Oversimplifiers of the World, Unite!

For years, I’ve made the case that every faculty member plays three roles for their students, even without knowing they’re doing it.

  • There’s the teacher, the person who introduces students to the material of a field and the rigor of its investigation.
  • There’s the supervisor, the person who takes an apprentice worker and guides him or her to participation in a larger project.
  • And there’s the mentor, the person who guides a cultural novice into a greater understanding of the culture s/he’s about to enter.

Nobody is equally good at all three, nor do they care equally about all three. I’ve always been most comfortable with the role of the mentor, at least in part because I’ve never shed the feeling of having been a cultural novice myself, and knowing how badly I needed someone to help me just figure out where the rocks were in the river. The content I could figure out on my own. I’ve always been a feral scholar, I just needed to be protected from the predators while I was foraging.

So I had a great weekend with a good friend who is fundamentally a teacher, someone who loves her material so much that she’s compelled to share it with her students in its fullness. And we were talking about Derrida. Now, I have to admit that I’ve never read a word of Derrida, which I know makes me liable to have my humanist license revoked. It’s like failing a drug test, you just don’t get to keep your job. But my friend was explaining to me that part of Derrida’s argument was that language was so fluid and so unreliable as a reflection of “reality” that even the endeavor of clarity was a cop-out. He made his arguments opaque, she said, as a challenge to his readers to reckon with the opacity of all language at all times.

I get that. I do. But my friend explained that with such patience, with such generosity, that it made me even more impatient with the hostility of the source material itself. I recognize that Derrida was writing for the other handful of political philosophers of his day, not for the great unwashed like you and me. He didn’t take as his mission bringing the youngsters along. But still, it raises important questions of how we introduce complexity for our students.

I often use the metaphor of sandlot baseball when I talk about undergraduate research. If we taught baseball like we taught any academic subject, we’d have a semester of hitting, and a semester of catching balls in the air, and a semester of catching balls on the ground, and a semester of throwing, and a semester of running… and kids would learn to hate baseball just as much as they learn to hate school. There’s no real THING being done. But instead, wisely, we let little kids just play baseball. They play really badly, and we watch them and give them pointers on the things they’re struggling with the most right then (which is different for different kids), but they’re really playing baseball. That’s how you build the love for the game.

I’m a fan of Malcolm Gladwell, a writer unafraid to oversimplify. “You’re of necessity simplifying,” he said in a 2013 interview with The Guardian. “If you’re in the business of translating ideas in the academic realm to a general audience, you have to simplify … If my books appear to a reader to be oversimplified, then you shouldn’t read them: you’re not the audience!” I love oversimplifying, at least in part because I love talking with people who’ve seen something a million times but never noticed it, never put categories on it, never thought about what it meant. My audience can be captivated, can be inspired, by oversimplification. And if it makes them excited, they can go read the source material on their own.

The book project I’m embarking upon now will force me to think about my own values as a teacher and a scholar; aimed as it will be at a general readership, I will absolutely be oversimplifying. And I’m entirely okay with that.

A Job I Can’t Imagine Wanting

I have two good friends who have both recently become college presidents. One visited last weekend. And as part of a long and wide-ranging dinner conversation with her and her family, blessedly little of which was about higher ed, she did happen to mention that she’d discovered how much money her school spends on the athletic department. “For that kind of money, we ought to be doing better,” she said.

And that little interchange, twenty seconds or so, illuminated perfectly for me exactly why I have never wanted to be a college president. I mean, I’m not especially interested in real estate, or in negotiations with the community over contributions to the fire department and EMTs who respond to campus events. I’ve never wanted to be responsible for women’s soccer or men’s golf. I’ve never wanted to run a private police department, a health center, a sexual assault response team, a legal department, an advertising department. I’ve never wanted to manage a server farm and network, a campus bus system, an off-campus travel system, an insurance agency. I went into higher ed because I was selfish, because I wanted to be a teacher and a writer, because those things mattered to me. I can’t imagine giving all that up, really for the rest of my life, to wrangle about corporate branding and trustee relations.

