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.

 

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.

Okay, It’s On.

Ahem.

Let me step back for a moment. Use my indoor voice, as Mrs. Winteringham reminded us in kindergarten.

Some number of years ago, a friend of mine sent a copy of her completed dissertation to one of her committee members, a year or so after its completion. This was in an era prior to PDFs and e-mail ubiquity, so it would have been photocopied and cost my friend thirty or forty bucks, plus mailing. She was still on the job market, adjuncting and sending out applications and working her butt off as young scholars do.

She received, months later, a note from said committee member. I’m going to use a pseudonym here, not to protect his identity —may his grave always be in shadow and his name forgotten—but rather to protect hers. Let’s call him, I don’t know, Smug Lesserlight. Anyway, Dr. Lesserlight sent my friend this handwritten note on a sheet torn from a desk pad:

7/19

Dear ___________

(I hope this reaches you.)

Thanks for your note and copy of thesis. I appreciate your kind words.

I hope you still believe it was all worth the while. You worked so hard (sometimes!) and it hasn’t seemed to lead anywhere.

Best,

Smug

What a foul, wretched bastard. What a misgotten, ill-bred, tone-deaf son of a bitch.

…okay….step back, breathe, indoor voice…

So today, I write to my colleagues on the graduate faculty, those among you who facilitate the transformation of students into scholars. Their future is in your hands. Not merely intellectually, but more importantly as you facilitate their entry into membership. No community welcomes new members without sponsors, a current member willing to do the work of introducing and lending support and making connections and easing the way. Your job is not simply to raise the scholarly bar to the appropriate height; your job is to get them a job. You need to spend more time on that than you do on your own scholarship, now that you’re tenured and inside the gates.

At this stage in your career, you are a builder of your discipline’s intellectual community. Your best scholarship has (likely, at least statistically) already occurred, and now you play a different role, one of mentor and guide and concierge to a new generation. You cannot walk your students to the exit, shake their hands, and be done with it. You need to have worked steadily, for at least the two years leading to the dissertation defense, to be your student’s foremost publicist, making their light shine brightly among your colleagues, bringing them to the right taverns at conferences, making their name into the most desirable brand in your field.

Yes, you are responsible for assuring the quality of their scholarly product. But you are also responsible for giving that seed a well-prepared soil upon which to land.

One of my former colleagues had a monthly dinner at her home for all of her dissertation students, in which they reviewed one another’s CVs and cover letters, in which she worked with them to locate openings and cast their research into the best possible language for that specific program. On the other end, she got them behind some doors that would otherwise have been closed to them, making introductions, building alliances with senior scholars in a position to hire. And sure enough, her students did far better on the job market than those of any of her colleagues. The work of mentorship is knowable, and should be approached with the same rigor as all of your other intellectual life.

So let me say this. If you are clearing out some old papers, a forgotten corner of your desk, and you come across the name of one of your former doctoral students or post-docs… and you think to yourself, “Huh, I wonder what ever happened to her…” and then let that fleeting sadness wash away as you go to lunch with your friends…you have committed academic malpractice. You have sealed your legacy as an intellectual scam artist, selling your students an expensive property and then letting them be foreclosed upon while washing your hands of the whole affair.

As the town hall protesters around the country are saying this week to their elected members of congress… Do. Your. Job.

Purging What Seemed Essential

My wife and I are both kind of weary of the things we’ve accumulated over the decades, mostly independently before we were married. We may be the only couple you know with two overstuffed bookcases and six file cabinets in the garage.

Anyway, she started a couple of days ago going through things like old tax documents, 25-year-old syllabi… And her labors inspired me today to take one of the four drawers of preciously-collected research articles I carefully accumulated during and after grad school, and to go through them for keepers. A full-depth file drawer, authors carefully alphabetized A through E, probably more or less 300 photocopied articles.

I kept seven.

How much of our scholarship is like that, carefully copied and dutifully entered into the citational system, only to wind up compressed into a fireplace log or a weekly-shopper newspaper thirty or forty years down the line? It didn’t hurt me at all to discard all those ideas, I didn’t cringe for even a second when I got rid of the collected works of Denis Cosgrove and Mike Brill, smart people and all but still…

We have this idea that our jobs matter. But I think they don’t, not all that much. They give us food and rent. What matters is the ways we treat people. If we can use our jobs to treat people well, that’s great. If our jobs are indifferent to the ways we treat people, then we can be indifferent to our jobs. if our jobs require us to mistreat people, I think that requires us to consider changing jobs.

