The music writer Sasha Frere-Jones wrote on his blog a couple of months ago that there’s a German word schlimmbesserung which means “a supposed improvement that makes things worse.”

And maybe it’s just that I’m old now and reminisce about how much fun it used to be to watch the three channels we could get on the old black-and-white Sylvania… but I really do think that we’ve moved well into schlimmbesserung in a lot of areas of our lives.

Higher education has a lot of it. Let’s take our current infatuation with High Impact Practices, which as a friend says were probably brought down from Sinai on stone tablets by George Kuh and presented to Carol Geary Schneider. All of the HIPs (god save us from another acronym), from undergraduate research to service learning to first-year seminars, were native to some landscape somewhere. A professor who tried it out in her classroom, a department that wanted to take an interest in its surrounding community. But like bamboo or kudzu or the giant hogweed, they were imported all over the place, regardless of the merit of the native species in the other mature landscapes, and spawned offices and programs and vice provosts that crowded out the reproduction of the faculty.

Every discipline has its own content knowledge, which is shared across its members by journals and conferences, passed down from one generation to the next through mentorship and coursework. And although we don’t often think of it that way, academic administration is its own discipline and its own content, with its own journals and its own conferences, passed down from one generation to the next through mentorship and professional development. And the administrative discipline has been the source of some of the most hypercompetitive of the invasive species.

“There’s nothing more dangerous than a dean just back from a conference,” it’s said, and a lot of the danger is the intellectual spores that travel along with her, infesting the new soil and changing the ecosystem in ways that can’t be predicted for years. All faculty in all disciplines go to conferences and get new ideas all the time. The difference is that, upon return home, most of those new ideas are quarantined for a long time inside one person’s scholarship, one person’s classrooms. With administrators, because they have such promiscuous partnering across the campus, those ideas spread from patient zero to pandemic much more quickly.

This is not to say that any of the HIPs are bad things; when done well, and for the right reasons, they’re remarkable. But the degree to which they’re presumed good, without consideration of unintended consequences, has brought about a blindness to the ways that we spend our money, the ways that we don’t, and the values that ought to underlie those decisions.

The Bureaucracy of Learning

I once found a student report in a high school hallway. Three exams: 100, 100, and 93. Two homeworks at 50 points apiece, neither turned in, 0/100. Total score: 293/400, C–. So what part of this record is irrelevant? The exams, which could be aced without ever doing homework? The homework, which didn’t contribute to performance on the tests? Or the grade, which tells us nothing whatsoever?

I once knew a young man who could draw better than anyone I’d ever met. He was occasionally taking figure drawing and watercolor courses at the local community college, far more talented than any other person in the room. One day, he left class halfway through drawing one of those bio-lab plastic skeletons. I asked why he was leaving. “If I finished, I’d just have a good drawing of a skeleton. Don’t need that.” So of course, his community college transcript was littered with Fs and Ws. So what part of this record is irrelevant? The talent, which wasn’t performed consistently enough to put into the gradebook? The three-hour course session, during which he’d put in more than enough practice after an hour or so and was learning nothing new? Or the grade, which tells us nothing whatsoever?

I’m writing this after filling out a form for a presentation I’ll be giving in May. I’m intending it as an aesthetic experience, an opportunity for the participants to think about the world and about their work and about their colleagues in a new way. An opportunity to be productively unsettled. That riskiness is at the heart of why I’ve been invited.

But the host organization also needs to offer professional continuing education units for it, and so I have to fill out a sheet that labels which category the CEUs will fall within and the minimum of four learning objectives for the session.

Which part of this record is irrelevant?

We collectively spend trillions of dollars a year on higher education. I know that it can’t be left to magic, to hope. I get that. But the things that I do as a teacher are not enhanced by categorizing which stack my units fall into. The things that our students do are not enhanced by counting educational minutes, or assigning them at the end with a character from a truncated alphabet that attempts to encompass the full merit of their experience.

