Ecological Storytelling

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The death of one is a tragedy. The death of a million is a statistic. —Joseph Stalin

Nobody knows how many adjuncts there are. But it seems to be at the very least between half a million and a million. And people’s brains just aren’t wired to know what to do with numbers like that. We tend to see, at first glance, a simple array of quantities.

  • One.
  • Two.
  • Three.
  • A few.
  • Quite a few.
  • A lot.
  • An awful lot.
  • Countless.

I mean, it wasn’t until relatively recently in our history that anyone had any reason to think of a million anything. How many sheep could you have? How many apples could your farmhands pick? How many people turned out for town meeting? Somewhere between a few and a lot, really. A million was just an arithmetic trick, something you get by multiplying two four-digit numbers, fun to spend a few minutes working through… but really, in terms of people or things, countless is more true to the experience.

I’ve spent a couple of days working on an introduction to the book, a way to suggest the immensity of the adjunct community and simultaneously the specificity of why it matters. When we say that a million people are disadvantaged in some way, it becomes a bland, generic issue. And focusing on one particular case is kind of unhelpful, too, the “up close and personal” portrait that just puts local color on the surface of the immense problem.

So my experiment (at least in the introduction) is to leave the numbers out of it altogether, and just describe the ecosystem. To talk about the higher education equivalent of the algae that eat the sunlight and the snails that eat the algae and the junk fish that eat the snails and the sport fish that eat the junk fish and the fish market that consumes the sport fish… and not just marine life but also cormorants and raccoons and otters and surfers, all of it fed by winter snowmelt and water salinity and wave action. We don’t have adjuncts because evil college presidents profit from indentured labor; it’s just not that simple.

We don’t need to know how many yellow perch are in Lake Michigan to know what role they play in the ecosystem, and to think about what a perch die-off indicates about the ecological health of the lake. So too for adjuncts; describing their role in the ecosystem may be a more effective way of thinking than character-driven stories (as interesting as Paula the Perch may herself be).

Maybe the model for this story is Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring. What does it mean when there are no birds?