We spend so much energy on our disciplines. The definition of a PhD is someone who’s contributed original scholarship to her or his discipline. And, you know, it’s going into the recycling in the end, however original. What will last are the lives of the people we touch, and the ways in which we helped them be one or two percent happier and more fulfilled. I don’t need a discipline to do that.

The Causes and Impacts of Overpopulation

Let’s start with a raw number. The annual production of new PhDs is occurring at about 250% the annual hiring rate, maybe a little more. So the aquarium is getting pretty overstocked. How do you make yourself noticed among all the pretty fish? (It’s not unlike bachelor’s degrees; now that so many people have one, pretty much every employer regards it as a baseline for their job, even if the job itself may not have changed in the fifty years since your high-school-grad grandma did it.)

The National Academies of Research have done an interesting (and massive) study in doctoral education, attempting to rank all American research doctoral programs in all known fields. The methodology is complex, and seems reasonable, but one of the things to consider before we get to the findings is just how large the’ve discovered the enterprise to be, with over 4,800 different PhD-granting programs located at about 210 institutions:

  • Agricultural Sciences (of various sorts): 317 doctoral programs
  • Biological Sciences: 989
  • Health Sciences: 189
  • Physical Sciences (including Math): 916
  • Engineering: 798
  • Social Sciences: 930
  • Humanities: 866

So we know from economics, for instance, that the good faculty jobs go to only those who got their PhDs from a handful of schools: 25% from two schools (Harvard and MIT), 50% from the top eight. There are 117 economics doctoral programs in the US. If your program is merely good, you’re screwed.

And that was a study from ten years ago! As the oversupply of doctorate holders increases, it’s not merely that those with degrees from lesser schools will get teaching jobs at lesser schools, because those schools too are now receiving faculty applications from graduates of the uppermost programs who can’t all teach at R1s themselves. So smaller and lesser schools all the way down are also selecting faculty who graduated only from the elite programs, not from the merely excellent. I know someone who just got a teaching job in an undergraduate biology program who herself has a PhD from a top-5% doctoral program and served a six-year postdoc with one of the NIH programs. That’s like having Thomas Keller in charge of putting Pop-Tarts into the toaster… it seems like it might be boring before long. So they have to spend money on research infrastructure to keep her interested, drawing the school away from its core undergraduate education mission. (In another decade, she’ll probably have a doctoral program of her own).

Here’s a couple of examples, let’s leave them un-named…

  • a public highest-research university (R1) with eleven doctoral programs. According to the NRC ratings, not one of those eleven programs ranked in the top half of its respective discipline; seven of the eleven were in the lowest quartile of their fields.
  • a public high-research university (R2) with seventeen doctoral programs, again not a single one in the top half of its field, thirteen of the seventeen in the bottom quartile.

Why are those schools still allowed to offer doctoral degrees at all? What exactly are they selling, and to whom? What exactly do its students believe themselves to be buying?

Compare these with:

  • UC Berkeley, with exactly fifty doctoral programs: only one is below the 50th percentile ranking, and half of them are in the top 10% nationally in their fields.
  • University of Michigan, sixty-five doctoral programs, four in the bottom half, eleven in the top 10% (go to Michigan for philosophy, psych, and math)
  • Columbia, forty-seven doctoral programs, ten in the bottom half and ten in the top 10%. There may be some productive winnowing to be done here.

You have to know these things. You have to know that a school’s general reputation isn’t the same as its doctoral reputation, which varies from program to program. And you have to know that most schools have no vested interest in telling you any of it if they want you to go there.

The simple existence of a doctoral program does not mean that the doctorates issued thereby will be recognized as equal currency. Your degree will be read on your CV in components: I have a PhD in [discipline] from [university & department], studying under [dissertation advisor]. Your job chances are dependent on each of those three terms, far more than the fact of your graduate GPA.

There’s a lot of talk about restricting the numbers of people who get PhDs each year, and most of it is framed in terms of reducing the numbers of entrants (again putting the burden onto the individual student or prospective student). Why don’t we talk in terms of putting the burden onto the institution? Why should we have 4,800 issuers of the PhD, when we know that only a few of those will offer productive gateways to faculty life? Why shouldn’t we make each department prove itself every few years to keep its doctoral license?

What Is College For?

