Combat Narratives

We seem to have a limited vocabulary with which to describe cultural phenomena. For instance, when my wife and I bought our house, we converted an unused loft over the garage into my pool room. A room of contemplation and meditation, a room in which the pool table itself was lovingly restored, the cues are works of art, and the walls are covered in fine arts painting. A room where the stereo plays chamber music of various sorts, a room without a refrigerator and bar. And the first response of everyone who sees it is almost guaranteed to include the term “man cave.”

It is not a F*%#$)ing man cave! First off, it’s twelve feet in the air above the garage, so “cave” is kind of an ill-fit metaphor anyway. But, I mean, come on! There’s a Buddha on a stand. The balls get wiped down and the table vacuumed and re-covered after every use. There’s a freakin’ bookcase! There’s no TV or college sports pennants or coasters or Bud Light tavern signs. Pay attention to your surroundings, why don’t you!

Sorry to rant. But “man cave” is a fundamental misreading of the intentions of this space, a nearly 180-degree opposite to the work that it aspires to do.

Anyway, I’m reminded of this because every faculty member I know who has taken an administrative post, whether permanent or temporary, has had to hear the semi-joking term “going over to the dark side.” As though Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader were an apt metaphor for relatively well intentioned and relatively intelligent people trying to collectively run a school.

The literature on higher education labor is increasingly defined as a form of war story, with one side valiant and the other evil. Benjamin Ginsburg’s book The Fall of the Faculty: the Rise of the All-Administrative University, and Why It Matters clearly paints administrators as some combination of misguided, naive, ruthless, rapacious and cunningly manipulative, with the poor faculty (TT faculty, by the way… the book only has two instances of “adjunct faculty” in the index) suffering untold abuses. From the other side, calls to “rise up” and become activist, often featuring the dreaded term “Solidarity!” that sounds so sweet and accomplishes so little.

What if we were to look at the status of higher education without resorting to combat narratives? What if we were to just look, to pay attention to our surroundings, to understand that colleges are an expression of our larger culture? The gig economy is everywhere, whether adjunct faculty or Uber. The “creative disruption” and “entrepreneurial spirit” we celebrate works against lifetime careers of all sorts. “Intelligent systems” make trivial actions easy, whether campus e-mail or looking up restaurants, while remaining neutral to the work that matters. And marketing drives everything, the parasite of advertising having grown stronger than its host. Higher ed is not some pristine outpost being fought over by its inhabitants; it is part of its society. As sociologist Anthony Giddens said, it helps to shape the rules that it then operates under.

What if we were to decide that the important story was not just whether A defeats B, but instead whether we actually understand the systems that we ourselves have helped to create? I mean, most colleges aren’t for profit, so nobody’s making money off not hiring permanent faculty. It’s not like Walmart where the investors profit from “associates” working for nine bucks an hour. And colleges certainly haven’t been afraid to hire tons of people, with the National Center for Educational Statistics reporting an 8% increase in total higher ed permanent employment in just the four years from 2007 to 2011. They’re just hiring a different kind of people, directors of undergraduate research and associate deans of high-impact practices and instructional technology staff. Why is that?

Cultures are hard to explain succinctly, and the combat narrative offers an easy entry to the conversation, just as the competition narrative of politics always overshadows the cultural narrative of policy. But I think it’s a bad metaphor, like the man cave, not only inapt but in fact counterproductive, obscuring what’s there in favor of an image we carry from elsewhere.