Just Get a Job

Outside of the academic world, few people seem to realize that doing a degree is a full-time job. But reading for research is not like reading for pleasure; writing essays is not like writing a quick e-mail; going to a lecture is not like watching television. Whether undergraduate or postgraduate, sciences or humanities, intellectual work is intense, demanding, and just as legitimate as flipping burgers or answering phones.

In my experience, there are two kinds of work involved in academia. The first kind is obvious: reading books and articles, taking notes, writing essays, memorizing information, analyzing data, making observations, solving equations, taking exams. It is tangible, quantifiable, time-consuming work, providing the hard currency of academia. This kind of work requires concentration, focus, and persistence. Because it is easiest to measure and display, this kind of work holds the highest value in the structures of academia.

But most of this activity would not be possible without deeper forms of work happening ‘behind the scenes.’ University is much more than an advanced continuation of high school. On it’s most basic level, a student’s entire worldview and process of thinking shifts over the course of a degree. In essence, the mind is ‘disciplined’ to think a certain way. This is most obvious in conversations between science and humanities graduates, but all successful students deepen their critical and analytical skills during their time at university, and develop a much more complex picture of the world. A first-year student would not be able to write a master’s thesis – and not simply for lack of information. Like any muscle, critical thinking skills take time and exercise to develop. The sum total of many years’ study is a set of profound changes that form the basis for all other intellectual work.

Intangible processes are crucial if students are to produce anything tangible, and while the latter is easy to place, the former is largely invisible. They occur in bursts when the information that’s studied is absorbed, processed, and synthesized. Moments of clarity come during classroom discussions, late-night conversations, solitary time in the library, and auspicious coincidences. They come without warning in the shower, on the bus, in the moments before sleep, bred from a strange, zen-like alchemy of focus and emptiness, analysis and daydreaming. Much like the concept of flow, intellectual breakthrough hovers in the space between boredom and overload.

Increasingly, this space is being stolen from students by paid employment. Between hours on the job and associated financial stresses, students are more and more pressed for time. Relaxation and reflection – those key ingredients of breakthrough and deeper understanding – are the first to go. Tangible activities take priority, crammed into whatever scraps of time are available. By breaking time into smaller and more chaotic chunks, intellectual work is done on a catch-as-catch-can basis, disturbing the mind’s unconscious processing of information.

It can be argued that other distractions have similar flow-breaking effects – television, video games, the internet, the pub – but ‘down-time’ activities allow the mind to relax. Employment, on the other hand, keeps the mind focused, prohibiting the full release of worry that allows breakthroughs to happen. Even jobs where students are allowed to read or work on assignments, employees are required to remain ‘on call,’ diverting part of their awareness to the job and missing out on the depth that full focus would bring.

Producing work – whether writing essays or punching a clock – is mentally draining, and humans need time to recover in order to keep their creative juices flowing. Even in the hard sciences, intellectual work is deeply creative: all the technical skill in the world cannot replace inspiration and synthesis. The double helix model and the structure of benzene both first appeared in dreams, and Newton’s famous realization of gravity occurred while he daydreamed.

But working-class students don’t have time to daydream. The negative academic consequences of employment are well-documented, despite the common attitude that extra work will somehow ‘do them good.’ If non-career employment is such a beneficial experience, why don’t we see wealthy students working in call centers or fast-food restaurants? Student employment excels at matching the academic hierarchy to the class hierarchy, and only part of this can be attributed to less time for tangible intellectual work.

Students who never reach the point of inspiration and flow produce lower-quality work than those who have the leisure time to reflect on their studies. Their conclusions and analyses will be slightly less insightful, less complex, and less polished. Meanwhile, elite students with plenty of time to daydream are free to craft high-quality work that goes beyond course requirements. Working-class students exhaust themselves just to pass.

The resulting differences in grades instigate a vicious cycle, where awards and funding are channeled to those who don’t need the extra money, forcing working-class students to continue employment if they are to continue their studies. Loans are another option, but fear of debt causes most students to take out the bare minimum, and even the maximums are just barely enough to live on. With the low value placed on intellectual work, there is considerable pressure on working-class students to take an outside job – to focus exclusively on their studies seems self-indulgent or lazy.

This attitude reveals our deep-seated assumptions about working-class people in general: if someone’s not rich, they must not be working hard enough. Nevermind the considerable blocks to success for people without rich families and the accompanying support, contacts, and cultural training. With Calvinistic determinism at the core – wealth is a sign of virtue, and God has ordained everything to be this way – is it any wonder that working-class students consistently fall behind their affluent peers?

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