“The Wire” as work primer

A few weeks after the standard wave of school Commencement ceremonies, philosophy professor Evan Selinger (Rochester Institute of Technology) took to the pages of the Boston Globe (link here) for the purpose of offering one piece of advice to recent graduates: 

It’s the 20th anniversary of “The Wire,” a television show widely regarded as the greatest series of the 21st century. Viewing it is one of the best gifts you can give yourself if you’re a recent high school or college graduate, because nothing else will prepare you so well for the workforce.

Hmm…”The Wire” as a sort of prep course for the world of work?

Yup, and here’s a good snippet of Dr. Selinger’s explanation:

“The Wire” takes a cynical look at how systems — a combination of policies, procedures, and norms — maintain the status quo and prevent reformers from sparking change. The show portrays police work as focused on generating statistics that give the appearance of crime decreasing rather than genuinely making communities safer. “The Wire” presents a broken educational system in which teachers are forced to focus their efforts on getting students to pass standardized tests rather than helping them learn information and skills that will improve their lives. It shows newspapers driven to win awards more than to cover stories that benefit the communities they serve. And it presents politicians as publicly proclaiming that they are devoted public servants while privately making shady deals and scheming to enrich themselves.

In sounding such a pessimistic tone, Selinger emphasizes that he’s doing so to offer some lessons about the real world of work. They include:

  • “First, you’ll gain a better understanding of why people in different jobs express similar grievances.”
  • “Second, you’ll develop a better appreciation of whistleblowers — of their bravery and commitment.”
  • “Third, you might give more thought to embracing the freedom, and risk, of working for yourself.”
  • “Fourth, you might approach work differently.”

Selinger explains his points in greater detail in the full piece, which I strongly recommend.

Systems, systems, and more systems

For all but the most independent of workers, dealing with systems is a regular part of our work lives. That includes wage and salary workers, independent contractors, and folks providing invaluable, often non-compensated work such as parenting and caregiving. We’re all navigating these systems, which may run the gamut between functional and dysfunctional.

I have written a lot about systems in articles posted to this blog. They include, among others:

  • Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week 2021: All the Pieces Matter (2021) (link here);
  • The Holocaust is a key to understanding interpersonal abuse and systems that enable it (2018) (link here);
  • Workplace bullying and mobbing: Toxic systems and the eliminationist mindset (2017) (link here);
  • Systems enable workplace bullying, so where are the systems to stop it? (2017) (link here).

The centrality of systems in our lives is why I, too, join with Dr. Selinger in recommending “The Wire” as a primer on the realities of work.

“The Wire,” speaking personally

For yours truly, “The Wire” has had an oddly therapeutic effect. I’m a reform-minded person by nature, and I can be somewhat impatient about the pace of change. “The Wire” has reminded me that positive change is often incremental and can be reversed in a second. It has taught me how organizations can be obdurate, i.e., stubbornly refusing to change. It also has illustrated how change can be foolish, negative, or yield unexpected consequences (good and bad).

In Jonathan Abrams’ All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire (2018), David Simon, the show’s brilliant creator, said this about the challenges of reforming systems:

The things that reform systems are trauma. Great trauma. Nobody gives up status quo without being pushed to the wall. I believe that politically. The great reformations of society are the result of undue excess and undue cruelty. The reason you have collective bargaining in America and it became powerful is that workers were pushed to the starvation point. The reason that you have the civil rights we do is that people were hanging from trees.

Simon doubts that systems can self-reform. Instead, he believes that systemic change requires outside pressure and awareness of trauma that cut through inhumanity or indifference.

It’s a realpolitik view from a long-time, deeply insightful observer of our condition. And while these realities haven’t softened my desire to be an agent for positive change, they have made me more committed towards prompting good results over the long haul.

The Amy Wax situation: On academic freedom, diversity & inclusion, workplace mobbing, and cancel culture

Screenshot from Inside Higher Education

Applying just about any conventional measure, law professor Amy Wax has built a spectacularly successful career. She holds a chaired professorship at an Ivy League law school (University of Pennsylvania). She has assembled a ferocious c.v. (link here), loaded with sterling academic and professional achievements, publications, and awards. Her degrees include a J.D. from Columbia and an M.D. from Harvard.

And yet she is under heavy fire for an ongoing, alleged series of polarizing, critical statements and negative characterizations about people of color, women, and gays. For that she faces potential discipline and loss of tenure protections. The Dean of her law school has asked the university’s faculty senate to impose sanctions on her, a possible prelude towards eventual termination proceedings.

