Blood, toil, tears and sweat: academics’ trying previous jobs

Scholars discuss their early adventures in the world of work – and what they learned from them

February 11, 2016
Scorch mark from iron on shirt
Source: Alamy

While he was a nursing student, Hugh McKenna signed up with a “nurse bank at a large regional hospital”. The work was varied, but on one memorable occasion, McKenna – who is now pro vice-chancellor for research and innovation at Ulster University – was sent to the burns unit and “presented with what can only be described as a hand-held metal plane (like a carpenter’s plane). There was a dead man on the trolley, who had donated his body. I had to take off layers of skin from him with the plane and place each one on a separate piece of gauze. It took me most of the night.”

Although McKenna stresses that he was “very respectful”, this is hardly most people’s idea of a pleasant job. And while academics might be popularly regarded as life residents of the ivory tower, the reality is that many have an employment history that predates their first university contract – even if it includes only the odd jobs they did to pay their way through college. Sure enough, it soon becomes clear, when you ask around, that although few can rival McKenna’s experience on the toe-curling scale, many academics have their own stories to tell about the ghastly jobs that they put behind them with relief, or ones that spurred them to do something else. It is also clear that reflecting on such jobs can play a useful role in putting the tribulations of university life into perspective, and can even raise interesting research questions.

Bella Mirabella, associate professor of literature and humanities at New York University’s Gallatin School, “came from a working-class Italian-American family where education was not only discouraged, it was seen as a threat to the safety and cohesion of the family”. When she told her parents that she wanted to go to college, her mother said: “Girls don’t go to college; they get married.” Eventually they compromised on a secretarial degree, and Mirabella ended up as a secretary in “literally, the nut division” of a large food company in the 1960s.

Although this gave her the opportunity to taste cashews for the first time, her inadequacies as a secretary and the endemic condescension and sexism of her male co-workers soon led her to seek an escape through evening classes in history and literature at her local community college – where Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Self-Reliance proved particularly inspirational. Both the pull of “entering the world of ideas” and the push from her “awful work situation” gave Mirabella “the courage to apply to school despite my parents’ disapproval, and my fears about my own abilities”.

Patronising sexism was also a major irritant at the supermarket where Kalwant Bhopal used to work. Bhopal, who is now professor of education and social justice at the University of Southampton, remembers a celebrity who spent about £400 on alcohol and was furious at being made to wait while she cleared the large payment with her supervisor. On another occasion, seven hours into her shift, she was stacking tins of baked beans. Despite “wearing a very unflattering uniform which consisted of a hideous polyester skirt and jacket, a white blouse and terrible necktie – and not colour-coordinated at all”, she was propositioned by “a well-dressed gentleman probably at least 30 years older than me” with the words: “I would like to take you to a charming restaurant where there will be plenty of champagne on offer. What time do you finish, dear?” Given that Bhopal was working on a PhD about “the patriarchal oppression of women and its workings in society”, the episode didn’t even have the virtue of teaching her anything she didn’t already know.

Short of cash but keen on football, Mark Griffin, academic director for drama and theatre arts at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, worked for a couple of years as a steward for Charlton Athletic: the “only way I could afford to get near Premiership footie”. Although he resented having £5 deducted from his first pay packet for “the statutory clip‑on tie”, this unpromising sounding job did supply him with some unusual skills: he can “still evacuate 50,000 people [from a stadium] in 10 minutes should the need arise”. The work also made him realise that “academia lacks agility” because it relies on “elegant documentation rather than reading the behaviour, desires and ongoing day-to-day realities of being part of a functioning community”.

Even unpleasant jobs can leave a legacy of guilt. Rivka Isaacson, lecturer in chemical biology at King’s College London, had a student job ironing garments in what was “literally a sweatshop”, where “the boss was very mean and covered with burn scars. Whenever we got burned (which happened a lot from all the different presses and hot air blowers), she would give us one spritz from a water spray [bottle] and then we had to get back to work.” Isaacson never got anywhere near the target of ironing 30 shirts in an hour (her record was 17) and was eventually sacked for lack of speed. Worse than that, however, she “once melted a pink camisole. I was too scared to tell the boss, so I hid it behind a cupboard. I have never admitted this to anyone before, but I’m pretty sure she can’t come and get me now.” Isaacson is happy to use this article as an opportunity to say “sorry to whoever’s camisole it was”.