And, I mean, thank god somebody’s willing to do it. Someone has to tend the machine, has to make sure that the parts are properly synchronized and lubricated, the worn or defective parts replaced. But what a job! And especially what a job for someone who was trained as a scholar, who made his or her mark through close and careful focus to their own students, to their own research, tending their own intellectual garden in rich detail.

I’d rather have a scholar running my college than a banker or a venture capitalist or a lawyer. But what a massive sacrifice it is, when you do it for the right reasons.



Stack of Futility

I took my trash and recycling down to the local transfer station this morning, chatted with Glen our dumpmaster about our coming plans for large waste and scrap metal collection day (a town official’s work is never done). One of the things Glen does is to take things that others might get some use from, and keep them on a shelf next to the office shed so that somebody might take them home.

I spotted two stacks of CDs, about twenty-five in each stack, and said to Glen, “Let me have a look through those. You never know what I might come across.” And as I went to browse, he said, “Yeah, those are all demo CDs of bands that got turned down to play at Harvest Moon.”

And I stopped dead, couldn’t even look at them. Harvest Moon, a music weekend held every year in our Vermont town of 750, is a lot closer to a village potluck than it is SXSW or Outside Lands or Lollapalooza. And here’s this pile of work from fifty musicians, all of them trained and practiced for years, at the dump because they weren’t deemed strong enough for a small town music fest.

It’s one thing to read the numbers. It’s another thing to see the pile. No writer, no artist, no academic, should ever be faced with the evidence stacked against them. It’ll break your heart.

Bureaucratic Blues

It’s increasingly evident to me that accreditation is an instance of Oscar Wilde’s observation about “knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Wilde used that as his definition of a cynic, and accreditation increasingly feels cynical to me.

Bureaucracies are almost by definition cynical enterprises. They have to believe that everybody who participates in them is about to cheat somehow, or at least is too stupid to organize their work properly, and so must develop policies and flowcharts and rules for documentation. And every one of those rules was derived, in fact, from a cheat or a pettifogger in the past. That one moment of malfeasance was hardened into a code that we all must live by, one that takes up valuable time and goodwill from those of us not interested in cheating. We all have to take off our shoes in the airport line, have to bring our birth certificate to the DMV. Bureaucracies are born of fear, grow from fear, harden and become rigid from fear.

It’s a shame that classrooms, those potentially most open and courageous of spaces, only live within bureaucratic structures. Higher education is increasingly a category mismatch, invention housed within rigidity.

How does a school lose its accreditation? Not for producing insufficient scholarship. Not for having its graduates unable to pass professional exams. Not for abusing thousands of grad students and post-docs, or for having a 30% success rate in their doctoral programs. No, the only problems that seem to threaten accreditation are a) being broke, b) taking way too much federal financial aid, or c) lying on your paperwork. I wait for the day in which some fourth-tier college loses its accreditation because its faculty just isn’t very bright, or because their students drink far too much and have a rape-culture problem covered up by the dean of students.

So when we write about our schools in our accreditation reporting, we can never write about what matters. We can never write about the curiosity and goodwill with which we approach the work. We can never write about the generosity with which we support our students. We can never write about the day-to-day collegiality that enlivens the corridors. We can only demonstrate that the accounts balance.

Ready to be a dandelion?

I’ve just been pointed to science fiction writer Cory Doctorow’s blog post in which he claims that the characteristics of intellectual work in the Internet age (ease of duplication and transmission, immediacy of reach, lack of reader focus and followthrough, an immense ocean of choices) means that artists of all stripes need to stop thinking like mammals and start thinking like dandelions.

My own job title is Director of Metaphor, so I’m immediately taken with the audacity of this idea.

His argument is as follows.

  1. Mammals have scarce young. Each one represents a vast investment of time and attention. If one of them doesn’t make it, it’s tragic.
  2. Dandelions have thousands and thousands of seeds, looking for any opportunity to take root and get fertilized. If one of them doesn’t make it, it’s no big deal.
  3. The modern media environment is a dandelion-friendly environment.