Every law is the response to a crime. Every code is the response to a cheat. Every regulation is a response to someone’s laziness or carelessness. And all of us now pay for the sins of our predecessors. The attempt to trim off the bottom also places an unspoken top, a standardization that works counter to the lived miracles that education can bring.

We seem to be working in education with a dour view of human nature. As the Methodists’ Book of Discipline puts it, “Original sin … is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually.” We must be eternally vigilant against each teacher, against each school, against each student, lest they fall to sin.

And by so doing, we lose the possibility of grace.


Apologies for the New Look

It’s like New Coke. You take something everybody loves, and mess with it for no reason.

So when I opened Wordpress a couple of days ago, it asked to update the theme I’d been running—the sort of visual template package that organizes site elements. And I didn’t pay close enough attention. The prior updates (and it gets updated every couple of weeks or so) went from like 1.8.6 to 1.8.7, little bitty tweaks. But this one was a new version, a 2.0. And once it applied, the site was a shambles. The only thing visible was the header and the menu. No content showed, regardless of which page you clicked on.

So we’re driving a loaner this week while I figure out how to fix the other one. Same great content, but in a generic can.

And that leads to the content portion of today’s program. Technology (like all forms of progress) is usually seen as both inevitable and beneficent. We all want the latest, we love being able to sign the credit card thing with our finger at the restaurant, we love asking Alexa about tomorrow’s weather or to play some limp jazz for our dinner guests. But that stuff isn’t just magic. Somebody’s got to write and test the code, make sure the hardware supports it, and get in there and fix it when it breaks. And I know usually it breaks from operator error, I get that, but that’s why we have IT specialists. I don’t WANT to know how my software works, and I don’t care if they make fun of me behind my back for not knowing some simple workaround. I have my job, you have yours.

Every institution of more than a dozen or so people now has an IT person, or persons, whose job it is to make the magic be invisible, and to step in whenever it kludges up. And the purchase of all that hardware, and all that software, and all that networking equipment, and all that bandwidth, and all the people who support it and make it run and update it, that’s all a cost that businesses didn’t carry forty years ago. Does it make us more productive? In most jobs, you’ll never know the answer to that, because productivity is a concept borrowed from pace of manufacturing, the number of transmission linkages you can make in an hour. What makes a teacher more productive? Not wasting time on e-mail or loading homework assignments onto the LMS, I can tell you that.

When the ubiquity of the desktop computer became inevitable back in the early ’90s, one of my research colleagues said that it had brought about the era of the $100,000 a year typist. The old steno pools that supported millions of families were gone, replaced by the senior manager wasting hours a day on low-level work that she would have given to a secretary if she’d still had one.

I’m telling you, WordPress updates can make you a Luddite. Technology is wonderful, it really is, but it also lost a TON of jobs for the less educated, and it adds a significant and more highly paid cost center to almost every business. I’ll leave it to the accountants to decide how the balance has played out.


Mission Creep

I once knew an architecture professor who studied shopping malls. He studied them not because they were especially interesting, not because he himself loved to spend time at some random SouthPointe Galleria or Olde Towne Centre. He studied them because they had one single variable for success: dollars of sales per square foot.

  • Widen the concourse: does $/SF go up, or down?
  • Add multi-level parking: does $/SF go up, or down?
  • Change the mix of food-court tenants: does $/SF go up, or down?

He wasn’t interested in some larger human questions of satisfaction or pleasure or blah blah blah. He had an objective measurement to be pursued with monomaniacal precision.

I’ve spent some time in non-profits, both within and outside higher ed. Their missions are more complex than those of the for-profit environment, and include all kinds of social and personal outcomes that are a lot harder to measure, or even to state. But in the end, they still need the dollars in order to survive and fulfill those other missions.

This introduces a tension; every college has to be a business with sufficient revenue, even as it has to pursue goals that have nothing whatsoever to do with revenue. And since it’s ALWAYS possible to spend more money to pursue the quality of education, most schools are perpetually adding programs and then scrambling to pay for them.

