welcome to the university of pret a manger

I think any academic who reads this TNR piece about “emotional labor” at the upscale English coffee/food chain, or the essay that inspired it in the London Review of Books, will recognize the similarity between the weird emotional demands of Pret’s workplace and those placed on faculty, staff, and especially TAs in US institutions of higher education.

Here is a sample of “Pret behaviours” listed on a now-yanked corporate webpage:

Among the 17 things they ‘Don’t Want to See’ is that someone is ‘moody or bad-tempered’, ‘annoys people’, ‘overcomplicates ideas’ or ‘is just here for the money’. The sorts of thing they ‘Do Want to See’ are that you can ‘work at pace’, ‘create a sense of fun’ and are ‘genuinely friendly’. The ‘Pret Perfect’ worker, a fully evolved species, ‘never gives up’, ‘goes out of their way to be helpful’ and ‘has presence’. After a day’s trial, your fellow workers vote on how well you fit the profile; if your performance lacks sparkle, you’re sent home with a few quid.

This could be on an MLA advice column for potential job-seekers, and of course we really do like the idea of genuinely friendly people acting as our doctors, teachers, nurses, policemen, and so forth. And who wouldn’t want to have as a colleague someone who “goes out of their way to be helpful”?

What seems strange to me is the idea that people must be coerced into such “behaviours.” And, of course, I naively thought that one of the ways to create a pleasant environment for one’s customers is not to treat people like complete assholes. So yes, apart from the small group of people who actually get off on the flattering insincerity of upscale bootlicking, I think this approach to management is actually counterproductive for staff and quite unpleasant for customers.  But what do I know?  I may have been served by a succession of cowering baristas for most of my life without even knowing it.

As someone who spends a lot of time reminding faculty and various others not to treat their students like non-humans, I feel a little ambivalent about the way in which the “service mentality” creeps into higher education, whether as the “loving our work” phenomenon so aptly diagnosed by Marc Bousquet, or the strangely schizophrenic attitude of hyper-rich institutions like Harvard towards their highly privileged faculty and students.  The problem is that the “caring for students” in those places is either caught up in superexploitation, as in many if not most public institutions, or in the careful maintenance of a reputation for caring, as at many of richest private institutions.

The tip-off, as we saw in the Harvard cheating debacle that either was or wasn’t a cheating debacle, is that instead of trying to educate all parties (faculty, students, parents, etc.) about the appropriate forms of collaboration either for teaching or learning (remember, a significant contributing factor was the lack of appropriate coordination of TAs), the university simply lowered the boom and silenced everyone about the incident.

From my perspective, one of the missing dimensions to Bousquet’s argument about superexploitation, and one I’d love to see him take up at some point, is why he himself continues to do what he does, or why any of us in higher ed still continue to care about our work, our students, or the consequences of what we do for others.  I think there is some tacit notion of a non-exploitative professionalism buried deep in there, but it’s difficult to disentangle those feelings from what we already know about institutional life and its risks of exploitation.

So what allows us to continue to interact with people, even if we feel that we work within institutions that may not always have ours or our students’ best interests at heart?  To what extent can we maintain a decent relation with others under such circumstances?



9 responses to “welcome to the university of pret a manger

  1. These questions remind me of Kandace Chuh’s Social Text essay on mentoring and the ethics of modeling academic work as part of “the good life”:

    Being what we might call emotionally honest about academia has been one of the greatest challenges of graduate student mentoring/supervision for me. But it has helped me rethink “professionalization” from “telling PhDs how to get a job” to cultivating ethically self-aware members of a community that is both bound to certain institutions and yet not necessarily confined by those institutions. I think the affect of scholarly work—”loving it,” for example—could be conceived as belonging to the community, and so being implicated in the workings of the institution (as Bousquet discusses), but not necessarily limited to that ideological work.

    • Gena, thanks for the link. I’m not familiar with Chuh’s work, but I like the line of thought that she’s developing out of Berlant. The mentoring and professionalization activities expected from faculty, especially those who work in grad programs, are difficult sometimes because it’s impossible to assume the benevolence or even rationality of the job market, departments, or the profession generally, yet one also wants to be able to provide some sort of direction or advice to those who wish to commit themselves to academic work. For this reason, I appreciated this passage:

      In various advisory capacities, I habitually tell students to “get your ego out of the way” and “keep your head down and do your work” – imperatives around which I try to organize my own relationship to academic life. I know these are in some sense impossible enjoinders; what I am trying to get at is something akin to the optimism Berlant finds in impersonality – in living and working as if it’s not about you, and being wary of casting yourself in a melodrama that is the affective environment of academia. What appear/feel to be, and sometimes are, life and death matters (Am I smart enough? Will I pass my exams? Will I get a job? Will I be tenured?) are unforgiving personalizations that individualize conditions far beyond one’s control. Disinterestedness reminds me that neither is it about me, the advisor; actively and explicitly bracketing self-interest models, I think, how to avoid conceiving of academia as melodrama.

