Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The geography of extra work

This has been a season for thinking about extra work in higher education.  We are hiring adjuncts for fall--many of them in the Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business are executives who also teach a course or two.  At the college, nearly every adjunct also has another job (or two, or three).  New projects that pop up have to be taken on by existing employees--it is too late to do searches for fall (hence my second job as Interim Dean).  Faculty are finding projects to supplement their incomes--consulting, facilitating meetings, joining new initiatives, etc.

Though these types of extra work are disparate, they share two characteristics.  First, they all use pay as an incentive to encourage people to take on work that is not in their main job description.  A small point to be sure, but one that is increasingly common in higher education, where a little bit of pay is the central form of encouragement to try new things.

Second, when people talk about this type of work, they always use a geographical metaphor.  They are doing work "on top of" their regular assignments.  Or they are doing the additional work "on the side." Or they are picking up work "here and there."

What does this connection between geography and work mean?  It seems to indicate that whatever our jobs, we conceive of them in space--the assignments in a geographical relationship to each other (as opposed, I guess, to temporal relationships or relationships based on priority.)  It also means that this extra work is just that--extra, not part of the core of what we do.

I am particularly intrigued by the use of the phrase "on the side."  It has had negative connotations. Consider, for example, the way we say that an unfaithful spouse has a lover "on the side" or the connotation that side-work is secondary. But the phrase is getting some rehabilitation in the call for faculty to move from being "Sage[s] on the stage" to "guide[s] on the side." In that use of the phrase, being on the side is a good thing, something that allows others (students) to take responsibility for their work.

I wonder if there is possibility in that use for all of us who take on work "on the side."  It is worth asking whether there is anything in the view of work encapsulated in "guide on the side' that suggests how we can do extra work.  Perhaps as work moves more to the side the person responsible must be more facilitative than directive.  Or perhaps where several people are working on side projects, we would be wise to follow the model of collaborative work on the internet, where, to use Clay Shirky's phrase, we contribute from our cognitive surplus to projects of which no one is in charge.  Or it could simply suggest that the more work we do on the side, the less centered our work is, for good or ill.

No comments: