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Meaningful, flexible, and educational work

Topics/tags: Grinnell, rambly

Yesterday, Grinnell released the latest salvo [1] in its campaign to explain its opposition to the expansion of the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers to include all Grinnell student workers [2,3]. An opening paragraph [5] contains the statement that We are dedicated to creating meaningful, flexible, and educational work experiences for every student who requests one.

That’s a powerful statement. It’s also not one I’d heard before.

That’s not to say that I don’t think we have meaningful work opportunities at Grinnell. In fact, I know of a wide array of such opportunities, including peer educators, research assistants, technical consultants, partners with community organizations [6], hall wellness coordinators, program assistants, app designers and developers, and many, many more. Even the seemingly pedestrian dining services jobs are meaningful; after all, what is more meaningful than helping feed people?

Are the jobs educational? It strikes me that you learn something on every job, even if it’s that Given the choice, I’ll never do this again. Jobs also teach teamwork, responsibility, and more.

Are the jobs flexible? I suppose it depends on the job. Let’s consider class mentors; they’re the student workers I interact with the most. Class mentors generally need to be in the class they mentor; they can’t just choose to mentor at another time [7]. I make accommodations when my mentors are ill or have an unexpected conflict [8], but those situations should be rare. The College also has some clear limits on student work. For example, students are not permitted to work for pay for more than 20 hours in a week [9].

There are also broader kinds of flexibility. As far as I can tell, Grinnell does not designate certain jobs as available only for students with work-study awards. In addition, it does not seem to limit the number of hours a student can work to the hours indicated in their award letter.

So it appears to make sense that we use the terms meaningful, flexible, and educational.

On my first read, I wondered about the choice to use the phrase work opportunities rather than jobs. The cynic in me thought that one could meet the obligation by offering, say, one week in which students could choose a meaningful task and the time they complete the task, and leaving open the possibility that the remaining weeks of work are tedious and inflexible. However, the subsequent sentence, which begins These positions, suggests a broader meaning.

The pedant in me was amused by our generosity in offering experiences [10] for those who request one [11]. That pedant would prefer them to one. But it’s not fair to expect perfection in this form of document.

Then there’s that every student who requests one. If I understand correctly, somewhere between half and two-thirds of Grinnell students work for the College, not all of them in jobs that the student would necessarily classify as meaningful, flexible, and educational. The experimentalist [12] in me wonders what would happen if, in fact, every Grinnell student asked for a meaningful, flexible, and educational position.

The advisor in me wonders how I’d respond to a request from a student for such a position. That’s not to say that I haven’t helped my students find jobs; I certainly have. I’ve also had the all-too-frequent experience in which I’ve had to help a student choose between too many good on-campus opportunities. But finding the right opportunity for a student who has not asked for one previously? I don’t know all of the opportunities on campus. I’d probably figure out their interests and make some calls. Or maybe helping students find these positions is the responsibility of their CLS advisor.

In any case, it’s a powerful statement. I look forward to seeing how it gets used and interpreted over the next few weeks, months, and years.

Postscript: Wouldn’t it be great if it were the case that everyone could have meaningful, flexible, and educational work? Can we make that a societal goal?

[1] Campus Memo.

[2] I received it as an email message on December 7. That night, I went to the primary page for postings about unionization to find a link and discovered most of the text there. Although it’s not linked from that page, I see that we now have a separate page for the memo which, surprisingly, is dated December 8.

[3] Just in case those pages disappear, here’s the paragraph that inspired this musing.

At Grinnell, we are proud of our long history championing education, access, and social justice and the strong partnerships we have with the unions on our campus. We are dedicated to creating meaningful, flexible, and educational work experiences for every student who requests one. These positions – often working in close collaboration with faculty and staff – are a distinctive part of the educational experience at Grinnell and an important component of the College’s commitment to meet 100% of the financial need of its students. [4]

[4] Grinnell College. December 7, 2017. Special Campus Memo. Electronic mail message. Also available, with a different date, at

[5] The second paragraph of the email message, the first paragraph of the page on unionization.

[6] I forget the official term.

[7] I can’t regularly manage a thirty-two student workshop-style class without a mentor there to help.

[8] Such as an off-campus presentation or interview.

[9] That policy calls into question the College’s comment about a situation in which a research assistant might have to, or choose to, work longer or later hours to complete a project by a deadline.

[10] Plural.

[11] Singular.

[12] Middle Son says that it’s the anarchist in me. I prefer experimentalist. —

Version 1.0 of 2018-12-08.