Category mismatches

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Once we divide the world into labeled buckets, we can quickly fall into the trap of thinking that everything must fit into one of them. The work I’ve been doing has shown me an awful lot of category mismatches, easy labels that contain dissimilar things.

STEM, for instance, is a terrible category. You hear the term STEM far more outside higher ed, in the corridors of state legislatures and economic think tanks and newspapers, than you ever will inside. The S&M is different than the T&E. (S&M is different than a lot of things.) Science and mathematics are not technical, careerist disciplines. They are investigative, speculative, and risky. Technology and engineering are the applied fields of reliable expertise that you go into to get jobs. As one commentator recently put it, “You discover evidence. You invent technology.”

Math is hard, I get that. Quantitative literacy is a relatively rare skill, and one to be treasured. But we’ve been sloppy in thinking that rigor equals quantification. You want to see rigor? Look at a professional dancer, a jazz musician, an elite sprinter, a philosopher, a poet. If we want people to be smart, attentive, disciplined and rigorous, any kind of work can be the vessel for that. For the most part, STEM is just a lazy way of saying we want to train people to invent more cool gadgets for us to buy. It falls into the notion of higher ed as workforce development.

“Administrator” is another bad category. In colleges, the term should be reserved for people who make decisions that govern the operations of major subdivisions of the school; essentially, deans and upward. All those directors we’ve added in the past couple of decades? They’re professional support staff. A director of undergraduate research is a student support staff; a financial aid director is a business support staff; a Title IX director is a legal advisory staff. When we hear sloppy reporting about the swollen ranks of administrators, what we’re really hearing is that we’re stuffing too many people into that category and not thinking carefully about who does what. The professional support staff of higher ed is what’s been growing, by about 45% per equal number of students in the past 20 years; “administration,” properly defined, has grown by less than 10%.

Categories are powerful, and like any powerful tool, they’re dangerous if we aren’t careful.