Lingua Franca

Volume 10, No. 9—December 2000/January 2001


Stealing Time

HOW SERIOUSLY SHOULD one take the chest-thumping rhetorical flourishes of a manifesto? Abbie Hoffman may have urged his readers to "steal this book," but surely he might have conceded that yeah, okay, he was counting on royalties. Similarly, when Jeff Schmidt pays homage to Hoffman by kicking off his recent book with the sentences "This book is stolen. Written in part on stolen time, that is," he doesn't mean it literally.

Or does he? His bosses thought so. The question now lies at the heart of a dispute between Schmidt and his former employers at Physics Today, a 121,000-circulation magazine published by the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Maryland.

In Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul- Battering System That Shapes Their Lives (Rowman & Littlefield), Schmidt assails the conformity that professional life demands and offers some self-help-ish tips to those sweating in their white collars. After the attention-grabbing opening line, he goes on to explain what he means by "stolen time": "Like millions of others who work for a job simply didn't leave me enough energy for a major project of my own.... So, I began spending some office time on my own work, dumped my TV to reappropriate some of my spare time at home, and wrote this book." Soon after his bosses read that, Schmidt says, they marched him to the human-resources office, had someone retrieve his personal effects, and told him that they never wanted to see him again. It was clear, they said, that he wasn't "fully engaged" in his work.

Since that unhappy day, physicists and journalists have rallied around Schmidt to try to help him get his job back. He insists he's been canned for workplace activism and the "attitude crime" of writing a subversive book. Although he adopts a rebellious stance in his book—and describes himself as a political radical—he is a good worker, he insists. He has also taken a few baby steps away from the bold claims in his introduction. "They have a one-hour unpaid lunch period and a total of a half hour of break time," Schmidt explains. "When I was working on the book during paid break time, it felt as though I was working on stolen time." The publisher of Physics Today, Randolph Nanna, and the human-resources director of the American Institute of Physics declined to comment on the case. But if the "stolen time" claim was the sole reason for letting Schmidt go, the incident raises an interesting question: Can you fire an employee for what he claims to have done, without checking to see if he's bluffing?

Disciplined Minds has more to do with academia than you'd guess from its subtitle. Inveighing against the injustices visited upon salaried professionals, Schmidt takes his own profession, physics, as his main case study. He recalls that, in 1980, the head of his graduate adviser's research group at the University of California at Irvine wanted Schmidt's dissertation typed up on a rush order, just to get rid of him—Schmidt had apparently stirred up too much trouble with his criticisms of nuclear-weapons programs and his advocacy on behalf of another student who had flunked out. The high rate of attrition in physics especially caught his attention. "What I noticed was that the dropout rate was not politically neutral," he says. "To put it bluntly, the program favored ass kissers." As does all professional training, he might add. And exposure to such pressures leads to political conformity: He claims that in 1972, the most educated Americans were the most likely to oppose withdrawal from Vietnam.

Yet do not despair, says this veteran of the 1960s (Schmidt is fifty-four), whose book is adorned with glowing blurbs from Howard Zinn, Stanley Aronowitz, and Michael Bérubé: One can carve out space for freethinking. He urges readers to lose their hunger for compliments from superiors and to "pursue your own goals while supposedly pursuing your employer's goal." Other proposals are more out there: He reprints an army manual for surviving as a prisoner of war, with the suggestion that readers mentally "substitute 'graduate or professional school' for 'PW camp.'"

Schmidt apparently put some of these suggestions into practice. At Physics Today, he argued vociferously for such reforms as the elimination of salary inequities among editors and the hiring of members of minority groups. In 1997, after he refused to pipe down at a company retreat, he was warned, in writing, that his "destructive and counterproductive" behavior would no longer be tolerated. In the last couple of years, his performance evaluations were downgraded from superior to satisfactory, he says, yet he insists he stayed ahead of schedule on his work. "He was their best articles editor before they fired him," says Jean Kumagai, who left Physics Today last year for IEEE Spectrum, an engineering magazine in New York.

So far, the American Institute of Physics has not been moved by Schmidt's pleas, nor by supportive letters from his friends and colleagues. Maryland's Department of Labor, however, sided with him in one important matter, granting him unemployment benefits. The agency concluded that the AIP had presented insufficient information to show that his actions constituted misconduct. According to Michael Gottesman, a specialist in labor law at the Georgetown University Law Center, however, that victory won't give Schmidt much leverage in court should he decide to sue for wrongful dismissal. States are required to prove a former employee guilty of egregious misconduct before they can deny unemployment benefits. But as an at-will employee, lacking a contract, Schmidt can be fired for any reason not barred by an employment discrimination statute—even, theoretically, for writing a dull book, not just a controversial one.

But if Schmidt did snatch a few minutes here and there to work on his book, he notes that there are compelling precedents in physics for such petty larceny. Where would physics be if Albert Einstein hadn't stolen a few moments from the Swiss Patent Office, where he was employed when he worked out the implications of relativity?

Christopher Shea