What Is College For?

We live in an era of multifunctional devices. Computers with phones and cameras. Watches that measure your step count. As a wag once put it, if you can nail together two things that have never been nailed together before, you can sell it to somebody.

So it’s no surprise that colleges are also, increasingly, multifunctional devices. They act as forces for economic mobility for individuals, and workforce development for regions. They act as extensions of the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, and they provide minor-league franchises for the NFL and NBA. They allow teenagers to become adults, and provide credentialing and screening for various professions. They cement the privilege of the privileged, they give voice and opportunity to those without.

A few years ago, Louis Menand wrote an article for the New Yorker about the confused roles of college, and the confusion caused for those who participate in the enterprise. And it influenced my thinking quite a lot, at least in part because it was a good premise left so incomplete. To borrow the subtitle of his article, why do we have college? He offers two reasons.

  • It sorts by talent. Millions of kids graduate from high school each year; which ones are academically best? The selective schools will tell you that by whom they admit. The simple fact of getting into and getting out of Yale or Stanford is more important than what you did there. We pretend that the precision of the GPA matters, but really, there are only three categories of college performance: drop-out, unremarkable, and remarkable. So if you multiply the selectivity of your school by which of those three categories you achieved, it tells the rest of us everything we think we need to know about you on your first resume, and allows HR departments and grad-school admissions officers to quickly cull the herd.
  • It is an enculturation device. It provides training in “the things that people like us should know,” an army of missionaries bringing the unwashed and half-finished into civilization. It offers familiarity with western civilization’s greatest hits, from Plato to Plath.

But Menand misses more than he hits. Here are some others.

  • It takes kids away from their families. One of the functions of education has always been to surround kids with adults who aren’t their parents, and thus to give them alternate models of adulthood.
  • It provides challenges to independence. High school is about compliance within complexity, and came to the fore during the great wave of industrialization, when factories needed men who could fit unquestioningly into whirling, dangerous mechanical processes. College is about choosing what to do and figuring out how to do it, managing your time and finding your own resources, failing and recovering along the way. By doing this, it prepares its students for more complex and fluid professional work.
  • It provides networks. One of the sorting mechanisms of college selectivity is to place kids into groups of kids with similar prospects in life, so that by the time they’re thirty, they have a huge contact file of friends they can call on for business and collegiality. They offer suitable dating and marriage pools, prepare their graduates for the appropriate country clubs and chambers of commerce.
  • It offers productive unemployment. Like the depression-era WPA and CCC and the contemporary armed services, colleges are a massive social support for people not prepared to enter the workforce. Just as child-labor laws were enacted at least in part to protect adult employment prospects, colleges take twenty million people out of the population defined in employment statistics, and holds them out of the way for a little longer while the grown-ups make a living. It reduces employment competition even as it helps those not yet competitive to feel okay about it, to have a named role within the system.
  • It challenges cultural stability. College is where burgeoning adults are trained to question, where students move from the comfort of knowing to the thrilling confusion of not-knowing. It introduces students to complex social and cultural problems, helps them move from narrow to broader interests, helps them see that they have a role in issues that are “not their business.” We think that higher ed is about gaining knowledge, but it’s also about choosing a world of dissatisfaction with the things we think we know, and bringing that aspiration for more into all of our stable systems.
  • It offers an on-ramp to adult responsibilities. It is a halfway house to first apartments, responsible drinking, responsible sex, productive time management. College allows kids to screw up in ways their parents never would, even as it stands by and helps to clean up the mess and reinforce the life lessons that come from mistakes.

So why does this list matter? It matters because how we define college has everything to do with how we define the role of the faculty. If we focus only on the specific content delivered within the specific three-credit box of a course (a model not so different than high school, after all), then all we need is a low-paid temporary worker who’s qualified to offer that box of goods. But if we see college as something more systemic, as an intervention into individual lives and collective culture, then we’d shift more toward a stable, permanent body of faculty members who know and embrace those larger roles over the duration of a student’s experience, a reliable family of non-family who recognize that their own value is far more than simply the things they know.

PIE Chart

In a highly viewed article published on LinkedIn Pulse, Beth Crocker of Crocker Finance gave some advice to women in the business world. And while I think there’s plenty there that’s useful to think through, there was one part that I really wished I’d known better at a much younger age. She refers to it as “stop focusing solely on getting an A on the project.”