Fortunately, there are no end of generous people and agencies willing to support these initiatives… kind of. These generous souls, whether individual donors or family funds or major foundations or federal agencies, have social goals of their own; they’re giving money to some college in order to further their own complex missions. And so every negotiation over a grant or a gift becomes an imperfect alignment of values. Without constant attention and focus, the college can be distracted from its core mission through the necessity of fundraising, each new initiative making us a little different than we once had been. After ten or twenty or fifty years, we become unrecognizable.

In the for-profit world, this doesn’t matter even a little bit. The executives of US Steel once were asked how they could continue to make steel in the face of so many plant closures; they replied “We don’t make steel. We make money.” There’s no complex array of core values there, just the one. So it’s easy for them to divest from one area and pick up another, to shift from sheet metal to structural steel to iron mining. McDonalds doesn’t make hamburgers, they make money. And they’ll do that with McNuggets and Fruit ‘N Yogurt Parfait and McCafé® Shamrock Chocolate Chip Frappé. Maybe next year, they’ll sell McPhones and McSoap and McGin ‘N Tonic. Doesn’t matter. Money has no mission except its own.

In our contemporary zeal to “run government like a business,” colleges also have invested in the fluid, the exchangeable, the temporary. Each new program on its own makes a lot of sense; as a portfolio of programs, as a system of programs, they change the school irretrievably. We build the plaid university, and then wonder why everyone is so overworked and confused about the mission.

Every new initiative changes all the other parts of the ecosystem. There are new committees and coordinative challenges. There are requirements for space and equipment, demands placed on accounting and HR. There are course releases to fill, travel and memberships to fund. And at the end of the project, questions of permanence—is this thing valuable enough for us to continue it on our own dime? Does it become a new member of the community, or did it migrate through us and then depart? How far did we stray from our mission to bring it on board?

These programs also add to the impermanence of the higher education workplace. We get a three-year grant, and add “soft-money employees” and a few post-docs that we can shed without regrets when the funding dries up. The permanent faculty member gets the glory (in promotion credit, and in publications and reputation); the others get to not be hungry for a little while longer while they do their temp jobs with one eye on the classified ads.


It’s Not You, It’s Me

The rejection letter is a genre of its own, and most of its writers hew pretty close to the script. I’d gone for years without any, but now that I’ve entered a newly competitive arena (fiction writing), I’m remembering them allllll over again.

First, the gratitude for submitting your work.

  • Thanks for sending and for your patience as I read!
  • Thanks for sending me your query.
  • Thanks for writing about your novel.
  • Thank you so much for sending your materials for my review.

Then the false hope.

  • I really enjoyed this and can see the potential in your writing.
  • I was really intrigued by the story idea and enjoyed your writing style.
  • There’s much to admire here…

Then the pivot…

  • Unfortunately, however, despite all that I liked, I didn’t quite fall in love with this as I had hoped, so I will not be offering representation at this time.
  • Even though there was so much I admired, I’m afraid after careful consideration I realized I ultimately didn’t feel enough enthusiasm for the work as a whole to offer representation.
  • …but I’m afraid I didn’t connect with the story strongly enough to feel I’d be the advocate the book deserves
  • I’m afraid this doesn’t seem like the right project for me…

Then the “you’ll find the right guy out there somewhere, honey…”

  • I am so sorry this didn’t work out for us, but I do wish you the very best on finding a great agent for your work.
  • Others are likely to feel differently and I encourage you to solicit additional opinions.
  • I’ll step aside, then, with best wishes for your finding the right match elsewhere.
  • …but I’m sure other agents will feel differently.

Honest to god, it’s like there’s a manual out there.

