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.


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.

A Crisis of Definition

Throughout this blog and the books it relates to, I’m oversimplifying a bit when I refer to PhDs as the degree that qualifies one for college teaching. There are others. A lot of them pertain to professions that normally don’t have a research component, like architecture. When I finished my undergraduate degree, a B.A. in architecture, I had a fundamental decision to make. If I’d wanted to be a practitioner, I would have turned left at the fork and gone on to an M.Arch, the professional degree; because I wanted to do research, I turned right at the fork and went on to a PhD program. These are not sequential degrees; they serve different functions. And design teachers often have M.Arch’s, even as architectural historians and materials science teachers usually have PhDs.

In college departments aimed at professional life, these sorts of “terminal master’s degrees” are common currency among their faculty. MBAs in business schools, MLSs in library schools, and such. One of the more common is the MFA, the Master of Fine Arts sought out by writers, actors, photographers, painters, dancers, and so on. Although many MFA students hope to be practicing artists in their desired fields, the fallback position is presumed to be teaching. Well, that’s lovely, but the New York Times recently estimated three or four thousand new MFAs in creative writing each year, for an academic job market that totaled 112 tenure-track positions. A three-percent chance isn’t so much a fallback as it is a falldown.

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the bell curve of professional success, about the one percent of one percent of one percent who get to make a living in artistic fields. There are lots of wonderful writers, only a microscopic fraction of whom become professional writers. Poetry magazine says they get over a hundred thousand unsolicited poems a year, of which they publish 300. Three-tenths of one percent. And of the 300 poems published in the magazine, how many go into an anthology, or become part of an individual chapbook that gets published? Twenty percent of those? Five percent?

We have this kind of magical thinking about what degrees do. We see that Junot Diaz or Edwidge Danticat or Michael Chabon have MFAs, and we think, okay, I want to be a writer, I’ll get an MFA too. But even if the premise were true, that ALL published writers had MFAs, the converse—all MFAs become published writers—would not hold. Every lottery winner bought a lottery ticket, but not all ticket buyers become winners. All WNBA players played college basketball, but not all women college basketball players will play in the WNBA.

So part of me thinks, is it really a crisis that only a sixth of all PhD holders will ever attain a tenure-track job? It’s not a “crisis” that hardly anybody from music programs becomes a famous musician; it’s just a fact. Maybe the crisis is that we all keep trying, at below minimum wage, working ourselves into oblivion in an industry that couldn’t care less. Maybe we should divorce training from job and just drive for Uber, wait tables, be parents, run for office, and do those things with the grace and joy that academic life has brought to us. Maybe for most of us, being a scholar will be a hobby, something that enlivens us after our workdays have ended and helps us do our day jobs with a bit more elan than might otherwise have been possible.

At least, that’s what the numbers tell us.

The Education of Fear

I just finished reading Natalia Ginzburg’s book of essays, The Little Virtues. The title essay is her meditation on education and parenthood, both of which she believes are far too focused on instilling small virtues such as thrift, caution, prudence, tact and success. Better, she believes, to attend to the larger virtues of generosity (of finance and of spirit), curiosity, courage, frankness, and love of life.

The problem is that the little virtues, being little, can easily be made even smaller and thus taught and tested. We can easily tell when someone has “good manners,” by examining how they perform each of innumerable protocols of table service and social interaction. We can less easily tell when someone is compassionate, nor do we know exactly how to teach it.

And I think that higher education has almost fully made the transition from the large virtues to the small. We send kids to college so they won’t be unemployed. We tell them to major in things that are marketable, practical, in demand. We privilege the major over “gen ed” (such a waste of money, after all…), and spend freely chosen electives installing more armor on our already restrictive battle gear. The faculty at Pitt, for example, are up in arms about the possibility of more students having to take two semesters (six credits, five percent of their degree program) of a foreign language. “Adam Leibovich, chair of the department of physics and astronomy, wrote in an email to his faculty colleagues on the eve of a fully faculty vote on the proposal, ‘We need a large turnout of science faculty to have our voices heard so that resources are not taken away from us.’” Every scrap of curiosity and energy must be reserved for the major, the career prep. Possibilities for surprise, for sudden epiphany, are trimmed away.

About fifteen years ago, I wrote an essay that got me fired. (To be more precise, I’d just given four months notice that I was leaving for Duke, but I gave this essay as an invited talk one weekday evening to a group of educators, and the next morning was told that I should leave after a couple more weeks instead.) It was about high school, and the ways in which the education of fear had taken hold so strongly, an education to avoid pain rather than strive for glory.