Man, the only thing I knew how to do was get A’s. I thought that academic life was like baseball, and that if you hit everything that was thrown at you, you’d be guaranteed to be in the majors. So I learned how to hit fastballs and cut fastballs in quantitative classes, how to hit knuckleballs in seminars, how to hit curves and sliders in lit reviews and qualitative research design. You could not get a pitch past me. Still can’t. And yet…

In her essay, Crocker quotes some business guru Harvey Coleman as saying that career success is based on Performance, Image, and Exposure (or, because business gurus can’t go two sentences without an acronym, PIE). Coleman further does some faux-quantification to assert that career success is 10% performance, 30% image, and 60% exposure. But I think it’s not quite so additive.

Performance is like milk quality from the dairy. There’s a baseline you have to hit, and after that, nothing else matters so much. Being a few standard deviations above the baseline isn’t any help. And once that baseline’s achieved, the P variable falls out of the mix altogether, leaving you only with I and E.

There’s only so much you can do about the image part; chromosomes play a pretty big role, although at least you can dress like the people who might hire you. And the exposure comes as much from others as it does from your own activity; you need to be showcased, brought into the inner circles. If your dissertation advisor or postdoc lab supervisor isn’t bragging about you on a regular basis to the most important people in the field, then she or he just isn’t doing the job. If she or he isn’t introducing you to colleagues at conferences, isn’t pushing you to the front of the stage, that’s a dereliction of duty.

So for those of you who are in a position to lead the academic growth of others, remember that their great performance is an awesome starting place, but that your responsibility to polish and promote may have a larger impact on their career than anything they can contribute themselves. Another A won’t help much.

There’s a great story told by the late Abner Mikva, a US Representative and federal judge, about his early days in political life. He walked into a Chicago ward office and said, “I’d like to volunteer to work for Adlai Stevenson and Paul Douglas.” The boss looks at him and says, “Who sent you?” Mikva replied, “Nobody sent me.” And the boss stuck the cigar back in his mouth and said, “We don’t want nobody that nobody sent.”

Academic life is like that. They don’t want nobody that nobody sent.

Evidence? I don’t need no freakin’ evidence!

One of the most amusing data points I’ve seen in the past few weeks (aside from “It looked like a million, a million and a half people”) comes from our friends at the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA). As reported in their Institutional Policy Report 2014, nobody really has a firm idea of how many postdocs there actually are…

Historically, institutions have not kept accurate records of postdoctoral scholars, although more and more institutions are doing so today. As a result, it is not clear precisely how many postdoctoral scholars are currently employed in the United States, but the NSF estimates there are between 30,800 to 63,400.

That’s funny. Isn’t the NSF supposed to be all scienc-y and stuff, all about measuring things down to the nanometer? 30,800 to 63,400 is a pretty big range. Also, with that kind of imprecision, it seems disingenuous to have any numbers at all after the comma… I mean, 30,800? Really? If you’re going to be off by 100% or more, it doesn’t seem necessary to have that many significant digits. They might as well have said “an awful lot.”

Anyway, the NPA put forth a counter-number.

The NPA’s member postdoctoral offices estimate they serve about 79,000 post-doctoral scholars; this number is thought to be closer to the true total, though still incomplete.

“About 79,000.” Much better phrasing. The “about” there is crucial, because it lets us know that we’re still in the realm of ballpark figures.

One thing the NPA does know with precision is how many university offices of postdoctoral services there are: 167, up from “less than 25” back in 2000. And why does NPA know that? Because those institutions pay NPA dues, and therefore deserve recognition.

(To return to an earlier theme, this is another example of institutional money not in a classroom. Each office of postdoctoral services eats up at least one staff position, probably reasonably well paid; they might actually put on services, which cost money; each school pays an NPA membership fee; the annual meeting—March 17-19, in San Francisco—is a minimum of $400 per person to register and $240 a night for the hotel… the symbionts are feeding well, even as the host complains of anemia.)

Anyway, why don’t we actually know how many postdocs there are in the US? Why don’t we know how many adjuncts there are, really? (The fudging of those numbers will be its own small chapter in the coming book…) Because no one in power is served by knowing those numbers. We don’t collect data that we don’t want to know.