      This is very difficult advice, but it seems sound to me, since the point of advising is not to be “the good mentor” but someone who provides students with something they can use. Reminding yourself, and your students, that it’s “not about you,” is sometimes the only way to move forward.

  2. Dear DM, Your personal (and extremely unprofessional) comments do not surprise me at all. I’ve been horrified since the 1980s (when I started a research degree) to discover UK university lecturers (as we call them here) are extremely happy with the status quo very low standards of teaching they deliver. I’ve been even more horrified recently to find Lecturers in the performing arts delivering “Lectures” in studio theatre spaces where undergraduates should be actively exploring theatre! A number of these lecturers simply read from a lecture script they’d prepared – it seemed to me – either yesterday or, probably, years ago! I’m constantly shocked by the audacity of lecturers who remain and will always remain, unaccountable to anyone for these pitifully low standards of teaching. It horrifies me that UK students now fill in “evaluation” reports (in the form of tick boxes) and that our Government Dept for Education claims these evaluations indicate a high standards of teaching across ALL British Universities! I’m confident that the lecturers or administrators who present this evidence to our government civil servants have manipulated their student feedback. Or, most likely, students see little point in evaluating lecturers who are accountable to no-one. I’m disgusted that even university lecturers abroad still behave as unprofessionally as you. MH

  3. Pingback: Accounting for a day in the life. | The Procrastination Salon

  4. I too appreciate the ethic of community zugenia is getting at, and Chuh’s stoicism. I’d like to add that for all its undeniable frustrations, academic labor is about as close as humans have come so far to what Marx meant by unalienated labor. (I say this having been both a long-term ta and an adjunct/job seeker for three years.) Much of what bothers us about our work is the invidious distinction we make between its real glories and its tantalizingly elusive perfection.

    All that said, it wears me the feck out, and it’s the intensity of human engagement that does it. I get that some of our colleagues may need to be goosed into a more humane approach, but the danger is a collateral damage where brainy introverts who are trying to get it right and respond virtuously to the speedup on the emotional treadmill get burnt out.

  5. Thanks, Carl. I wrote that comment about Chuh last night, and then woke up this morning unsure whether I still believed in what she had written. The teaching is certainly much easier when students believe that they belong to, or aspire to joining, the same community as the teacher. But that still leaves you with the problem of the students who are either outside, or have no desire to join, your little fraternity of the heart. And then it seems it’s either the extrovert’s “come join us!” or the introvert’s “whenever you’re ready.” My only point is that what gets many of us through the work of summoning up engagement is a sense of deep personal commitment, so that it’s not about this or that person’s momentary success or failure but about the longer process of doing this over an extended period of time, and hopefully getting better at it.

  6. I’m very appreciative of this post and subsequent comments! I’d like to think I’ve been slowly finding my way towards some of these attitudes and orientations over the past decade. One of the difficulties of adopting a “it’s not all about me” position, however, is that it can be hard to maintain in the face of colleagues who do *not* subscribe to it — and are institutionally rewarded for their self-dramatizing efforts. As well, I’ve recently begun trying out a certain amount of self-promotion, in the form of more proactively touting what we do and why we do it in English departments, with pretty good results — at least as measured by a hitherto unprecedented amount of internal and external publicity for my work and more generally for the status of the Humanities (esp. at a land-grant institution like my own). So now I find myself trying to balance a non-egoistic stance toward my professional life with a newfound zeal for advocating the public humanities. Any thoughts on how to do this without tipping into grandiosity or collapsing back into habitual self-deprecation will be welcomed!

  7. Thanks for pointing out that contradiction, Evan. Agreed about the double-bind here. Ages ago, Lisa Botshon published a critique in Profession 2000 of the conduct-book style genre of “advice to graduate students,” which advised grads how to work efficiently enough to manage even the most insane or contradictory demands. Both advice genres relied on their readers internalizing the contradictions, and the impossibility of reconciling them, as a sign of their own personal failure or insufficiency.

    I think at some level the advice about “keeping your head down” works best from a position of privilege; it’s a “pick your battles” strategy, which I once saw Edward Said himself deliver to a distraught grad student at a public forum. It’s a good principle, but it says nothing about what to do when you or people you work with are put into abusive or exploitive conditions. To me, this does seem a moment when the vulnerable could really use cover from more entrenched folks, who need to be cognizant of what’s going on.

    The other principle at work here is the necessity of opening up our work to the public, to make ourselves public and to give ourselves some degree of accountability. As you’ve discovered, there is an uncomfortably fine line between this kind of work and the kinds of self-dramatization or -publicity we feel self-conscious about. Will others think I’m tooting my own horn? etc. etc. I think the key here is pitching the argument more broadly than one’s own work: it becomes a defense of one’s discipline, or the humanities, or the public universities, as these affect some part of the public or its discourse. But dissemination and circulation, especially in the humanities, are what lend humanities research its significance.