Who ARE these people?

It’s probably been twenty years since I first saw this bit of photocopier humor. (Now that it’s on the internet, it’s called a “meme,” but it used to just be called “this thing I put on my bulletin board.”)


The caption at the bottom read, “Times are getting tough. We might have to lay off Andre.”

Cute, right? But let’s think about this in terms of higher education. Who are all these people standing above the project?

  • the Human Resources Manager
  • the Marketing Manager
  • the Logistic Manager
  • the Security Manager
  • the IT Manager
  • the Communications Manager
  • the Project Manager
  • the Internal Supervisor
  • the Product Development Manager
  • the PR Manager

One of the projects involved in the new book on higher ed will be to determine… who are all of those people who stand above the project? There’s a lot of broadsiding about how “the administration” has grown in size and power while “the faculty” has been weakened and shrunk. But we won’t really understand how higher ed has changed unless we make those labels much more specific, and look at how the inhabitants of those two communities have changed.

Take IT, for instance. In 1976, when I went to college the first time, there was no IT department, because there were no computers to speak of. Faculty members didn’t have computers on their desks, students didn’t have smart phones in their pockets, and the Arpanet was home to a few thousand really smart people. Now computers are ubiquitous, take multiple forms, carry sensitive material, and the Internet is home to billions of people I wouldn’t trust to carry a bag of groceries to the car. So the whole IT endeavor has been bolted onto higher ed, a whole class of non-Andre’s who are essential to our current understanding of its nature.

Who else has arrived, looking down into the pit? That’s one of the dozen or so research questions that will be part of the next project.

Oversimplifiers of the World, Unite!

For years, I’ve made the case that every faculty member plays three roles for their students, even without knowing they’re doing it.

  • There’s the teacher, the person who introduces students to the material of a field and the rigor of its investigation.
  • There’s the supervisor, the person who takes an apprentice worker and guides him or her to participation in a larger project.
  • And there’s the mentor, the person who guides a cultural novice into a greater understanding of the culture s/he’s about to enter.

Nobody is equally good at all three, nor do they care equally about all three. I’ve always been most comfortable with the role of the mentor, at least in part because I’ve never shed the feeling of having been a cultural novice myself, and knowing how badly I needed someone to help me just figure out where the rocks were in the river. The content I could figure out on my own. I’ve always been a feral scholar, I just needed to be protected from the predators while I was foraging.

So I had a great weekend with a good friend who is fundamentally a teacher, someone who loves her material so much that she’s compelled to share it with her students in its fullness. And we were talking about Derrida. Now, I have to admit that I’ve never read a word of Derrida, which I know makes me liable to have my humanist license revoked. It’s like failing a drug test, you just don’t get to keep your job. But my friend was explaining to me that part of Derrida’s argument was that language was so fluid and so unreliable as a reflection of “reality” that even the endeavor of clarity was a cop-out. He made his arguments opaque, she said, as a challenge to his readers to reckon with the opacity of all language at all times.

I get that. I do. But my friend explained that with such patience, with such generosity, that it made me even more impatient with the hostility of the source material itself. I recognize that Derrida was writing for the other handful of political philosophers of his day, not for the great unwashed like you and me. He didn’t take as his mission bringing the youngsters along. But still, it raises important questions of how we introduce complexity for our students.

I often use the metaphor of sandlot baseball when I talk about undergraduate research. If we taught baseball like we taught any academic subject, we’d have a semester of hitting, and a semester of catching balls in the air, and a semester of catching balls on the ground, and a semester of throwing, and a semester of running… and kids would learn to hate baseball just as much as they learn to hate school. There’s no real THING being done. But instead, wisely, we let little kids just play baseball. They play really badly, and we watch them and give them pointers on the things they’re struggling with the most right then (which is different for different kids), but they’re really playing baseball. That’s how you build the love for the game.

I’m a fan of Malcolm Gladwell, a writer unafraid to oversimplify. “You’re of necessity simplifying,” he said in a 2013 interview with The Guardian. “If you’re in the business of translating ideas in the academic realm to a general audience, you have to simplify … If my books appear to a reader to be oversimplified, then you shouldn’t read them: you’re not the audience!” I love oversimplifying, at least in part because I love talking with people who’ve seen something a million times but never noticed it, never put categories on it, never thought about what it meant. My audience can be captivated, can be inspired, by oversimplification. And if it makes them excited, they can go read the source material on their own.

The book project I’m embarking upon now will force me to think about my own values as a teacher and a scholar; aimed as it will be at a general readership, I will absolutely be oversimplifying. And I’m entirely okay with that.

The Next Big Thing

Sorry to have been away. Between a significant client deadline, splitting and stacking firewood, working the town dump on large waste and scrap metal day, and trying to figure out the last quarter of a story I’m writing, it’s been a long week.

But I come bearing good news. The University of Chicago Press, and my miraculous editor Elizabeth Branch Dyson, have been happy enough with The PhDictionary that they want to try another one. So just this week, after three months of conversation and a really fun proposal to write, I received the contract for Contingent: The Making of the Adjunct Underclass, and What it Says About Our Colleges, Our Students, and Our Nation. (No small ambitions here, eh? A friend told me last night that she was reading E. O. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence. If he’s gotten that right, I guess we’re all finished with scholarly life, we’ve reached the end of the project.)

Here’s the pitch:

The college teacher who, as part of her driving between four classes on two campuses each semester, has to add a stop to renew her application for public housing vouchers. Her best student who, since that teacher has no office and no college e-mail, meets her for “office hours” at the student food court. Her tenured faculty supervisor, whose own days are a swarm of interruptions, endless meetings that drag him away from students and research alike and into the service of bureaucratic structure. Her college administrator, scrambling to create a new low-residency degree program, and to locate affordable staffing to make it economically beneficial to the institution.

These are the stories of modern higher education, so unlike our image of the contemplative scholar on the manicured grounds. These are the adjunct faculty and post-docs who have undergone enormous training and achieved remarkable intellectual performance only to find that it has left them adrift and at risk; their tenured colleagues whose workplace demands are changing beneath them; their students fitting college into busy work lives; their administrators, desperately working to make their enrollment numbers.

As the middle class loses ground across all fields, the middle class job of college teaching is also being actively undermined. Contingent tells the story of how this adjunct underclass has been made—not by accident, but by institutional and cultural decisions about what college should be. It explores the damage that contingency does, not only to the adjunct faculty themselves, but to students, to the permanent faculty and administration, and to the nation. And it proposes 21st century solutions that can help higher education reach its lasting goals of intellectual and civic leadership.

Not bad, huh? Planned for release in Fall 2018, which means I have to have it finished in Fall 2017. A 13-month project. So keep buying The PhDictionary in the meantime 🙂 All your friends need a copy, no? All your grad students and newly hired faculty? I thought so, too.

(To be serious, though, if you have read The PhDictionary and have a couple of extra minutes to write a brief review for Amazon or Goodreads or something, or even a couple of extra seconds to choose n number of stars for it, that would be a huge help. People really love coming across a book that’s been reviewed by funny, clever people, who you all are.)