Policymakers are proposing all kinds of metrics for undergraduate institutional success, from retention and persistence rates to graduation rates to indebtedness after graduation to rate of return on investment as demonstrated by average wages. All possibly useful. But they utterly ignore metrics for graduate education or the experience of scholars after graduation. Almost 40% of financial aid goes to grad students (even more if you count institutional aid like TAships and RAships and waivers), but the status of the grad student, adjunct instructor and postdoc researcher are out there in the plus-or-minus 100% range, even as they account collectively for a massive component of our institutional landscape.

I saw a pair of socks in a shop yesterday, as my wife and I stopped on our way back from the Women’s March in Montpelier VT (with its own police estimate of 15,000 to 20,000 attendance). They were cartoon socks of a slovenly guy in a lounger watching TV, and the text on the foot read “Let her have her way… she’s probably right anyway.” And underneath, the care instructions for the socks said “Wash warm, tumble dry medium heat, or whatever.”

In our understanding of the adjunct and postdoc communities, we’re definitely relying on the vocabulary of “or whatever.”

The Good Old Days

In her brilliant New Yorker essay this week, TV critic Emily Nussbaum likens the last election to comedy writing, saying essentially that we’ve just elected Don Rickles or Andrew Dice Clay or the cast of South Park. And she writes about the toxicity of nostalgia, citing a South Park episode about its own election fervor:

Meanwhile, an addictive snack called Member Berries—they whisper “ ’Member? ’Member?”—fills the white men of the town with longing for the past, mingling “Star Wars” references with “ ’Member when there weren’t so many Mexicans?”

It’s easy, when we think that things are impossibly confusing, when we think we’re getting a bad deal, to imagine the remedy as reverting to some prior era when things were still good, before the fall. But really, there’s almost never a good old days to go back to, when you look closely.

Higher ed is like that. Which of these ideal, golden pasts do we want to revert to?

Do we want to go back to the 19th century, in which only the male children of power went to college, in order to be groomed to take over the family empire? In which women were relegated to “normal schools,” in preparation to be elementary teachers?

Do we want to go back to the 1930’s, when education most often ended after grade school, and only single-digit percentages of adults had college degrees?

Do we want to go back to the 1950s, when racially segregated colleges were the norm? (I was astonished to see that George Wallace’s University of Alabama “stand in the schoolhouse door,” which I would have placed about 1955, was actually in 1963. “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”)

Do we want to go back to the 1970s, when we still talked casually about “co-eds,” as though it was a novelty for women and men to be in the same classrooms (classrooms taught almost exclusively by men)?

There isn’t any “back” that I want to go back to. No prior generation holds the prepackaged answers for tomorrow’s problems. We’ve got to face them on our own, imperfectly, knowing that we will create our own unintended consequences for the next generation to solve.

Back When the Teachin’ Was Easy…

I started playing pool, like everyone does, with the ten-dollar house cue in the wall rack. I finally bought one of my own, for about $80, and it was miraculous. It made me a better player. A few years later, I spent $400 on a cue, a surgical instrument that made the $80 cue feel like a dull axe. And now I have a cue from the angels, a marvel of precision that I just love to have in my hands, a cue that enables a far greater repertoire than anything I’d tried before.

It’s a fact that a fine instrument is easier to play than a clumsy instrument, the thousand-dollar guitar more sensitive and less brutish than the fifty-dollar guitar. But we give kids crappy instruments because we don’t know if the investment will pay off. A professional could make a fifty-dollar guitar sound halfway decent, but they get the expensive one because they’ve demonstrated their commitment.

This isn’t dissimilar to the way we treat students in any field; the ones who need the most support get the least.

Those of us who taught first-year writing at Duke had a 2/3 teaching load. Teachers at most community colleges have a 5/5 load; at most other public undergraduate schools, a 4/4. First-year writing courses at Duke were capped at 12 students. Try to find a freshman comp course less than twice that size at most undergrad schools. First-year writing courses at Duke were all taught by people who held PhDs, people with substantial and demonstrated capability in academic discourse.

