How Far I Have Left To Go

A couple of days ago, while not wanting to work on my current novel, and also while getting myself ready to do a few book talks once The Adjunct Underclass goes live next month, I re-read that manuscript for the first time since late January’s final copy edit. it’s a good book! Yay me!

But, now that it’s too late to make any changes, I (of course) found a few things I’d like to have changed. Trivial stuff, mostly, an inelegant punctuation or a word unnecessarily repeated within a couple of paragraphs. I’ll live.

But one of them made me sad, because it’s stupid. (It’s in Appendix A, if you want to look for it, the text within Table 11.)

One of the many arguments of the book is that we’re spending money on a ton of things in higher ed that we never did before: good things, real benefits that make colleges better than they ever were when I went for the first time in 1976. And one subset of those relatively new things are services—social, academic, and cultural—in support of a far more diverse student body. Diverse by gender, by age, by race and ethnicity, by national citizenship, by sexuality, by family status, by social class: you name the constituency, and most colleges serve a different student body than they historically have. And while we want that diversity, we also don’t seem to want to change the fundamental nature of the institution, so all the supports we offer are bolt-ons. They’re additions, not modifications. And so the money we spend on them, on their staffing and space and programming, is in competition with the money we might otherwise spend on faculty.

It’s a delicate argument, and one that I took pains to handle carefully, lest I ever seem to imply that our broader welcome is somehow a bad thing. It’s a terrific thing, but like all terrific things it has unintended consequences.

Anyway, one of the pre-publication reviewers asked for a chapter on the history of the shift toward adjunctification, with the labor struggles and the professional statements and the manifestoes and on and on. And I absolutely didn’t want to do that (nor did my editor), because a) it’s a different project b) being taken up right now by a trained historian, L. Maren Wood, that c) would have been a distraction from the more ecological argument I’d laid out. But as a sort of compromise, I decided to build an appendix that showed the vast number of ways that higher education has changed in recent decades. Since I’d already done most of the statistical research for that, I was able to bang it together—book tables 9 through 22—in less than two weeks.

Table 11 lays out a history of the changes in undergraduate demographics. From 47% female students in 1976 to 56% in 2015; from 16% students of color in 1976 to 42% in 2015; more undergraduate students over age 25; more high school students with learning disabilities going on to college. It’s all accurate, and important. The problem is in the row headings. Regarding gender, it says “More female students.” But under ethnicity, it says “Fewer white students.” First off, that’s just incorrect; there are more white students than ever, but they’re a smaller proportion of the total student body. But second, and far worse, the framing of “fewer white students” suggests an unfortunate change, something for us to lament, when in fact I’d intended exactly the opposite.

In trying to re-create my thinking at that hurried moment, I’m imagining that the longer version of that would have been “Given that the student body isn’t almost completely homogeneous in its whiteness any more, colleges have a lot more work to do to become more welcoming and more supportive of cultural difference.” But it doesn’t read that way.

So why DID I frame that heading the way I did? The one right above it—”more female students”—isn’t framed that way. Why did my hurried typing reflex go the direction that it did? Because I think I still have a long way to go to unlearn the racial patterns and attitudes that I grew up with. Because the problem with bias and privilege is that it’s invisible to the people who have the advantages. Because I’m a white person living in a state that’s 95% white, in a town that’s 98.5% white. Because “white students” is the category heading in my brain, and “students of color” is still them.

The problem I face as an individual is the same problem that we face all across higher education, and more broadly than that. I’m just not smart enough, not sensitive enough, not sophisticated enough, to make sure that I don’t automatically revert to old, ingrained habit. I’m way better than I once was, but every so often, I show myself how far I have left to go.

Being a decent person is not a status. It’s a daily project. It’s an aspiration, a gift perpetually just beyond reach.