Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 1 Dec 04 10:08
Our next guest is Mike Rose, author of "The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker," which has been acclaimed by Studs Terkel as "an eloquent -- as well as scholarly -- tribute to our working men and women." Mike is a member of the faculty of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. His books include "Lives on the Boundary: The Struggles and Achievements of America's Underprepared" and "Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America." Leading the conversation with Mike is Pamela McCorduck. Pamela is the author or co-author of eight published books. Two are novels, five are focused on the intellectual impact of computing, especially aspects of artificial intelligence, and one, written with Nancy Ramsey, is four possible scenarios of women's futures. Titles include: "Machines Who Think," "The Fifth Generation," "The Universal Machine," "Aaron's Code," and "The Futures of Women." Her books have been translated into all the major European and Asian languages, and her work has appeared in journals ranging from Cosmopolitan and Omni to the New York Times and the Michigan Quarterly Review. She was a contributing editor to Wired. Welcome, Mike and Pamela!
Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Thu 2 Dec 04 06:38
Thanks, Cynthia. "The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker," is one of the most interesting books I've come across for a while. It's about the thought--the cognitive dimensions--necessary for what's usually considered physical work. It is also the story of our social biases about intelligence: what we think constitutes intelligence and what we overlook or just plain dismiss. Those biases inform the judgment of who we are, what we can do, and by extension, who's valuable in our society and who's less so. Mike, let's begin with what you call the dynamics of occupational status and social class. Would you explain a little bit about that?
Mike Rose (mike-rose) Thu 2 Dec 04 12:43
First, let me thank Cynthia for that nice introduction, and let me say how pleased I am to begin this exchange with Pamela McCorduck, whose work I greatly admire. Well, let's start with social class, which is a big, broad term used by many people who write about the way society is organized. For our purposes, let's say that social class refers to categories of people who share particular economic and social characteristics. In America, we are not as used to talking about social class, because historically our citizens are somewhat less stratified than they were in, for example, 19th century England. Also, we Americans believe very strongly in social mobility and in the possibility of people rising up the economic ladder. A classic American fable is the Horatio Alger story, in which an impoverished boy through hard work becomes hugely successful. What is indisputable is that American society does make differentiations among people based on factors like their family lineage, their income, and the kind of work they do. So, for example, all of my forbears were blue collar workers (machinists, welders, laborers) or worked in the service industries--my mother was a waitress. Most sociologists would classify them as working class or perhaps lower middle class. (The very term "blue collar" stands as a symbol for a particular class position.) The Kennedys, on the other hand, would be categorized as upper class. How strongly you believe that these class distinctions are fairly rigid or fairly fluid--and how damaging you think they are-- would be determined by your political outlook, your personal experience, and so on. One of the ways that Americans make class distinctions is through occupation. Occupations carry status. There are all sorts of real and symbolic differences in the status of a waitress versus a surgeon. What troubles me--and becomes a theme in The Mind at Work--is the fact that we make judgments about people's intelligence based on their occupational status. That is, we tend to assume that folks who do service work or blue collar work are not involved in activity that requires much thought, and by implication may not be all that bright. This becomes one of the "hidden injuries of class," to borrow a phrase from the sociologists Sennett and Cobb. What I try to do in The Mind at Work is to demonstrate the intelligence--the learning, reasoning, problem solving--involved in everyday work.
Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Thu 2 Dec 04 12:53
You demonstrate it conclusively, I think. One of the best things about the book is its specifics, its case studies, so to speak. Let's start, as you start the book, with waitressing. What kind of skills does a successful waitress need?
