Adventures in Secretaryland

Actually, there are no adventures. It’s boring as fuck. But I find the boredom interesting. As Jet noted in her comment on my last post, academics are trained to critique everything. It’s what we do. That is why stultifying boredom can seem noteworthy, at first. So this is the world of work I tried to avoid for ten years by going to grad school! How fascinating!

I know the interestingness won’t last. (In my next post, I will explore the exciting topic of taking bundles of papers from one stack and putting them in another stack for hours on end.) Eventually, temping will become a soul-sucking crash course in how everything I am doing now is eerily similar to the last thing I did, which was adjuncting, which itself felt eerily similar to what I did before that, which was . . . I don’t remember, but whatever it was, it sucked.

James, the Sell Out Your Soul blogger, wrote today that “our parents went to university to escape the factory.” I know mine did. I went to university to avoid, as James continues, “the reality of minimum wage, dirty apartments, and a life of conscious bad mistakes.” I was waiting tables when I took the GRE. I was in my twenties, my back hurt all the time (I still have a sore knee from those days), I was incredibly bored, and I couldn’t see a future for myself.

Now, as a temp, my back hurts, I’m incredibly bored, and I don’t see a future for myself. The only real difference? I have a PhD in English. And a boatload of debt, which I probably owe to the same financiers whose phones I have been answering all week.

This leads me to add something to James’s assessment: universities are factories too, as the Edu-factory collective has stated, and as every adjunct knows. Frankly, working as a temp-secretary does not feel very different from working as a manual laborer. We don’t run the place. We just work here, churning out some product for someone else’s profit, even if we don’t know what it is. And we rarely do.

So, yes, our parents did go to university to escape the factory, but what they didn’t know is that, for the vast majority, there is no escaping the factory because everywhere is the factory. Since there are a variety of factories, it’s hard to recognize them from afar, and even more difficult from within.

What else did I get for my PhD, a degree that I am occasionally proud to hold for some incomprehensible reason, even though no one gives a shit? I’m not sure. Perhaps, as Jet hinted, I have gained the ability, for better or worse, to see my plight in a certain way.

Today, my fellow secretary, the one who is lucky (?) enough to have a real, full-time gig, told me she has been working at Fancy Wall Street Firm for fourteen years. Everyday in and out, making the coffee, filing the financial statements, looking forward to the lunch “perk,” for fourteen motherfucking years. It must seem to her like eons have gone by, or maybe just a few minutes. Who knows? Perhaps it’s grad school, the PhD, or just plain adulthood, but it’s clear that I have no right to pity her or judge her. I wanted to escape the factory, but there is no outside the factory. She knew that all along, and I am just figuring it out.

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12 Responses to Adventures in Secretaryland

  1. James says:

    Thanks for reading my post. It seems like a world away from the optimism (and false thinking) that brought us to school hey? This idea of the university as a factory too is a good point. In my post, I was thinking more as a sophisticated multilevel marketing scam of sorts (selling hope and the idea of security within a system) but you are right: it is also a factory and the escape from functionality seems to come back to bite us humanities majors at graduation. Thanks for this post.

    James from

  2. Jet says:

    I love the conversation that been started here. It brings up so many questions about what we might value in culture and the value placed on higher education in the west. You have both inspired me to post a bit more on my very new blog about this topic. Post-PhD life and academia was not my first career, and somewhere down the line I began to think it would be my ‘final’ one (what a thought!). In these times, can we, can anyone, afford to feel that secure anymore? PS – I’ve decided on a shortened ‘Jet’ id name now (some scary thoughts about my academic friends finding me out maybe – another topic for a future post). But Jeanette is in fact the real thing.

  3. Ann McK. says:

    I enjoyed your thoughtful and nuanced response to Secretaryland. FYI, the nonprofit sector is a factory too. But there is no Lunch Perk.

  4. recent Ph.D. says:

    I’ll second Ann McK on nonprofits, except if you work for a lobby shop disguised as a nonprofit. Then you get lunch perks, too, sometimes but not every day.

    Oh, and fear not for your future. There are all kinds of different levels of functionality in Secretaryland. Many people are content, more or less, as receptionists, but you can always aspire to be some fancy dOOd’s “Assistant.” It’s a whole new realm of wonders, let me tell ya! Instead of spending your days shuffling papers and answering the phone, you get to rise to the challenges of Scheduling and Calendar Management and Booking Travel. And making sure “your” executive is all super-duper briefed, prepared, and ready for his Important Business. You might even get to attend a meeting and take notes!