We live in an era of multifunctional devices. Computers with phones and cameras. Watches that measure your step count. As a wag once put it, if you can nail together two things that have never been nailed together before, you can sell it to somebody.

So it’s no surprise that colleges are also, increasingly, multifunctional devices. They act as forces for economic mobility for individuals, and workforce development for regions. They act as extensions of the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, and they provide minor-league franchises for the NFL and NBA. They allow teenagers to become adults, and provide credentialing and screening for various professions. They cement the privilege of the privileged, they give voice and opportunity to those without.

A few years ago, Louis Menand wrote an article for the New Yorker about the confused roles of college, and the confusion caused for those who participate in the enterprise. And it influenced my thinking quite a lot, at least in part because it was a good premise left so incomplete. To borrow the subtitle of his article, why do we have college? He offers two reasons.

  • It sorts by talent. Millions of kids graduate from high school each year; which ones are academically best? The selective schools will tell you that by whom they admit. The simple fact of getting into and getting out of Yale or Stanford is more important than what you did there. We pretend that the precision of the GPA matters, but really, there are only three categories of college performance: drop-out, unremarkable, and remarkable. So if you multiply the selectivity of your school by which of those three categories you achieved, it tells the rest of us everything we think we need to know about you on your first resume, and allows HR departments and grad-school admissions officers to quickly cull the herd.
  • It is an enculturation device. It provides training in “the things that people like us should know,” an army of missionaries bringing the unwashed and half-finished into civilization. It offers familiarity with western civilization’s greatest hits, from Plato to Plath.

But Menand misses more than he hits. Here are some others.

  • It takes kids away from their families. One of the functions of education has always been to surround kids with adults who aren’t their parents, and thus to give them alternate models of adulthood.
  • It provides challenges to independence. High school is about compliance within complexity, and came to the fore during the great wave of industrialization, when factories needed men who could fit unquestioningly into whirling, dangerous mechanical processes. College is about choosing what to do and figuring out how to do it, managing your time and finding your own resources, failing and recovering along the way. By doing this, it prepares its students for more complex and fluid professional work.
  • It provides networks. One of the sorting mechanisms of college selectivity is to place kids into groups of kids with similar prospects in life, so that by the time they’re thirty, they have a huge contact file of friends they can call on for business and collegiality. They offer suitable dating and marriage pools, prepare their graduates for the appropriate country clubs and chambers of commerce.
  • It offers productive unemployment. Like the depression-era WPA and CCC and the contemporary armed services, colleges are a massive social support for people not prepared to enter the workforce. Just as child-labor laws were enacted at least in part to protect adult employment prospects, colleges take twenty million people out of the population defined in employment statistics, and holds them out of the way for a little longer while the grown-ups make a living. It reduces employment competition even as it helps those not yet competitive to feel okay about it, to have a named role within the system.
  • It challenges cultural stability. College is where burgeoning adults are trained to question, where students move from the comfort of knowing to the thrilling confusion of not-knowing. It introduces students to complex social and cultural problems, helps them move from narrow to broader interests, helps them see that they have a role in issues that are “not their business.” We think that higher ed is about gaining knowledge, but it’s also about choosing a world of dissatisfaction with the things we think we know, and bringing that aspiration for more into all of our stable systems.
  • It offers an on-ramp to adult responsibilities. It is a halfway house to first apartments, responsible drinking, responsible sex, productive time management. College allows kids to screw up in ways their parents never would, even as it stands by and helps to clean up the mess and reinforce the life lessons that come from mistakes.

So why does this list matter? It matters because how we define college has everything to do with how we define the role of the faculty. If we focus only on the specific content delivered within the specific three-credit box of a course (a model not so different than high school, after all), then all we need is a low-paid temporary worker who’s qualified to offer that box of goods. But if we see college as something more systemic, as an intervention into individual lives and collective culture, then we’d shift more toward a stable, permanent body of faculty members who know and embrace those larger roles over the duration of a student’s experience, a reliable family of non-family who recognize that their own value is far more than simply the things they know.

Evidence? I don’t need no freakin’ evidence!

One of the most amusing data points I’ve seen in the past few weeks (aside from “It looked like a million, a million and a half people”) comes from our friends at the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA). As reported in their Institutional Policy Report 2014, nobody really has a firm idea of how many postdocs there actually are…

Historically, institutions have not kept accurate records of postdoctoral scholars, although more and more institutions are doing so today. As a result, it is not clear precisely how many postdoctoral scholars are currently employed in the United States, but the NSF estimates there are between 30,800 to 63,400.