Scott Jaschik, writing for Inside Higher Education (link here), provides a lot of details about this situation, which has received national attention. Here’s his lede:

Some students and faculty at the University of Pennsylvania have been clamoring for years for the ouster of Amy Wax, the polarizing law professor who courted scandal with incendiary and racist remarks and writings and seemed to relish the resulting controversies. Despite the repeated calls for her removal from her tenured position, and the criticisms of her actions—including by university leaders—that followed each controversy, Wax remained in the position and seemed firmly protected by free speech and academic freedom rights.

That pattern may be about to change: the dean of the Penn law school has started a process that could lead to Wax’s termination.

To be clear, we’re not talking about an isolated instance or two of questionable speech. From Penn Law dean Theodore Ruger’s memorandum to the Chair of the Faculty Senate (link here), here are some of Prof. Wax’s alleged statements, made to individual students, her classes, and public audiences:

  • “Stating in class that Mexican men are more likely to assault women and remarking such a stereotype was accurate in the same way as ‘Germans are punctual.'”
  • “Commenting in class that gay couples are not fit to raise children and making other references to LGBTQ people that a student reported evinced a ‘pattern of homophobia.'”
  • “Commenting after a series of students with foreign-sounding names introduced themselves that one student was ‘finally, an American’ adding, ‘it’s a good thing, trust me.'”
  • Telling a Black student…”who asked whether Wax agreed with [a panelist’s] statements that Black people are inherently inferior to white people, that ‘you can have two plants that grow under the same conditions, and one will just grow higher than the other.'”
  • Telling a Black student “that Black students don’t perform as well as white students because they are less well prepared, and that they are less well prepared because of affirmative action.”
  • “Stating, based on misleading citation of other sources, that ‘women, on average, are less knowledgeable than men,’ women are ‘less intellectual than men’ and there is ‘some evidence’ for the proposition that ‘men and women differ in cognitive ability.'”
  • “Stating that ‘our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites.'”
  • “Stating that Asians have an ‘indifference to liberty,’ lack ‘thoughtful and audacious individualism’ and that ‘the United States is better off with fewer Asians and less Asian immigration.’”
  • “Stating that ‘there were some very smart Jews’ among her past students but that Ashkenazi Jews are ‘diluting [their] brand like crazy because [they are] intermarrying.'”
  • “Stating that low-income students may cause ‘reverse contagion,’ infecting more ‘capable and sophisticated’ students with their ‘delinquency and rule-breaking.'”
  • “Stating that ‘if you go into medical schools, you’ll see that Indians, South Asians are now rising stars. . . . [T]hese diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are poisoning the scientific establishment and the medical establishment now.'”

In her recently posted GoFundMe appeal to create the “Amy Wax Legal Defense Fund” (link here), Prof. Wax states that Dean Ruger’s charges of inappropriate conduct are an attack on her conservative principles and are “littered with indignant invective and unsubstantiated and distorted claims.” She adds:

Penn Law Dean Ruger’s latest steps are part of a longstanding campaign at Penn Law School against me based on my stated positions, opinions, and speech, and despite my stellar performance as an award-winning teacher and academic during my decades-long career as a law professor. Penn’s actions represent an unprecedented and deeply destructive threat to the practice and traditions of free expression on campus and the tenure protections afforded to professors who express unpopular views. They are further evidence of the “woke” takeover of our university system, which seeks to stifle and punish dissent and purge our campuses of any deviation from a narrow set of progressive dogmas.

Academic freedom and tenure

While academic tenure may not be the lifetime job guarantee that some claim it is, it’s true that tenured professors at stable institutions who perform their work satisfactorily can expect continued employment. (For more about this topic, see my blog article, “What is academic tenure?,” link here.) And as a tenured professor at a prestigious university, Prof. Wax enjoys some of the strongest job protections available to any American employee.

One of the main purposes of tenure is to safeguard academic freedom in teaching, scholarship, and service activities. This includes freedom of expression, written or spoken. I regard academic freedom and tenure as carrying both rights and responsibilities. They include earned protections and accompanying obligations to perform one’s job with integrity. Tenure revocation is possible in cases of serious misconduct.

For controversial speech in such a context, I suggest that we establish a spectrum between being a thought-provoking scholar and being a simple provocateur.

