Work is a fact of life, but how often do we step back and think about what it really is or means? The 1998/99 fellows are pursuing questions like this in their seminar, "Inventing Work." The seminar includes Vanderbilt scholars from the communication studies, English, history, and sociology departments and the Owen Graduate School of Management, as well as a visiting anthropologist. The seminar is codirected by Daniel B. Cornfield, professor and chair of the Department of Sociology, and Mark L. Schoenfield, associate professor of English. Professors Cornfield and Schoenfield recently met with Letters to discuss the seminar.
Letters: Could you explain your motivations for directing a Fellows Program on work?
Cornfield: Work is a central professional and intellectual concern. In this time of interdisciplinary understanding and inquiry, a Fellows Program dealing with the world of work, concepts of work, and different meanings of work from an interdisciplinary perspective is very timely.
Schoenfield: Dan and I seem to approach the concept of work quite differently. As a sociologist of labor, Dan has always expected the subject of work to be central to what he does. As someone interested in Romantic literature, I -- and my field in general, I think -- come at it from the opposite view. The cliché of poetic production that William Butler Yeats, a "high Romantic," espouses is that, for poets, "A line will take us hours maybe;/Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,/Our stitching and unstitching has been naught." The poem, "Adam's Curse," begins with a languid summer's day and a man weary about his own love; so why are the characters talking about labor for most of the poem? The extent to which "work" keeps emerging as surprisingly central still takes me aback. Of course, critics have been asking this kind of question of specific poems for a long time, but I see this seminar as a chance to understand better the wider cultural vista in which one finds literature obsessed with work.
Cornfield: I am curious about why social scientists and many actors in the community give work the primacy that they do. I hope the interpretive methods of the literary critics in the group will help me understand the question better. I hope, with the analysis of literature and our understanding of methods of criticism, we can gain an under-standing of why people have given as much importance to work as they have in configuring many other features of their lives.
Schoenfield: What has interested me as I have studied William Wordsworth and the periodicals of the Romantic period is how often work erupts on the scene, or, even more, ends up defining the scene. One poem by Wordsworth, "Point Rash Judgment," is basically about Wordsworth and a couple of friends walking along and looking at someone way across the way and thinking something like, "What is this guy doing just fishing, when he should be out in the fields working? How improvident this fellow must be, or how much he must just trust to luck." Then they get closer and realize that here is someone whose body has been so battered by work that he can no longer continue to do it. Here is this shock of recognition that what they thought was all about leisure was actually about work. Their own leisure becomes transformed, and then Wordsworth, as a compensation or atonement for his own rash judgment, feels compelled to recoup the experience by transforming the experience again, this time through the work of poetry.
Cornfield: The multiple connections of work with individuals, groups, nations, and many different features of humanity are what make work central for me. One of the things that may emerge in this seminar is a convergence in an understanding of the centrality of work and labor to multiple disciplines and, at the same time, divergence in the ways in which practitioners of different disciplines attempt to understand the centrality of work to human lives.
Schoenfield: One of the things I have been working on is discussions of the rise of money and the economy in the Romantic period. These discussions, from even before Adam Smith and David Hume, repeat the notion that an increasingly complex economic system requires more complex divisions of labor and, therefore, a greater emphasis on expertise and specificity.
Cornfield: Social scientists since Karl Marx--if not earlier--attribute, at least partly, the degree of alienation and connection that an individual has to other people to his or her involvement in the world of work. An individual's state of mind, mental health, and world view also depend on work.
Schoenfield: Work is now a means to attain things that could primarily be attained by status in certain other historical periods and perhaps in other places. In a tightly structured guild town, for example, your status determined what work you would get. Work provides access to so much else; it becomes a metonymy or way to discuss everything else.
Cornfield: My book, Becoming a Mighty Voice: Conflict and Change in the United Furniture Workers of America (Russell Sage Foundation 1989), addressed change in the gender and ethnic-racial composition of elected labor union officials. I studied the United Furniture Workers of America and found that some social conditions promote labor solidarity across gender and ethnic lines. The union became demographically diverse in its membership and leadership over time.
As Mark mentioned, work is, in one way, an important determinant of status. In the case of this union, gender is an important aspect of this status. The labor movement of the United States has been one of the chief ways in which working people have attempted to develop self-organization and to democratize not only the workplace but society in an era of large institutions. That process of self-organization has had, since its inception, a gendered dimension. The experience of this particular union included the issue of how democratizing agents of different genders came together through a common source of work and solidified into a viable institution to carry on their cause and establish change.
Letters: How do your own roles as academic workers affect your analyses of work?
Schoenfield: There is a definite self-referential loop in my analysis of work. One of the targets of the political economists and the periodical workers whom I am studying is the development of a professional class. One way of defining a professional class is that it is composed of people who produce words rather than something else. One can still see, in certain organizations, the dependence of professionalization on writing. A friend of mine has done some research on professionalization in organizations. For example, engineers, in professionalizing, did not do more engineering, like building more bridges; they started forming organizations that produced newsletters, papers, and conferences. In other words, what it meant to professionalize a certain profession was to make that profession produce more words than it used to.
Cornfield: One of the historical reasons why tenure as an institution exists in U.S. universities is to promote the academic freedom of the professor by removing the work connection between the professor and the university as employer. The "absence" of a paid work connection through tenure frees the academic to think about what he or she wants to think about.
Schoenfield: One of the weird things about academic work is that if you ask someone, "What are you being paid to do?" there are a lot of ways that question can be understood. One answer is, "I am being paid to teach, but I also have to do research," or vice versa. Another is, "I am paid directly to do a, b, and c and only indirectly to do d and e." There is a question of what is actually being counted as work and what is considered a moral obligation instead. When someone wants you to review a book, the tag line is always something like, "We appreciate this service to the professional community," as if this is a moral obligation that stands outside what you are being paid to do.
