Marrying the Custodian

Terry Caesar asks what professors think about those who clean their offices -- and why they prefer not to think about the topic.

March 18, 2005

Who lies at the bottom of the hierarchical organization of academic life? If we consider any institution's administration, would it be, say, the assistant dean of students? It would not be the student assistant to the assistant, because students, by definition, are not part of the administration. But perhaps if you are part, and you merit a student assistant, you are entitled to consider yourself -- or better yet, be considered -- superior in status to another administrative position that does not so merit.

These are deep waters. They get no less murky if we consider faculty.
If an associate professor is classified higher than an assistant, and an assistant higher than an instructor, what about an instructor with respect to an adjunct? Again, I believe, organizational distinctions begin to dissolve, the closer we get to the bottom of the hierarchy; adjuncts are simply not faculty -- or at least not faculty in the same way -- once the category is invested with some claim to permanence.

What about staff? Are the people who process financial aid forms entitled to feel better abut themselves than those who do paperwork in an academic department's office? There must be those at some institutions who do.

I don't believe any institutional organization authorizes the feeling, though, any more than it authorizes the feeling of any faculty member who gets mad at a clerk in financial aid for acting aloof. With staff, we are not so much at the bottom of hierarchy as to one side of it; an institution has to have people to keep accurate records and type clear reports but it does not derive its identity from these things.

Nonetheless, when everyone is accounted for, in the impossible and incommensurate ways in which the accounting can be done all across as well as up and down campus, I believe there is someone at the bottom:
the janitor. An institution has to have people to clean the toilets and mop the floors. The janitor works close to the ground. The janitor works close to us, and so, although he or she may not get paid more than the grounds crew, he or she has some claim to be in some way comprehended by our organization. But how?

Even if not unionized, at most universities and colleges the maintenance people have ways of recognizing themselves. At the one university where I taught most of my career, a special newsletter eventually came about, including maintenance with clerical staff, noting special anniversaries or years of service, and featuring awards
given by the administration. Nominally at any rate, maintenance people were considered part of staff, and staff part of the university, insofar as the administration was concerned. No matter that maintenance is not
part of any university in the same way professors are.

Yet of course inside the institution it does matter. For starters, janitors are no longer "janitors." They are "custodians." A custodian told me so some years ago. Once a week, for the better part of two semesters, she used to knock early in the morning, whereupon I would stop whatever I was doing and pass my trash can over to her. We would chat for a minute or two, just as we did occasionally in the hallway.

She called me, "Dr. Caesar." I called her, "Dorothy." I took her to be uttering a term of respect. Although she always seemed quite comfortable with me, I never felt quite comfortable with her.

How close or familiar are professors expected to be with custodians? (That is, the ones who remain awhile. Most work in expectation of getting transferred, and eventually do -- to other buildings or other divisions.) Should we eat with them? Unlike Larry David, who, in an episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," takes his maid to lunch at his
country club, in a helpless gesture of gratitude (she sits frozen and wordless), I never asked Dorothy to lunch. Like Coleman Silk in Philip Roth's novel The Human Stain, is it acceptable to have sexual relations with custodians? Another uncomfortable question. In fact, everything to do with any relation between professors and custodians is unhappy, beyond perhaps cordial greeting and remarks about the weather. No wonder custodians are situated at the bottom. We can get dragged down there with them, if we are not careful.

By the same token, no wonder that graduate teaching assistants who would unionize themselves make common cause with the custodial staff. Thereby, the question of a custodian's precise place or non-place within academic hierarchy is rendered, as we say, "academic." Of course we could also say it is transformed into the question of a teaching assistant's place, and thereby sinks beneath the organizational surface all over again. Custodians can be represented. But they do not represent themselves, and so we may well consider the one in Joyce Carol Oates's novel, Marya, who regularly leaves Marya's desk drawers slightly open and puts out cigarette butts in her potted plants. A middle-aged black man, Sylvester seems to be filled with resentment against the young professor. But he does not speak.

And what would be say if he could? That despite his membership in a union, he still suffers the indignity of being at the bottom -- and of being treated as if he was at the bottom? Whatever my relations with custodians, I do not think I ever realized so fully that they could not effectively speak to me until I taught in Japan. At my university,
middle-aged women in white uniforms and bakery hats cleaned the toilets. Middle-aged men mopped the floors. Everybody seemed to ignore them. They were not even invited to various of the university's annual celebrations (which included staff). In fact they were employed by an independent cleaning contractor, and so, as "outside" persons in the remorseless Japanese sense, it would be, I was assured, "unthinkable" to consider them in any way part of the university.

Fair enough. And yet there they were, inside the walls anyway in the most intimate ways, several times a week. The women shyly shrank when I said hello. One man in particular always smiled. Did they accept their position utterly, in ways unimaginable to me? Would an American counterpart such as Sylvester be, in turn, unimaginable to them? Part of what we say about ourselves as academics is founded upon what we say of our custodians, beginning, ideally, with some acknowledgment of the fact that they have not themselves entered into our discourse or that we probably enter into theirs in unknown, troubled ways.

A reshuffle of the institutional order might benefit custodians. Trouble is, somebody is always going to be at the bottom of any hierarchy. I cannot imagine an academic institution without hierarchical terms. But I can offer a memory of one provincial university in China where I taught 20 years ago. The distinction there between senior teachers and "young" teachers (nobody spoke of graduate teaching assistants) was familiar enough to me. So was the evident separation between faculty and administration (including Party officials). Where I had problems was with the relation between either of these two groups and "staff." This was not only because of the egalitarian Party ideology, whereby everyone consisted of the People, and the People consisted of everyone, all the way down.

Our chair was known as "dean." An elaborately discreet man, he never let on until nearly year's end that in fact he was engaged in a long-standing struggle to obtain a divorce from his wife. It was a very intricate story, beginning with the fact that she was from the countryside and now refused to agree to the divorce because it
apparently meant she would have to return there. We knew his wife, the dean added. She was the custodian in the building where we taught. In fact, she lived there!

The dean mentioned a broom closet down the hall. Next day, I went to check. Damned if the closet was not, well, roomy. Somebody could sleep there, although you would probably have to be Chinese. Most Americans would never think of sleeping there, but somebody could. And you would certainly have to be a professor in China not to feel embarrassed or self-conscious at disclosing your marriage to a custodian.

Not only was the dean's marriage unexceptional in the China of that time; it may have been to the dean professionally advantageous (his wife demonstrating his proletarian affinities). Just so, we cannot imagine anything other than professional disaster for a dean in the United States at the present time marrying a custodian. For better and undoubtedly worse, it remains hard enough simply to imagine what administrators and professors have to say to the custodians who move among them, as if everybody was part of the same institution in pretty much the same ways, although it would probably be best for everybody, top to bottom, not to say too much about it.

Terry Caesar's last column was about students who leave in the middle of class to go to the bathroom.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top