Mike Rose (mike-rose) Fri 3 Dec 04 10:34
Let's begin with memory. As my mother put it during one of the interviews I had with her: "To be a waitress, you have to have one hell of a good memory." Especially in the kind of restaurant that my mother and tens of thousands of waitresses and waiters work in--economical prices, quick turnover--the waitress is remembering who ordered what dish, extra items requested, the preferences of regulars, etc. The efficient waitress also gets very good at prioritizing tasks, and she does this on the fly as she is moving through the busy restaurant. So if she is simultaneously getting a request from one customer for a refill on his coffee, and from another for more mustard, and from another who dropped her fork, how can she order these requests so that she doesn't run herself ragged. In line with the above, she also gets very good at grouping tasks, that is, what can she do, let's say, as she is going back to get a food order, can she grab both the fork and the mustard at the same time. The waitress is also attending to her environment, she is vigilant, and again this is often while she is in motion. She keeps an eye on things. She also has a general sense of how long different orders take to prepare, so a flag will go up for her if she notices that her customer waiting for the shrimp plate has been sitting there for a period of time longer than it should take to prepare that item. Also, I think it's important to note that all of the social stuff that the good waitress does--what tends to get labeled as pleasant service--involves certain intellectual moves. She is good at reading social cues, at understanding all the different aspects of interaction in a restaurant. She also has to be aware of what's going on emotionally with her co-workers, the manager, the cook, the busboys. Let's say the cook is in a particularly foul mood this morning, and one of her churlish regulars wants to send an item back. How does she negotiate that? So all this and more is going on quickly, and the waitress has to be able to handle it all in the flow of work. It involves a lot of processing of information, decision making, and a pretty decent knowledge base about the restaurant and its various routines and characteristics.
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Fri 3 Dec 04 11:50
(NOTE: Offsite readers who have comments or questions can email them to email@example.com to have them added to this conversation)
Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Fri 3 Dec 04 12:44
It struck me how careful waitresses and waiters need to be about reading emotional cues--not only from customers (upon whose tips they depend) but also, as you say, the cooks and other people in the restaurant. It's only recently that emotional intelligence has even moved on to the radar of most psychologists, isn't it?
Up from Management (archipelago) Fri 3 Dec 04 19:21
Waitresses( and waiters and bartenders and hairdresses )do very critical community work. In a small town especially,the better a waitress performs, the busier her joint can get. Some people, like Studs Terkel's waitress in _Working_ literally perform. But the real essential service work lies in keeping track of the history and patterns of relationship within the small town called Clientele, serving,eciding which news to pass on to whom, etc. Indeed, some people become so accomplished at reading the tracks that they begin to read pheromonal records. I've known woman in servicwe positions who were aware of pregnancies before the woman who was pregnant. I wear my hair long, and often it gets so tangled that I go to a hairdresser to get it untangled. Once an old friend came with me to visit while the hairdresser shampooed my hair, dressed it and then began to carefuly, almost lovingly, remove the snarls.The woman's touchh was an almost magical combination of intimacy and neutrality.Shortly after she began my friend and settled into a kind of rapt state, and my friend began to talk about something which was really bothering, something he had not been able to bring up. Apparently just watching me relax put him at ease enough to unburden himself. I don't often hear of hairdressers described as psychotherapists, nor do I know of any psychotherapists who shampoo their patients' hair as a way of facilitating dialog.... I'm sure that there's something wrong with that. When I was young I had the good fortune to work as a garbageman in a city large enough to be cosmopolitan and small that I could cover all kinds of neighborhoods in a week. In a month's time I had a socio/economic/ ethnic profile that was totally accurate, totally up to the minute.I or any of my colleagues could have run marketing campaigns with deadly accuracy. We could have informed the medical professionals about the increases in diabetes in certain ethnic groups (which are going on even as I type).There seem to be many crippling epistomological prejudices built into our social and economic structures. Garbagemen are untouchables, but untouchables are the only ones who get to observe other people intimately enough in some ways to know what's really going on. Perhap that's why they're untouchables... I am fortunate to be in a racket where the mind and the hands constantly have to inform one another..where executive decisions can mean your life as well as your living. ( I'm a commercial fisherman).There is no room in fishing to believe that only one form of knowing is valid.The function of working people in society is wel described in a book by an anthropologist named Douglas Harper: Working Knowledge- Skill Craft and Community in A Small Shop. In societies like Alaska where there are still healthy resources, certain technical skills determine patterns of resource allocation as effectively as the banker's participation.
