Monday, August 08, 2016

First jobs meme

Folks around the academic social media circuit have been doing the #firstsevenjobs meme, with interesting results. I've been reluctant to participate, since my list initially struck me as pretty boring, and I'm sensitive to the class-based critique that Kirsty Rolf and Sarah Werner have made: for so many academics, their early jobs look. . . well, a lot like what they do now.

But although all of my jobs qualify as white- or pink-collar, and several have some connection to what I do now, as I started toting them up in my head I realized that I was well past seven before I got to my teaching gigs. And they're all relatively substantive: things I did either full-time, or for multiple years, or both.

So herewith my list, with some annotations:

1. Babysitting - off and on for maybe four years (middle school and high school)

2. Page, local public library - part time for two years (high school)

3. Receptionist - full time for one summer (high school)

4. Page, rare books library - part time for two years (college work-study job)

5. Mail-room clerk, insurance company - full-time for one summer (college)

6. Acquisitions department intern, university press - full time for one summer; part time for two years (college work-study job)

7. Data entry, HMO - full time for one summer (college)

8. Legal assistant, two corporate law firms - full time for two years (post-college)

9. Editorial department intern, university press - part time for three years (grad school)

10. Legal temp, a third law firm - full time for one summer (grad school)

11. Editorial assistant, non-university academic press - part time for two years (grad school)

Looking at this list, a few things stand out. First, I've never worked in retail, in a restaurant, or really anything that might be considered service-industry. And with the possible exception of babysitting, I've never worked a job that was physical in any meaningful way (eight hours of data entry might be exhausting, but it's not mowing lawns, loading trucks, or working at a canning factory). But although I would never claim financial hardship--or working-class credentials--I worked for pay throughout college and grad school even while I was also TA-ing or teaching my own classes. I needed the money and I needed these jobs. I was also relatively adept at finding new ones.

And although libraries and publishing companies seem like obvious jobs for a bookish individual, they weren't really preparation for what I do now--or no more so than any other job (arguably, service-industry jobs are just as good a preparation for teaching, dealing with administrators, and the rest). The rare books library was a terrific environment. . . but most of what I did just required organizational skills and a high tolerance for repetitive tasks. Ditto for two of my three publishing jobs.

What having so many clerical jobs really did is prepare me for the significant chunk of a tenure-track job that grad school doesn't, which is to say the endless paperwork, bureaucracy, and administrivia. I do not miss deadlines, I run a good meeting, my paperwork is always in order, and I'm on top of all the details. I also know how to work with others and (especially!) how to value support staff: at my law firm jobs, I learned quickly that nothing got done without the secretaries and the folks in Word Processing and Duplication. Because I built good relationships with them, when I had an impossible rush job, it got done. This was not the case for the arrogant, the high-handed, or the yellers.

So I feel okay about my jobs. My work experience isn't that wide-ranging, and it doesn't look good on Twitter or lend itself to particularly colorful stories. But it gave me a sense of competence and mastery that eluded me for a long time in my studies. Even today, most of my self-worth comes from the tangible, practical parts of my job--meeting deadlines, designing a helpful rubric, knowing my colleagues consider me reliable--and those are things that, in one way or another, I learned or perfected through my nonacademic jobs.


Susan said...

Aside from babysitting, most of my jobs were, like yours, white or pink collar. But in college I didn't get a library job, so I worked in the cafeteria -- when I was lucky, as a server, but also as a dishwasher etc. Working the breakfast grill helped me be the kind of customer I wanted, who understands that servers are human. Ditto my secretarial jobs (which also included working a good old fashinoned telephone exchange, where you had the cords to plug in...): I learned that we all needed to work together. I like to think that this has carried through.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I tweeted mine, but figured I'd include them here for those who don't follow me on Twitter via my real name: Cashier at Target, cook at Pizza Hut, library clerk (work study), student assistant (work study), assembly line (most summers in college), data entry (3 years during master's), bank teller (full-time for a year after college).

I didn't include babysitter because I didn't do much of it, although I suppose it should count for a little something. As you know, I have a working-class chip on my shoulder. Working an assembly line for three summers will do that to you. But hey -- at least it was just a summer job and not my permanent job.

Two other compelling things I noticed in thinking about my pre-tenure track jobs is that (1) I've had 13 jobs before getting a tenure-track job, (2) none of these jobs paid very well, with the highest paying job paying 19,000 per year. That was as an adjunct in California, and was well below the poverty line there.

Flavia said...


Yes, ideally what any job gives is the ability to imagine being on the other side of an interaction. I think most jobs give this, and it need not be exactly in the same industry (scheduling student conferences back-to-back over the course of an afternoon has really made me feel for hairdressers and others who do similar back-to-back, one-on-one engagements all day long), but it's definitely true that the more kinds of jobs you've worked, the broader your horizon of sympathy and compassion is likely to be.


Yeah, I have mixed feelings about the way this whole meme represents (and doesn't represent) class. On the one hand, yes: the less financially privileged are definitely more likely to have had a whole series of jobs by age 20 or 22, and I've been surprised by the number of people who've had, like, three jobs in their entire lives.

But I think the meme also obscures a lot of things. Some people have freely admitted that they did their more colorful jobs for about two days (but hey, it still sounds good, and "of the people," on Twitter!), and family and regional norms also matter. In HS I knew some kids from wealthy families who nevertheless valued work and made sure their kids paid for gas, car insurance, and any out-of-pocket expenses, so the kid had a series of retail jobs--but nevertheless got four years of private school paid for. And I knew kids from lower-middle-class backgrounds whose parents basically said, your job is getting into college, and made sacrifices so the kid didn't have to work in high school.

And as someone else pointed out on Twitter, truly poor and especially minority kids actually are much less likely *to be able to get* summer jobs than those who are college-bound or back from college for the summer. So having a limited work history doesn't always reflect privilege in a straightforward way.

undine said...

Flavia, thank you for this list. You've articulated a lot of what I've been thinking about and have sparked the current post over at my place.

Jeff said...

"...but it's definitely true that the more kinds of jobs you've worked, the broader your horizon of sympathy and compassion is likely to be."

Well said. One of the creepiest things about living in northwest D.C. for 20 years was watching my neighbors' kids go off to college without ever having held any sort of job—unless it was a resume bauble like an internship at NIH or the Smithsonian that demonstrated mom and dad's ability to phone a friend. I've found it genuinely alarming to see kids set off to carve out their niche among the status class—doctors, activists, lawyers, professors, policy experts—without ever having worked alongside different and less privileged people who will still be filing the same papers and serving the same food a decade hence. I'm neither envious nor scornful of these kids; I just think their insularity is at least as bad for them as it will be for us, the people they'll someday teach, treat, govern, judge, and manage.