The thought-provoking scholar pushes the boundaries of our assumptions and perceptions, using facts, analysis, interpretation, and sometimes creative expression. At times, this may include voicing or supporting unpopular viewpoints. The simple provocateur is more akin to a keyboard warrior, playing to the crowd in the comments section. This is the stuff of the internet troll and has very little to do with reasoned thought.

Where Amy Wax places on that spectrum may help us understand how her situation should be resolved. If her statements are considered so outlandish, irresponsible, and hurtful as to constitute misconduct, then sanctions may be in offing.

One of the most challenging considerations here is that we don’t have a bevy of comparable situations to give us guidance on how this should be handled. Assuming that Prof. Wax said or wrote most of the statements attributed to her, then this is a far cry from more typical scenarios that involve isolated instances or a small cluster of utterances deemed problematic.

It’s fair to point out that if Wax had been employed in a standard-brand, private-sector job setting (like a law firm or medical center), then it’s likely that she would’ve been terminated for cause already, perhaps following disciplinary warnings or a suspension. But academic freedom and tenure provide both substantive and procedural protections that most jobs do not offer.

Diversity and inclusion

You can easily see how the Wax situation is tailor-made for America’s tortured and fraught political and civic dialogue about diversity and freedom of expression. Her alleged statements have caused such an uproar because many have found them to be outrageous, hurtful, and wrongheaded. They’ve come at a time when “DEI” (diversity, equity, inclusion) is a deep focus of the day, in academe and corporate America alike.

Wax’s defenders range from those who agree with the substance of her alleged statements to those who place a very high value on academic freedom. 

Workplace mobbing

Folks have every right to criticize or defend Wax. She should be subjected to appropriate discipline if she’s crossed a clear line. From my concededly distanced perch, I believe that she is at that line or has even crossed it. While some of her alleged statements may fall under the cloak of academic freedom, many others appear to be grounded in animus towards difference.

Whether one agrees with Wax or not, there’s always a risk that critical voices can become an unruly mob. I find Wax’s worldview deeply objectionable, but I’m not happy about workplace mobbing scenes either. Prof. Kenneth Westhues’ pathbreaking work on mobbing in academe has repeatedly illustrated how quickly and dramatically such behaviors can escalate.

I imagine that Prof. Wax is feeling quite under siege right now. I don’t envy her. If she does face any disciplinary proceedings, then I hope — for everyone’s sake — that they will be conducted with dignity, fairness, and honesty.

Cancel culture

Especially because there is no legal definition of cancel culture, it’s important that we have some understanding of what it means in the employment context. I suggest that we define cancel culture at work as a response claimed to be disproportionately harsh — typically, either severe discipline or termination — to statements or actions deemed objectionable, hurtful and/or controversial.

At this juncture, it’s hard for anyone to legitimately claim that Amy Wax has been “cancelled.” However, the University’s moves toward possible disciplinary action and/or termination will cause the term to be used. And especially if her tenure is revoked and she is dismissed, then notwithstanding any due process she had been accorded, the cries of cancel culture from certain circles will be loud and sustained.

If Wax does leave Penn under whatever circumstances, then she will very likely land on her feet. She will be accorded martyr status and will no doubt be hired by an institution more compatible with her social and ideological views.

Summing up

While admitting that I’ve waded into this conversation with some trepidation, I feel obliged to share my own sense of this situation. I consider many of Amy Wax’s alleged statements to be hurtful and divisive. They sound like those of a provocateur fueling an ugly, exclusionary worldview, rather than those of a thought-provoking professor who occupies a position of enormous privilege and responsibility.

Yup, issues surrounding diversity and difference are challenging and can yield honest differences of opinion. There is a place in that discussion for strong language. But I don’t think that the heart of Wax’s rhetoric is contributing to our understanding of these issues. Sadly, one thing I’m certain of is that the eventual outcome of this situation — whatever it happens to be — will drive a deeper wedge into our political and social divide. 

Podcast: Drs. Gary & Ruth Namie and the history of the Workplace Bullying Institute

Earlier this week, I had the privilege of interviewing Drs. Ruth and Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute about the history of their pioneering work to address workplace bullying, the latest addition to Gary’s Workplace Bullying Podcast series. The interview — a conversation, really — runs about 90 minutes. You can access it here (YouTube) or here (Podcast page, “The WBI Story — Drs. Ruth and Gary Namie”).

