Thursday, August 5, 2010

Work vs. "work"

I've mentioned before that my family doesn't fully understand what I do professionally.  Never mind the details of my disciplinary work — fucking no one understands that, outside the academy!  My family, in fact, doesn't fully grasp the nature of academia as a professional enterprise.  This has led already to many repetitious conversations with my relatives, and no doubt the streak will continue. 

Coming up, though, I'm a little concerned about what my parents expect of me during my visit to Hometown.  To explain: my nifty little postdoc in Research City won't begin until mid-fall, so I'm getting ready to drive out of DOU-Town in a few weeks and road-trip up to Hometown, where I will spend a few months catching up with my family.  As has become my practice, I stay with my dad and stepmother when I'm in Hometown, for a number of pragmatic reasons.  Among other emails back and forth about the planning of this visit, my stepmother — a nice woman, not some Märchen-style villain — mentioned that the temp agency managed by a friend of hers might have some work, and I should email them now to get a jump on things for when I'm there.


My instinct was to fire back an email testily explaining that I have much, much better things to do than fuck away days at a time driving hours on the highways so that I can do a few hours' worth of envelope stuffing or data entry that barely covers the gas mileage.  (You should see the stack of books I'm going to mail ahead to Hometown so I can keep on with my theory reading!)  I have theory to master, a book proposal to draft, various articles to draft, etc.  That's work.  That's professional development.  That's my career.

As far as I'm concerned, temping is just "work" — essentially a waste of time and energy that should be spent elsewhere. 

But I reined in my instinct, because this woman, as well as my dad, are playing hosts to me for about two months' time, rent-free.  (Although they're already in the house themselves, and it's not like I'm going to eat them out of house and home.)  I can easily see that, from their perspective, it's unseemly for a grown man to be loafing around the house all day or in the coffeehouse up the road, soaking up caffeine and wi-fi while doing various activities for which no one is paying him.  That's not at all my perspective, of course; pounding through texts on heavy-duty theory and trying to force my ideas to fit into a book-shaped form hardly feel like feline laziness!  But since these same loved ones of mine have asked me to explain the basics of my line of work at least five different times to them, I'm guessing that the relative value of work vs. "work" is lost on them as yet.  (And it's worth pointing out that both my dad and my stepmother are college-educated professionals — this is not the quandary of the working-class academic whose parents expect him to find summertime work as a welder or a stevedore.)

So how do I handle this appropriately?  I really don't want to come across as a selfish man-child who thinks he's too good to pick up some real "work" while he has the opportunity.  But for fuck's sake, I've been working nine-hour days in an office here in DOU-Town!  I'm making way more money right now than I could possibly get in Hometown, even if I didn't have to factor in practical expenses of getting to and from temp jobs.  Do any of my readers have good suggestions for how I can delicately yet plainly put it across to my folks that work is much more important than "work"?

1 comment:

  1. First, what I'm about to say won't really make a difference. Your well-meaning family members will privately still be shaking their heads in dismay at your life choices. This is how it went with my family. But they did stop trying to get me to take temp jobs or to work at the mall in the summer.

    But, in my experience, the well-meaning family members do shut up if you very clearly connect the work that you're doing to "work" as they understand it. This may involve some truth-stretching ("I need to do this reading/writing as part of my post-doc, for which I will be paid") or just explaining the nitty gritty of professional advancement and development in academia in business-world terms (which is very long and boring, and after a while, they will just give up on you because they'll be too bored to hang in there objecting). The thing is, your family doesn't need to know why your work is important, the difference that it will make, why it matters to you or to anybody else. What they need is to know that your work is in fact "work."