That was fifteen years back. Now I see the same thing take place in higher ed, which has allowed itself to be discussed as part of the “K-16 system,” a phrase that fills me with loathing. College is, at its best, not job training of any sort, nor preparation for graduate school. College is a time to be surrounded by brilliant, curious people who are not our parents; people who are curious about vast swaths of the world, and thus raise our eyes to new horizons. A time of large virtues, boldly defended.

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.

Pyramid Scheme

I had a really interesting interview this afternoon with a scholar who, for over thirty years, has taught in a writing program at a major research university, a giant school with more undergraduate students than the entire population of my hometown. And this writing program is staffed as follows:

  • about 100 course-by-course adjuncts
  • about 30 full-time but non-tenure-track adjuncts
  • about 120 grad students
  • one… yes, ONE… tenured faculty member who is the program’s director.

I mean, are you f*%#(ing kidding me? That’s not a university, that’s Mary Kay Cosmetics! I hope that those grad students have all taken statistics and understand at least something about probability…

I grew up in Western Michigan, so I know something about Amway. (Oh, children, you’re ALL about to learn some things about Amway, now that Betsy DeVos is going to be the Secretary of Education.) The religious appeal to purity and vigor, and the intimation that your inability to rise to the top is somehow due to your own moral failure, which you can never quite erase. The millions of “Independent Business Owners” funneling nine and a half BILLION dollars upward to the handful of corporate owners. Tell me how a program with one tenured faculty member and 250 serfs is different than multi-level marketing.

I taught in a program some number of years back that, although not quite as egregious in proportion, was similar in structure. One tenured director. One “Professor of the Practice” on a multi-year non-tenure contract as the associate director. And about thirty post-docs, all of us devout, believing that our talent and our goodness and our earnest efforts would surely gain us a seat at the table one day. I know what it means to be a member of that cult, to believe in the face of all evidence, to persevere, to serve. I know what it means to take a 50% pay cut and move across the country to be allowed back inside the academy after six years in the secular professions. To be grateful to give up a career, to give up economic comfort, in order to once again be a member.

Part of me still wants it. Like any addict, I know that I’m only provisionally recovered. That kind of faith is in your bones, and reason can only bleach it away somewhat. The imprint is still there, faint, hauntingly imprecise, all the more venerable for its openness to dreams. I worked as a college administrator for seven years after that postdoc, because I couldn’t bear to be away from my beloved community even after it had set me aside. Because I couldn’t walk away.

All cults work the same way, taking us away from friends and family, demanding more effort and more sacrifice and more devotion, only to find that we remain the same tantalizing distance from the next promised level. And the sacrifice normalizes itself into more sacrifice, the devotion becomes its own reward, the burn of the hunger is as good as the meal.

Alternate explanation

I just re-read Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation. You should, too, though you should be prepared for a deeply inside-language analysis that privileges critical theory over looking around. But one of the things that I’m still puzzled by is a question that isn’t discussed at all. Who, exactly, benefits from low-wage faculty, and in what ways do they benefit?

I mean, it’s fine to go on about Fordist and post-Fordist and neoliberal strategies (and in response, strategies of labor resistance), all of which are analyses drawn from profit-based industrial economics. It makes sense for Walmart to hire people at minimum wage, and hold them to thirty hours a week to avoid vacations and benefits, because every dollar that isn’t spent on an “associate” just goes into the funnel to the corporate masters in Bentonville. I get that. It’s ruthless power dynamics, but it’s simple.

But what’s the motive in a not-for-profit environment? Sure, college presidents make a ton of money, but in real capitalism terms, it isn’t much. There aren’t any eight-figure and nine-figure salaries for college leaders, as there are in venture capital; there aren’t any higher ed leaders on the Forbes list of billionaires. So we have to subtract that motive, that every dime saved on the worker goes to the CEO and the shareholders. The numbers just don’t add up that way.

We have to think closely about motive before we presume ill motive. As Hanlon’s Razor has it, “Never attribute to malice what could be attributed to neglect and misunderstanding.” So if we dispel the avarice narrative, a version of the “great man” version of history in which the tycoon voluntarily abets suffering of customer and worker alike, then we’re left with a much more systemic and cultural story to tell, and one that we’ll have to think together to adapt.

Flooding the Market

Just got back from some chores, looking through the mail. My wife (Ph.D. Environmental Psychology, CUNY Graduate Center, 1982) got an alumni solicitation letter from the psychology program’s new-ish “Acting Executive Officer,” crowing about the status of the program and asking for dough. Along with the bragging points about $25M in recent funding from the federal alphabet science agencies (NIH, NSF, NICHD), they had this glowing bit of news:

Over the past 5 years (2012-2016), we produced 337 Ph.D.’s, many of whom are receiving this letter now as alumni! Congratulations, and I hope that your careers have been successfully launched.

