Monday, December 18, 2006

Jobs and Vocations

Someone posted this comment to an earlier piece of mine about jobs, amidst a lot of comments from frustrated librarians and library school students. I came across it again recently, and thought I might respond. The Pollyanna tone of the longer comment is very touching, but I'm much too cynical to be swayed by it. However, I will address this short excerpt:

"I really don't understand why so many of you are having doubts and frustrations. Maybe you need to broaden your horizons? Having the degree makes you a perfect candidate for office, clerical, administrative, data management, IT, etc, jobs."

And if that doesn't inspire you, I don't know what will! All will have their own take on this, but frankly I don't want to broaden my horizons that much. I like my horizons rather narrow. Let me explain.

There are jobs, and then there are vocations. The two shouldn't be confused. A job is just a piece of labor. It's something you do, either for pay or for free, but just because it needs to get done. A vocation is something else. Vocation derives from the Latin for a "summons" or a "call." A vocation is something you've been called to do, and it's of larger significance than just a job. This is why priests are called to a vocation, not a job. The vulgarians who changed "job training" into "vocational training" were just part of the silly trend to make things sound grander by adding syllables.

You don't do a job for the sake of doing the job. You do it either because it really needs to get done (e.g., unclogging a toilet), or because you're getting paid for it (e.g. discharging returned library books). But a vocation is different. A vocation is done for its own sake and for the enjoyment of it. If you derive a lot of pleasure from your job, or if you do things in your job you'd be doing anyway, or if you would miss it if you suddenly became financially independent and didn't have to work anymore, then your job shows signs of being a vocation for you.

I'm an academic librarian, and I don't want to work in any other sort of library. I'm in academia because in general I agree with the educational and research mission of the academy. My own participation in this mission varies depending on whether I'm working as a librarian or in some other capacity, but even as a librarian some parts of my job are more directly concerned with the educational and research mission of the university than others, and I grow more annoyed with my job the the more it strays from that mission. The more direct my participation in the mission of scholarship and the life of the mind, the closer I get to having a vocation.

Needless to say, I don't feel this very often as a librarian, but I wouldn't feel it at all in an "office, clerical, administrative, or data management" job. The more clerical and administrative my job becomes, the less interesting it is for me. I don't want to be an office clerk, and the glorified office clerk parts of librarianship annoy me the most. If the MLS makes me a perfect candidate for these jobs, then it hasn't significantly benefited me, because I don't want them. It's not broadening my horizons to qualify me for jobs I would find even more boring than the one I have now.

This explains some of my frustration with librarianship, though I can't say just with librarianship since I have often felt the same way doing other jobs. Must be a temperamental thing. And I'm probably in the minority on this one, as on so many other issues, but I'd like to feel I was serving a worthwhile purpose in an important way that challenged me and brought me pleasure and intellectual stimulation while doing so. Early on I was naive enough to think I could find a vocation as well as a job in librarianship. I would like to have a vocation. What I usually have is just a job.

8 comments:

anon7 said...

I think you're grappling with a problem that I call--for lack of a better term--the corporatization of American life. I worked as a software engineer for many years, at many different companies, both as a temp and direct. The most satisfying job I had all those years was working for a company that was making a very important component of the Chandra X-Ray Telescope. Those two years were the only time in my life that I really felt I was doing something that would serve to increase the sum total of human knowledge. The rest were just jobs.

Except for a few pockets of enlightenment here and there, the goals of corporate America have everything to do with profits and nothing to do with the personal fulfillment of its members. Now that culture is infecting other areas that were previously thought to have a "higher purpose." I'd be willing to bet that you see this happening in other departments in your university, not just the library. Certainly it's happening in the public library, as has been noted in an earlier thread on "Wal-Martization." And to my mind it's all part of a larger trend of the devaluation of the intellectual life and the dismantling of the public realm. Why, I'd bet that even some priests would say that they spend an inordinate amount of time on matters that have nothing to do with their vocation. And what are all those mega-churches about, anyway, if not another reflection of that corporate model that bigger is better?

rerb said...

Man, I could not have said that better - I have said this almost verbatim many times. I don't even MIND the clerk duties so log as one's employers measure only one's competence at them rather than one's emotional dedication to them. I don't like jobs that try to pretend they are something besides jobs. I have figured out that there are not as many "paid vocations" as there are people who want a paid vocation and could competently performa "paid vocation". Thus, I have learned that the 8 hours I spend at work are just time lost to my life, that I must sell to finance the vocations which occur on my own time. Occasionally, I feel some vocational satisfaction at a library job, but they are few and far between. What I don't like is a job that is basically clerking to a large degree but everyone expects more than just outstanding performance, but a personal emotional commitment to the "career" and a definition of self-worth based on it.

anon7 said...

p.s. Note that those jobs that are or were traditionally considered "vocations" are also traditionally the lowest paid professional jobs in our society: priest, minister, teacher, scientist, librarian....

I suppose there are a few Goldman-Sachs employees who consider their job a "vocation," but in general I suspect that "vocation" and "highly remunerated" are mutually exclusive concepts.

anon7 said...

p.p.s. Other low-paid vocations that I left out: writer, artist, musician.

janitorx said...

Well, I guess you can count me as another librarian who doesn't view this career as a calling, vocation, information freedom fighting, or whatever noble label people are inclined to slap on this field. Occasionally, I make a difference, but it is so rare.

AL said...

Maybe that's why the ALA et al. are always trying to talk about how noble the profession is, so that the low paid librarians think they're doing something meaningful. I'm paid plenty well considering the work I do, but it would still be nice to have a vocation. I guess I'll take the money over the vocation, though.

mdoneil said...

I am a corporate whore. However it pays 2.73 times as much as my librarian position so I don't care that it is not a vocation. It beats digging ditches.

AL said...

If I were a corporate whore, I'd probably make even more, but I'd have to work a lot harder, which wouldn't make me any happier.