  5. JC says:

    “There is no outside the factory.”

    Indeed. I’ve had to realize this myself. The job I do is a couple of notches “above” (whatever that means) secretarial work, but it’s still in the pink/white collar neighborhood. And it’s also just part of the factory. Most days it’s boring, some days less so. Ho-hum.

    I guess that for me, now that the bloom is off the rose of academia, I just don’t care much about what work I’m doing for the time being. It’s all reasonably pointless and often boring … but at least with this job, I have off-work hours where I’m free to do whatever I want.

    I guess I’ve decided that I’ll work in the factory, as long as the factory leaves me the f*ck alone when I’m not on the clock. That’s the tradeoff that seems the most worth it to me.

  6. Susan says:

    Unfortnately, being the bigwig “Dood” can be just as boring. I went to law school, work at a big company, probably could be considered a lower-level bigwig, and dear god it’s boring too. Same stuff day in, day out. Just luckily not physically demanding.

    So not sure if you can ever escape ‘the factory’, at any level. This is just what life becomes after a while.

  7. recent Ph.D. says:

    I should do a post over at my place on different kinds of “secretary” work. Really, it’s not all the same. Despite the tone of my previous comment, executive assistants in the right kind of environment have a fair amount of responsibility, need at least a quarter of their brain, and can easily earn $80-100K.

    Not that I’m saying this work is teh awesome shit or anything. It’s still the factory. But coming from academe, it takes a while for one’s perceptions to adjust to the variations and multiple hierarchies within nonacademic work environments..We’re used to clear (if absurd and frustrating) distinctions. If you’re an adjunct, you are, without fail, several notches below an assistant professor, even if you’re teaching the same classes and you’ve published more. But while the “secretary” that sits at the front desk may be a few notches “below” most everyone else, the “secretary” with hir own office and a fair amount of autonomy, despite being someone’s “assistant,” may be a few notches above a great many in the middle.

    Not that any of this means anything if you don’t at least kinda sorta like what you do. Most of the people in my office seem to like what they do — at least, they don’t seem bored by it, as far as I can tell. Not sure what turns them on, though. Ideology, perhaps? The belief that they think they’re changing the world? I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

  8. Caitlin says:

    In the post (and discussion) above, I am fascinated by the slippages between interesting work and status. When we mention “the factory,” is that a stand-in for monotonous labor, or is it a stand-in for low-prestige employment? And is status and a degree of autonomy things that makes work interesting, or are interesting tasks a marker of a high-status job? It all starts to get very circular.
    When I’m truly honest with myself, one of the hardest things about being a post-academic–at least one determined not to feed the higher ed machine by getting another degree–is the loss of an image of myself as someone who was, or eventually would be, a respected professional. There’s a certain prestige, too, attached to the ability to support oneself producing work (art, poetry, plays, scholarship) that has little or no market value. Now I gotta consider my value-added, just like everyone else!
    And what I always wonder is, what ever made us think there was an alternative to “the factory”?

  9. Caitlin says:

    And one other point, because I find this thread fascinating…. I don’t know whether this thought is comforting or insulting, but the farther I get from my academic years the less relevant I find the boring/interesting dichotomy. It now seems something of a remnant of my undergraduate years, a faintly juvenile concern that I clung to during the protracted adolescence of grad school and my early years on the VAP/fellowship track.
    In fact, most of the truly successful academics I know don’t think of academic research in terms of boring or interesting. In fact, I know one rock-star prof, currently the subject of a bidding war between two R1 institutions, one an Ivy, who considers it a red flag when prospective grad students come into his office and rhapsodize about how “interesting” their proposed research topic is. “Interesting” just isn’t enough to sustain you through the long–and often boring!–years of slogging through archives and trying to make sense of a thousand disparate data points.

  10. post-ac says:

    This is an excellent point. You are right. Leaving academia entails dealing, once and for all, with the anxiety of maybe not having a professional job, of maybe not doing anything “important” with our lives. For me, leaving has been a process of coming to terms with my own vanity in that regard. But it’s not really our fault. We were fed a lie. We believed it. Our parents believed it. And while we deserve some blame for our complicity, we can’t internalize the problem too much. We didn’t create (or destroy) the economy we are living in. Thanks for your comment.

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