In 1998, I stumbled upon an online interview with Gary, in which he was describing a form of employee mistreatment that he called “workplace bullying.” He further explained that he and his wife, Ruth, had started an initiative called the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying (eventually to become the Workplace Bullying Institute). I read the interview and had a fast epiphany: Bullying at work is one of the most neglected forms of abuse in the American workplace.

I called Gary and Ruth and introduced myself as a young law professor specializing in employment law. I offered to start researching potential legal protections against workplace bullying, and they accepted. This call would lead to a partnership and friendship that have endured to this day.

Thus, it was my special privilege to interview Ruth and Gary, starting with their origin story and moving into the present day. For those who have been closely following their work for years, this story should be of special interest.

The pandemic hasn’t curbed workplace bullying, but the Great Resignation might do so

Image courtesy Clipart Panda

As discussed on this blog last year, the pandemic did not put the breaks on workplace bullying, at least in the U.S. Rather, as verified in a scientific study by the Workplace Bullying Institute done with Zogby Analytics, much of the offending behavior simply went online, mainly via video conferencing platforms such as Zoom.

But perhaps the greatest shift in the labor market related to the pandemic — tagged broadly as the “Great Resignation” — is signaling to employers that it would be in their best interests to take bullying and related behaviors more seriously. 

You see, even the mainstream business media, such as Bloomberg and Forbes, are acknowledging that toxic work cultures are a major driver of the Great Resignation. And although references to toxic work environments do not necessarily equate with workplace bullying, you can bet that the latter makes up a lot of the former.

The pandemic has given many people opportunities to reflect upon their work experiences, and a good number have reckoned that they’ve been toiling under unpleasant conditions. Overall, a more plentiful labor market has offered workers greater flexibility in terms of changing jobs.

In addition, a resurgent labor movement — most strongly evidenced by a wave of successful union organizing campaigns at Starbucks locations across the country — is providing more workers with an opportunity to voice concerns about their conditions of employment, including bullying, harassment, and abuse. Bullying and related concerns can, in turn, be raised at the bargaining table. (Some unions, such as SEIU/NAGE here in Massachusetts, have become major allies in standing against workplace bullying.)

Generational dynamics are playing a role. There’s evidence that younger workers, in particular, appear to be valuing respectful working conditions over trendy perks. Many are entering the workforce after learning about bullying and exclusion during their years of schooling.

It’s too early to tell how many employers will take hard looks at their workplace cultures in the midst of this evolving labor market. After all, if there’s one word that characterizes our current climate of employee relations and the wider frame of the economy, uncertainty is it. In fact, if the economy goes into recession, then workers may suddenly find themselves with much less bargaining power over job offers and working conditions.

Nonetheless, smart employers will proactively address bullying and other abusive workplace behaviors as part of an intelligent program of employee relations aimed at bolstering productivity and worker well-being. The resources for doing so are readily available. The Workplace Bullying Institute, for example, offers a “Healthy Workplace System” with various education and training components. For starters, it can be as simple as applying lessons from The Bully-Free Workplace (2011), by Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie.

Opportunities to build healthier workplace cultures abound. Reducing and responding to workplace bullying can be chief among them.

A view from July 5

Peeking from behind the trees, fireworks from the Boston Pops annual July 4 celebration

Yesterday, for the first time in my 28 years in Boston, I did the famous Boston Pops July 4 celebration. I’ve never been one for big crowds, but a visit from friends who wanted to experience this Boston tradition overcame my resistance. Because we opted not to do the early a.m. campout, we didn’t get in front of the bandshell, but we found a place on an adjacent Beacon Hill street where we could hear the music, peer onto the stage, and see the fireworks bursting from behind the trees. It was great fun.

Before we reached the July 4 celebration, we passed by the National Park Service monument paying tribute to the storied 54th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the first regiments of African American soldiers during the Civil War. There we talked to a Civil War re-enactor who was in full uniform. He explained to us with pride in his eyes that his family tree includes a member of that regiment, and he demonstrated the nine-step process of loading a rifle of that era. It was a wonderfully educational and heartfelt conversation.

All in all, this was a triumphant and festive day for my home city, the return of a holiday tradition that had been cancelled during the past two July 4ths due to the pandemic.

