By Michael W. Harris
How do we judge meaning and fulfillment in our lives? How do we judge success? Is it some measure of your personal life? Is it something to do with professional recognition? These are very personal metrics and there is no one-size-fits-all answer. For most it is probably a combination of feeling happy with both work and personal life, that precarious “work-life balance” which is a buzzword of so many HR emails.
A recent article in 1843 Magazine (published by The Economist) talks about the rise of the craft/artisanal industry and how much of it is being fueled by white-collar workers fleeing from office drone jobs. There is a lot to chew on in the article, but the trend seems to be the convergence of many factors in modern society: the rise of automation which is driving the rise of more boutique items that fit with a part of society’s growing preference for handmade, locally sourced, and sustainable goods; the desire to control your own labor and thus personal fulfillment in your work (the end result of a late-capitalist moving towards a post-capitalist economy); and a growing dissatisfaction with the economic opportunities available among the younger generation.
There are a whole host of gender and racial issues glossed over in the article, and we need to recognize that most of the opportunities are only available to an already fairly stable middle-class (predominantly white) individual, however, buried at the end of the article is an idea that would hopefully bring such opportunities to all:
“The more interesting question, though, is whether the rise of the artisanal economy is a sign of a large-scale, long-term change in the world of work. Behind that big question lie the still bigger issues with which thinkers and policymakers concerned about the consequences of automation are wrestling: how, if machines take over the economy, and earnings and capital are therefore increasingly concentrated in a few hands, should resources be distributed? And what, if machines are doing the work, does everybody do with their time?
The possible answers to these questions range from the apocalyptic to the Panglossian. But the most widely discussed is also one of the more optimistic: a guaranteed minimum income, through which the high earners subsidise the majority, who can use it to pursue whatever activities they find fulfilling.”
The dream of a universal basic income may not happen in my lifetime, but its aims are similar to that of the movement towards craft/artisanal industries and, I would argue, the rise of internet content creators on platforms like YouTube. They all have the aim of essentially “doing what you enjoy” and making a living off of it. For content creators, they make sustainable income via ad revenue and donation platforms like Patreon, and, like the craft industry, which also veers into the maker movement industry, draws much of its satisfaction not only from controlling your own labor, but also with more direct interaction with those who use and enjoy your creations.
For me, this desire and drive to create takes the form of this blog and, as I have stated before, my hopes to turn writing into a more sustainable form of steady income (though probably never replacing my “day job”). Granted, it does not have the immediacy of interaction that the craft, maker, or even YouTube creator community has, but I do enjoy seeing the stats of how many times a post has been viewed, or the few comments and interactions I might have via Facebook or Twitter. And there is something to be said of the cathartic nature of creating something for yourself at first and then sharing it with the world. A satisfaction that is much harder to have in some industries.
I am lucky, though, that I work in a job where I can interact with my patrons and observe the effect that my labor has on them almost immediately. It is part of why I went into education to begin with. Unfortunately, education, more specifically higher education and academia, is an industry that is sometimes hard to find sustainable work in, as I have talked about many times. And not long after the 1843 article hit, historian Erin Bartram wrote what turned out to be one of the most widely read piece of “quit lit” in recent years.
So much of her story is familiar, and you should read the interview with her on the Chronicle of Higher Education, but part of what resonated for so many was how she turned the focus around onto those who are “left behind” by those who leave for other professions. It was a prospective not really addressed by earlier writers. For me, though, one of the most thought provoking elements was her discussion of academic labor being performed by those not in academia. The feeling that those of us who leave the field should, regardless, still participate in “the conversation” and research and publish within our old field.
As Bartram writes:
““But your work is so valuable,” people say. “It would be a shame not to find a way to publish it.”
Valuable to whom? To whom would the value of my labor accrue? And not to be too petty, but if it were so valuable, then why wouldn’t anyone pay me a stable living wage to do it?
I don’t say this to knock any of my many colleagues who write and publish off the tenure-track in a variety of ways that they find fulfilling. I just want us to be honest with ourselves about who exactly we’re trying to comfort when we offer people this advice and what we’re actually asking of those people when we offer it.
We don’t want these people to go and we don’t want to lose all the ideas floating around in their heads, so we say “Please give us those ideas, at least. Please stay with us just a little bit.” But we’re also asking people to stay tethered to a community of scholars that has, in many ways, rejected them, and furthermore, asking them to continue contributing the fruits of their labor which we will only consider rigorous enough to cite if they’re published in the most inaccessible and least financially-rewarding ways.”
This idea hit me like a bolt from the sky as I currently wrestle with my own writing and research agenda. I find that that my desires to write and publish for myself are diverging from my desire to continue to write within the narrow focus defined by my dissertation work. There is still much for me to write on the life and work of Fumio Hayasaka, and I believe it is important to the history of film music, but Bartram’s words made me take a step back and ask myself why I feel this desire. I have been struggling for years to find the motivation to write another article, to continue my research in directions that I have had mapped out since I graduated in 2013, to say nothing of the other film music articles I have floating around (i.e. the long delayed Planet of the Apes articles that I still get asked about). Bartram’s words made me question if I really should worry about finishing them. Maybe I should just abandon such plans and focus on the writing that currently is making me happy and feeling fulfilled.
At the very least, I am trying to “clear the decks,” so to speak, and make mental room for the writing I feel passionate about right now (expect to hear more about that in a few weeks). But I still feel tethered to my academic research. It has been a part of me for so long that it is hard for me to let go of it. I even feel a bit possessive of my research area, though I do my best to tamp down those impulses. But am I really “clearing the decks” or am I just “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?” Every time I get excited for a project, it then becomes hard to follow through as I get bogged down by either taking on more projects that draw my focus away or by “life” happening.
Regardless, our idea of a vocation and how we should relate with it is rapidly shifting, and the craft industry, maker culture, and content creators are just the most overt sign of this shift. The actual mechanisms behind it, and what could help drive and sustain it, are more complex than I can treat here. But the bottom line is that I feel increasingly drawn towards these ideas as I continue to redefine my life, my work, and seek to find meaning and fulfillment in what I do.