Sterile Hybrids

Mules and hinnies. Ligers and tigons. Zonkeys and zorses. The tiger muskie and the bloodball python. The animal world is filled with inter-species and occasionally inter-genera crossbreeds known as hybrids, from the Latin ibrida or mongrel. A lot of them have come specifically from human intervention, the work of farmers and stockmen trying to gain the best attributes of two different creatures.

A lot of these hybrids turn out to be sterile, most often because the parents have different numbers of chromosomes. Mules, for instance, are almost always sterile, but you can get a lot of work out of them for a lot of years.

[come on, you know where I’m going with this…]

So the stockmen of higher education have also experimented with a lot of hybrid programs as well, which they call “interdisciplinary.” Crosses of social science with architecture (environment-behavior studies), history with engineering (history of science and technology), world languages with anthropology and political science (Asian studies, for instance). They’re fascinating, and they contribute to important new ways of understanding the phenomena around us. But as fun as the mating may have been for the parents, most of these mongrel offspring will ultimately be sterile. The horse parents have their safe home in the horse pasture, and the donkey parents have their safe home in the donkey barn, but the graduate-student mule is born to do lots and lots of really useful work and then to never be accepted within any fertile partner community. As long as the hiring in higher education is done by departments, this will never ever change; the mongrels will be shunned, not really part of any originating herd and unable to develop a viable new species. But they’ll be useful for dragging the scholarly cart.

Image of the Zorse from Wikipedia, originally at

PIE Chart

In a highly viewed article published on LinkedIn Pulse, Beth Crocker of Crocker Finance gave some advice to women in the business world. And while I think there’s plenty there that’s useful to think through, there was one part that I really wished I’d known better at a much younger age. She refers to it as “stop focusing solely on getting an A on the project.”

Man, the only thing I knew how to do was get A’s. I thought that academic life was like baseball, and that if you hit everything that was thrown at you, you’d be guaranteed to be in the majors. So I learned how to hit fastballs and cut fastballs in quantitative classes, how to hit knuckleballs in seminars, how to hit curves and sliders in lit reviews and qualitative research design. You could not get a pitch past me. Still can’t. And yet…

In her essay, Crocker quotes some business guru Harvey Coleman as saying that career success is based on Performance, Image, and Exposure (or, because business gurus can’t go two sentences without an acronym, PIE). Coleman further does some faux-quantification to assert that career success is 10% performance, 30% image, and 60% exposure. But I think it’s not quite so additive.

Performance is like milk quality from the dairy. There’s a baseline you have to hit, and after that, nothing else matters so much. Being a few standard deviations above the baseline isn’t any help. And once that baseline’s achieved, the P variable falls out of the mix altogether, leaving you only with I and E.

There’s only so much you can do about the image part; chromosomes play a pretty big role, although at least you can dress like the people who might hire you. And the exposure comes as much from others as it does from your own activity; you need to be showcased, brought into the inner circles. If your dissertation advisor or postdoc lab supervisor isn’t bragging about you on a regular basis to the most important people in the field, then she or he just isn’t doing the job. If she or he isn’t introducing you to colleagues at conferences, isn’t pushing you to the front of the stage, that’s a dereliction of duty.

So for those of you who are in a position to lead the academic growth of others, remember that their great performance is an awesome starting place, but that your responsibility to polish and promote may have a larger impact on their career than anything they can contribute themselves. Another A won’t help much.

There’s a great story told by the late Abner Mikva, a US Representative and federal judge, about his early days in political life. He walked into a Chicago ward office and said, “I’d like to volunteer to work for Adlai Stevenson and Paul Douglas.” The boss looks at him and says, “Who sent you?” Mikva replied, “Nobody sent me.” And the boss stuck the cigar back in his mouth and said, “We don’t want nobody that nobody sent.”

Academic life is like that. They don’t want nobody that nobody sent.

How Do You Describe an Ecosystem?

When I was in grade school, there were a couple of summers when the beaches at Lake Michigan were covered with dead fish. To be specific, alewives.

The alewife was an eastern fish. In Boston, the terminus of the MBTA Red Line is Alewife Station, which you can reach by driving along the Alewife Brook Parkway. But alewives got into the Great Lakes during the 19th century through the Erie Canal system, and the population grew to became a giant element of the fishery.