That’s funny. Isn’t the NSF supposed to be all scienc-y and stuff, all about measuring things down to the nanometer? 30,800 to 63,400 is a pretty big range. Also, with that kind of imprecision, it seems disingenuous to have any numbers at all after the comma… I mean, 30,800? Really? If you’re going to be off by 100% or more, it doesn’t seem necessary to have that many significant digits. They might as well have said “an awful lot.”

Anyway, the NPA put forth a counter-number.

The NPA’s member postdoctoral offices estimate they serve about 79,000 post-doctoral scholars; this number is thought to be closer to the true total, though still incomplete.

“About 79,000.” Much better phrasing. The “about” there is crucial, because it lets us know that we’re still in the realm of ballpark figures.

One thing the NPA does know with precision is how many university offices of postdoctoral services there are: 167, up from “less than 25” back in 2000. And why does NPA know that? Because those institutions pay NPA dues, and therefore deserve recognition.

(To return to an earlier theme, this is another example of institutional money not in a classroom. Each office of postdoctoral services eats up at least one staff position, probably reasonably well paid; they might actually put on services, which cost money; each school pays an NPA membership fee; the annual meeting—March 17-19, in San Francisco—is a minimum of $400 per person to register and $240 a night for the hotel… the symbionts are feeding well, even as the host complains of anemia.)

Anyway, why don’t we actually know how many postdocs there are in the US? Why don’t we know how many adjuncts there are, really? (The fudging of those numbers will be its own small chapter in the coming book…) Because no one in power is served by knowing those numbers. We don’t collect data that we don’t want to know.

Policymakers are proposing all kinds of metrics for undergraduate institutional success, from retention and persistence rates to graduation rates to indebtedness after graduation to rate of return on investment as demonstrated by average wages. All possibly useful. But they utterly ignore metrics for graduate education or the experience of scholars after graduation. Almost 40% of financial aid goes to grad students (even more if you count institutional aid like TAships and RAships and waivers), but the status of the grad student, adjunct instructor and postdoc researcher are out there in the plus-or-minus 100% range, even as they account collectively for a massive component of our institutional landscape.

I saw a pair of socks in a shop yesterday, as my wife and I stopped on our way back from the Women’s March in Montpelier VT (with its own police estimate of 15,000 to 20,000 attendance). They were cartoon socks of a slovenly guy in a lounger watching TV, and the text on the foot read “Let her have her way… she’s probably right anyway.” And underneath, the care instructions for the socks said “Wash warm, tumble dry medium heat, or whatever.”

In our understanding of the adjunct and postdoc communities, we’re definitely relying on the vocabulary of “or whatever.”

Back When the Teachin’ Was Easy…

I started playing pool, like everyone does, with the ten-dollar house cue in the wall rack. I finally bought one of my own, for about $80, and it was miraculous. It made me a better player. A few years later, I spent $400 on a cue, a surgical instrument that made the $80 cue feel like a dull axe. And now I have a cue from the angels, a marvel of precision that I just love to have in my hands, a cue that enables a far greater repertoire than anything I’d tried before.

It’s a fact that a fine instrument is easier to play than a clumsy instrument, the thousand-dollar guitar more sensitive and less brutish than the fifty-dollar guitar. But we give kids crappy instruments because we don’t know if the investment will pay off. A professional could make a fifty-dollar guitar sound halfway decent, but they get the expensive one because they’ve demonstrated their commitment.

This isn’t dissimilar to the way we treat students in any field; the ones who need the most support get the least.

Those of us who taught first-year writing at Duke had a 2/3 teaching load. Teachers at most community colleges have a 5/5 load; at most other public undergraduate schools, a 4/4. First-year writing courses at Duke were capped at 12 students. Try to find a freshman comp course less than twice that size at most undergrad schools. First-year writing courses at Duke were all taught by people who held PhDs, people with substantial and demonstrated capability in academic discourse.

So those Duke kids, the ones who’d grown up with money and books and professional conversations at dinner, whose parents and grandparents were all insiders, learned academic writing with a remarkably well-tuned (and expensive) instrument. We could focus inordinate amounts of time on the critique of each paper, on the construction of each assignment. We could develop new writing courses every semester, with plenty of time to locate interesting readings and place them into interesting dialogue with one another, supported by an astonishing library and close support from a large library staff. And Duke’s students—the ones predestined to succeed, the ones who’d already had every advantage—could afford that opportunity, as part of a school whose own admissions office now claims approximately $70,000 per year cost of attendance.

