Tis the season. As my professor friends hustle to write final exams and grade them, only to press through to letter grade submission and finally revel in winter break I am reflecting on my absence from teaching. Now three semesters out of the classroom (I cashed my last paycheck as an adjunct in May 2015) I feel more certain than ever that I made the right career choice moving into museums and libraries. In this post I would like to share some observations, incomplete as they are, on my professional life outside the academy.
First, a little professional biography. Prior to moving out of teaching I racked up a lot of hours in the classroom — in addition to being instructor of record at my alma mater I’ve been behind the lectern at a community college, small liberal arts college, and large urban university. I’ve tutored, taught high school, and led service learning. But to be honest my list of courses taught is pretty basic: gen anth, cultural, evolution, food, and gender studies. I never had much of a say in which classes I would teach, such is the lot of a hired gun.
There’s a lot to love about teaching and those thrills, I miss them. I love teaching as performance, standing up in front of a crowd and telling stories, leading discussions. You know, doing my thing. But most of all is the experience of playing a part, however large or small, in opening up a young person’s mind to exciting new ways of seeing the world. Anthropology has a lot to offer! And to be there when a talented student makes that discovery, that’s really special. I even have a small handful of former students I count as true friends.
Obviously there’s a lot I don’t miss about teaching too. Our pet peeves are almost universal, are they not? Grading mountains of papers. Looming deadlines. Answering clueless emails. The dreadful sense that you’re supposed to be doing something productive right this instance. “My printer ran out of ink” and other lame excuses. Of course we teachers can commiserate over all of that together and there’s a certain solidarity that comes with the shared burden. Its always a hoot to pop the cork on a bottle of wine or toss back a couple of beers at the pub and swap horror stories. (My personal best-worst excuse: “I can’t tell you why I missed class because my sorority has sworn me to secrecy.”) In addition to all the intellectual labor there is a huge toll of emotional labor and to me that was the worst part of the job.
Museum and library work offers an interesting foil to academics.
Weber’s metaphor of the iron cage is one of the most famous in all of sociology. It’s certainly stuck with me: I keep a bookmark in my copy of The Protestant Ethic (Talcott Parsons’ translation) at page 181 so I can always turn to the Iron Cage when I need it. Cos, like, you never know when you need to comment on the relationship between capitalism and the pervasiveness of rationalism.
Let’s pop in for a refresher.
It’s 1905 and Weber’s project is to undermine materialistic explanations for economic change by arguing that Protestant asceticism (self-restraint and the denial of pleasures) and the notion of having a calling (showing devotion to God by attending to worldly matters rather than seeking transcendence) laid the foundations for “modern rational capitalism.”
The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresitible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the “saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.” But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.
Since asceticism undertook to remodel the world and to work out its ideals in the world, material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history. To-day the spirit of religious asceticism – whether finally, who knows? – has escaped from the cage. But victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its support no longer. The rosy blush of its laughing heir, the Enlightenment, seems also to be irretrievably fading, and the idea of duty in one’s calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs.
Not ten years after The Protestant Ethic was published, Gregor Samsa awoke to find his soft flesh transformed into the hard carapace of a beetle (see Peter Baehr’s “The Iron Cage and the Shell as Hard as Steel”). Why does rationality behave so irrationally? It is strange when capitalism, which in the contemporary scene so values flexibility and mobility, invents constraints for itself that inhibit the very qualities it thrives on. It can also be more than a little bit funny, if you don’t mind gallows humor.
This year my wife was elected to the faculty senate. I already know her friends and enemies in her department, but since this puts her in contact with new colleagues it gives me perspective on different parts of her school. Now I’m privy to a whole new level of gossip and hearsay.
One running joke between us is that I’ve been to her campus library more than she has. For the most part she uses electronic resources, but on occasion she will need a book from my campus. Her campus has a smaller collection and all of it is set in moveable stacks. It seems that one of her secret fears is getting trapped between the moving walls of books and crushed as another person is shifting the stacks. I shake my head and tell her that’s not possible, but she insists that it is and so on the rare occasions she needs a book she fetches it under a cloud of distress. Quickly she dashes in and out without lingering.
Real estate on her campus is tight and the library is popular, so to expand the library will be hugely consequential because there is not much space. Or, I should say that the library is popular but the stacks are not. All of this is fodder for discussion in the senate. Students come to the building to use the coffee shop and commons more than the books. In discussion with her fellow senators about how to get more students to use books it was suggested that the proposed library expansion intersperse work areas throughout the stacks, so that students would have to enter that space in order to get to the desks and carrels.
Then one senator addressed the elephant in the room. If the library was to expand the stacks would that mean there would be more moveable stacks? He had always been afraid to go in them for fear of being crushed. And a second person rose to agree, she too never went in there. What if someone rolled the stacks on top of her?
See! My wife declared, other people are afraid of the moveable stacks too. It’s not just me.
Apparently this is a thing? Be honest. Are you afraid to go into your libraries moveable stacks?