I shall now quote, thereby doing my part to spread Doctorow’s seedlings (eight years after the fact):

Dandelions and artists have a lot in common in the age of the Internet. This is, of course, the age of unlimited, zero-marginal-cost copying. If you blow your works into the net like a dandelion clock on the breeze, the net itself will take care of the copying costs. Your fans will paste-bomb your works into their mailing list, making 60,000 copies so fast and so cheaply that figuring out how much it cost in aggregate to make all those copies would be orders of magnitude more expensive than the copies themselves.

What’s more, the winds of the Internet will toss your works to every corner of the globe, seeking out every fertile home that they may have — given enough time and the right work, your stuff could someday find its way over the transom of every reader who would find it good and pleasing.

A lovely idea. No words about income or anything, but still, nice to be noticed. Artist Dies of Exposure, and all that…

It takes some degree of bravery to just give work away, whether through a blog or through adjunct teaching or through posting your novel online. It also takes some significant and unspoken degree of privilege, because your bank is not going to accept a big pile of “like”s and “+1″s when the mortgage is due. I “like” my bartender, too, but I still have to give her six dollars for a pint of IPA. And that requires income, income that the dandelion model is deeply shy of for its individual seedlings (or, in intellectual terms, content providers).

I’ll close with the opposing viewpoint, from the New York Times and Tim Kreider (who presumably got paid for writing this):

Thanks very much for your compliments on my [writing/illustration/whatever thing you do]. I’m flattered by your invitation to [do whatever it is they want you to do for nothing]. But [thing you do] is work, it takes time, it’s how I make my living, and in this economy I can’t afford to do it for free. I’m sorry to decline, but thanks again, sincerely, for your kind words about my work.

Feel free to amend as necessary. This I’m willing to give away.


Another Burden of Administrative Life

I have half a dozen experiences a day that convince me all over again why I’m grateful to not be an administrator in higher education any more. But a new one occurred to me today. Or rather, over the past couple of weeks but they coalesced into an idea today.

As scholars, we are rewarded for (and probably choose our paths because of) our obsessiveness. We get the methods exactly right. We run the data set a dozen times because something just feels funny about it. We search out that last reference, go through the bibliography again to make sure that we’ve italicized and dated everything correctly, craft that sentence a third time to make it musical and not merely clear. We craft the sequence of the semester to make it an aesthetic experience instead of a pile of testable ideas.

As administrators, not only do we have way too many projects to do any of them as well as we want, we also have to get them done through the proxy of colleagues who are occasionally neither as talented nor as diligent as we might hope. This is the universal fate of any manager, of course, but a particularly galling step for managers who are most comfortable as intellectual perfectionists.

One of the great learnings of any administrator—and perhaps the hardest one to master—is to let things go out the door when they’re not quite as ready as you’d hope. You can’t be the last resort, finishing everyone else’s job to your own standards, because you simultaneously make yourself crazy and hinder their growth. You either have to turn it back to them and say “this is unacceptable, here’s why, here’s what you need to do, and I have to have it back in 48 hours…” or you have to sigh and let it go.

And that’s emotionally difficult, because it’s YOUR department or YOUR school or YOUR university… and you feel the pressures of having your reputation carried at least in part on the shoulders of others.

Here’s a one-item test to see if you’re ready to be an administrator. Think of a project you have responsibility for, and say the words—out loud—”it’s good enough.” If it makes you cringe even a little bit to say that, you should avoid administrative life, as it will be a poison to your system.

31 and 38

I’ve been writing a lot of fiction in the past few years, mostly stories of men who’ve reached a point of comfort and stability in their lives, and find it a little hollow. And without my intending it, all of my protagonists have been the same two ages.

  • Robert is 38.
  • Clay is 38.
  • Jerry is 31.
  • Tim is 30.
  • Colin is 38.

Gosh, projection much?

When I was 31, I was just finishing my undergraduate degree at Berkeley. I’d done marvelously well, was writing architectural criticism and cultural features for a newspaper, and was hired immediately by an architectural energy-analysis company in San Francisco. My then-wife was working in accounting at a major local hospital. I could have chosen the professional track, and I’d totally be comfortable and well paid today. Instead, I was already planning for grad school two years later.

When I was 38, I’d just finished my PhD, and was quickly coming to the realization (as I just read in another context over the weekend) that my diploma was just a very fancy receipt that had no further currency.

