Dispatches from U6

So as most of you know, I am a historian who just finished grad school. Now then, up until fall of 2008, the employment ecosystem of humanities academia was fairly well-established. A few very lucky people (or people with PhD's from an Ivy) would go directly to tenure-track positions after finishing their PhD. Most people finishing their PhD's, however, would find positions as adjunct instructors, teaching with no benefits for two to three thousand dollars per class. There were lots of positions as adjunct instructors because if you're only paying someone $20k a year to teach five classes, you can afford it. And, because universities got a big portion of their income from playing the stock market, there was lots of extra money sloshing around to employ folks to do adjunct teaching. Eventually, an adjunct instructor would follow this route for a few years until finding a tenure-track job or burning out and quitting in frustration.

Until 2008. In that magical year, all of that extra money sloshing around from the financial sector disappeared. So when folks began their budgeting for the 2009-10 academic year, many humanities departments quit hiring adjuncts (and of course tenure-track faculty) and dealt with increased enrollments by having current employees just do more work.

All of which means that Fall of 2009 was perhaps the worst possible time to finish my PhD. In my hunt for something to start paying off student loans, I spent a few weeks hunting around for non-academic work. In the end, because I'd kind of always wanted to do some work that involved genuine labor--even the in the Marine Corps, I was a Korean linguist, which isn't exactly the grunts--and because folks hiring entry-level, unskilled people are more likely to hire someone who honestly answers, "I'm only here until I find academic employment," I decided to get a job in a distribution center, i.e., a warehouse.

I had officially joined the ranks of the underemployed. Because I've got some college (ha!), I have found myself doing shipping--working logistical software, packing pallets, and that sort of thing.

After a few months in this position, I have some observations:

The first is that I strongly suspect that those who lament the decline of unskilled jobs haven't worked many unskilled jobs themselves. The place I work has almost 100% turnover with the exception of two stalwarts who've been around for years. Moving boxes all day or trying to look busy when there are not boxes to be moved is not very fun. I can't imagine that screwing on lug nuts all day is either. Indeed, the rhetoric of needing unskilled jobs is kind of patronizing, because it often translates to, "We need unskilled jobs for those Other People whom I care deeply about."

The second is that there is definitely an economic recovery underway. The amount of stuff being moved over the last three months has definitely increased, and I am told that it increased even more from last winter. By the same token, in spite of this increase, the management has dithered and dithered and dithered before finally hiring more help. I suspect that this hesitation in hiring needed help has been replicated in hundreds and thousands of workplaces all across the country, and accounts for the continued lag in hiring. Eventually, something will give and employers are going to realize that having every employee doing the work of two just isn't sustainable.

Another observation is that the rest of the planet really, really needs to lean on the PRC to float the Renminbi. I'd say 95% of the inventory I move is made in someplace other than the U.S. (kudos to the makers of the other 5%, btw), and most of that is made in China. If China didn't keep its currency artificially pegged to the dollar, i.e., if we had genuine free trade, the trade deficit would right itself in relatively short order. I honestly don't think the PRC has as much leverage in this department as we think it does. All of the actions that they could take would redound more heavily on them--all that Chinese-made inventory I'm moving is going to U.S. consumers. If China wanted to hit the U.S. economy, they could, but the result would be catastrophic for both nations. The two nations are in something of an economic Mexican stand-off, but we don't seem to be cognizant of the fact that both parties are holding guns.

My penultimate thought that I have is that no-one is preparing adequately for the Hubbert Peak. Some of the boxes that I move have been through five different distribution centers in several different countries thousands of miles apart before I finally put them on a skid for their final destination. That model just isn't going to be sustainable over the next decade--Obama needs to make nudging ways of doing business in a sustainable direction a pretty high priority. Or at least do some serious subsidizing of petroleum alternatives. Or again lean on the PRC with every possible tool to get them to float their $%#@ currency.

Final two thoughts: 1) Working a forklift is pretty darned fun 2) Trying to communicate with a co-worker who speaks only Spanish based on a knowledge of Old and Modern French, a knowledge of Latin, a year of high school Spanish fifteen years ago, and the principles of Romance Philology sometimes succeeds. But sometimes you just have to use hand gestures.






Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

And just imagine what it's like with his beautiful sister...


I'm glad you conclude a recovery is underway. What's important to remember, however, is that all the things you complain about--dithering management, inefficient transporting of goods and their universal China source--were in place before the crash. One reason for it was that corporations had been slashing and burning their workforces for years to maximize profits. As for a level manufacturing field with China, that ship has sailed. Only under the duress of a WWII-type imperative will the US ever again become an industrial nation. Modern Americans neither know how to nor have the desire to work at such jobs--and by the peculiar snobbery of a college education, the very people who might capitalize them (a la the corrupt robber barons of China) have been so demonized that it will be a wonder if any still exist onshore by the 2020s.

Your future employment depends largely on state tax revenues. And those are in dire shape for the next year or two, regardless of how many people are ordering Vizios from Amazon.

