Pyramid Scheme

      No Comments on Pyramid Scheme

I had a really interesting interview this afternoon with a scholar who, for over thirty years, has taught in a writing program at a major research university, a giant school with more undergraduate students than the entire population of my hometown. And this writing program is staffed as follows:

  • about 100 course-by-course adjuncts
  • about 30 full-time but non-tenure-track adjuncts
  • about 120 grad students
  • one… yes, ONE… tenured faculty member who is the program’s director.

I mean, are you f*%#(ing kidding me? That’s not a university, that’s Mary Kay Cosmetics! I hope that those grad students have all taken statistics and understand at least something about probability…

I grew up in Western Michigan, so I know something about Amway. (Oh, children, you’re ALL about to learn some things about Amway, now that Betsy DeVos is going to be the Secretary of Education.) The religious appeal to purity and vigor, and the intimation that your inability to rise to the top is somehow due to your own moral failure, which you can never quite erase. The millions of “Independent Business Owners” funneling nine and a half BILLION dollars upward to the handful of corporate owners. Tell me how a program with one tenured faculty member and 250 serfs is different than multi-level marketing.

I taught in a program some number of years back that, although not quite as egregious in proportion, was similar in structure. One tenured director. One “Professor of the Practice” on a multi-year non-tenure contract as the associate director. And about thirty post-docs, all of us devout, believing that our talent and our goodness and our earnest efforts would surely gain us a seat at the table one day. I know what it means to be a member of that cult, to believe in the face of all evidence, to persevere, to serve. I know what it means to take a 50% pay cut and move across the country to be allowed back inside the academy after six years in the secular professions. To be grateful to give up a career, to give up economic comfort, in order to once again be a member.

Part of me still wants it. Like any addict, I know that I’m only provisionally recovered. That kind of faith is in your bones, and reason can only bleach it away somewhat. The imprint is still there, faint, hauntingly imprecise, all the more venerable for its openness to dreams. I worked as a college administrator for seven years after that postdoc, because I couldn’t bear to be away from my beloved community even after it had set me aside. Because I couldn’t walk away.

All cults work the same way, taking us away from friends and family, demanding more effort and more sacrifice and more devotion, only to find that we remain the same tantalizing distance from the next promised level. And the sacrifice normalizes itself into more sacrifice, the devotion becomes its own reward, the burn of the hunger is as good as the meal.