Well, first off, “hope” is not a strategy, as the saying goes. Does the psych graduate program actually DO anything to make sure that its doctoral alumni have successfully launched careers? Probably not so much. But second is just the raw numbers. This acceptably good program, ranked 44th out of the nation’s 185 doctoral psych programs by the National Research Council, has produced an average of nearly 70 new PhDs a year? Into a job market that accepts only a few hundred new tenure track hires? And you’re PROUD of that? It’s like training gladiators to be fed to the lions. As Marc Bousquet says, the PhD is now correctly understood as the END of one’s academic career.

The National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates shows 3,765 new PhDs in psychology in 2014. These people entered a hiring pool that the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s JobTracker research project estimated at 326 tenure-track positions at four year schools for the 2013-14 academic year. That’s one faculty job for every eleven and a half new scholars!

But grad students make cheap teachers, cheap lab assistants, and keep a 44th-ranked doctoral program afloat so that its director can send out fundraising letters and its faculty can rake in research funds. Really, it’s not much different than a payday lending operation; a way for those already wealthy to scrape a few more dollars out of the pockets of the desperate, leaving them on the streets when they’ve run dry.

And they wandered in
From the city of St. John
Without a dime
Wearing coats that shined
Both red and green
Colors from their sunny island
From their boats of iron
They looked upon the promised land
Where surely life was sweet
On the rising tide
To New York City
Did they ride into the street

See the glory
Of the royal scam

Steely Dan, 1976

Combat Narratives

We seem to have a limited vocabulary with which to describe cultural phenomena. For instance, when my wife and I bought our house, we converted an unused loft over the garage into my pool room. A room of contemplation and meditation, a room in which the pool table itself was lovingly restored, the cues are works of art, and the walls are covered in fine arts painting. A room where the stereo plays chamber music of various sorts, a room without a refrigerator and bar. And the first response of everyone who sees it is almost guaranteed to include the term “man cave.”

It is not a F*%#$)ing man cave! First off, it’s twelve feet in the air above the garage, so “cave” is kind of an ill-fit metaphor anyway. But, I mean, come on! There’s a Buddha on a stand. The balls get wiped down and the table vacuumed and re-covered after every use. There’s a freakin’ bookcase! There’s no TV or college sports pennants or coasters or Bud Light tavern signs. Pay attention to your surroundings, why don’t you!

Sorry to rant. But “man cave” is a fundamental misreading of the intentions of this space, a nearly 180-degree opposite to the work that it aspires to do.

Anyway, I’m reminded of this because every faculty member I know who has taken an administrative post, whether permanent or temporary, has had to hear the semi-joking term “going over to the dark side.” As though Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader were an apt metaphor for relatively well intentioned and relatively intelligent people trying to collectively run a school.

The literature on higher education labor is increasingly defined as a form of war story, with one side valiant and the other evil. Benjamin Ginsburg’s book The Fall of the Faculty: the Rise of the All-Administrative University, and Why It Matters clearly paints administrators as some combination of misguided, naive, ruthless, rapacious and cunningly manipulative, with the poor faculty (TT faculty, by the way… the book only has two instances of “adjunct faculty” in the index) suffering untold abuses. From the other side, calls to “rise up” and become activist, often featuring the dreaded term “Solidarity!” that sounds so sweet and accomplishes so little.

What if we were to look at the status of higher education without resorting to combat narratives? What if we were to just look, to pay attention to our surroundings, to understand that colleges are an expression of our larger culture? The gig economy is everywhere, whether adjunct faculty or Uber. The “creative disruption” and “entrepreneurial spirit” we celebrate works against lifetime careers of all sorts. “Intelligent systems” make trivial actions easy, whether campus e-mail or looking up restaurants, while remaining neutral to the work that matters. And marketing drives everything, the parasite of advertising having grown stronger than its host. Higher ed is not some pristine outpost being fought over by its inhabitants; it is part of its society. As sociologist Anthony Giddens said, it helps to shape the rules that it then operates under.

What if we were to decide that the important story was not just whether A defeats B, but instead whether we actually understand the systems that we ourselves have helped to create? I mean, most colleges aren’t for profit, so nobody’s making money off not hiring permanent faculty. It’s not like Walmart where the investors profit from “associates” working for nine bucks an hour. And colleges certainly haven’t been afraid to hire tons of people, with the National Center for Educational Statistics reporting an 8% increase in total higher ed permanent employment in just the four years from 2007 to 2011. They’re just hiring a different kind of people, directors of undergraduate research and associate deans of high-impact practices and instructional technology staff. Why is that?

Cultures are hard to explain succinctly, and the combat narrative offers an easy entry to the conversation, just as the competition narrative of politics always overshadows the cultural narrative of policy. But I think it’s a bad metaphor, like the man cave, not only inapt but in fact counterproductive, obscuring what’s there in favor of an image we carry from elsewhere.