I suggest you start a line of Pay-per-Podcasts in your field available at the iPod store with billable online support at Ask-A-Phd.com or some such site. As Jonathan Richman says, "The old world may be dead..."

If you're running a logistics software package, I have a thought


for you. I'd like you to pick up this book: Writing Effective Use Cases by Alastair Cockburn. (if you get it, be sure to use our Amazon button)

As another linguist pedant who ended up in software, simply because the analysis part of it interested me and it paid well, I believe you will find this book profitable. Apply what you read to your logistics operation and people will take notice. There's good money to be made in writing good use cases: it has nothing to do with programming skills, per se.

To a linguist, a well-chosen word or phrase is everything. You've been glossing medieval texts, now write good specifications. Only a Liberal Arts education teaches you to write clear, expository prose: that skill you've got in spades.

The zen of analysis is this: you don't know anything until you've written it out and gotten everyone to agree your description matches reality. No special software is needed, no prior training, Writing Effective Use Cases is the one book any intelligent person needs to describe what needs doing, clearly, succinctly and profitably.



....and I do, as a general proposition, love reading Andrew, so whatever he writes would no doubt be good.

how to get there, I don't know.

This was, however, a riveting Diary.

Best Wishes, Traveller

What does every Liberal Arts major have in common, Trav?


I'd argue it's a Quest. Like the Sangreal, this Quest consumes our lives, gives the journey meaning. For Andrew, it's led him to this improbable and lovely destination, his dissertation. Consider the work he's done, the insight he's added to our view of this distant and oddly relevant chapter of European history.

But what led him there? I dare say Andrew himself would be hard-pressed to tell us. Edward Longshanks casts a long shadow on history. We see him his proclamations, but he lived on in the law he made, a substantial body of dire and exacting writ, Quo Warranto, from which arises every Cause of Action against an official acting beyond his authority.

And all those Welsh castles. And the clergy he bent to his own ends.

So anyone who has the nerve to get a Ph.D. has the nerve to get into a dozen things he doesn't know anything about, but is willing to investigate.

And yes, it was a fine diary.

One of these days I'm going to write a diary on


Stephen Langton. He's a man few people have heard of, but whose fingerprints are all over our life. The same man who wrote a substantial chunk of the Magna Carta was also responsible for giving the Bible the chapter divisions that it has today. So pretty much everyone in the Anglo-American world has been influenced by this archbishop of Canterbury, though few could pick him out of a line up. It's people like him and the long shadow they cast on the present that continue to fascinate me about medieval history.

Oh, and if you'd be interested in actually reading the dissertation, it'll be up on the University of Toronto's T-space in a couple of weeks to a few months, depending. It's an exciting thrill ride through religious education in thirteenth-century England.

Blaise, your writing is, as always, a joy and a delight to read. I particularly liked and empathized with the penultimate paragraph.

The name of Stephen Cardinal Langton is well-known to me.


And the Charter of Liberties made by Henry I.

Though I am no lawyer, nor theologian, nor yet historian, it is my amateur opinion we owe more to Henry Beauclerk and his Charter of Liberties than to Magna Carta. In an era of warriors Henry was a learned man and understood the implications of law, high and lifted up, supreme above both cleric and king alike.

Henry was the brother of William the Conqueror, but he understood the deep importance of Edward the Confessor.

Henry was a capital c Conservative. He understood the wisdom of law in an era which observed none. It was not so much Law as the promise, the earnest wish that such law could be enacted and enforced throughout the realm. The problems of Henry Tudor were foreseen in the rule of Henry Beauclerk: unless the bishop is the king's man, ruin shall come of it.

A lot of the rights enumerated in Magna Carta


Come from earlier rulers, especially Henry I. A lot of the philosophy of a just king and the difference between a good ruler and tyrant comes from Langton. It's particularly fascinating that you can compare his commentaries on 1 Samuel that he wrote as a Parisian teacher and the text of Magna Carta and see the same sort of thoughts.

Minor correction, Blaise

Jay C's picture

Henry I of England was William the Conqueror's son, not his brother. His fourth son, actually, and not expected to inherit the kingship - which probably gave him (Henry) the opportunity to educate himself. Which he did; quite well.

I stand corrected. Thank you for that insight.


Henry Beauclerk was a momentary pause in the tradition of Norman butchery and mayhem. We owe so much to him, and to Edward the Confessor.

Law gives us reality, in some ways. Oh, to be sure, nobody leaves a well-adjudicated case feeling Happy. But law and its dread majesty arises from strong rulers who derived strength from the purity and abstractness of a system whose ends they could not foresee. We are the beneficiaries of these rude struggles between Dukes and Cardinals and Kings and suchlike.

They give us today's chess board. The ultimate irony is this: chess became Lenin's sport, the gymnasium of the mind. Yet contained in the chess board are the ultimate rules of medieval life: King and Queen, Knight and Bishop, and ever the pawn, pressing forward, ever forward.

I've been Reading Your Earlier Links, Thanks...NT



Well, I Have a Special Interest in Canterbury...Having Even....


