I’ve been working very satisfactorily and productively these last few months at a coworking space in downtown Ann Arbor called Workantile. It’s great.
A few days ago, we were visited by a professor and some sort of graduate student from Michigan’s Graduate School of Business. Coworking is a fashionable topic among MBA types, as it’s closely associated with Bay Area startup culture, “innovation,” etc.
But this is Ann Arbor. I’m not the only academic who works here — split pretty evenly between the humanities and the social sciences. And while the people who run the space gamely spoke to the representatives of the business school, a few of the rest of us took it as an opportunity to reflect on differences in research culture between professional schools and the rest of the university. One former archaeologist with a PhD from an anthropology department, wryly asked them if they’d filled out the paperwork to perform research on human subjects. They didn’t know what he was talking about. They are not us.
My reflection was to note my own strange transformation in the eyes of these scholars of work as soon as I crossed State Street, the main dividing line between UM’s central campus and downtown Ann Arbor. Were I a graduate student at Michigan, doing precisely the same work over in Angell Hall or the Grad Library, not only would I not have cheap access to good coffee, I would also not be doing interesting work in the eyes of the business school. God knows the academy isn’t a model they would have any interest in whatsoever.
Yes, there are all manner of project managers and software engineers clicking away on laptops, but you’ll occasionally find a stack of blue books on a desk, too. Lawyers are doing Westlaw searches, but I’m bouncing packets through UC’s VPN to search ECCO and Project Muse, tracking down citations. Perhaps one lesson here, which I feel may not be getting picked up, is about how laptop computers have create an undifferentiated aesthetic of ‘work.’ Coworking is about the materiality of ‘immaterial’ labor, in which we recognize that the alleged ‘immateriality’ of this labor would be better named its ‘plasticity.’
But man, that exposed brick.