In the 1950s and 60s, a second invasive species, the sea lamprey, also made its way up the St. Lawrence Seaway. The local wisdom was that the larvae were in the ballast water of unladen ships returning to Detroit and Milwaukee and Cleveland and Chicago to refill with industrial cargo. The ballast water was released, the cars and steel were loaded on, and the ships left the lamprey behind.

The lamprey were parasitic to the big Lake trout, the predators that had kept the alewives more or less in check. So with the trout dying, the alewives lived longer, bred more frequently. And in 1966 and 1967, I remember bulldozed mountains of alewives that the parks workers had shoved together on the beach, a pyramid of dead fish every fifty yards or so.

The thing we all talked about was the visible outcome, the towers of fish. That problem was evident, with the smell and the flies that kept us from the beach all year. We didn’t really have the conceptual horsepower to talk about the hundreds of intervening components that made the alewife piles happen.

The new book will be similar to that. It’s easy to talk about the majority-adjunct teaching population, that mountain of dead fish that we can all see. What’s going to be much more difficult to tie together will be all of the ecosystem components that played a role in that—none the determining variable on its own, but all contributing their own nudge toward the health and direction of the whole. And talking about any one of them makes it seem more important than it might individually be.

Let’s take conferences and professional memberships, for instance. This month, the American Association of Colleges & Universities will have their annual meeting in San Francisco, attended by roughly 2000 people. If you add the cost of registration, travel, hotel, meals, and ground transport, that one conference costs the higher education community about four and a half million dollars. Add the costs of institutional AAC&U membership (and attendance at the other smaller AAC&U conferences that take place throughout the year), and we’re looking at a total impact of maybe twenty million bucks. Now, the AAC&U is a great organization. But twenty million dollars a year is a LOT of money, enough salary on its own to hire two hundred or more tenure-track faculty. And that’s one tiny, tiny fraction of the spending ecosystem, each negligible on its own but together contributing to an unspoken shift in priorities that has led to the mountain of adjuncts washed up on the shore.

In the high modernist era, we would have described this as a multivariate equation, and attempted to put weights on each of the dozen or so most important variables to come to an approximation of faculty employment patterns. But in the contemporary model, we have to understand the complex interworkings of a climate, a culture, an ecosystem, no part of which can be changed without influencing every other part. And understanding starts with description.



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.


Who ARE these people?

It’s probably been twenty years since I first saw this bit of photocopier humor. (Now that it’s on the internet, it’s called a “meme,” but it used to just be called “this thing I put on my bulletin board.”)


The caption at the bottom read, “Times are getting tough. We might have to lay off Andre.”

Cute, right? But let’s think about this in terms of higher education. Who are all these people standing above the project?

  • the Human Resources Manager
  • the Marketing Manager
  • the Logistic Manager
  • the Security Manager
  • the IT Manager
  • the Communications Manager
  • the Project Manager
  • the Internal Supervisor
  • the Product Development Manager
  • the PR Manager

One of the projects involved in the new book on higher ed will be to determine… who are all of those people who stand above the project? There’s a lot of broadsiding about how “the administration” has grown in size and power while “the faculty” has been weakened and shrunk. But we won’t really understand how higher ed has changed unless we make those labels much more specific, and look at how the inhabitants of those two communities have changed.

Take IT, for instance. In 1976, when I went to college the first time, there was no IT department, because there were no computers to speak of. Faculty members didn’t have computers on their desks, students didn’t have smart phones in their pockets, and the Arpanet was home to a few thousand really smart people. Now computers are ubiquitous, take multiple forms, carry sensitive material, and the Internet is home to billions of people I wouldn’t trust to carry a bag of groceries to the car. So the whole IT endeavor has been bolted onto higher ed, a whole class of non-Andre’s who are essential to our current understanding of its nature.

Who else has arrived, looking down into the pit? That’s one of the dozen or so research questions that will be part of the next project.

Filed Away

Many years ago, I was working with a consulting company that focused on planning services for county and state criminal justice agencies. I used to joke that I never went to juvenile hall until I was 40, and then I went every week.

Anyway, I got a kind of harsh introduction to the work when I was sent to a rural county to do some analysis of how many kids got what kind of adjudication (we don’t say sentencing in juvenile justice, but that’s what it means; there was no glossary for that work, either), their age at first offense, numbers with multiple offenses, length of stay, and so on. I had a day and a half to go through their archives and learn all that.

When I arrived at the probation department, they knew why I was there and what I wanted, and a helpful man led me to a tiny, windowless, sage-green, cinderblock room. And in that room, there were a) a table, b) a chair, and c) a rolling cart heaped with file folders. “Let me know when you’re ready for the next batch,” he said, and departed.