...contributed to the (re)building fund of the Cathedral...the entry through the medieval West Gate into the city, St Augustine's Abbey and St. Martin's Church as the oldest Church in England...I miss the tea room on High Street.

Do give us the link whenever it is available.

Best Wishes, Traveller

Having had Myself a Passel of Occupations...Sigh....


...I can empathize with Andrew.

Being a Security Guard out of College was...actually pretty wonderful...at that time, at that place, (a High School....play basket ball all night, read books in the Library), building Freuhaller Trans-con truck bodies was a bitch...cleaning medical wastes....a house painter.

At least with physical labor, when you are done you are done.

Me, I dream about briefs and the terrors of open Court, and now, back to work on an odd-ish complaint to be written and polished.

I would suggest for Andrew to just keep his eyes and options open...weird but maybe wonderful things will come open.

Give it a whirl.

Best Wishes, Traveller

My nephew got lucky,

Bird Dog's picture

in the sense that he's actually working in his field of study. He got his PhD from Columbia in 2007 in English lit, and now he's teaching at this hoity toity prep school.

"Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency."

--Barack Obama, January 2009

A couple of things:

Desidiosus's picture

1) China was huge before the RMB target was relevant. The real change came with the end of the multi-fiber agreements. China is simply one of the best places in the world to make things; it is only the free-riding by the folks doing poor quality work that slows that down even a little bit. China has an infinite number of reasonably well-educated peasants who are used to doing hard work. It has an essentially modern electrical and rail and port infrastructure, and it has passable financial institutions. The difference between Chinese costs and US costs is so vast that if the RMB target were to disappear today, there would be factories in a dozen countries before there would be one in ours.

2) Fundamentally, this one thing unions are for. Grossly menial, unskilled labor is both awful and the only thing a lot of folks can be really productive at. There are two ways to create productivity in the world. The first is to automate. The second is to specialize. The first one excludes folks without technical skills. The second one turns unskilled jobs into suck. Unions decrease some of the suck.

3) Your description of the academic job market jives with mine, but things will not go back to the pre-crash levels either. Academia is currently in the midst of a deep crisis, and I'm headed out as well. I wouldn't want to be a part of what's going on there without tenure guaranteed.

"Assent, and you are sane."


We should probably talk about how to do hard work.

Desidiosus's picture

One of the things I've come to understand is the depth of importance of social structures for hard physical labor. It simply is the case that people working alone or with strangers hate working hard in a way that people working with friends or family don't. That was one of the big themes in Ehrenreich's "Nickeled and Dimed" -- that social structures were so vital for day-to-day survival that even badly dysfunctional ones could not be altered.

I did my fair share of grindy office temp work in college, and I can tell you -- 80% of the offices I worked for, management just outright hated their employees. Decisionmaking was arbitrary and centered around minutae of work rules to the expense of productivity.

I dunno, man. Things gotta change before they can change, is what I'm saying.

"Assent, and you are sane."


Good luck...


My girlfriend just defended her doctoral dissertation and is now facing that same retrenchment in faculty ranks. It's not easy, and from what I understand, history's particularly tough. You'll get there though.

As for the Renminbi, I don't think we'll have much luck persuading the Chinese on that. Their political stability depends on economic growth, their growth depends on their export sector, and the export sector depends on the currency policy. It's a strategy that has been immensely successful; it's the cornerstone of the regime.

"I don't want us to descend into a nation of bloggers." - Steve Jobs

We'd definitely have to play hardball


To try to force the issue, but it's something that absolutely needs to be done. It was in U.S. interests to have a strong and prosperous China as a counterweight to the U.S.S.R in the mid to late 80's. It was in our interests to have a strong and prosperous PRC as a trade partner in the 90's. But at this point, we're just taking it on the chin for China for no discernible reason.

The thing is, moving the Chinese economy to one based on internal demand and consumption is, in the long run, also in China's interests.

I think they will build up their interior consumption


But for local products. Once their economy isn't so export-centered, perhaps they can think about opening up their markets a bit to the outside, but that's a long way off. There's no credible threat we can make to change their minds (underline credible).

"I don't want us to descend into a nation of bloggers." - Steve Jobs

Sure, but not while they still...

Desidiosus's picture

...have 3-400 million subsistence peasants out in the sticks.

The US will make things again when our business class reforms. We can't compete on price, so we should be competing on customization and quality. But the idea of an American company competing on quality is a sad joke, still, after 30 years of getting ourselves munged by the Japanese.

You'll know we're on the rise when "former GM executive" has the same weight on a resume as "ex-con."

"Assent, and you are sane."


One other thought


Is that the pain in this recession is unevenly distributed. I took this job because I'd been paying into Ontario unemployment and so couldn't draw unemployment from my current U.S. state. But I've definitely taken a job from a truly unskilled worker. And this is apparent in some other places. The husband of a friend of my wife was a contractor and had a degree. He's now not a contractor and has returned to his retail job from many years before. He's also edged out a genuinely unskilled worker. There's some economic pain that's mostly invisible at first glance.