I have not made a secret of the fact my current day-job–the full-time work that pays most of my bills, so that my ongoing teaching work can help me get my family ahead–has me work as an administrative assistant for a substance abuse clinic in the Texas Hill Country. It is, as it were, what I do as an academic expatriate, the source of those remesas that I still send to that country which I sought to enter and to which I can only return at intervals. And while I approve of the job for many reasons (the hours are good, the pay is steady, I can leave work at work, I get vacation time to go do the academic part of my life, and I am helping people), there are some functions of the job that sit less well with me.
Perhaps the chief among such ill-sitting job functions is the destruction of records. Like many organizations, that for which I work has a records-retention policy, and, because one of my job duties names me as a custodian of records (on which account I have been called to court more than once), I enforce that policy. That is, I put things into the records room at our facility and, when the time comes, I take things out–forever. I’m not generally able to do it on a daily basis, but what I am able to do is take out large chunks of information that has passed its retention time and prepare it to be taken where it can be destroyed in appropriate fashion.
I know that we have a retention policy for a reason. We have limited storage space and no budget to rent more. There are also liability concerns involved with keeping the information; the longer we keep it, the longer we can be held to account for keeping it, which can have court implications. (I do not like being called to court. I go, but it is not one of the more entertaining parts of my job.) And, in all truth, there are matters contained in our records that those whose records they are may well want to have buried, chapters in their lives that they would have closed–and I cannot blame them, truly. Even with as sedate and uninteresting a life as I’ve had, there are things I’d rather other people not know about, that I wish I could forget and that I am relieved other people probably have; for those whose lives have been a bit more…dynamic, I imagine the longing to forget and be forgotten–and to be kept confidential, as is clients’ right (you’ll notice that I name no names)–is a bit more pronounced.
But it is not merely a matter of packaging papers to be ported away. It is a matter of readying them for slaughter, for taking the traces people have left behind and setting them up to be destroyed. If, as Edmundson writes (and about which I have commented more than once before, not just here), the records left behind are testimonies to the worth and dignity of the people they record, and they are therefore deserving of respect as human creations–metonymically or synecdochally the people themselves–then what might well be an unreflective preparation of kindling or shredder-bait becomes something far less pleasant.
I sought to settle in the academic land of literary study; I am a lover of books and of writing, generally. And perhaps I romanticize writing and records and archives to some (great) extent as a result of that attempted homesteading. But although I am an academic expatriate, although I know that I must labor as I am bidden if I hope in any way to support the country I sought to enter, I am made uneasy by what I have become in making the attempt to join those ranks. Though I appreciate getting to do the work I do, I cannot say that all of it is as I would have it be–but that is true of all jobs that can be had.