Filed Away

Many years ago, I was working with a consulting company that focused on planning services for county and state criminal justice agencies. I used to joke that I never went to juvenile hall until I was 40, and then I went every week.

Anyway, I got a kind of harsh introduction to the work when I was sent to a rural county to do some analysis of how many kids got what kind of adjudication (we don’t say sentencing in juvenile justice, but that’s what it means; there was no glossary for that work, either), their age at first offense, numbers with multiple offenses, length of stay, and so on. I had a day and a half to go through their archives and learn all that.

When I arrived at the probation department, they knew why I was there and what I wanted, and a helpful man led me to a tiny, windowless, sage-green, cinderblock room. And in that room, there were a) a table, b) a chair, and c) a rolling cart heaped with file folders. “Let me know when you’re ready for the next batch,” he said, and departed.

And each folder contained between twenty and two hundred sheets of paper, of different colors and different sizes, each recording a specific interaction between some kid and the police, the courts, the probation department, the juvenile detention or commitment center he’d been referred do. They were randomly ordered, each new contact adding a layer like paint over paint over paint. And there was absolutely no way, in a day and a half, to make meaningful order of three hundred of these.

You, too, whether a graduate student or a job candidate or a faculty member or a contingent hire, are a file folder somewhere. And when some interested researcher arrives on the scene and says “what proportion of your teaching is done by adjuncts, in each department?”, some helpful person will shrug and lead you to a file cabinet of incommensurate records and tell you you’re free to have a look.

Institutional recordkeeping is not designed with investigation in mind. It’s created as storage, as archive, as the ability to deal meaningfully with the individual case rather than to look for pattern. Research recordkeeping, on the other hand, is all about revealing the overall pattern, at an enormous loss of detail about the individual. The check-box choices can be tabulated; the comments in the margins cannot, and are lost.

This competing interest explains some of why we don’t have very good pattern awareness across higher ed. It’s just hard to find out what job placement rates are for doctoral programs, especially since each institution has its own idiosyncratic recordkeeping system and vocabulary. There’s a lot of talk about the growth of administrators as a percent of college employment, but what does that term “administrator” even mean? Does that include the accountant in the accounts payable office? Does that include the facilities management people? Does that include campus security? Every college will classify their staff a little differently, use different local terms. And every college has made the transition from carbon paper and typewriters to (probably more than one generation of) electronic records management.

Part of any research study is the design and definition of recordkeeping. You decide up front what you’ll want to know and what you won’t, how you’re classifying and naming categories and why that matters. You recognize that millions and millions of things won’t enter your field of interest. But the recordkeeping of daily work is a pointillist portrait gallery in which innumerable tiny dots add up to an image of a specific person. The two functions do not serve one another’s purposes at all well.

So when we’re doing higher ed research, we have to know that the absence of large-pattern information isn’t necessarily a conspiracy of silence; it’s an artifact of millions of people trying to keep up with billions of interactions, each creating their own unique filing systems to do it.

The Metaphors that We Are

I was driving to the next town over on Saturday to get gas for the wood splitter, and had NPR’s “TED Radio Hour” on in the car. And they were going on about “big data,” and all of the ways in which massive data analysis will bring us all to a sort of lab-coat perfection, a constant project of optimization.

Yeah, fine. What it really got me thinking about was the ways in which we get so impressed with our technological creations that we imagine that they explain everything, that in fact we start to use those creations as metaphors for human life itself.

For a long time, we were thought to be ideal machines, understood as levers and hinges and straps, conduits and pumps and bellows. Much of how medicine is understood is still based on that model, a sort of linear causality, a really complex game of Mousetrap.

Once we invented computers, we were thought to be RAM and ROM, to be information processors, to be storage and sensors and outputs. Much of how psychology is understood is still based on that model, and if you press most teachers to talk about learning, you’ll hear stuff kind of like this.

So the guy on TED (Kenneth Cukier, author of the new book Big Data and an editor for The Economist in London) was saying that essentially, you and I are best seen as massive streams of data. We are locations and browsing histories, FitBit streams and Pandora preferences, purchase patterns and Facebook updates, likes and +1s. He imagines a world in which we all have smart toilets, measuring our nutritional chemistry a few times a day and sending us updated dietary recommendations. We generate data all the time; it may fairly be said that we are data.

Metaphors really matter. Think about how we think of our students: as explorers, as recipients, as workload, as apprentices. Those words frame the work that we do and the relationships we create. Think about how we frame our own scholarship: as production, as contribution, as positioning, as authorship credit. Those words also frame the work that we do and the relationships we create.

All metaphors are imperfect. Humans are humans, neither machine nor computer nor data cloud; each of those metaphors privileges some of what it means to be human even as it takes others out of consideration altogether. And because of that, they’re vitally important. Choose them carefully, and re-examine them often.

