The new “work ethic”

“And,” said my coffee partner, who had not actually ordered any coffee, “another problem is the work ethic.”

“What do you mean?” I said, sipping my rooibos.

“They just don’t work that hard.”

Over the course of the conversation, we combined our collective experience with our newer colleagues, and our students, with recent discussions of the work ethic of Millennials, and other more recent generations.

As a historian, I am very wary of even naming “generations”, much less ascribing to them similar goals and values. But in testing any theoretical construct, it is tempting to “try it on for size”, and see if it fits ones anecdotal evidence. Then, of course, one can blog about it.

First, the faculty. Groups who worked hard for faculty primacy over curriculum, scheduling, and working conditions are seeing their achievements die. More and more control of the college classroom is being handed over to administrators because faculty are too distracted by social issues and their own agendas (personal and global) to defend them. I assumed this was because those achievements were being taken for granted, in the same way that feminist gains are going backward. I confess it didn’t occur to me that many faculty don’t care or consider them unimportant. Indeed, some want administrators to take over the curriculum, because they have other priorities.

The fact that some of these priorities are socially nationalistic (the agenda-bearers discussed in my last post) and some are personal (quality time with friends and family) doesn’t seem to matter. If one considers the “work ethic” to have declined in favor of such priorities, then I can see the point of those worried about hard-earned rights and slides in productivity.

Then, the students. Faculty have been complaining that students don’t work hard enough for so long, I expect that if Socrates had liked writing, he would have written something about it. So I don’t take that complaint very seriously. But, anecdotally, I have noticed that the reasons my students give for not doing their work has shifted. It may be because something serious happened (illness, family responsibilities), but I’m seeing more of the “I just didn’t get around to it” and “I had to do something else” and “I have family in town” reasons, despite my generous late policies and extensions. I trust students. I never ask for doctors’ notes or that sort of thing to “prove” they couldn’t do something. So they’re pretty open with me and I know what they’re up to.

Curious, I went into the document discussion in one of my online classes (Engels and some child labor testimony from Victorian England) and asked what students thought of this idea. Did they think they had a declining work ethic? Two of them replied, one a part-time clerk and the other a warehouse worker. The clerk said she was tired of her bosses expecting her to work so hard and not have enough breaks, calling it “workaholic culture”. The warehouse worker said that he used to think that if he worked hard, rewards would come, but all that came was physical pain. If he works less hard, he gets the same amount of money for less pain. No rewards have ever come, so his priorities have shifted from work to his friends and family.

It would be too easy to say, yeah, but that’s working in a store or a warehouse. If these two had more meaningful work, maybe they’d see it differently. I don’t think so. I had a student once who didn’t do well in class. He came to my office to beg that I pass him through, because his mother was forcing him to go to college. As we talked, I discovered he worked in a warehouse and absolutely loved it. He had all these ideas for how to organize it better, do things more efficiently. Left to his own devices, he would have become a manager, maybe even a business owner, and been perfectly happy. But his mother insisted he had to go to college to have a future.

It’s not the type of work.

So just for the sake of argument, let’s assume it’s true: our students have a less-strenuous work ethic. They’re not going to put the hours in. What does that mean for pedagogy?

Some of it has already had an impact, but we’ve blamed shorter “attention spans” and the “hyperlinked mind”. Google has made us stupid, we’ve been sucked into our screens, the internet ate our brains. It’s true to an extent (you can read any of my posts here from 2012 or so). But what if the digital dog didn’t eat our homework — instead we decided to go walk the real dog?

From the Sadler Report (1832):

State the conditions of the children toward the latter part of the day, who have thus to keep up with the machinery. — It is as much as they can do when they are not very much fatigued to keep up with their work, and toward the close of the day, when they come to be more fatigued, they cannot keep up with it very well, and the consequence is that they are beaten to spur them on.

Were you beaten under those circumstances? — Yes.

Frequently? — Very frequently.

And principally at the latter end of the day? — Yes.

And is it your belief that if you had not been so beaten, you should not have got through the work? — I should not if I had not been kept up to it by some means.

Taking a college class is intellectual work, assigned through various tasks that together (if the class is well-designed) help engender mental habits useful for all intellectual work. So we’re assigning work to teach how to work. There are a couple of rewards. One might be a degree and a good job, which is what many students focus on (and have done for centuries). This reward has to wait till you graduate. The other is the joy of the work of learning, which is more immediate, but I’m not sure can really be taught. And we certainly don’t want to beat people to get them to do the work.

The solution for student “success” has been to make it all easier, less work. We have pathways to a degree that have fewer classes (less work). We have course material “chunked” into smaller pieces (less work). We have blog posts or mini-theses instead of 20-page research papers, excerpts instead of novels, brief textbooks. We become concerned for their personal life, their challenges at home, their disadvantages. We make accommodations, so the work is easier. If we demand more work, they go take other classes instead (it’s easier to find which ones are easier).

I don’t think it’s necessarily bad if the work ethic has declined. Everyone knows that U.S. workers get fewer time-based benefits than other workers. We have long work days, long school days, shorter vacations. If the younger folks are turning this around, placing higher value on friends and family, I like the idea. I just can’t figure out how to teach to it while being loyal to my discipline and the rigor of a college education. So now that’s my work.

2 comments to The new “work ethic”

  • jmm

    I have to stop trying to reply in the text box, because I’ve (again!)spent 30 minutes painstakingly crafting an expression of my deeply-held beliefs about Work and Literature and Marxism and Dogs before accidentally clicking something which instantly deleted the entire passage.

    This does not happen with ink.

    And now I have to go to work (fittingly). But I will say that like you, I’m trying to teach thinking rather than memorizing or regurgitating, and I believe very strongly that the quantity of material-to-be-thought-about (one poem or twelve poems, one speech to Parliament or twenty speeches) only marginally affects the quality of the thinking. Curious people will keep studying what they’re interested in anyway, long after the class is over; the incurious weren’t reachable to begin with, and you’ve at least floated an important twig past their indifference. Maybe later they’ll recall having seen something (to steal from Frost: truth? a pebble of quartz?)

    • Lisa M Lane

      I too, have lost so many things in boxes that I have trained myself to open TextEdit first…it’s awful and I’m sorry!

      “floated an important twig past their indifference” is quite wonderful. I have so many twigs to share.