Work*

As it is Labor Day, I am pleased to introduce Work* as the theme for the IPRH blog during the 2012-2013 academic year.  Over the next two semesters, guest bloggers will contribute pieces that address issues involving work, workers, and working in higher education and beyond.  We will consider what it means to work in the humanities, the value of the work that humanists undertake, the locales in which work is done, how work in the humanities is changing, and how humanists might affect change in their working conditions.  This theme is inspired, in part, by the shifts in the conditions of American higher education in the recent past.  With 70 percent of college and university faculty working off the tenure-track—and the problems associated with contingency especially affecting the humanities and social sciences—it is vital that we collectively consider the affects of these shifts on the current and future of work and workers in the humanities.

And yet, this blog will not just be about the conditions of work in the academy, but about the work that we do—and that is done—more broadly.  Shortly after Dianne Harris invited me to edit the blog, I spent a week visiting family in North Carolina.  Looking for a quiet place to, well, work, I went to the Durham County Library where I was confronted with an exhibit of photographs titled North Carolina at Work: Cedric Chatterley’s Portraits and Landscapes of Traditional Labor.  The show, curated by Liz Lindley and continuing education students in Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, drew from an archive of 30,000 photographs taken by Chatterley in collaboration with the North Carolina Folklife Institute and the North Carolina Arts Council.  It presented images of North Carolinians at work in their communities and environments, and raised questions of home, identity, labor, and belonging.  The one closest to the table at which I sat was taken in conjunction with folklorist Barbara Lau’s project documenting the lives of several hundred Cambodians living in and around Greensboro, NC.  It centered on Seng Noun, a worker in the Drexel Heritage Furniture and bore a straightforward, if probing, caption: “How does work build community?”  The exhibit (about which more can be learned here and here) helped demonstrate the many layers on which ideas of work can be explored, and the effects that work can have on those who undertake it and those who consider it.  From its being curated as an educational project, to its content, to its public engagement, to its ruminations on work and place, it demonstrated some of the many roles that they humanities play and captured issues that I hope are explored in this blog over the course of the year.

Finally, this year marks the 150th anniversary of the first Morrill Land Grant Act, an anniversary that the university will commemorate with a symposium on October 26.  The Morrill Act, which is often heralded for expanding educational opportunity, raised important issues of the relationship between education and vocation.  Certainly, tensions between liberal education and practical education were not new in 1862—the idea of liberal education as practical education had been at the heart of famous curricular debates earlier in the century—but the Morrill Act highlighted them.  This institution was among those that struggled with how to fulfill its new mandate and many feared that John Milton Gregory’s appointment as its first regent foretold an emphasis on classical education rather than practical training.  Certainly, the tensions remained in ensuing decades as the statewide controversy over the 1880s name change from Illinois Industrial University to the University of Illinois demonstrates.  In the modern era, amid widespread laments over the vocationalization of American higher education, these issues warrant on-going attention. I hope that this blog provides a space for such consideration.

So, please, share your ideas, suggest topics to consider, and contribute pieces on the theme of Work*.  There is much of it to be done.

Tim Cain (tcain@illinois.edu); assistant professor; Education Policy, Organization & Leadership

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About iprh

The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was established in 1997 to promote interdisciplinary study in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
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