Michael E. Marotta (mercury) Sat 4 Dec 04 07:18
It is interesting that these prejudices continue, but they are nonetheless real. When you say, "My mother was a waitress, an I am a university professor," the reply is not "Gee, too bad you don't have a great memory and are saddled with poor people skills, otherwise you might have made something of yourself." My work experience includes a lot of time in factories. When I have "professional" work, I am a technical writer. Otherwise, I have driven a forklift, run a drill press, and so on. Teaching robot operations and programming, most of my client learners were electricians. They carry a lot of mathematics in their heads. The daily grind consists of clamping the red wire to the red lead. Even so, there is a constant need to know the theory, especially when installing new equipment, versus fixing an established workcell that has failed for some simple reason. Even that requires insight if not intuition that is seldom appreciated. One of the truths in robotics is that in the 1960s the engineers and managers thought that if they could install enough intelligent machines, they could get rid of these pesky unionized workers. The truth was quickly learned. If you want good welds, train a welder to program a robot. If you give a robot to a programmer, you do not get good welds -- though you do get elegant programs. When it comes to making automobiles that sell, good programming does get you what good welding does. The continuance of prejudice against blue collar work comes from many sources. The workers themselves know that they are in abusive, dehumanizing employment and want "something better" for their children. That does not translate into: "Don't die of work-related cancer like me. You kids have the opportunity to become middle managers who will die of stress." There is also a curious denial of the obvious -- what has been called "the fallacy of the stolen concept." Imagine a book called DOCTORS ARE NOT ARROGANT. My wife is Microsoft certified and has worked as a waitress for most of her life. Even a few years ago, to buy a new laptop, she got a job at the local "Big Boy." The fact is that not everyone who serves food is an empathetic logician. The ones who do it _well_ are. I think that the truth is that anyone who does any job well is accomplished because they take pride in themselves and apply all their skills to the tasks at hand.
David Gans (tnf) Sat 4 Dec 04 08:08
Welcome, Mike - thank you for joining us. > What troubles me--and becomes a theme in The Mind at Work--is the fact that > we make judgments about people's intelligence based on their occupational > status. That is, we tend to assume that folks who do service work or blue > collar work are not involved in activity that requires much thought, and by > implication may not be all that bright. I remember a big deal being made of Eric Hoffer, "longshoreman-philosopher," when I was a kid in the early '60s. And thank you, archipelago, for this in <7>: > Garbagemen are untouchables, but untouchables are the only ones who get to > observe other people intimately enough in some ways to know what's really > going on.
Mike Rose (mike-rose) Sat 4 Dec 04 09:36
First let me respond quickly to Pamela's question about emotional intelligence. Actually, there is a fairly long history of writing about "social intelligence", although it was not necessarily called that. Then about five or six years ago there was a best seller called Emotional Intelligence, so we are much more aware of the notion that reading and responding to social cues and other forms of social and emotional processes involves some kind of cognition. In the final analysis, whether there is a separate mode of intelligence for the social and emotional, or whether smart social response is simply part of our intellectual capacity, I can't be sure. But it seems pretty clear that, for example, the good waitress and hairstylist have certain emotional and interpersonal smarts and sensibilities. I would also like to respond quickly to the three commentaries. Up From Management: thank you for bringing up Douglas Harper's Working Knowledge. I love that book, and it influenced me when I was working on mine. I also really like your notion about the knowledge that garbage collectors acquire through their work. Most people who work at a job over time acquire all sort of knowledge, some of which would be surprising if it were made public. I was also really taken with your observation about the role that folks like waitresses and hairstylist play within a community. I think you are right on the money. In fact, a while ago some community mental health psychologists trained hairstylists in counseling techniques because they realize how much informal counseling goes on in the hair salon. Thanks for your thoughtful response. Micheal E. Marotta: Michael, I couldn't agree more with your observations about robotics, automation, and the on-the-ground knowledge, the knowledge from experience that seasoned factory workers have. In chapter six of The Mind at Work (entitled "Two Lives: A Welder and a Foreman"), I write about my uncle who worked at general motors all his life, beginning on the line. He certainly possessed the kind of knowledge you're talking about. Thanks for your response. David Gans: Oh my Gosh, David, I remember Eric Hoffer also. He became quite the celebrity. A long shoreman-writer who I like a lot better is Reg Theriault. Have you read his How to Tell When You're Tired.
Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Sat 4 Dec 04 10:52
For me, one telling experience is to watch one of these "unskilled" jobs done badly. THEN you know how hard it is! My husband and I went to the Culinary Institute of America, where chefs-in-training also must work the school dining room. It was so achingly hard for them, your heart just went out to them. In short, it takes a lot of training and smarts to do these jobs well.
Alan Turner (arturner) Sat 4 Dec 04 12:50
As someone who can't remember what I went downstairs for, I'm always amazed that waitresses manage to keep so much in their heads. A couple of years ago I started working in an industrial environment, and I was amazed at the things that some of the machinists knew. The best of them had an amazing kinesthetic sense, when welding or cutting or drilling. It only comes with experience, you could read about it all day long and never actually learn it. But this knowledge is discounted: You weld this to that, what's the big deal? On the other hand, one shop I worked at had a rather routine job of cutting pipes to certain exact lengths. One worker there had a cheat-sheet written on the back of a business card that the shop foreman made for him. 1/8 1/4 3/8 1/2 5/8 3/4 7/8 One inch. It was just sad and depressing to know that good as this guy was on the Kalamazoo bandsaw, he needed notes to help him figure out fractions more complicated than one half.
Chris (cooljazz) Sat 4 Dec 04 18:16
Mike, just catching up, and forgive me I'm still reading the book. "...One of the ways that Americans make class distinctions is through occupation. Occupations carry status..." Following the threads here, one of the professions (or should I say occupations) to be named are the butchers at the local supermarkets. Some wonderful posts on waitresses above, "...I'm always amazed that waitresses manage to keep so much in their heads. ..." so I wonder if you've had time to spend with the meat cutters and the butchers? I shop "European style" (buy it, cook it, eat it, same day) and the butchers at the local store recognize me when I arrive ( as they recognize many other customers). I've noticed many times that the people behind the counter remember what I ordered the day before. I've always thought that to be a remarkable talent. (And, as butchers, I notice they have all ten fingers!) Please let me know how these folks fit in your worldview.
Lena M. Diethelm (lendie) Sun 5 Dec 04 06:19
When I was reading about your Mom waitressing, what I was struck by was what a strategic thinker she was. It's a word not traditionally applied to the types of work in your book.
Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Sun 5 Dec 04 07:49
Yes, it's strategic thinking on the fly--it's very hard. And physically hard on you--some people who wait tables can do it into their fifties and sixties, but most burn out before that: bad feet and varicose veins sideline them. Mike, your chapter on waitressing also mentions how central her work was to your mom's sense of self and "engagement with the world." Perhaps you could say a little more about that too.
Mike Rose (mike-rose) Sun 5 Dec 04 09:42
This is a wonderful series of comments. Let me respond to each in turn. Pamela: You are so right about how revealing it is when a "simple job" is done poorly. I experience it all the time when I try to fix something; I am continually surprised and flustered at my ineptitude. And then I am further surprised and more than a little humbled when someone else comes along and fixes the damn thing with an adroit turn of the wrist. In the chapter "Two Lives: A Welder and a Foreman", my uncle says there is no such thing as an unskilled job. The tools that he used for his first job at General Motors were a piece of sand paper and a water hose. Hour after hour he would sand the side of a car body and rinse it. Yet the people who could do this work well and without collapsing had developed all kinds of routines and tricks to get the job done. Alan Turner: Alan, I very much like what you have to say about the kinesthetic sense that is developed. As someone who is pretty ham-handed, I am amazed by it. You raise a further issue, though, that I think is important when you mention that little cheat sheet with the numbers. One of the awful things about way too many jobs is that they put such constraint on what people can do and learn. (A good book on this issue is Barbara Garson's All the Live Long Day.) I guess the good thing about the example that you cite is that this fellow was able to use the skills he did have to make a living. The sad thing is that the job did not afford him the opportunity to develop further skills. Chris: I think you