So those Duke kids, the ones who’d grown up with money and books and professional conversations at dinner, whose parents and grandparents were all insiders, learned academic writing with a remarkably well-tuned (and expensive) instrument. We could focus inordinate amounts of time on the critique of each paper, on the construction of each assignment. We could develop new writing courses every semester, with plenty of time to locate interesting readings and place them into interesting dialogue with one another, supported by an astonishing library and close support from a large library staff. And Duke’s students—the ones predestined to succeed, the ones who’d already had every advantage—could afford that opportunity, as part of a school whose own admissions office now claims approximately $70,000 per year cost of attendance.

Those other kids—the ones who mostly didn’t have invigorating intellectual home lives and didn’t grow up with books all around, the ones who have to work full-time during the school year to make it, the ones who went to crappy feed-lot high schools, the ones who might thrive if only they had more attention and more support—go to schools where unaffiliated adjuncts teach way too many courses to way too many students. It’s a raw consumer logic, in which those with advantages can purchase greater advantages, and those who already start a couple of laps behind have to carry extra weight.

When I teach pool now, I give everybody the $400 cue to work with right from day one. It teaches better habits, opens more doors. It brings joy. It just feels like the right thing to do.

Water Dreams

I woke up this morning with architectural curricular thoughts in my head. It started out by listening to the rain dropping off the eaves onto the decaying leaves outside my bedroom window. “Be fun to have a whole course about water… Architects don’t know enough about water… they think they know—about drainage and flashing and caulk and stuff—but we don’t get at the base issue, what water is and where it comes from and how it moves.”

And then I thought, well, you could have a series of courses, about all of the base elements that buildings experience. A course about water, and about wind, and about fire, and about earth. (And about politics, and about money, two other base elements that buildings must contend with.)

So each semester has one of those courses, that’s six semesters. Then we add the British architect Frank Duffy’s notion that any building is made up of component layers, and that each of those layers needs to be able to slide against one another rather than being firmly imbedded. His layers (he had four, to which two more were later added by the writer Stuart Brand) were Site, Structure, Skin, Services, Spaces and Stuff. Each of those change at different rates, accomplish different kinds of work. So there’s six parallel courses, the second course of each semester.

The third course of each semester would be about people and buildings. People as workers, as clients, as nurturers, as residents, as guests, as connoisseurs.

And the fourth course of each semester, what we’d call “general education” or “liberal studies,” would be about the core values we espouse for every life. A course about rigor, and a course about curiosity. A course about joy, and a course about generosity. A course about love, and a course about death.

So there’s six semesters. Each would have one course about the context of the world, one course about an aspect of physical places, one course about human roles within those places, and one course to help us dream. Semesters seven and eight would be independent, the guided senior thesis in which each student would pull this work together into their own unique narrative.

But alas, such a curriculum could never exist. Like many faculty jobs, a great deal about higher education is contingent rather than values-based. This curriculum could never successfully address transfer students, whether coming in or going out, without losing most of what made it singular. It wouldn’t be comfortably flexible enough to deal with single parents and workers trying to fit a couple of courses at a time into a hardscrabble job schedule. It wouldn’t be aimed at a knowable credential, or fluid enough to match the workforce needs of specific industries as they emerged or ebbed. It wouldn’t match disciplinary expectations, or accreditors standards. It wouldn’t gain the support of legislators and bureaucracies who see education merely as workforce development.

A truly unique college experience would require a singular, monastic devotion on the part of everyone involved, from president to trustees to teacher to student to nervous, fearful parent. And we’re all too contingent for that.


The Chasm

I’ve tried very hard in working on this project to focus outward, to talk about what’s happening around me, to find facts and make connections. But I woke up from a nightmare this morning. The details of the dream aren’t relevant. What is relevant, if perhaps only to me, is the deep, aching fears that this project revives.

The grief of not finding a home in higher ed—of having done everything as well as I was capable of doing, and having it not pan out… of being told over and over how well I was doing and how much my contributions mattered, even as the prize was withheld—consumed the better part of a decade. It affected my physical health. It affected my mental health. It ended my first marriage. It re-opened all of my fears from childhood about abandonment and rejection. It was a chasm that opened during the job search of 1996-97, and from which I didn’t really fully emerge until I left higher ed altogether in 2013.

Or perhaps, as my dreams tell me, I haven’t emerged yet at all.

