Tom Morris visits with hard working philosopher, Shannon Eric Kincaid, Ph.D., author of a recently finished book, Jobs I've Had.
Tom: Hi Shannon. At a time when so many people can't find a job, it's very interesting to come across someone - especially someone with a degree in philosophy - who has had 62 jobs. And now, you've written a book describing your work history: 62 different job titles with 22 employers in four different states. Amazing. Are you just a very young looking 102? And how is retirement finally treating you?
Shannon: Retirement? I wish. I'm 43. Oh, and it's 63 job titles now. I was recently promoted to Associate Professor of Philosophy at CUNY/Queensborough. I have this crazy thing called "tenure."
Tom: Congratulations on that - a job that's permanently attached to you, like a very large tattoo of excellence. And it's the culmination of a pretty remarkable work history, right?
Shannon: It's been even more work. I started my employment history (officially - social security numbers, taxes, etc.) as a shop maintenance worker for a fencing company at age twelve. 20 years ago, the job market and child labor laws weren't what they are today, especially in Arkansas. I was washing dishes when I was thirteen, and I was a line cook at IHOP before I could drive.
Tom: But, seriously: 63 jobs? Were you fired a lot? Did you break dishes and burn pancakes while engaged in youthful philosophizing? In many jobs, too much pondering can be hazardous to your health.
Shannon: Ha! I was fired only once, because I couldn't fill a dishwashing shift at the last minute. I was fourteen, and lived 15 miles from work. Just couldn't run that fast.
Tom: Remarkable. So, what led you to write the book? And how did you find time to do it?
Shannon: There were certainly a lot of other things to do, what with my academic research, teaching, presentations, college and university service, blah, blah, blah... But my primary motivation was my son. Like generations of sons hearing their dads' stories, he doubted me. We would be talking about photography, and I would say "I used to work as a professional photographer, and even worked as a darkroom tech for a while." Matthew Broderick or Christopher Walken would be on TV, and I would mention my job in a movie with them. He would wipe his dirty hand on a door or a wall, and up would come my experiences of scraping disgusting things off glass doors when I was a custodian at the University of Arkansas. He'd pop off about me always wanting him to turn off the lights, and my consulting job in energy services would enter into the debate. He even once said, "You're really full of it about this 'jobs I've had' thing." So I wrote the official account of it all, proof positive, the book, Jobs I've Had.
Tom: That's quite a story. But was writing a book a very hard way of proving a point?
Shannon: Not really. My son's "doubt" about my jobs made me think about how little appreciation we have for the work that other people do.
In the book, there's a lot about buffing floors. We've all seen someone do it, but actually doing it can give you a new respect for the work, and danger, it involves. And I'm not just talking about a TV show where some rich dude does a dirty job for a day. Maintaining a waxed floor in an institutional setting over a long period of time is a really hard job, and it takes a level of commitment, patience, and forgiveness that you can understand only if you've actually done the job or talked a lot with someone who has.
There's a "zen" in cracking cases of eggs and peeling tons of shrimp. And don't get me started on the Sysiphian task of dragging waffle mix up and down flights of stairs. Teaching my son these lessons was one big reason I wrote the book.
Tom: Do you think of the result as embodying a philosophy of work?
Shannon: Yeah, sort of. There's no competing with folks like Barbara Ehrenreich on the academic analysis of work generally, but little has been written on the work of academics - the job I have now: what that work is like, and how we college teachers have come to do the specific work we do. And this has hurt the academy.
People look at my current job and say, "Wow, must be nice. A dozen hours of teaching for three or four days a week, eight months a year? Summers off?" Yet they fail to appreciate the training it takes to become a professor, and the amount of important work that happens outside the classroom - like staring into space and thinking. One of the main points of the book is that being a "professional" anything means never NOT-working. You're a philosopher. You know what I mean. We do philosophy in the express line at the grocery store ("Do 12 cans of cat food count as one item, or 12?").
Tom: Pondering cat food at the grocery store is a form of work unfamiliar to most mortals.
Shannon: Well, it might be nice not to get caught up in such concerns, yet I can't help but think about things like this. Maybe most people don't worry about such matters, but my experience in grocery stores says differently. Just look at piles of stuff in the express lines. Surely, people have thought up different ways of counting.
I do have to admit I was often philosophizing while buffing floors. When faced with a four-hour buffing job, it helps to listen to political debates on the radio - or, at least, it used to. Politics and buffing: all too often nowadays, it's just bluffing and buffing.
Thinking about the nature of everyday social interactions makes me a better ethics professor, and thinking about politics and buffing might even make me a better citizen as well as philosopher. At bottom, all jobs are social, and all that's social may be in some sense work. It's in understanding the true nature of the jobs we have that we can start to understand the fundamental interdependence of human beings in our society. And that's the ultimate reason I wrote the book - not to buff too fine a gloss on it.
Tom: Thanks, Shannon. And how could I end our time except by saying - Good job!