Monday, 19 May 2014

The voluntariat

Thirty years ago I secured my first academic job in NE England and found myself as the token population biologist in a very molecular Genetics Department.  I needed a computer with some ooomph, which meant learning another operating system to help me forget OS/VS1 which, for example, had allowed me to teach myself FORTRAN as well as to word-process, and print out on a daisy-wheel printer, my PhD thesis. In Newcastle upon Tyne, they had embraced MTS (Michigan Terminal System) which was handy enough but took some getting used to.  I ferreted out a chap in IT who was a) an MTS whizz and b) generous with his time, so I used to go down the road to pull on his coat quite a lot.  In the course of one of these sessions I mentioned with a approval a pal-o-mine who was volunteering to do something for the community. My MTS contact dissed the whole idea sharpish because if my middle-class friend (who had a job) was volunteering on another project as well, then he was depriving a worker elsewhere of a job.  I was confused and clearly out of my depth with the political implications; I didn't want to get in a fight over it so I didn't articulate the basis of my approval of voluntary work: I just slunk away.  I hadn't done a lot of volunteer work myself except a tuthree days and nights back in 1972 at Stansted Airport.  There, then, I had helped Ugandan Asians get off the planes and make their way through a huge hangar into a new life in Britain.  They had just been expelled from their country by Idi "batshit-bonkers" Amin with 90 days notice and what amounted to little more than hand-baggage.  I was there to help with the heavy-lifting at the Women's Institute tea table. It was an interesting experience and I thought I did those bewildered people some small service, if only by being demonstrably kind, courteous and welcoming. They'd experience a different reality of life in Britain soon enough when they tried to find work and a place to live in, say, Leicester.  I felt back in 1972 that it was a bit o craic.  In 1984 when challenged to think about volunteerism I thought that there were some things that shouldn't/couldn't be monetised.  If the WI (and little old lifting & carrying me) hadn't been there on those nights, the unwilling guests of the nation would have had a very cold welcome and no tea at all at all.

Yesterday, I was listening to Marion Finucane on the wireless as she interviewed with approval a bloke, a professional comic, who was an active volunteer with Blood Bike East.  These chaps - they are mostly chaps - take up some of the slack in the Health Service Executive HSE by delivering blood, blood products, breast-milk and X-rays between hospitals out of office hours.  That is on the face of it a worthy and commendable aim and all of Finucane's guests thought it was excellent idea. Except that,  if BBE didn't exist, this work would be carried out by taxi-drivers or couriers. That means that there are some taxi-drivers and couriers who are on the dole because there isn't enough work to employ them. People on the dole are more likely to get heart-attacks, depression and a rake of other maladies up to and including suicide.  Each of us may do the utilitarian math, like I did on Cryptosporidium, and quite probably come up with different answers.

Now, I'm a teacher (a label I'm getting more comfortable with after more than a year at The Institute) as well as an evolutionary biologist (in which suit I've been pretty comfortable for a long time) and I'm not in it for the money. I work on my teaching all the hours I have available after The Blob; baking bread and flapjacks; bottle-feeding lambs; scything the 3 acre; splitting wood for next winter and getting drunk on cheap red wine. I was joking about the last - it is impossible to get cheap red wine in Ireland.  So when I was asked to teach on a course at another institution a while ago, I was willing enough to share my expertise in that way.  But I didn't think I should do it for free, because the other place was charging the students whom I was teaching some thousands of €€€ for the education they were providing.  Sorry, who was providing facilitating  (me, I don't provide education, I help people learn) the education?  hmmmm, let me think, would it be the institution or the teachers or both together? Well let me say that this other institution was most unwilling to share-crop the proceeds by paying me, say, the minimum wage: it was as much as I could do to get them to pay the bus fare and that only on the presentation of receipts. I don't think the people with whom I dealt in that institution really understood what I was getting all Jesuitical about.

This has been brought into focus for me because of a report on Metafilter pointing at a quite angry piece-to-camera about the Rise of the Voluntariat. Read it before you volunteer next. The coinage is a deliberate echo of the proletariat of Marx. The labour of both groupiats is exploited by Capital to amass profit for directors and shareholders. Geoff Shullenberger the author has some thoughtful things to say about unpaid externs, the on-line educator Coursera, and volunteer translators. "We should continue to expose the expanding extraction of profit from labor forms premised on “intrinsic rewards.”  I love my job, it's great fun. I don't need to be incentivised to do it by (more) money. The Institute is, however, charging students or their parents or the government on behalf of the students a chunk of money to get access to the classes I and others facilitate, so they should, and do, pay me.

When I was in America, I saw a sign on the back of a plumber's pick-up saying "Please don't ask to borrow my tools, they are my living".  Helping your neighbours is a great thing, it lifts the spirit even as the barn is being raised. But I'm not so happy to ask my friends-and-relations to do me a favour in a matter of their core business.  When one of our trees needs surgery, I am right happy that Chris del Bosque can find time to deal with it; it's absurd to think that he should do the work for free.  Next time either of is need to replastic a polytunnel, however, I know we'll be there for each other happy to work all day for dinner and a couple of beers.

Heck, if it was easy I wouldn't be blobbing about it.

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