When the Boston Pops Orchestra played its medley of patriotic songs, however, I found myself getting emotional over our nation’s current state of affairs. I now live in a country as deeply divided as I’ve ever seen. And those divisions are unlikely to heal anytime soon.

The nation’s July 4 festivities were horribly savaged by news from Highland Park, Illinois — a suburb of Chicago — of a mass shooting at the town’s Fourth of July parade that left at least six people dead and over 30 injured. A suspect, a 22-year-old white male, was later peacefully taken into custody.

The city of Akron, Ohio, canceled its July 4 events in the face of weekend protests after its police department released body camera footage of up to eight officers shooting Jayland Walker, a 25-year-old African American male, some 60 times. Walker was not armed at the time he was killed.  

Even here in Boston, our holiday weekend was stained by a march of masked white supremacists through the downtown. (Going back to the 1800s, these folks insist on covering their faces.)

On a national scale, the Congressional committee investigating the January 6, 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol is accumulating more and more evidence that ties the event and participants’ insurrectionist intentions directly to former president Trump. The most damning testimony is coming from his own former staff and other longtime conservative Republicans, many of whom have stated that the election was not stolen and said that they shared this conclusion with Trump. The hearings have also revealed that several of Trump’s strongest supporters in Congress sought pardons in connection with Jan. 6, in anticipation of possible criminal prosecution.

Perhaps the most divisive recent development was last week’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to end a long-held right to abortion. The court’s holding, in turn, triggered a wave of red state laws prohibiting abortions, even in the case of rape or incest. (In fact, on CNN the other day, South Dakota governor Kristi Noem repeatedly dodged a question about whether a 10-year-old rape victim — an actual situation in Ohio — should be forced to give birth.)

The behaviors and actions I’m witnessing run counter to the kind of peaceful, ethical, and inclusive nation that I wish to see. I never thought that I would say this during my lifetime, but our American Experiment in freedom and democracy is at greater risk than at any time since the Civil War. The Stars and Stripes may fly forever, but what they represent is increasingly up for grabs.

Dr. Martha Stout on outsmarting sociopaths (including those at work)

Reading this on the subway gets me some odd looks

Years ago, when I began learning about psychiatric disorders that can fuel workplace bullying and abuse, I found Dr. Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door (2005) to be quite the eye-opener. She started by suggesting that if we want to understand a condition that may be present in roughly 4 percent of the population, then we should try to imagine living and acting without a conscience. She went on to explore the dynamics of sociopathy, mainly in terms of interpersonal relationships.

Her bottom line? If you find yourself around a sociopath, then try to distance yourself from them.

Dr. Stout’s latest work, Outsmarting the Sociopath Next Door (2020), builds strongly on her earlier, excellent volume. She explores sociopathy in different settings, including parental (if a child exhibits sociopathic traits), workplace (as in bullying and abuse), spousal/legal (especially custody battles), and criminally assaultive contexts. She also examines how private and public institutions can engage in sociopathic behaviors.

Although Stout’s advice on avoiding sociopaths still holds, she recognizes that circumstances may make it difficult to do so and offers guidance on how to interact (and not interact) with sociopaths in specific settings. In addition, she looks at potential systemic responses to sociopathy, including legal ones.

If you want to learn about sociopathy and sociopaths, then I heartily recommend both books. But if you have time for only one, then Outsmarting the Sociopath Next Door is my recommendation. It is clear that the author did a lot more digging between the publication of these books. (Among other things, Stout incorporates illustrative stories shared by readers of her first book to offer new insights.)

Sociopathy at work

I was very happy to see Dr. Stout looking deeply into our workplaces. In a chapter titled “Human Evil at Work: Sociopathic Coworkers, Bosses, and Professionals,” she dives into sociopathic behaviors on the job. This represents a major expansion of the range of her investigations and may resonate strongly with those who have experienced bullying, mobbing, and related behaviors in their jobs. It has long been my ongoing hypothesis that the worst types of bullying and abuse at work — targeted behaviors designed to drive people out of their jobs and destroy their livelihoods — are committed by folks with significant personality disorders.

I was grateful to see Dr. Stout discussing our workplace anti-bullying initiatives in her final chapter, “The Nature of Good: Compassion, Forgiveness, and Freedom.” She mentions Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie (co-founders of the Workplace Bullying Institute) and me by name and touts our work in drafting and advocating for the Healthy Workplace Bill.

