The Array of Conversations

The world of higher education is remarkably opaque to us. You’d think we’d know more about an industry that twenty million Americans at a time are involved in. But then, you’d think with 275,000,000 cars on the road, we’d understand mechanical systems and be better drivers, too.

Cars and colleges are so ubiquitous, and so thoroughly designed, that they become invisible in daily use. We go out the door in the morning, and there it is, ready.

So when that ubiquity is questioned in some way, we’re surprised, and many people want to think more carefully. When we read stories of the master’s-degree barista… or the millions of people in their thirties and forties with decent jobs and still a negative net worth because of their loans… or industrialists and TV actors buying their kids fake test scores and fake credentials as a water polo player or fencer… then what had seemed inevitable is suddenly recognized as a specific, designed phenomenon. And we can start to question that design.

The Adjunct Underclass seems to have arrived at that moment of question. It’s been reviewed in professional circles, in Science and the Library Journal. It’s been excerpted in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the subject of a long Q&A with Inside Higher Education and another with Karen Kelsky’s The Professor Is In. But the reviews I find most gratifying are among the civilian population, finally invited in to see the workings of the engine. The Hour of History podcast, available to anyone on YouTube. A review in the Washington Monthly magazine. A book-based essay by Hua Hsu in the New Yorker. And then yesterday, a review in the Wall Street Journal.

It’s clear that a lot of people are wondering what’s under the hood, how the thing works, and why, and for whom. I’m grateful that my book has arrived at this particular moment, a project launched three years ago and landing at just the right time.

Thomas Frank and Malcolm Gladwell have both written compellingly about the role that luck plays in success. Gladwell frames success as having three components: native talent, enormous hard work, and opportunity. Talent and effort will not take root without opportunity. And Frank says that people who don’t recognize the role that luck has played in their lives, people who imagine that all of their success is due to their own intelligence and effort, often don’t think to create beneficial conditions for others.

So yes, I know a lot about higher ed and about writing, and yes, I did a ton of work to learn more about both for this project. But I’m especially grateful for all the opportunities that others have given to the knowledge and the work, so that it’s been able to take hold and be productive.