How Do You Describe an Ecosystem?

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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.