The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"America believes in education: the average professor earns more money in a year than a professional athlete earns in a whole week."...  ...Evan Esar.

Commentary of the Day - April 27, 2009:  On the Assembly Line.  Guest commentary by Carolyn Foster Segal.

By the time I received my master's degree, when I was 25, I had had 26 jobs, not counting the teaching assistantship that carried me through the last semester of my master's program.  Often, these days, I find my thoughts returning to one of those jobs in particular -- the assembly line in a pickle factory.

Some of my many jobs had offered a great deal of fun: that category included high-school gigs modeling for a department store and teen magazines and college afternoons spent posing as an artists' model.  I also had long stints at several libraries, working in cataloging and bookbinding; for one semester, I worked in the "browsing library" at the University of Buffalo's old student union on Main Street.  All the patrons were laidback, gentle souls seeking out works in our collections of record albums and Grove Press paperbacks.

In the pleasure category, I'd also have to include a post-baccalaureate weeklong temp job filling in as a receptionist for a pair of brothers who were food brokers specializing in cans of cat food and tuna fish (I asked no questions; I merely thanked my employers for the samples they sent home with me for my two cats).  Had the regular receptionist not returned from her vacation, I would have cheerfully stayed on.  The phone rang only once a day, when one or the other of the mildly flirtatious brothers called to check in.  The office resembled the detective's anteroom in a hundred noir films: it contained a desk, two chairs, an empty coat rack, and a slowly revolving ceiling fan stirring the summer heat.  I read half of D. H. Lawrence's oeuvre that week.  Another job from that period between BA and MA was my clerkship in the "Analysis Department" of a bank.  There was little actual analysis (my work consisted of toting up the number of checks that businesses had deposited each week), but I loved my co-workers -- among whom were the daughter of a mortician, a cellist, and a tough-talking single mother of two whose husband had had her institutionalized for two weeks when she cut up his suits after discovering that he'd had an affair --and. I thought the line that this job provided me "I'm currently in analysis" -- was very funny.

Other jobs were more work-intensive; in fact, they were downright backbreaking: these included waitressing and unloading cartons in the shipping department of the same department store where I modeled on weekends.  Some, in retrospect, were a bit frightening: those included participation in experiments at the university down the street from my college.  For looking at snakes in glass cages for 15-minute increments, I earned enough to cover the costs of several textbooks.  And then there was the small category of jobs where I lasted for just one day, before riding/limping off into the sunset: the fast food restaurant, the dry cleaners, the pickle factory.

There are two schools of thought on jobs for aspiring writers.  One school advocates trying as many occupations as possible -- the argument is that it's all grist for stories.  The other school -- John Gardner's school -- says, hey, you're a writer, look it up, use your imagination.  My own theory falls somewhere in between.  I've used the setting from the brokers' office for a neo-noir story about mean girls; information that I learned from the mortician’s daughter and details that I observed while being sketched by artists have surfaced in my writing for years; and thanks to my months in analysis, I can add up long lists of numbers in my head in less time than it would take to enter them into a spreadsheet.  In fact, all of those jobs in some way helped to prepare me for what became my true work: college teaching.

Those low-paying positions were of immeasurable value in training me in observation, in stamina, in preparation for the unexpected, for the daily acceptance of long bouts of stultifying minutiae punctuated by tiny bursts of joy and panic.  And of all those early forays into the workplace, the job I think of most often is the pickle factory.

This was my first post-baccalaureate temp assignment; my halcyon stays in the brokers' office and the bank were still in my future.  After a brief group-orientation session, in which we were informed that we would be expected to stay for mandatory overtime, bringing our total of work hours per diem to eleven, we were sent to our stations.  My first assignment was the cucumber-sorting room: think Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory.  After 30 minutes, two workers were called away from the line and the line sped up.  After another 30 minutes, two more workers were pulled away (I never saw any of these people again).  By then my hands were bleeding, I had given up daydreaming, and when I risked closing my eyes for a moment, I still saw that eternal, thundering river of cucumbers.

After another half hour, a foreman blew his whistle, and pointed his finger at me.  As he walked me to my next station, we followed a narrow path through the center hall; the walls were lined with overflowing cartons of cucumbers, and we passed room after room of workers bent over conveyer belts.  The foreman kept up a steady stream of cucumber patter/lore and insider information.  I was lucky, he told me, that I wasn't going to the relish room (where the worst of those bad cucumbers I'd been sorting out ended up).  In fact, he said, it usually took new workers a day or two to reach where we were headed: he escorted me to the door of the bread and butter room and handed me over to another foreman.

I've tried, in all the years since then, to sort out the reality from what surely has to be imaginative hyperbole.  What I recall is a room that seemed to combine elements from the 1960 Time Machine and the 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  The garishly lit room was cavernous; here, the assembly line formed three sides of an immense square.  There were windows, but they were so high up that, while they satisfied the requirement for so many windows per square foot, there was no way to reach them or to see anything outside.  My new job was to count out and add ten bread-and-butter pickles to each glass jar that rode toward me.  And here is my most vivid memory: we packers stood on a grated platform, beneath which ran a stream of lurid yellow brine.

After nine hours, which had included two fifteen-minute breaks and a half hour for dinner, I noticed that the foreman was going from worker to worker; several, who seemed to be college students or graduates like myself, nodded and walked out of the room.  As the foreman explained to me, the factory was ahead of schedule; they had to lay off half the workers: did I want to stay or go?

I went.

Several years later I began working as an adjunct college teacher -- I became a migrant instructor, a phrase that refers to the fact that adjuncts must often travel from workplace to workplace -- not only from season to season but sometimes in a single day.  The phrase is also metaphorically apt in terms of the piecework and the assembly-line nature of the flow of student papers.  Eventually, I found a full-time position, only to discover that perhaps the best metaphor for my small college wasn't the ivory tower but rather -- once again -- the pickle factory.

With frozen slots, furloughs, and curricular cuts, along with increases in class sizes and course loads, it feels as though we’re on the line.  Accelerated programs; streams of assessment documentation; and the hydra-like nature of academic committees with their ad hoc subcommittees, sub-sub committees, and meta-meetings devoted to creating more committees all seem oddly reminiscent of my old factory, and the relish room is right down the hall.

2009, Carolyn Foster Segal.
Carolyn Foster Segal is a Professor of English at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, PA.

The Irascible Professor comments: I may not eat a pickle ever again!

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