are exactly right about butchers. They possess a solid knowledge base and are manually adroit. Furthermore, as you note, part of their job is interacting with the public, and as we have been saying, that brings its own knowledge base and interpersonal skills. I did not get a chance to study their work in any detail, so I'm glad you brought them up. Lena and Pamela: I'm so glad that you both bring up again the business of strategic thinking. We talk all the time about strategy in everything from sports to wall street, but seem to forget that we are surrounded by people thinking strategically--and often in difficult situations. Pamela: Yes, I think this business of identity is really important. For those of you reading The Mind at Work, you'll notice that the last part of the chapter on my mother deals with this issue. My mother had a very limited formal education, but waiting on tables was something that she could do very well, and it gave her a sense of pride--even though it was also punishing work. Given the significant social-economic constraints she was born into and grew up in, with waitressing she was able to find a way to "be with the public" (which was very important to her), to exercise competence, to have the sense that she was supporting her son and her ailing husband--and all this contributed to her sense of who she was and of her self-worth. I think there's also an important political and theoretical issue here. Too often discussion of working-class folks, either from the right or the left, tend to paint them in one-dimensional ways. What I try to show in the discussion of my mother is that her work was both a source of physical punishment, frustration, and hardship and, as well, a source of income and satisfaction, and was a source of her self fulfillment.
Up From Management (archipelago) Sun 5 Dec 04 19:37
Up From Management (archipelago) Sun 5 Dec 04 22:15
Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Mon 6 Dec 04 08:37
Post 17 above has been hidden by its author owing to its length (alas, this is a medium that lends itself best to short bursts). I've ported some of what <archipeligo> says about welding because, in fact, Mike's book does address welding, and no reason why we can't move to that topic ourselves. So <archipeligo> says: We of the calloused hands might have certain questions about automation, such as by what sort of intellectual legerdemain did we come up with the idea that since a tool was *Programmed* the art of it could be assumed to be an integral part of the operating system?That's quite a rabbit to pull out of such a small hat... I've never worked with robots, but it occurs to me that the next step in the robot's evolution would necessarily be that the whole system programming would need to be done by programmers who had been taught to weld. It also seems to me that teaching a welder to grow into programming whole systems *might * be easier than teaching a programmer to weld well enough to see the REAL bugs in the programs.
Mike Rose (mike-rose) Mon 6 Dec 04 10:49
Archipelago raises an important point about automation. The point is that though human skill is, in a sense, built into the technical system, the system still relies on human knowledge to troubleshoot problems with it, to assess the quality of what it does, and to refine it. And then, of course, there's all sorts of situations where something like welding cannot be done robotically, where human flexibility, and touch, and experience are crucial.
Gail Williams (gail) Mon 6 Dec 04 11:37
The economics of the matter, and the kind of general education level in American society, at least, really rob of of some kinds of intelligence that could make life better in general and make some jobs more fun. Imagine if gas station attendants were trained in map reading, tutored on what was near the station, and encouraged to help with naviagition. Not only would this improve transportation in a broad sense, it could make a job more rewarding, and bring more pride into a mundane task. That example comes to mind -- since I have asked for directions at gas stations enough to know that in general the workers don't know, and have evidently been told not to care about helping with navigation, even when other higher priorities do not conflict. I know the people doing the hiring are not paying enough to be able to ask for the ability to read maps, by conventional wisdom, but all kinds of other learning goes on on the job. Why not honor the intelligence of workers by expanding into desirable and valued skills? Just a thought arising from a lot of twarted attempts to get information from people who'd seemly enjoy giving it with just a little preparation and encouragement.