In short, I highly recommend Outsmarting the Sociopath Next Door to anyone who wishes to understand the nature of sociopathy, the behaviors of sociopaths, and how the rest of us can respond to these threats to our well-being. This is an important work.

A shout-out to our workplace anti-bullying work

Great literature may help us to understand trauma

Great literature may help us to understand psychological trauma. In a newly published essay (link here), “Ahab Rages and Odysseus Weeps: Trauma as a Core Concept for Humanistic Inquiry,” I summon Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Homer’s The Odyssey for that purpose. Drawing upon Moby-Dick, I consider the injured Captain Ahab as a workplace trauma sufferer and abusive boss. Examining The Odyssey, I see Odysseus experiencing grief and exhaustion as he tries to return home after 10 years of fighting a war.

The piece has just been posted to the blog of Harrison Middleton University, a fully online university devoted to Great Books and Great Ideas, where I am a 2022 “Fellow in Ideas.” In this side-gig role, I am contributing writings to HMU’s publications and taking part in various discussion groups.

Presentation: “Bullying and Incivility in the Academic Workplace”

Earlier this year, I gave a virtual presentation about “Bullying and Incivility in the Academic Workplace” for the Northeastern University College of Science in Boston, as part of a series on “Disrupting Academic Bullying.” The recording has been posted to YouTube (link here). I use the first 18-19 minutes to cover bullying, mobbing, and incivility generally, and then I discuss these behaviors in academic work settings. My prepared remarks run for about 44 minutes in all, followed by Q&A and comments for another 25 minutes.

Relevant Earlier Posts

  • Addressing workplace bullying, mobbing, and incivility in higher education: The roles of law, cultures, codes, and coaching (2017) (link here);
  • UMass-Amherst launches campus-wide workplace anti-bullying initiative (2013) (link here);
  • Workplace bullying and mobbing in academe: The hell of heaven? (2009; rev. 2014) (link here).

Internships (paid and unpaid) are back in the news

A welcomed, if long overdue announcement from the White House and an excellent New York Times article have brought important questions about unpaid internships back into the spotlight.

Last week, the Biden Administration issued a statement (link here) announcing that, starting this fall, its interns no longer will have to work for free. This is the first time in the history of this coveted opportunity that interns will be paid, thus opening the door to highly qualified applicants who come from modest financial means. Said the White House:

Too often, unpaid federal internships have been a barrier to hardworking and talented students and professionals, preventing them from contributing their talents and skills to the country and holding them back from federal career advancement opportunities. This significant milestone of paying White House interns will help remove barriers to equal opportunity for low-income students and first-generation professionals at the beginnings of their careers and help to ensure that those who receive internships at the White House—and who will be a significant part of the leadership pipeline across the entire federal government—reflect the diversity of America.

On the heels of the White House announcement comes “Why We Still Haven’t Solved the Unpaid Internship Problem” (link here), a very informative and wide-ranging piece on the barriers posed by unpaid internships, authored by Times personal finance writer Ron Lieber. He draws upon his own experience back in the 1990s to illustrate the key issue:

Millions of college students work for money each summer because they need it and their financial aid office tells them to go earn some. Then there are those White House interns from previous administrations — often white, sometimes rich and, by summer’s end, presumably very well connected — buffing their résumés.

Is the problem evident? It first clicked in for me in the early 1990s when my interview for a summer internship at Chicago magazine was going well until I found out that I’d be working for free.

When I started asking questions — what was a financial aid recipient like me supposed to do to make enough to afford school, and isn’t this all a form of classism? — the tenor of the meeting took a turn. I didn’t get the offer.

Paying tuition to work for free

Lieber asked me to comment on the exploitative practice of colleges and universities offering academic credit for internships in return for paying tuition:

Then there’s the glaring issue of schools that offer course credit for internships.

Schools benefit from this arrangement in two ways, said David C. Yamada, a professor at Suffolk University Law School in Boston and an expert on the rules around internships. First, intern-for-credit programs can allow institutions to collect tuition for that credit, even as students are working out in the world and don’t need classroom space or an instructor standing in front of it for four months.

Then, it allows a school to say it’s providing valuable career preparation. “If I hear another university invoke the phrase ‘Hit the ground running,’ I think I’m going to scream,” he said.

Previous work

I have written often on this blog about the intern economy, especially during a period several years ago, when the issue was getting lots of media attention due to lawsuits invoking minimum wage laws to challenge the widespread practice of unpaid internships. Those legal challenges yielded some disappointing court decisions but kept open the possibility of future lawsuits. They also served a valuable consciousness-raising function that caused some employers to reconsider their internship programs and begin paying their interns.

