I’ve been reading bits of Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman1 off and on for some months. It has had many resonances, and I meant to write a post about it after reading its very first chapter. However, for now it is just part of one of the latter chapters that is fresh. Sennett refers to the work of W. Edwards Deming, the originator of the term ‘total quality control’. I was surprised at some of the quotes “The most important things cannot be measured”, “you can expect what you inspect” — in strong contrast to the metrics-based ‘quality’ that seems to pervade government thinking for many years whether it impacts health, policing or academia, and of course not unfamiliar to many in industry.
One of my current roles is as department Head of Personnel, so I have come to know the University’s HR web site well. At first I kept struggling to find things, as it often eschews common-or-garden words for management-speak. In particular a range of things, including those relating to pay and conditions and promotions, live under the heading ‘Total Reward‘. Now it is interesting that terms such as ‘pay and conditions’ and ‘promotion’ are functional, whereas ‘Total Reward’ is strongly value laden, it is not simply a heading to help you find things (or otherwise), but a message in itself.
Dissecting this there seem to be at least three messages in this term. The first is a generous one, the university sharing the fruits of its success with its staff. The second is appreciative, recognising the contributions of people. The third is the counter-side to the second, the university is not old-guard civil service ‘jobs for life’; benefits do not flow unconditionally based on years at a desk, but through success (or effort?) in the job.
But for the individual, what does this signal as a way of viewing work? While pay is something you get and the job is something you do, total reward says, “you get paid and receive other benefits because of what you achieve”. This sounds like universal late 20th Century business sense. However, the corollary of this is that you start to achieve because of the rewards.
Of course this reflects the external framework of seemingly endless quality metrics and constraints in which the university (and health service, police, etc.) finds itself. As Deming says, “you can expect what you inspect”, naturally the metrics determine local policy — and perhaps more invidious the metrics alter values.
One example of this, very significant to UK academics, is REF (Research Excellence Framework), the UK University funding agency’s policy to measure and fund research.. Like ‘Total Reward’ the message is clear and unimpeachable; surely as individuals, institutions and a sector we are totally committed to research excellence. Of course, the reality behind REF is the need to fund research and (hence) to measure research excellence. One of the key, and most controversial elements, is the use of citation data — the number of times a publication is referred to by others. There is some good reasoning behind this, if work is good people are more likely to refer to it. Also as an academic if you have produced work that is good then you surely want people to take notice of it. However, where is that line between means and ends, when our value system changes from producing good work because it is good, and is therefore cited, to producing work in order that it is cited?
Vocation is at the heart of this. Most computing academics could get better pay outside academia; they work in the university because they are committed to students and to scholarship. Changing bedpans and stepping in vomit are not the obvious indications of a rewarding job and yet nurses choose to work in this environment because of commitment to people.
Vocation is autotelic, a thing done for itself.
This idea of autotelic activity is a crucial element in Huizinga’s understanding of play in human society2, Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of ‘flow’ in expert activity3, and in Sennett’s own view of craftsmanship. In seeking to understand the Linux open source community, Sennett quotes C. Wright Mills:
“The laborer with a sense of craft becomes engaged in the work in and for itself; the satisfaction of working are their own reward;”
It is easy to loose sight of true goals. I think too of the (caricature) Victorian “good boys and girls go to heaven” compared to Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats; those passing to heaven ask “when did we feed, clothe, look after you?”, the answer “when you did it to the least of people”. The core Christian message is always about grace — the free gift of God, and then our response to that gift. The gift comes first not after; total giving not total reward.
Personally, this issue of vocation, of doing the best not because of the reward, is at the heart of my decision to become a part-time (paid) academic. While my heart has often yearned more for the work of my hands (my dad was a carpenter), the most important thing has been to use the gifts I’ve been given in the best possible way. Half my time is now unpaid and so feeling free to dedicate it to creating the best possible work for its own sake, being an academic not because I’m paid to do so.
I am also aware that I am fortunate in being able to make this decision. By moving to a cheaper house we no longer have a mortgage, and our family are now grown up, giving us a level of financial freedom. Not all are as privileged, so, whether it is with my departmental ‘HR’ hat on, or simply talking to students, there is certainly a personal challenge to see how I can help others manage the metrics-driven world that we live within and yet not lose sight of the things that really matter.