And sometime when we’re hanging out together, I’ll tell you the joke about the engineers arguing about what kind of an engineer God was…

A Job I Can’t Imagine Wanting

I have two good friends who have both recently become college presidents. One visited last weekend. And as part of a long and wide-ranging dinner conversation with her and her family, blessedly little of which was about higher ed, she did happen to mention that she’d discovered how much money her school spends on the athletic department. “For that kind of money, we ought to be doing better,” she said.

And that little interchange, twenty seconds or so, illuminated perfectly for me exactly why I have never wanted to be a college president. I mean, I’m not especially interested in real estate, or in negotiations with the community over contributions to the fire department and EMTs who respond to campus events. I’ve never wanted to be responsible for women’s soccer or men’s golf. I’ve never wanted to run a private police department, a health center, a sexual assault response team, a legal department, an advertising department. I’ve never wanted to manage a server farm and network, a campus bus system, an off-campus travel system, an insurance agency. I went into higher ed because I was selfish, because I wanted to be a teacher and a writer, because those things mattered to me. I can’t imagine giving all that up, really for the rest of my life, to wrangle about corporate branding and trustee relations.

And, I mean, thank god somebody’s willing to do it. Someone has to tend the machine, has to make sure that the parts are properly synchronized and lubricated, the worn or defective parts replaced. But what a job! And especially what a job for someone who was trained as a scholar, who made his or her mark through close and careful focus to their own students, to their own research, tending their own intellectual garden in rich detail.

I’d rather have a scholar running my college than a banker or a venture capitalist or a lawyer. But what a massive sacrifice it is, when you do it for the right reasons.



Stack of Futility

I took my trash and recycling down to the local transfer station this morning, chatted with Glen our dumpmaster about our coming plans for large waste and scrap metal collection day (a town official’s work is never done). One of the things Glen does is to take things that others might get some use from, and keep them on a shelf next to the office shed so that somebody might take them home.

I spotted two stacks of CDs, about twenty-five in each stack, and said to Glen, “Let me have a look through those. You never know what I might come across.” And as I went to browse, he said, “Yeah, those are all demo CDs of bands that got turned down to play at Harvest Moon.”

And I stopped dead, couldn’t even look at them. Harvest Moon, a music weekend held every year in our Vermont town of 750, is a lot closer to a village potluck than it is SXSW or Outside Lands or Lollapalooza. And here’s this pile of work from fifty musicians, all of them trained and practiced for years, at the dump because they weren’t deemed strong enough for a small town music fest.

It’s one thing to read the numbers. It’s another thing to see the pile. No writer, no artist, no academic, should ever be faced with the evidence stacked against them. It’ll break your heart.

America’s Most Ignored Holiday

At first they were afraid that the celebration was going to be a failure. Many of the workers in the parade had to lose a day’s pay in order to participate. When the parade began only a handful of workers were in it, while hundreds of people stood on the sidewalk jeering at them. But then slowly they came – 200 workers and a band from the Jewelers’ Union showed up and joined the parade. Then came a group of bricklayers with another band. By the time they reached the park, it was estimated that there were 10,000 marchers in the parade in support of workers.

The park was decorated with flags of many nations. Everyone picnicked, drank beer and listened to speeches from the union leadership. In the evening, even more people came to the park to watch fireworks and dance. The newspapers of the day declared it a huge success and “a day of the people.”

—Linda Stinson, Historian, United States Department of Labor

I’m working for a client right now who’s pushed a deadline back to Tuesday, so that everyone involved can have the coming “long weekend” to work on it.

Can you spot both oxymorons in that concept?

  1. Working on the weekend
  2. Working on Labor Day

If we really want to honor our country’s history, we could take a stand and respect the things that our ancestors worked so hard to create for us. Not merely freedom of speech and the right to vote, but the huge efforts (and significant sacrifice and more than occasional bloodshed) to limit employers’ power over our lives. Labor laws of all kinds—from minimum wage requirements to the 40-hour workweek, from workplace safety rights to the ability to organize and bargain collectively—did not come easily, but have been pretty easily surrendered.

Higher ed has led the raising of the white flag. Stipends for adjuncts allow schools to evade minimum wage laws, while the move toward salaries has allowed schools to ignore overtime (or more accurately, to expect massive amounts of overtime to be uncompensated). TAs, RAs, and student athletes are classified fundamentally as “students” rather than “employees” to limit their ability to push back on labor conditions. Limited term engagements like postdocs and visiting scholars and professors of the practice allow the sloughing off of those deemed to be no longer necessary. For a bunch of supposed lefties, we’ve sure walked back from our commitments toward collective wellbeing.

So here’s a pain-free way to show your support for labor. On this coming Sunday and Monday… don’t work. (Go out on Saturday and buy beer and hot dogs and gas for the car and whatever you need, so that you’re not making anybody else work on Sunday and Monday either.) And then, just chill. Support America from your lawn chair, from your inflatable pool, from the dog park. Support America from the beach, from the forest, from your kayak.

Support labor. Don’t f*^#@ing work on f*^#@ing Labor Day!!!