Cornfield: Yes, professors have a blurry position. We get a salary. From a market exchange perspective, we are paid workers. But much of what constitutes professional self-determination is based on a faith, yearning, and passionate commitment to a mission to help develop and disseminate knowledge. This commitment is basically a volunteer commitment. But there is an economic stratum that supports it at the same time.
Schoenfield: Your classes raise the question of what the status of a student is. Students do something that we want to call "work" and that they often want to call "pleasure," "pain," or "pre-work." There are all kinds of ways in which the student activity can be conceptualized. Some students are paid with scholarships. Two people can do exactly the same labor; one of them is paying several thousand dollars a year to do it and another gets paid to do it. Do you remember a case a while back--I do not know how it turned out--in which an injured college football player sued for workers' compensation? Part of the grounds for the case was pointing to both the money that football brought to the university and to his scholarship depending on his "playing" football; in concert, the claim was that this amounted to work.
Cornfield: In labor law right now, this philosophical issue is of fundamental importance to the unionization of teaching assistants. The employer argument against this unionization is that they are not workers, but students. The teaching assistant and union argument is that they might be students but are also workers. That philosophical point is a beautiful example of how the liberal arts, philosophical, and theoretical sides of the meaning of work systems have profound public policy implications.
Schoenfield: It is good that the seminar has some scholars whose primary interest is the way in which the body is configured, is understood, and enters into social systems. Sometimes these systems seem to fall clearly into the category of labor; sometimes they are clearly anti-labor or non-labor. But if you look closely, such clarity dissolves. Some systems, such as sexual systems, are extended in indeterminate relationships with labor.
Letters: Is there a category that is either historically specific or theoretically general that you can say stands outside of work?
Schoenfield: Any given understanding of work is going to operate by producing, envisioning, or even fantasizing its opposition. Often the configuration is interestingly the opposition between "real" work and other sorts of work. Some would say that laborers in factories are doing real work and those in the ivory tower are not. Others might say that those who go out to work every day are doing real work, but homemakers are making rather than working. Obviously, by this point, the example of homemakers is somewhat trite, though actually persistent in the television imagination.
Cornfield: Some non-work realms of human existence would include community and belonging, dimensions of humanity that have to do with how people group together and derive meaning for themselves. There is also the issue of how individuals and groups in a cultural symbolic realm represent what they call reality to themselves and others. Finally, there is the interpersonal realm and issues of love and deep individual attachments that are at least conceptually distinct from work. One of the master themes underlying this seminar will be how work interfaces or is enmeshed in the web of very complex and evolving relationships among all of the work and non-work realms of life. We will use different modes, different methods of inquiry, and different disciplines to untangle or discern this complex web of relations.
Schoenfield: When you mention deep interpersonal relations, I am reminded of a news story, which is often disseminated, that money is the primary issue that married couples argue about and that leads them to the edge of divorce. Some assert that when couples argue about money, they are really arguing about something else. The fantasy that money, earning, and purchase-power represent self-value is persistent. At the same time, the money one earns represents one's labor, what one's body has been spent in acquiring. So, an argument about money might be, at an unspoken level, about the misuse of the things one associates with that money. The clear and hidden links between work and interpersonal relationships need exploration. What does it mean even to have a fantasy of a realm that is distinct from work when, in lived experience, it is not going to be distinct? One could imagine that such a fantasy is part of why all these arguments about money happen.
Cornfield: The question about work and other realms of life is of fundamental importance. One way that I have attempted to deal with this issue is in the classroom. There is an undergraduate course that I created a few years ago called "Work and Family in American Life," which is cross-listed in sociology and women's studies. From a sociological perspective, the issue is how one problematizes this relationship between work and non-work realms. A sociological approach deals with the historical conditions under which those realms were distinct or perceived by many to be distinct or not distinct.
Schoenfield: "Michael," a poem by Wordsworth, is essentially the story of a family that falls apart over money and labor. One way of discussing what the poem thematizes is precisely the way in which a distinction between labor and leisure enters into Michael's life and family. When the poem begins, Michael and his cottage are proverbial for industry. By the end there is a moment in which Wordsworth has Michael visit a sheepfold when "he could find a leisure hour." This phrase and the concept of Michael having, needing, or wanting free time, explode into the poem to represent an already shattered life, as his family is simultaneously shattered in a way typical of narratives of the period--the son goes to the dissolute city to find work.
Letters: Why do you consider work a timely subject for interdisciplinary study?
Schoenfield: I am not sure I would want to make a claim for the subject being more timely than some other subjects, such as the body, gender, information technologies, or race. But all of these other subjects relate to work. Given its level of transformation and complexity, work is suitable for interdisciplinary examination. There is a collection of methods within interdisciplinarity that makes it a useful way into a subject which was as timely thirty years ago as it is today.
Cornfield: The timeliness of the meaning of work results from the fact that the world of work, as we conventionally understand it, is undergoing profound transformation right now. The employment relationship is being redefined globally. One indicator of this redefinition is the development of "post-hierarchical" forms of employment relations, of which the Saturn plant is a leading example. Another trend is the decline of unionization that has occurred in many industrialized and industrializing nations. The distribution of power in the workplace today is quite uncertain. As we devolve more power to production teams, which are the essence of the post-hierarchical employment relationship, unionization, a traditional source of decentralized power, has almost disappeared. There is a great ambiguity in the distribution of power for working people around the world right now.
For more information, contact the Center's executive director, Mona C. Frederick.
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