www.billcostley.blog-city.com (billcostley) Mon 6 Dec 04 13:35
Growing up in a one-principal empoloyer/factory city, like my father, I first worked hands-on 'service' then industrial jobs, but then moved on to clerical jobs in the military-industrial engineering complex, then to the skilled 'symbol-manipulation'verbal-trades (marcom, PR) in the computer trade. I also taught twice, most recently multi-lingual male community-college students in a Toyota-sponsored program to move up from being car-repair techs. to certified automotive engineers (at a beginning level.) Through a close friend who taught art-appreciation at the same school, I found out how much those students would earn on their first job ($80K), so I told them: "Look, here's my real resume (handing it out); as you can see I'm not just a high-school writing teacher, I'm a real, working writer. I know what you'll be getting paid if you finsh this program: about twice what I was paid in the local major computer companies as a PR-writer. We both want you to finish this program, and to do it you have to pass this course. I don't believe in flunking anybody, so you've already passed. Now let's see how you did it, in writing." I soon got 'better' writing out of them than any previous teacher had, and I'm told previous classes like them had mercilessly ragged previous teachers, esp. if they were women. My writer-wife (with a background like mine) said I just alpha-dogged them. Maybe so. But to do it, I let them know that they were about to become better paid dogs than I will ever be. Conclusion: I not only didn't patronize them, I told them the truth; shared socio-economic truth helps, rather than hurts. I gather this is the underlying premise of this conference. Good; it should underly everything else, too (including education, politics, and on-line communities - like The Well.)
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Mon 6 Dec 04 18:00
re: #19, I agree that teaching a programmer to weld, or a welder to program, might be kind of difficult (though certainly not impossible). But you shouldn't have to do that. There's no reason a programmer couldn't work with a welder to write good welding software, and they'll both learn something from the experience. That actually points out a different problem - in many companies, the programmers never talk to the end-users, let alone work with them.
E M Richards (booter) Mon 6 Dec 04 20:11
I started reading the book a while ago, but one thing that I am having trouble wrapping my mind around is the inclusion of all the desribed professions in the same general premise that some folks look down on them as "less intelligent". I can see the bias against wait staff and hairdressers, but I just don't see that kind of bias against plumbers and electricians. The joke is that their services are expensive. The general feeling I get is that they are viewed as professionals. The interesting thing I've picked up about waiting tables is that I think it is a great profession for people who are training to be film and TV actors. They have to have a good short term memory to carry those lines in their heads and need a good sense of where their bodies are in a space. Something that did not come up is that, within these professions, there is a kind of class strata. In hairdressing, there are the shops that do little more than apply press-on nails and do hair that is so awful that the cutter uses a curling iron to cover up the mess. Then there are shops that do a serviceable job to their not-too-high-income communities, like places with skilled hair weavers and colorists. Then there are the hair designers who have extremely skilled cutters and colorists catering to the upper classes. In waiting, there is the maitre d' at Chez Panisse Cafe in all his black-clad, shaven headed elegance and there are the "warm your cup, honey?" folks at diners. Did you, in your research, see that kind of difference and how it is manifested? Also, are the skill sets significantly different for the haughty maitre d' versus the homey waitress? (Usual disclaimer: I come from blue collar, so what do I know?)
Alan Turner (arturner) Mon 6 Dec 04 22:47
One thing that you mention in the mechanical trades is the "aesthetic" of the work. It might seem odd, at first. If all the wiring works, then who cares if it's a tangled mess or not? It works, right? Wrong. There are a couple of reasons why it matters. In first place, the neater the work is, the easier it will be for someone to troubleshoot or modify it in the future, should that be necessary (and that almost always happens eventually, anyway). But the second, and perhaps more important reason is that people who don't know the details of a trade can at least notice if it looks nice. They have no way to evaluate the actual quality of the work, but they can and will notice if the wires are run neatly, if the pipes don't have unnecessary bends, and so on. And THAT's the only thing they have to go on, and that's how they judge the job. In a way, it's almost the opposite of something where the look is what people are buying. Wedding dresses are made to look pretty for a few hours, but often they are not made well - they're only going to be worn for a few hours anyway. Or certain makes of car that look great, but have a terrible record of reliability. Looks count, quality may not. In the mechanical trades, the customer, usually a layman, has no way to judge the reliability of the work. All he has to go on is how it looks. So while it might seem odd that an electrician or a plumber or a welder puts an emphasis on the mere appearance of his work, that may well be the only way his work is evaluated. Quality counts, looks don't really, but the look of it is what the client goes by, having no real way to evaluate the work.
Members: Enter the conference to participate