lighter, even if, in this example, the time spent working is not actually reduced but may in fact be increased a bit.

So, even though Robin's posting was focused mostly on the tedium and strenuous nature of manual work, I find that the ideas she shares are somewhat applicable to what is "hard" about aspects of the kind of work that I do, too. I have new ways of thinking about how to approach my work.

For example, while I like the solitude of preparing for class, I do not like the solitude of grading. Even though I know that I am not really alone, but am in dialogue with students, I still find doing this by myself to be hard.

When I was in graduate school, I was a teaching assistant for a large Introduction to Philosophy course. At the end of the semester, we had a very short time frame for doing the final grading for the course, and the professor had the teaching assistants gather together with him in the seminar room to grade together. We divided up all of the papers, and while we did each work separately, there was something wonderfully supportive about being in the same room together. Occasionally one of us would have a question about one of the papers, and we all appreciated the break from our solitary work to think together for a moment about the question at hand. Then we would refill our cups of coffee and resume our work.

Maybe I need to try instituting "grading parties" among my colleagues who feel as oppressed by grading as I do. Maybe the togetherness and mutual appreciation of each other's hard work would help us approach this work with more cheerfulness, and would help us all to stay focused enough to finish more efficiently.

I am going to keep meditating on Robin's posting, and on the nature and meaning of work.


  1. I am touched and honored that my post spoke to you. When you wrote of a "grading party," I thought oh, like a quilting bee or barn raising, but it's not quite the right simile. It has more in common with the story I saw on the news a few weeks ago about people who are telecommuting getting together with their laptops at a neighbor's house, to share the coffee and occasionally brainstorm or complain together.

  2. Thank you, Robin! I had not heard about the telecommuters who get together with their laptops, but yes, that does sound similar!

    If I do manage to organize such a grading party, I will write about it!