The hard ones are the ones where you get to the second round, where you get to the phone interview stage or the agent requests the full manuscript and not just the query. Those are the ones that make you feel like maybe, just maybe, this is your moment. As John Cleese put it, sitting on a dirt road in his bathrobe in the movie Clockwise, “It’s not the despair, Laura. I can stand the despair. It’s the hope…”

Rejection letters for faculty positions are the same genre. But because they aren’t very good writers, they tend to be just a touch more tone deaf.

Thank you for being one of a strong pool of 326 applicants. [Aren’t we awesome that 326 people wanted our job? Yay us!]. Although the committee was impressed by your credentials and achievements [committees aren’t impressed by anything, we all know that], we have decided to pursue a different course [really, nobody wants a scholar of 19th-century Japanese political theory right now]. We wish you the best in your academic career. [Not even the nicety of suggesting that another school might want you. Just “good luck, buddy” as you stagger off into the desert.]

In the writing world, agents and editors are beset by unsolicited queries, which are known by the lovely colloquialism “the slush pile.” And all of us special snowflakes are just part of the slush, unless someone picks us out specifically and puts us onto the microscope slide to be examined more carefully. Literary agents, in interviews, say that they get most of their new clients through referrals from existing clients. So too with faculty searches; you get isolated from the slush for more careful examination if you come recommended by a friend.

Adjunct Bait

We have some Hav-a-Hart traps that we use around our garden. We throw groundhog-favored foodstuffs into the back of the screened pen (apples and melon rinds work well), and when the unsuspecting whistlepig wanders in, he has to step on a plate on his way to the fruit, and the door closes behind him. Then we pick up the whole trap, drive it to our neighbors’ homes, and let it out into their garden to keep ours safe.

[KIDDING!!! Just kidding. We take them quite a ways into the woods, of which there’s plenty around here, no closer to anybody else’s food.]

But the general idea is that Ms. Whistlepig thinks she’s getting a nice snack, not realizing that she’s about to have an unpleasant journey. Every trap requires the right bait.

As I’ve been talking with contingent faculty for this project, one of the things I hear quite often is this sense of being baited. Some school opens up a few courses and implies (in some vague and therefore legally defensible way) that they constitute a “position” and that success at these courses can lead to a permanent faculty line “soon.” So the happy, excited teacher has a great semester or a great year, and the department chair tells her what a great job she’s doing and how happy they are to have her. She gets those two courses again, plus maybe another one. At any other job, this would be a clear sign that she was being groomed for promotion, just as the whistlepig smells a canteloupe and thinks it’s a lovely dessert after the pea plants have been eaten.

And so the trap is baited, so the trap is sprung.

An adjunct position could, possibly, be converted into an offer of a tenure-track line. And my cat Ed could, possibly, be offered a spot in the starting gates at the Preakness. I mean, it COULD happen, but it won’t.

Tenure track job openings, even at a fifth-tier school, a Southwestern Central Nevada A&M State Tech, are the subject of national searches. They don’t hire people on spec to try them out. You don’t work your way up. An adjunct teaching position is exactly and only that, an offer to teach a specific course for a specific semester for a specific dollar amount, with no guarantee of further relations. You’re not only not guaranteed the job if it ever materializes, you’re likely diminishing your chances by a) accumulating more time since your dissertation and thereby going stale, and b) being seen as “just a teacher” and thus a diminished scholar.

But the bait is so, so appealing. It’s fun to be back in the classroom. It’s gratifying to have an e-mail address ending in .edu. It’s heady to have the chair tell you how highly she thinks of your work, and to read the students’ pleasure (in you and in their own capabilities) in your course evaluations. Magical thinking takes over, and we invest years in a half-promised permanence that we believe we might somehow earn.

I have a friend who was a highly-regarded adjunct at a major Eastern university for three years. So highly regarded, in fact, that they asked her to serve on the search committee for the tenure-track line that her chair told her not to bother applying for because she was, after all, just a teacher.

Every cult, from Amway to Scientology, has a series of loyalty tests that the initiates never quite can pass, but come so close that the next round surely will get you there. But it never will.