May 20, 2008
On Valuing Labor and Creativity in Industry and Academia

As part of my continued posts on some of the projects and papers I've found out about as late, I wanted to include some note after spending some time reading Vicki Mayer's latest work on reality casting. Vicki sent me the shorter paper her Console-ing Passions presentation was based on. (And, Vicki, if you read this, I haven't forgotten my promise to get back to you once I've read the full chapter.) But, in the process of reading through her notes on looking at the workload of those who do reality casting, a few interesting things came to mind.

First is one of the main argument Vicki is making in the piece, which is that much of the important work of casting agents come in the relationship building that is part of the job, precisely the type of work that is not given direct value in the system, even as it is the reason the system functions the way in does.

In other words, much of the job of casting doesn't happen at official events or in the office, yet this work is not valued. These people often spend more time "on the job" in ways that aren't financially compensated for, because the media industries don't often appropriately value the labor that goes into this type of work. Vicki looks at how this relates to biases against feminine disourses, often more tied to relationship-building and community-building, and how this might explain why many of the people she encountered in casting roles were women or gay men.

Since I haven't read Vicki's full study, I don't want to purport to do it justice here, but I'm looking forward to delving into the full chapter she sent along soon, and I wanted to write about some related issues regarding creativity and labor that her piece made me think about, even if they are somewhat tangentially related.

In considering where the Consortium is positioned between industry and academia, I've been thinking some of late about the tension between the model that's often set up, and even internalized by both academics and industry folk, that academics thinks and practitioners do. Of course, those definitions are even built into the labels of the two groups I'm discussing, but this often tread as a black-and-white binary in terms of the media industries that color perceptions the two groups have about one another.

Of course, it's not true at all that academics only think. As we discussed at our Spring Retreat recently, between course loads, required meetings, writing, etc., many academics keep a busy work day that isn't amenable to spending all day pondering and reading. We have to fight for that research time, amongst myriad forces pulling for our attention. And it's otherwise not true that academics don't "do." Academics publish, speak, talk to reporters, teach, advise on projects, volunteer, along with many other functions, in an effort to apply their expertise in order to make some sort of intervention in the way they world works. Perhaps this doesn't always happen as well as it could, and part of that has to do with the way traditional tenure requirements have been set up, but it's ludicrous to think that academics don't "do" or have impact on "the real world."

Similarly, it's short-sighted to think that industry folks don't think. Sure, their work patterns might be different, tied to day-to-day products that don't allow the time for certain forms of discourse that are the end products of academia, but--as many media studies texts have pointed out--there's a great deal of vernacular theory amongst practitioners in the media industries, and likewise many companies employ people whose jobs are particularly to strategize, provide thought leadership, etc.

It's equally a fallacy to throw around the term "creative" to refer only to the writing team of a particular show and not take into account the creative contributions of myriad other forces surrounding the show. In fact, when I was once contemplating career options and thinking toward working as a television writer for a particular property, I was told by someone who had extensive knowledge of that property's business model that, if I wanted to impact the creative direction of the company, creative was the last place I needed to be.

I started thinking about these issues in considering how instrumental the casting employees Vicki was writing about were to the final product, how all their labor fundamentally impacts the final product, and how creative much of that work must be, existing as Vicki points out between the tensions of finding someone unique and finding someone the audience can relate to.

These stereotypes can be useful in thinking about what people do. After all, the "creative team" is in some ways the driving force of the show. Academics do participate in an academy in which their primary products of production are thought pieces. Media practitioners do practice and produce...But they become dangerous when we use them to dismiss or bound the work of others, to downplay the creative labor that may not be as apparent on the surface.