In 1967, Lennard Davis, distinguished professor of liberal arts and sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was “a small kid from the Bronx”. But his great-uncle had invented a hair tonic and diverted some of the alcohol used in its manufacture to make a fortune as a bootlegger during the Prohibition era. The proceeds had funded the construction of a vast hotel in the Catskill Mountains near New York, where another uncle worked as a rabbi and a third ran the gift shop.

But although it sounded like a glitzy place to work as a bellhop (carrying guests’ bags to their rooms) during a summer vacation from Columbia University, Davis soon discovered that it was the job from hell. Not only was it gruelling catering to about 3,000 guests at a time, the job also put him – “a hippy, anti-war type” – at the mercy of a boss who had formerly worked for the FBI and had “a crew cut and a Marine-style [demeanour]…I represented everything he despised”. The professional bellhops also resented his presence, adopting a special lingo designed to exclude him and making a point of hiding their carts at the end of the day so that he’d come in and be unable to work.

“It was like a war situation,” Davis reflects, “so you had to be devious.”

The experience also taught him some lessons for his subsequent life in the academy. One was to avoid the kind of “insider language” designed to make you feel clever and other people look stupid: “I’ve been interested in recondite theorists but have always tried to make my own work comprehensible to anyone who made an effort.” Another was to remember that “there’s a war within every profession, and that’s certainly true in academia. I learned [that] the hard way, when I thought it was a meritocracy. Make sure your cart is hidden the day before – otherwise you’ll make no money.”

Man peeking from behind piece of swiss cheese

At the cheese factory and in other odd jobs you see an ordinary madness

It is 9pm in the cheese factory. By now, with an hour of my shift to go, I can think of nothing save getting out and never coming back. Colossal blocks of cheese slide from the chilled rooms at the rear through plastic strip curtains to be sliced by wires and hastily slammed into plastic pockets by harassed workers. After some rare miracle of technology has clamped on wrappers and correctly weighted price stickers, the finished products bolt down towards my good self.

Blinking under the strip lights, shuddering from the sonic warfare between the continuous racket of the machines and the dance music played through loudspeakers to make everyone work faster, I have spent the past five hours trying to adjust to the insanity of machine-paced work. What this entails, at the most basic level, is getting the cheese into the cardboard boxes (in which it will travel in six‑foot high palleted stacks to Tesco) fast enough to prevent it all piling up in a chaotic heap that spills on to the floor. Until I mastered this unenviable skill, the long-suffering woman next to me heroically, uncomplainingly and (to my mind) miraculously managed to work even faster than usual to compensate for my shortcomings.

I recall all this vividly, more than 25 years later. I recall, too, the 45-minute trip to the factory in the minibus, and the trip back, stupid with fatigue, after 10pm. I recall telling the recruitment agency that I would not go back – and the agency telling me for two weeks that there was no other work available on the Monday and Tuesday afternoons that I had free from college. And so back I went. For several weeks, the cheese factory hung like an evil cloud over Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. I persuaded a relatively amiable foreman to substitute The Cure for the dance music (at which the permanent female staff complained a surprising deal), had a running political debate via marker pen on the lockers with some anonymous Tory who had taken offence at my much-loved Red or Dead plastic carrier bag, and finally got sacked for refusing to have heavy boxes hurled at me at high speed, which was giving me serious neck pain. (Supervisor: “This is not a holiday camp, you know.” Me: “I noticed.”) In a minor triumph for the common man, I did manage to lose a quite old and filthy sticking plaster underneath one of the cheese packets, which, with any luck, meant an irate customer and a compensation claim incurred by Tesco somewhere down the line.

Flanking this career low point were so many jobs, spanning my 11th to 30th year, that, by now, I have surely forgotten some (with at least one, I can remember the place but I have no idea what I was paid to do there). They certainly included paper rounds, leafleting, gardening, cleaning, portering, removals, shop work, labouring at building sites, stewarding sports events, selling double glazing, delivering soft drinks, repairing Christmas crackers (in summertime) and sorting and delivering post.

I can still recall the exact house where, as a 19-year-old with a sack of letters over his shoulder, I suddenly thought, “I really should try to go to university.” And I can still recall wondering, as I wrapped bottles and counted change in the wine shop during my PhD, whether I would ever get a proper job, or have any money.