Over the past year, I’ve helped a college with its accreditation efforts. I’ve put on a few faculty development events. And now I’m writing about the contingent academic workforce. And I realize how much I resent it all. I realize how much I resent being a caretaker of an industry that could not care for me. I resent being the one who tries to be fair, who tries to take a balanced, holistic view of the misfortunes of hundreds of thousands of my contingent colleagues, and the safe and often unremarkable permanent careers of hundreds of thousands of others.

Every contact I have with higher education brings me right back into the chasm. Into envious comparisons with others. Into the commonsense conclusion that of COURSE I wasn’t good enough, of COURSE I did something wrong along the way. Into trying to be rational and analytical and strategic about something as fundamental as my own identity as a scholar and teacher and colleague.

I went with my wife on a research trip yesterday in support of her current project. We were in Hennicker, New Hampshire, home of New England College. As we drove through the compact campus and its white clapboard buildings, I was immediately beguiled once again with the life I wanted, to have been the kind wise man who led generations of students into a richer adulthood on a protected, monastic grounds. The music of a good college campus always makes me sing, and having that song inside me again even momentarily makes me realize how much the silence has ached.

The problems with the adjunct structure of higher education are not merely quantitative. It’s not just about how badly adjuncts are paid, not just about the inadequate opportunities for our students to build enduring relationships with the faculty who guide them. It’s also about fear, grief, despair… the messy, hidden human elements that finance and policy always miss. This emerging project is not a memoir, not an autobiography. But the reason I’m doing it is because it matters so much to me, and the reason it matters so much to me is because it still hurts so badly. Researching and writing this book has brought me back into the chasm in ways that I hadn’t anticipated.

How Do You Describe an Ecosystem?

When I was in grade school, there were a couple of summers when the beaches at Lake Michigan were covered with dead fish. To be specific, alewives.

The alewife was an eastern fish. In Boston, the terminus of the MBTA Red Line is Alewife Station, which you can reach by driving along the Alewife Brook Parkway. But alewives got into the Great Lakes during the 19th century through the Erie Canal system, and the population grew to became a giant element of the fishery.

In the 1950s and 60s, a second invasive species, the sea lamprey, also made its way up the St. Lawrence Seaway. The local wisdom was that the larvae were in the ballast water of unladen ships returning to Detroit and Milwaukee and Cleveland and Chicago to refill with industrial cargo. The ballast water was released, the cars and steel were loaded on, and the ships left the lamprey behind.

The lamprey were parasitic to the big Lake trout, the predators that had kept the alewives more or less in check. So with the trout dying, the alewives lived longer, bred more frequently. And in 1966 and 1967, I remember bulldozed mountains of alewives that the parks workers had shoved together on the beach, a pyramid of dead fish every fifty yards or so.

The thing we all talked about was the visible outcome, the towers of fish. That problem was evident, with the smell and the flies that kept us from the beach all year. We didn’t really have the conceptual horsepower to talk about the hundreds of intervening components that made the alewife piles happen.

The new book will be similar to that. It’s easy to talk about the majority-adjunct teaching population, that mountain of dead fish that we can all see. What’s going to be much more difficult to tie together will be all of the ecosystem components that played a role in that—none the determining variable on its own, but all contributing their own nudge toward the health and direction of the whole. And talking about any one of them makes it seem more important than it might individually be.

Let’s take conferences and professional memberships, for instance. This month, the American Association of Colleges & Universities will have their annual meeting in San Francisco, attended by roughly 2000 people. If you add the cost of registration, travel, hotel, meals, and ground transport, that one conference costs the higher education community about four and a half million dollars. Add the costs of institutional AAC&U membership (and attendance at the other smaller AAC&U conferences that take place throughout the year), and we’re looking at a total impact of maybe twenty million bucks. Now, the AAC&U is a great organization. But twenty million dollars a year is a LOT of money, enough salary on its own to hire two hundred or more tenure-track faculty. And that’s one tiny, tiny fraction of the spending ecosystem, each negligible on its own but together contributing to an unspoken shift in priorities that has led to the mountain of adjuncts washed up on the shore.

In the high modernist era, we would have described this as a multivariate equation, and attempted to put weights on each of the dozen or so most important variables to come to an approximation of faculty employment patterns. But in the contemporary model, we have to understand the complex interworkings of a climate, a culture, an ecosystem, no part of which can be changed without influencing every other part. And understanding starts with description.