But the overall topic has faded from public view since then. I hope that the White House pronouncement and Ron Lieber’s article will help to remedy that and prompt a resurgence of attention.

I have written several law review articles examining the legal and policy implications of unpaid internships. You may freely access pdfs of those pieces:

  • “‘Mass Exploitation Hidden in Plain Sight’: Unpaid Internships and the Culture of Uncompensated Work,” Idaho Law Review (2016) (link here) — Shorter piece emerging from a symposium of emerging employment law issues held at the University of Idaho College of Law.
  • “The Legal and Social Movement Against Unpaid Internships,” Northeastern University Law Journal (2016) (link here) — Comprehensive overview and assessment of many major legal, policy, and advocacy developments concerning unpaid internships during a critical period between 2010 and 2016.
  • “The Employment Law Rights of Student Interns,” Connecticut Law Review (2002) (link here) — Foundational article that helped to inform legal challenges to unpaid internships.

***

Update: I was interviewed by KCBS news radio in San Francisco about the recent White House announcement that it will begin paying its interns. You may listen to that brief interview here.

 

Dr. Edith Eger’s “The Gift”: Recovery and renewal for trauma survivors

In her first book, The Choice: Embrace the Possible (2017), Dr. Edith Eger recounted the major events of her life, framed by her experiences as a teenaged survivor of the Auschwitz and Mauthausen concentration camps during the Second World War. She shared the many steps of her own recovery and healing, and then described her work as a therapist helping others who have experienced significant trauma in their lives.

Dr. Edie (as she is known) has followed The Choice with The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life (2020), a compassionate, potentially transformative book that draws heavily upon her experiences and those of her patients to offer guidance on recovering from trauma. Here’s a description of the book from her website

Eger explains that the worst prison she experienced is not the prison that Nazis put her in but the one she created for herself, the prison within her own mind. She describes the twelve most pervasive imprisoning beliefs she has known—including fear, grief, anger, secrets, stress, guilt, shame, and avoidance—and the tools she has discovered to deal with these universal challenges. Accompanied by stories from Eger’s own life and the lives of her patients each chapter includes thought-provoking questions and takeaways….

Choice therapy

Dr. Edie describes her therapeutic approach as “choice therapy, as freedom is fundamentally about choice.” She identifies four core psychological perspectives that inform her eclectic method:

  • Positive psychology, i.e., moving from “learned helplessness” to “learned optimism”;
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy, i.e., “the understanding that our thoughts create our feelings and behavior”;
  • Unconditional self-love, i.e., moving away from the “misconception that we can’t be loved and genuine”; and,
  • Understanding “that our worst experiences can be our best teachers,” contributing to “healing, fulfillment, and freedom.”

On victimhood

Dr. Edie’s first lesson is the big one, leaving the “prison of victimhood.” Among her observations:

  • “Suffering is universal. But victimhood is optional.”
  • “Many of us stay in a prison of victimhood because, subconsciously, it feels safer.”
  • “Why did this happen to me? Well, why not you?”
  • “This is the first tool for moving out of victimhood: approach whatever is happening with a gentle embrace. It doesn’t mean you have to like what’s happening. But when you stop fighting and resisting, you have more energy and imagination at the ready to figure out ‘What now?’ To move forward instead of nowhere.”

Targets of workplace bullying and mobbing

For many reasons, I recommend The Gift to those who are struggling to recover from bullying and mobbing at work, especially when the abuse has resulted in major harm to well-being and livelihood. Dr. Edie has a unique voice that blends compassion and, when necessary, tough love, and both qualities can be helpful in helping folks to recover and renew from work abuse. For those trying to get “unstuck” and out of a place of rumination, this is a very good start.

Below I’ve linked to several relevant earlier articles, including two about Dr. Edie, whom I had the distinct privilege of meeting at a conference back in 2017.

Related Posts

  • Life lessons from Dr. Edith Eger, Auschwitz survivor (2018) (link here)
  • The Holocaust is a key to understanding interpersonal abuse and systems that enable it (2018) (link here)
  • Dr. Edith Eger’s “The Choice”: On trauma and healing (2017) (link here)
  • Helping workplace bullying targets get beyond rumination (2015) (link here)
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