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?