So for me, 31 and 38 are markers of vast upheaval, and my fiction seems to be a catharsis, a way of revisiting those moments and making them work. The most important lessons are the ones we learn a thousand times, a kind of close-at-hand reincarnation that gives us the same problem once again and a new chance to solve it.

Post-Dissertation Support

Every summer, a friend and I lead a writing workshop for faculty at a college near Baltimore, helping their teaching-focused faculty develop journal articles, convert dissertations into books, and write grant proposals. Along the way, I’ve learned an infinitesimal amount of chemistry, enough nursing practice to be better able to advocate for myself in the hospital, and a lot about the daily churn of early-faculty life.

This workshop is held off-campus at a local event center, a 19th Century mansion converted to a B&B and wedding center. We meet in a converted carriage house, quiet enough to get work done but with sufficient wireless coverage to keep us in the moment. And for six years, it’s gotten great reviews—an oasis of protected time and space in the midst of chaos.

One of the comments this year was particularly striking to me. “I cannot emphasize enough how helpful this was for me. We all need editors & revision help. After graduate school this is very hard to find.” Last year, we had a focus group lunch for participants who’d been to more than one prior iteration of the writing retreat; one of the comments there was “You get paid to do this, so we don’t feel guilty about asking you for help. It’s a lot harder to ask one of my colleagues, because they’re already way too busy and this is just another burden.”

Once you’ve gotten your PhD, your dissertation committee will vanish; perhaps not in spirit, but in day-to-day support. And you’ll be left to develop your own intellectual network with whom you can exchange both nascent ideas and near-finished documents. It’s a form of peer review that goes unspoken, but it’s essential to your productivity and to your mental health.

Oddly, most departments have no formal mechanism for sharing syllabi under development; for sharing faculty scholarship under development; for sharing insights learned from conference travel. The department meeting is a logistical swamp of data demands and policy updates and deadlines, almost never an opportunity for intellectual growth. It’s easy to go through daily life without really knowing what your most immediate colleagues are up to.

If there’s a center for teaching and learning on your campus, they may be able to help facilitate these informal but vital connections. The particular workshop I co-lead is put on by an office of sponsored research. It may be that the department is not the only (or the best) venue for intellectual growth and support.

Sectarian Violence

The comedian Emo Phillips performed a routine (click that link) that has been voted the greatest religious joke ever written.

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”

I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

When you go for your job interview, you will face exactly this risk. PhD in psychology? That’s exactly what we’re looking for. Developmental psychology or social psychology? Great! Social psychology in a quantitative or qualitative approach? Terrific!! Quantitative social psychology with a focus on identity or deviance? Oh… thanks for coming by.

And you can’t be Switzerland and claim neutrality, because then everybody will mistrust you. If you’re not allied, you can’t join any club. So you have to put yourself out there and fly your flag, knowing that it will draw fire from any passing members of other tribes.

The Genius of Bureaucracy

I’ve been working at a faculty development retreat all week, and the stories at lunch are always the best part. And one of the things that struck me was the number of great ideas that have been turned into bloodless procedure. Yes, it’s brilliant to name the learning outcomes that your course will promote… and easy to turn that into yet another set of bland bullet points to be checked off by your department chair. Yes, it’s crucial to have peer review of your scholarly life before you’re promoted… and easy to turn that into a burdensome recipe of the sequence of documents in your dossier. One person described a four-year journey to get a coffee maker in the grad student lounge. If you imagine even thirty or forty hours spent across ten people and four years, that’s a gross undervalue of your time, a dollar an hour or less: how about instead if everybody chips in five bucks and someone goes to Bed Bath and Beyond for a $30 Mr. Coffee?

Almost everything that an organization does was once brave and bold and out of line, and has been tamed and straightened and sequenced to suck all of the courage out of it. The genius of bureaucracy is to make genius into bureaucracy.

How many coordinating meetings do we go to? How many task forces and cross-campus initiatives do we support? What happened to letting smart people work together in a classroom and see what happens? When we make standardized products, we develop standardized procedure. When we take risks, miracles happen.