On the Indelible Joy of Skipping Class

We want so much to be productive. We fill hours with tasks and chores and efforts, knowing all the time that there are infinitely many other tasks or chores or efforts we will never reach. I just read a work log of an adjunct faculty member, a research diary kept for a scholarly project. Five hours of e-mail, within the context of an eleven and a half hour work day. And what did this person do at home? Likely make dinner, chat with a partner, kiss a child, and respond to more e-mail.

Do you remember? Do you remember time left alone, time to discover something unimaginably, privately perfect? To not be under the demand of discussing it later in seminar? To have it be your own, a private treasure you might review in a quiet moment?

We idolize the busy person. But the endless quest for activity, for productivity, can hollow us out. I have dear friends I see only rarely, with whom I can’t spend an entire meal without the intrusion of the telephone and its distant obligations.

Can we make space—within higher education and the scramble to acquire credits? within our work lives and the limitless demands of organizational churn? within the well-meaning reach of friends and family?—to be alone, quiet, unproductive?

I took the day, in the face of a manuscript to write and downloaded research articles to read and phone calls to make and a town budget to prepare, to read a book. And now my heart is broken, both because of the aching beauty of the book itself but also because college and work have no place for woolgathering, for the unproductive hours that make us rich in heart.

I will not share with you the name of the book that wrote this blog entry; that’s mine. But I will say that I’m writing it with my headphones on, listening to the Latvian Radio Choir. So here’s my gift: five minutes and forty-one seconds of near perfection, the Latvian Radio Choir singing Valentin Silvestrov’s The Lord’s Prayer.

How can we make room for this? How can we make room for our students to stumble across bliss?

Happy New Year

It’s the first Monday of 2017, and time to get back to work.

I’ve had a couple of interesting interviews with colleagues in higher ed, discussing the ways that adjunct faculty are used or not used on their campuses. The early pattern looks like this:

  1. General education courses, especially those that are intended for non-majors (often called “service courses”) are core locations for adjunct faculty. There are a lot of people who can teach freshman composition or intro psychology, and those courses aren’t usually designed to harvest undecided students into majors, so departments and deans don’t feel the need to spend faculty lines on them.  (One community college dean specifically notes that if he has to choose among permanent faculty lines to fill, the ease of finding adjuncts to cover courses works against the more easily populated department.)
  2. Community colleges seem mostly to operate at an 80% and higher adjunct faculty. Three reasons at least. First, the aforementioned focus on general ed is a core mission of two-year schools. Second, community colleges are more fully aimed at career and technical training, all of which turns over a lot faster than advances in scientific principles or literary theory. Finally, students just aren’t there as long, and so building enduring student-faculty relationships isn’t part of the mission.
  3. Within the major, some highly specialized upper-division courses might require personnel that wouldn’t be worth an entire faculty line. Let’s say a music department, which can’t possibly have performance faculty in every single orchestral and popular instrument. Or a business department that wants to offer one course in emerging financial investment products. So the adjunct there fills the role of the relief pitcher, the specialist coming in to face a tightly constrained circumstance.

Now let me say this. The more that a college or department imagines its mission to be providing academic credits to be consumed by others (students of other majors, four-year schools after community college, etc.), the higher its proportion of adjuncts will be. The more that a college or department imagines its mission to be specialized professional preparation, the higher its proportion of adjuncts will be.

The counterpoint is the kind of schools featured in Loren Pope’s book Colleges that Change Lives. In those forty schools, the goal of college is neither professional specialization nor consumer product, but rather an ongoing deliberation between students and faculty across a broad range of ideas. A monastery of sorts, in which the novices are brought to a greater understanding not merely of the scripture but of the way of life it entails. And that goal of ongoing deliberation—both between faculty and students, and within the body of faculty themselves—leads toward those schools having a far higher proportion of permanent faculty. Beloit College, with 110 permanent faculty and 28 part-timers. Earlham College, with 121 full-time and 16 part-time. Reed College, with 151 full-time and FOUR part-time faculty!

Those schools are just in a different business than the rest of us, and thus staff differently as well. They are the Hill Farmstead Brewery in a world of Coors Light (and, not surprisingly, priced accordingly).