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A Moral Tale
January 9, 2007 - 4:19pm

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Once there was a writer for one of America's biggest catalog companies. Perhaps because the young man was a veteran, because he showed up for work, met his deadlines, and wore trendy J.C. Penney ties, the managers of the company paid him their highest compliment: he's conservative, they told each other. A real company man.

This basic misapprehension led to the young man being asked to do some scut work: just go around and write down what’s on other employees' minds. There’d been a drop-off in productivity of late, and audible grumbling, and managers said they wanted to know how best to serve Their People.

It was a big department, and the task took a while. The young man found he was good at it, in a Studs Terkel oral-history kind of way, and his peers opened up to him. When he presented his findings in a corporate meeting, the managers were shocked at what was on The People's minds: resentment, hostility, sarcasm, violence, planned lawsuits against the company, and one popular joke about an executive secretary keeping the amputated big toe of the diabetic Advertising Director in a jar of pickling solution at her desk.

Fast-forward some years. The young man is no longer so young—early middle-aged, really—and now he helps freshman composition students see what's on other people's minds. ( Very early middle-aged.) The company he works for now calls this ethnography (the same method and rhetoric text in use at Purdue), a process of observing subjects over time to get a sense of the culture they build around themselves, and their points-of-view on what they do.

Those with pure hearts in the university long for a kind of transparency to emerge from this student writing, which can only make things better for everyone, especially for those in the campus community who are largely invisible to academics and students. You know, since the university is all about discourse and fair play. (Really, he's more like a much-older brother to college-aged people, not like some father-figure or anything.)

The rhetoric students worked hard last semester, embedding themselves in the university’s Facilities & Maintenance Division, observing, interviewing, and writing dutifully about their subcultures, week after week. They did their jobs and brought back the news:

University locksmiths milked the clock in long walkabouts around campus, then said they’re shorthanded and need help. And one group of electricians did nothing all day. Really. For three months in a row. And complained about the danger of being an electrician.

Pest-Control Sally and Water-Station Dick are having an emotional affair.

Patti, over in Grounds, not only dished all the gossip on her peers, she badmouthed her supervisors to the student ethnographer, though she was told the final paper could be read by anyone.

A janitor with a serious heart condition had to battle for years not to be forced to shovel snow. She was finally given a waiver, then was forced to rake and bag leaves all day. When another janitor tried to help her, he was told to mind his own business.

Other employees are, variously, overworked, put at risk, patronized, cut out of benefits, and bullied, and their union is often no help.

(It wasn’t all bad. The steelworkers love their jobs and are allowed to work themselves to death. One guy has a sac of fluid on his elbow the size of a tennis ball but won’t take time off to get it looked at. “It’s just water,” he says. “Water don’t hurt.” Another was reassigned to drive a truck when his back imploded, but he angrily petitioned the university to be reinstated. He’s back to the crew and has postponed spine surgery for retirement.)

Many of the students’ final papers could be lightly edited and turned over to their subcultures, along with a case of Krispy Kreme donuts and sincere thanks for allowing the intrusion. But others’ writing was more problematic. More than one student was told they were viewed as “spies” for management; one supervisor told a student, “Your paper will make us or break us.”

For some of those young writers, I fear the final lesson was: Your work has real power. Now put it in a drawer and don’t show it to anyone, ever again.

 

 

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