The Chronicle of Higher Education
9 June 2000
Physics Today Fires Author of Book on 'Soul-Battering System' of the Workplace
By JEFF SHARLET
DISCIPLINE THIS: Jeff Schmidt says his employers at Physics Today disliked his new book, Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives (Rowman & Littlefield), so much that they decided to discipline him. In fact, they fired him.
Mr. Schmidt believes the trouble began after his boss, Stephen G. Benka, caught a co-worker reading an item about the book in Hot Type ("Steal This Book," May 26). "She was laughing out loud when my boss came along and asked, 'What's so funny?'" says Mr. Schmidt. Apparently, Mr. Benka was not amused by Mr. Schmidt's statement, quoted from the book, that he'd written Disciplined Minds partly on time stolen from work.
"He read it right there, but he didn't laugh," says Mr. Schmidt.
The following Wednesday, May 31, Mr. Benka asked him to join the publisher, Randolph A. Nanna, for a trip to the human-resources department. There a human-resources professional told him that he was being "terminated with cause" after 19 years at the magazine, during which Mr. Schmidt says he'd consistently received above-average or satisfactory evaluations. Then he was escorted out of the building without being allowed to return to his office.
Neither Mr. Nanna nor Mr. Benka would comment. Theresa C. Braun, director of human resources for the nonprofit American Institute of Physics, which publishes the magazine, said only that Mr. Schmidt "was not terminated because of the [Chronicle] article, nor because of the general content of the book."
Mr. Schmidt, who earned a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California at Irvine, says they told him that the very existence of the book was evidence that he wasn't "fully engaged" at Physics Today.
In fact, Mr. Schmidt's book argues that it is impossible to be "fully engaged" in a hierarchical institution, an argument that would hardly strike most people as new or shocking. The strength of the book, according to its supporters, lies in its humor and its detailed examination of the particularities of professional life.
"A witty, incisive, original analysis of the politics of professionalism," wrote Michael Berube, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in a jacket blurb. "Finally, a book that tells it like it is," wrote Stanley Aronowitz, a sociologist at the City University of New York.
Or now, for Mr. Schmidt, how it was.