Making Work

works“You’re just making work for yourself,” said somebody’s mother, and possibly mine.

Making work for yourself  – the reflexive component is essential to the judgmental tone — was a phrase I remember from my youth. It meant, of course, an inefficient and unnecessary expenditure of energy. It could be a task that would have to be done again anyway, though more simply and quickly, or it could be an activity that never had to be done in the first place.

The hyphenated term make-work is apparently an American form. The Oxford English Dictionary dates it to 1911, and defines it with appropriate severity as “Work or activity of little or no value devised mainly to keep someone busy.”

Prisoners at the rock pile at the state penitentiary are engaged in make-work.

The other day I had lunch with a new friend who I know only as a much-published scholar. We began the inevitable conversation about our writing projects – all academics have writing projects, for good or ill — but suddenly my friend said something about the summer being a time for making work.

Many of my own students are artists, and they frequently speak of making work. For them it means painting, building, drawing, videoing, sculpting, scripting  — being that homo faber. It’s making  – and at some level making oneself through making something that, at least on one level, isn’t oneself.

So my ears pricked up when my lunch partner used the phrase. I interrupted with a “Wait, that’s a phrase I’ve only heard from artists,” and that’s when the scholar confessed to another identity as an artist.

I complain often about phrases and terms in academic circulation, but this is one I really like. If making work is what artists say that they do, why not those of us whose work is rooted in footnotes, work that gets made in the archive, on screen, and at the word processor?

Surely making work is an artist’s term of art that is meant to honor the labor that art-making requires. It’s both a confidence-builder and a declaration. But that’s exactly what I like about it, and what I see as transferable to the honorable work of scholarship. Writing of any kind deserves a moment to be celebrated, in all its laboriousness.

Gertrude Stein’s “If it can be done, why do it?” deserves an academic update:  “If you did it easily, did you do it at all?”

Art is long, and books are often even longer. But they’re work, and that’s a good thing.

As somebody’s mother has also said, “There’s a reason they call it work.”

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