A colleague sent me a link to this New York Times piece (“Debunking the Myths of the Telecommute“) about telecommuting. It’s an interesting comparison to my own working-at-home teaching. There are a lot of similarities: the writer and I both use lists, and we both try to respond to our colleagues and bosses promptly. There are some real differences too. I don’t care if my neighbors see me walking around in shorts and a t-shirt all day (my pajamas) and I don’t begin the day by taking a shower, exactly as if I were going into an office. I might do that, though, if I didn’t live alone.
My days are structured by meals and exercise and errands. Sometimes I do take a day or an afternoon off to do something with my partner, Elise; mostly, though, we’re together nights and weekends. In between, I write, and most of the writing I do is to students and, less often, colleagues. That might be the single most important characteristic of the work I do: I teach writing, and most of the time, I communicate in writing. I also think that as an academic, my working style is more like the author’s experiences in the software industry, although I have no flip flops.
She’s right, too, when she emphasizes the need for self-discipline and a kind of internalized accountability. I’m not my own boss, by any means, but since the boss can’t come strolling by my cubicle, I have to police my own working habits. No doubt that’s one reason the writer takes that shower each morning. It’s the rituals that give work substance and reality. Capitalism has always depended on those rituals to give accumulation the air of natural inevitability. Educated workers, too, can decorate their working lives with status nick nacks, corner offices and the like.
What happens if all of that dissipated into the individual or family house? An Edmonds.com executive has status and power; online faculty less so. I think, though, that capitalism would loose something profoundly important if the majority of us didn’t have to go through these daily working life rituals. At this point, no doubt, those of us doing it are more or less self-selected for our internalized authority. Academics in particular are used to working on their own without rocking the boat. Theoretically, though, the pool of telecommuters could grow large enough to pose a real challenge to business as usual.