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Academic Insights for the Thinking World


Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon looks at the role of interns.

I often spend some portion of the day looking through job listings, as I suspect do many people who are in the habit of attempting to make a living as a writer (or most other things these days). Two things have struck me – that I never get a response to the query letters I send out, and that the meaning of the word intern appears to have broadened somewhat.

Most dictionaries define intern as an advanced student, usually in the fields of medicine or teaching, who is receiving instruction through performing certain tasks under supervision in a workplace. If one were to write a new definition, based on the usage of the word as it appears in craigslist and various other sites, the meaning would perhaps be closer to ‘unpaid worker.’

I am certain that many of the internships advertised are being offered by individuals or institutions who have nothing but the best intentions in mind, and who want naught but to further the careers and opportunities of the youth of today, beset as they are by a difficult job climate. But what of the one I saw this morning that made no mention of such frivolity as ‘mentoring’ or ‘guidance’, and whose responsibilities included providing financial analysis, budget and strategic planning, and developing presentations for senior management, among other things. Is this truly an internship?

Perhaps I’m being naïve about all this, but while I’m sure that some employers have always looked for free or cheap labor I cannot help but think that it is getting worse. Several weeks ago there was an ad looking for an intern who could dress nicely, provide childcare, answer phones, lift some boxes, write and edit stories, and was fluent in French. And if this wasn’t too much to ask for ten dollars a day the writer of the ad further specified that the French must be of the Parisian sort.

There is a literary agency currently taking the rather imaginative angle of presenting their work as a chance to grow – “The position” (which happens to be an unpaid one) “also offers the opportunity to read and evaluate both fiction and non-fiction manuscripts”. I wonder if it also offers the opportunity to sweep hallways and empty trash bins?

This is all beginning to remind me of the scene form The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, in which Tom wriggles out of white-washing a fence by convincing all the boys who pass by that this is a great opportunity for fun. Taking the bait, the neighborhood kids end up offering to pay for the chance to paint the fence, and by the end of the day Tom has a job that has been done for him and has also managed to accumulate a great pile of goods, including, but not limited to, part of an apple, a kite, twelve marbles, a spare key, a bit of chalk, a one-eyed kitten, and “a dead rat and a string to swing it with.”

Which gives me an idea – the next time I send out my query letters looking for work I’ll remember to include the dead rat.

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