And each folder contained between twenty and two hundred sheets of paper, of different colors and different sizes, each recording a specific interaction between some kid and the police, the courts, the probation department, the juvenile detention or commitment center he’d been referred do. They were randomly ordered, each new contact adding a layer like paint over paint over paint. And there was absolutely no way, in a day and a half, to make meaningful order of three hundred of these.

You, too, whether a graduate student or a job candidate or a faculty member or a contingent hire, are a file folder somewhere. And when some interested researcher arrives on the scene and says “what proportion of your teaching is done by adjuncts, in each department?”, some helpful person will shrug and lead you to a file cabinet of incommensurate records and tell you you’re free to have a look.

Institutional recordkeeping is not designed with investigation in mind. It’s created as storage, as archive, as the ability to deal meaningfully with the individual case rather than to look for pattern. Research recordkeeping, on the other hand, is all about revealing the overall pattern, at an enormous loss of detail about the individual. The check-box choices can be tabulated; the comments in the margins cannot, and are lost.

This competing interest explains some of why we don’t have very good pattern awareness across higher ed. It’s just hard to find out what job placement rates are for doctoral programs, especially since each institution has its own idiosyncratic recordkeeping system and vocabulary. There’s a lot of talk about the growth of administrators as a percent of college employment, but what does that term “administrator” even mean? Does that include the accountant in the accounts payable office? Does that include the facilities management people? Does that include campus security? Every college will classify their staff a little differently, use different local terms. And every college has made the transition from carbon paper and typewriters to (probably more than one generation of) electronic records management.

Part of any research study is the design and definition of recordkeeping. You decide up front what you’ll want to know and what you won’t, how you’re classifying and naming categories and why that matters. You recognize that millions and millions of things won’t enter your field of interest. But the recordkeeping of daily work is a pointillist portrait gallery in which innumerable tiny dots add up to an image of a specific person. The two functions do not serve one another’s purposes at all well.

So when we’re doing higher ed research, we have to know that the absence of large-pattern information isn’t necessarily a conspiracy of silence; it’s an artifact of millions of people trying to keep up with billions of interactions, each creating their own unique filing systems to do it.

The Metaphors that We Are

I was driving to the next town over on Saturday to get gas for the wood splitter, and had NPR’s “TED Radio Hour” on in the car. And they were going on about “big data,” and all of the ways in which massive data analysis will bring us all to a sort of lab-coat perfection, a constant project of optimization.

Yeah, fine. What it really got me thinking about was the ways in which we get so impressed with our technological creations that we imagine that they explain everything, that in fact we start to use those creations as metaphors for human life itself.

For a long time, we were thought to be ideal machines, understood as levers and hinges and straps, conduits and pumps and bellows. Much of how medicine is understood is still based on that model, a sort of linear causality, a really complex game of Mousetrap.

Once we invented computers, we were thought to be RAM and ROM, to be information processors, to be storage and sensors and outputs. Much of how psychology is understood is still based on that model, and if you press most teachers to talk about learning, you’ll hear stuff kind of like this.

So the guy on TED (Kenneth Cukier, author of the new book Big Data and an editor for The Economist in London) was saying that essentially, you and I are best seen as massive streams of data. We are locations and browsing histories, FitBit streams and Pandora preferences, purchase patterns and Facebook updates, likes and +1s. He imagines a world in which we all have smart toilets, measuring our nutritional chemistry a few times a day and sending us updated dietary recommendations. We generate data all the time; it may fairly be said that we are data.

Metaphors really matter. Think about how we think of our students: as explorers, as recipients, as workload, as apprentices. Those words frame the work that we do and the relationships we create. Think about how we frame our own scholarship: as production, as contribution, as positioning, as authorship credit. Those words also frame the work that we do and the relationships we create.

All metaphors are imperfect. Humans are humans, neither machine nor computer nor data cloud; each of those metaphors privileges some of what it means to be human even as it takes others out of consideration altogether. And because of that, they’re vitally important. Choose them carefully, and re-examine them often.

And sometime when we’re hanging out together, I’ll tell you the joke about the engineers arguing about what kind of an engineer God was…

Flawed Scorekeeping

You may have noticed this week that the US Department of Ed is advising that the Accrediting Council for Independent Schools and Colleges be removed from the national roster of higher education accrediting bodies. This move has thrown a total shockwave throughout accreditation circles, and the six regional accreditors are now moving toward a common scorecard, or dashboard, or whatever metaphor is hip this year.

