Last week, my friend Shannon texted me, asking how many hours a week I work. “A friend of mine is considering if she can feasibly work part-time while being a full-time student.” A fair enough question; many graduate programs aren’t fully funded—or if they are, don’t provide liveable stipends, especially for students who are single or whose partners aren’t able to work full-time. I was at one of my many part-time jobs (a dairy farm and bakery) when she sent the text during an unusual ten-hour shift to cover for my supervisor, who was out with an injury. I did some mental calculations—about ten hours per week at the Farminary, five hours cataloging in the PTS library, seven or so hours at the dairy farm (plus the one-hour commute each way), and another four doing an independent landscaping gig for a guy in town.
I texted back, “~30, but I would not recommend,” and then went back into the bakery to unload bread.
It has been one of those seasons where the seasonal work has gotten beyond my control. This isn’t an unusual occurrence for my partner and me—most of our life together has been organised around the rhythms of seasonal jobs, with periods of fifty- or sixty-hour-a-week work followed by periods of no work, travel, and rest. And even though I’m a student again and Sam has a full-time, “real” job, we’re still falling into the same work patterns—only this time, without the possibility of wide-open vacation time. “Gotta make hay,” we’ll say to each other as we stumble out of bed at six a.m. to milk cows. “Gotta make hay,” as we collapse back into bed after going through the motions of a post-landscaping shower, passing soap back and forth and shuffling around under the water—too tired to wait the ten minutes taking turns washing up would require.
The problem isn’t even that it’s bad work, or unenjoyable. Sam and I took these extra gigs because we wanted to, because we missed working together, because we wanted to learn new skills, and because we knew that they would taper off with the advent of winter. We’ve worked enough crappy jobs to know that it pays to be choosy. But now it’s November and it’s time to say no to things, to the cult of overwork that the country in which we live—created and continuing through exploitative labour practices and the institutions that encourage them.
One of my professors recently tweeted, “Playing chicken for academics: Saying yes to new commitments knowing that they’ll be unsustainable for everyone and wagering that someone else will hit the brakes first.”
Autumn is a time of incredible transition. The end of the semester approaches, and students and professors alike are scrambling to make good on all the implicit and explicit promises we made to each other at the beginning of the term—to give feedback on assignments in a timely manner, to start that paper before the day it’s due, to “come to class prepared to discuss the reading,” to work ahead for once. Where I live now, the leaves are changing and ending up in roadside compost piles, geese circle above my head, calling out harshly (and my friend Brendan and I shout back at them—and each other—“YOU DO NOT HAVE TO BE GOOD!”), plants in the garden are going to seed and dying back. I’m trying to make good on the promises I made to myself and to the land with which I work, to honour the work that the land is doing and to live with Camille T. Dungy in mind, who writes about planting “what plants I desire, and [harvesting] or not as I choose. I grow mint and tolerate the purslane people these days tend to weed.” This is an anticipatory time for me, because the shorter days and earlier sunsets and colder temperatures promise me that I, too, am allowed to allow myself to not harvest, to go dormant, after all the bright burning out of summer and fall.
With manual labour—really, with all labour—the question is never, “Can I lift this?” but rather, “Can I lift this over and over and over and over again, today and tomorrow and tomorrow, for the rest of my life?”
The land where I live, with which I work, and from which I learn and eat is part of the traditional territory of the Lenni-Lenape, called “Lenapehoking.” I acknowledge the Lenni-Lenape as the original people of this land and their continuing relationship with their territory.
Jack Kamps (’16) has been paid to do many things, such as teach preschoolers, pastor youths, schlep things in warehouses, bake pastries, design curriculum, serve coffee, maintain gardens, and fix computers. Jack is currently a student at Princeton Theological Seminary—though they tend to spend more time working at a few local farms, plotting a future cheesecake business with their spouse, and listening to/talking about the latest Material Girls episode than doing their homework.