Those other kids—the ones who mostly didn’t have invigorating intellectual home lives and didn’t grow up with books all around, the ones who have to work full-time during the school year to make it, the ones who went to crappy feed-lot high schools, the ones who might thrive if only they had more attention and more support—go to schools where unaffiliated adjuncts teach way too many courses to way too many students. It’s a raw consumer logic, in which those with advantages can purchase greater advantages, and those who already start a couple of laps behind have to carry extra weight.

When I teach pool now, I give everybody the $400 cue to work with right from day one. It teaches better habits, opens more doors. It brings joy. It just feels like the right thing to do.

On the Indelible Joy of Skipping Class

We want so much to be productive. We fill hours with tasks and chores and efforts, knowing all the time that there are infinitely many other tasks or chores or efforts we will never reach. I just read a work log of an adjunct faculty member, a research diary kept for a scholarly project. Five hours of e-mail, within the context of an eleven and a half hour work day. And what did this person do at home? Likely make dinner, chat with a partner, kiss a child, and respond to more e-mail.

Do you remember? Do you remember time left alone, time to discover something unimaginably, privately perfect? To not be under the demand of discussing it later in seminar? To have it be your own, a private treasure you might review in a quiet moment?

We idolize the busy person. But the endless quest for activity, for productivity, can hollow us out. I have dear friends I see only rarely, with whom I can’t spend an entire meal without the intrusion of the telephone and its distant obligations.

Can we make space—within higher education and the scramble to acquire credits? within our work lives and the limitless demands of organizational churn? within the well-meaning reach of friends and family?—to be alone, quiet, unproductive?

I took the day, in the face of a manuscript to write and downloaded research articles to read and phone calls to make and a town budget to prepare, to read a book. And now my heart is broken, both because of the aching beauty of the book itself but also because college and work have no place for woolgathering, for the unproductive hours that make us rich in heart.

I will not share with you the name of the book that wrote this blog entry; that’s mine. But I will say that I’m writing it with my headphones on, listening to the Latvian Radio Choir. So here’s my gift: five minutes and forty-one seconds of near perfection, the Latvian Radio Choir singing Valentin Silvestrov’s The Lord’s Prayer.

How can we make room for this? How can we make room for our students to stumble across bliss?

Transcendence

We can do anything in order to get it done.

We can do anything in order to go on to the next thing.

And we can do anything in a way that reaches for transcendence.

I played pool today for an hour and a half, after a couple of hours yesterday as well, both days on my own. I haven’t played much lately, mostly because I’ve been writing so much but also because I lost all my partners when I moved to Vermont. There’s one poolroom in the entire state, a couple of hours away. There are a couple of people here in town whom I can persuade to play once in a while, but they don’t play for the same reasons I do.

I play pool and write fiction because they are, for me, the most reliable sources of a state that I can only describe as transcendent. Losing concern for myself and my capabilities or lack thereof. Losing concern over “correct” outcomes, and paradoxically generating better outcomes than I could ever have otherwise approached.

And although I don’t do it anymore, teaching used to be that way for me as well. I taught in the humanities, mostly, and so wasn’t responsible for ensuring that students could reliably graph x = 3y – 9. Instead, we talked about big ideas. I gave what could only plausibly be called a sermon, and then we worked our way through what some intelligent person had written.

When we imagine that education has outcomes (which it should), we attempt reliable sequences for achieving them. But when we imagine instead that education is a daily experience (which it is), we craft moments of heightened, collective attention that are their own justification.

I would like to make the case that undergraduate education, as preparation for meaningful adult lives which include but are not limited to our jobs, should focus far more fully on the connoisseurship of heightened, collective attention. Concerts, gallery exhibits, scientific experiment, great food… All things that lift us above ourselves and show us something greater. Leave the job training for another day; college is about something different. And I believe, with some evidence from personal experience and from psychological research, that focusing on the quality of the experience gets us more effectively and more reliably to skills than focusing on the skills themselves ever does.

I want a pool monastery, where the likeminded can gather to use our simple tools for greater good. I want a college that heightens the daily joys of life, without regards to the amassing of credits or the blessings of some disciplinary accrediting body. I want transcendence.