And while it’s crucial to throw the scammers and the grifters out of higher ed, this proposed scorecard is going to make things a lot worse. It examines things like graduation rates, debt at graduation, percentage of students in default… all good common-sense things to investigate. The problem is that, as is often true, these are all measures that the most elite schools will do terrifically on, and the schools that attempt to serve the 99% will look much worse on.

Let’s take graduation rates (by which they mean UNDERGRADUATE graduation rates, because nobody wants to talk about the scandal of 50% non-completion of doctoral programs at R1 schools). A school in which students don’t need to work, in which they all come in as freshmen and leave as a cohort of seniors and nobody transfers, in which financial aid helps overcome bumps along the way, is going to look pretty good. A school in which the students who come in as transfers don’t count in the graduation rates, a school from which a number of students transfer away and finish elsewhere, a school that serves low income students who make slower and more interrupted progress through their degree programs… those schools are going to look bad in the calculation, even if they serve their students well and most students actually finish degrees.

Indebtedness at graduation? Schools with big endowments for tuition discounting and schools with well-to-do families are just fine in that regards, thanks. Schools that serve first-generation students? Gosh, those students have to borrow money to go to school, imagine that.

Earnings after graduation? If daddy’s a broker and mommy’s a bank VP, little Lancelot is likely to do pretty good right out of the gate. If daddy’s an unemployed auto worker and mommy’s a waitress, it’s going to be a tougher climb, especially if their child majors in elementary ed and not economics.

Regardless of how bad these methods are (nobody would ever get a dissertation proposal approved if they used these methods, trust me), the accrediting bodies are freaking out, and pushing their member schools all of a sudden to get them data on the spot to make them look good, and it’s just an ugly week out there. It’s feeling worse than the Spellings Commission ten years ago.

Home Cultures

A friend of mine just sent a link to a very nice piece at the new York Times, by a writer with whom I’m not familiar, Annie Liontas. She was discussing the ways in which some families have artists within them; other families introduce their kids to fine art and fine writing; and others have no access to that, leaving the kids to discover “literature” or “serious music” or “fine dining” on their own. Or, as Liontas argues, by being exposed directly to it through education rather than at home.

Although there were a great many things to be thankful for in my childhood, and my parents gave me everything they could, there was no literary inheritance to speak of. My father was a Greek immigrant to America, a welder who came to own his own business. I am among the first in my family to graduate from college. As a result, I’ve often felt myself left behind — untutored, fraudulent. But the truth is that anyone who makes a life of writing eventually finds her inheritance of culture. Mine just came a little later, like Saunders’s, through that great equalizer, education.

I’ve had my own teachers who’ve introduced me to fine writers. But I was also surrounded by books and magazines all the time as a kid, though no one would have mistaken them for being literary. Good Housekeeping, Hot Rod, Field and Stream, Reader’s Digest, Boy’s Life. Romance novels that my mother read, science fiction pulps that I acquired, used, by the boxful. The World Book Encyclopedia. And I learned to swim in the world of words; not in the carefully-laned racing pool, but in the open lake, with the weeds and old tires.

I was surrounded by music. Mostly not very interesting music, Lawrence Welk and church hymns and easy-listening or top-40 radio. The radio or the record player were always on. But I learned to understand why music mattered, that both listening to it and producing it had an immersive quality like little else.

And I was surrounded by stories. When my folks weren’t home, I watched a ton of television, and I learned how characters interacted, how they expressed their motives and desires through their words and deeds. I learned how to throw in a funny comment to lighten a tense drama, how a facial expression conveyed emotion. And I learned how to tell stories myself.

I think these origins account for why I’ve always been impatient with so much of academic writing. We consciously shed ourselves of wit and pace, of rhetorical repetition, of the responsibility to help our readers have an emotional as well as an intellectual experience. We mistake “high culture” for culture writ large, and forget that watching Cheers or listening to Iggy Azalea or reading Cosmo are themselves immersive, formative, aesthetic experiences that we carry forward into the work that we do. Immersion in “great art” has its power; immersion in any art at all has another.

I’m not a pure populist, willing to be so relativistic as to equate Justin Bieber and Dave Brubeck. But I’m also, frankly, bored by an awful lot of supposedly serious work, so precious that it can’t get out of its own way and just tell the damn story.