What did I learn from all this? Most basically of all, I suppose, I learned about the ordinary madness of people who work in places like cheese factories all their lives and get used to it. I recall the evening I spent putting tops on shampoo bottles, during which a hardened female temp said to her friend, with a tone of sudden insight: “Do you realise, this is all we ever do with our lives?” An academic such as Jonathan Dollimore, former professor of English at the University of York, whose life involved, as he put it, an “arduous journey from being a miserable 15-year-old school-leaver chained to a lathe in a car factory to becoming – well, someone else”, might well agree with me that there is no more important lesson than this. I will add that it is a lesson that cannot be learned from books.

A less obvious lesson stayed with me, too, even as I wrote the five books that bear my name. It is not so easy to put into words, but the gist of it is this: the physical world matters. It is real, and its everyday frictions and pains all matter. Perhaps it is for this reason that much of my work has involved the curious relationships between mental ideals or taboos and the physical realities surrounding them (Where was the soul in the human body? How did the routine filth and discomfort of early modern life shape people’s attitudes to art and religion?). It is also for this reason that I have often found some academic writing too detached from dirty realities, too easily able to level out so much hard detail into flat and bloodless pages of print.

Any other lessons? Well – if there’s a private cheese shop anywhere near you, do use it.

Richard Sugg is a lecturer in the department of English studies at Durham University.

Man on ladder painting wall

In some ways, the decorating process is not much different from the labour involved in writing a paper

As a teenager and then as a young adult, I did a lot of badly paid jobs. These included being a plongeur in college kitchens, checking exam scripts in a windowless basement for a local GCSE syndicate and a variety of agricultural labouring, such as pulling genetically “deviant” stalks out of astonishingly homogeneous fields of seed-crop wheat, and filling, stitching and carrying 50kg sacks of corn.

Before I began my higher education and career, I was developing an interest in art and street photography. But, inevitably, my girlfriend told me to get a job to help pay the rent and bills. Through a friend of hers, I ended up working as a shopfitter’s labourer – we went to Trusthouse Forte motels around the M25 ripping out ye olde English pub-themed restaurants and replacing them with faux Cajun planking and knick-knacks, all hastily fixed into place with huge blobs of Gripfill adhesive.

It was hard, hard work – 12 hours a day, seven days a week while projects were under way. Some of the gang did this pretty much all year, and I remember the young son of the owner of the company shouting “You’ll be dead by 40!” to us when the pair of them came to visit the site. He was a spoilt child, but it was a reasonable prognosis. This sank in while I was working as a chaser – using an angle grinder and a Kango drill to cut channels for electrical cables and fittings in concrete walls and ceilings. I got vibration white finger and chronic fatigue, in addition to the foot rot I had picked up from wearing a dead man’s steel toecap boots I had found on site. That’s immortality, in a way, but there were old men on broom duty who’d burned out and couldn’t pick up a full kettle to make tea. I met a lot of people in the trades, all nose to the grindstone, but with all sorts of temperaments and interests when you got to know them. I still wonder about those who stayed on, and wish them well.

I picked up many practical skills and then, to avoid the terrible hours and exploitation of site work, I moved into painting and decorating and set up as a sole trader. I learned a lot from this too, including how to research and cost materials, manage people and complete a complex tax return. All these skills have been useful for academic project management and funding applications. And the process of decorating, from replastering to adding the final layer of paint, is in some ways not much different from the layers of labour involved in writing an academic paper, from draft to proof. Textual revision is one thing, with time between deadlines to polish words at your somewhat hectic leisure, but if you’re serious about a painted finish – perhaps high gloss laid over intricate woodwork – it requires a deep knowledge and dexterity to be completed in one go, before the surface dries and leaves errant marks.

I carried on the business throughout my PhD and into my period as a visiting lecturer. However, as my academic workload increased, this became more and more tricky because most of my work was outside London. I spent a lot of time hammering up and down motorways in a beaten-up pickup truck to either teach or paint. Sometimes it got confusing – I’d roll up in my shirtsleeves for a meeting at university with paint-splattered arms, or slip into trade slang during seminars! When I got my full-time post, I put my decorating kit in storage, but there have been a number of times when I’ve needed to get it out again, and it’s always there if I need it.

Sas Mays is senior lecturer in English literature at the University of Westminster. His latest book, as editor, is Libraries, Literatures, and Archives (2014).

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Reader's comments (1)

Thank you, really interesting! I've often had debates with people that all academics should have other jobs before being within 'the ivory tower' - it's definitely helped me, and appreciate elements of work, when other elements are tough!

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