July 09, 2018


Todd SchoepflinBy Todd Schoepflin

What do you see when you look at the picture below? Perhaps nothing is remarkable about this part of my home. I experienced a lot of pain in my back and knees after constructing the tiny patio on which two chairs and a table sit. The chairs are mainly for my wife and me. A small tree used to be in this space. I don’t like to kill trees, but it occurred to me that if we removed the tree we could have a nice area to relax. To be honest, it also a comfortable place to sit with a good vantage point for people watching. Not sinister people watching, just observations of people that I am compelled to make in my lifelong quest to understand what makes people tick. It's also a pleasant space for coffee drinking and book reading. An outdoor patio on a sunny day. On the right are two wicker chairs and on the left is a well manicured lawn and garden. A side of a house is also visible.

My wife designed our small retreat. After consulting her father for accurate measurement, she determined we needed 25 paver stones, and that’s what we purchased from Home Depot. We aren’t very bright at times, so we showed up with her Kia Sportage to haul the stones and six 50-pound bags of sand. We failed to think ahead, or, you know, do the math to realize that each stone is 40 pounds and that equals 1,000 pounds plus 300 pounds of sand. My brother-in-law bailed us out with his pickup truck. He helped me unload the materials.

The following day, my father-in-law served a dual role as supervisor and co-worker. He instructed me to dig out the area and to make it as level as possible so that we could lay the stones. He returned a few hours later, and, after correcting for a few of my errors (notably, I dug out too much dirt) we finished preparing the ground for the stones. He directed me to set down stones one at a time, usually telling me to pick a stone up if it wasn’t yet level and then signaling to put it in place again after he adjusted the surface.

It went like this for several hours until all 25 stones were in their proper place. I had moved 1,000 pounds, plus dumped out all the bags of sand. My father-in-law had gotten up and down a bunch of times to survey our progress, grimacing each time because of the knee pain he was enduring. By the end of the job it was difficult for him to raise his body.

At 45, I am twenty years younger than him. It was understood that I would deal with the stones. I felt pretty good as we worked, but worried I would hurt my back along the way. There was never a specific point during our task that something felt wrong. I think it was just the whole exercise of physical labor that was taxing for my body. Two weeks have passed since we finished the job. I’ve iced my body, stretched, and even took what I think is my first ever Epsom salt bath. Most of the pain has subsided and my body is close to feeling like normal.

The difficulty of handling one day of hard physical labor led me to reflect on the kind of labor I do as a college professor. The job requires emotional labor, mental agility, and a variety of social skills. There is also a physical component—moving back and forth in the classroom, being on my feet for 55 or 80 minutes at a time depending on the length of a class session, exerting my voice to keep the attention of my students.

In thinking about my job, several work conditions come to mind. I teach in air-conditioned buildings, usually in rooms with windows that allow ample sunlight, with a chair always available to me if I get tired of standing. Restrooms are nearby, as are vending machines, and I can eat snacks and drink water in between and during class if need be. I am not required to do constant heavy living every day of my work life, the way a mover or delivery person does. I am not exposed to the various smells that a sanitation worker, cleaner, or nail technician can expect to encounter on the job. I don’t see trauma that first responders and medical professionals regularly do. I know people who have been scratched, punched, and kicked on the job. That has never happened to me.

As for the emotion work aspect of my job, I help students cope with stress, anxiety, frustration, and fatigue. I handle difficult conversations in classrooms, navigate conflicts, manage the feelings of students, and deal with how it feels to teach about inequalities and injustices in society (I often feel dejected) while worrying about whether I’m doing my job well and trying to figure out how I can do it better. I field quite a bit of complaints and gossip from a few of my colleagues (I have to admit I don’t mind some of the gossip, and there are times I’m the one griping and gossiping). By the end of the academic year, I am emotionally exhausted.

But for all the emotion work I do, I still have it good. I don’t get yelled at. My students get bent out of shape sometimes, but not the way angry customers behave toward fast-food and retail workers. No one has ever cursed at me at work. When I need solitude, I can hide in my office. I don’t teach every day. There is time for my body and mind to recover.

Overall, the kindness, generosity, and good humor of my students and colleagues make my workplace a positive one. Furthermore, the power and privilege I have as a white, upper middle-class, heterosexual, able-bodied cisgender man shields me from the kinds of intolerance and discrimination I teach about and which scholars from marginalized backgrounds experience. I am not subject to microaggressions, indignities, hostility, exclusion, and unequal treatment that marginalized scholars encounter in academia and everywhere else in society. The physical and mental health of disadvantaged scholars is in jeopardy due to discrimination, which is not the case for advantaged scholars like me.

In closing, I encourage readers to contemplate their work and to share details about the physical, emotional, and other dimensions of their labor. I also hope readers will consider how their social positions (race, class, gender, sexuality, age, physical ability, and more) impact their job experiences and job satisfaction. I end with one more reference to the discomfort I feel, which at the moment is a little bit of knee and hip pain as I sit in front of my computer making these words.


Great to hear this. Thanks Todd for sharing your experiences.

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