Nora Thinks I Need a Bodyguard

I was asked about a week ago to write a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Ed. That was a nice surprise from out of the blue, and I enjoyed creating the article.

It went up this afternoon (I’d been expecting this coming Wednesday, so I wasn’t ready). And when I read it to Nora, she said, “You think local politics is ugly? They’re really going to come after you for this.”

Naahhh… Civil discourse, intellectual freedom, mutual dialogue, those are the keys to the scholarly community.


A Thought Experiment

“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”

That’s been around forever, that demeaning sense that everyone knows how to teach because they a) raised kids, b) showed their neighbor how to start a lawnmower, c) led Cub Scouts for a couple of years, or d) have a job skill. And one of the surprising ways that belief expresses itself is in the number of people who hold some job or another at colleges, and pick up a course or two each semester as an enhancement of their salary.

Here’s a sample list of people at one college who, along with their day job, are also listed as “part-time faculty:”

  • Head coach, women’s soccer
  • Head coach, men’s soccer
  • Head coach, baseball
  • Head coach, football
  • Head athletic trainer
  • Head coach, men’s basketball
  • Athletic trainer
  • Strength and conditioning coach
  • Senior associate athletic director

But, lest you think they all work in the athletic department, there’s also…

  • Student support program coordinator
  • LAN/systems administrator
  • Writing tutor
  • Laboratory/greenhouse manager
  • Academic counselor
  • Director of academic services
  • IT specialist
  • Math/science tutor
  • Senior associate registrar

These folks are in addition to all of the more traditional adjuncts who are otherwise unaffiliated with the school. These “staffulty” are already in the HR system, and thus easy to tap. And, to be fair, they are able to offer one of the traditional roles of the faculty member, which is to offer an enduring presence within the community, someone to whom students can turn over time.

But let’s reverse the circumstances. How about if we had this list:

  • Professor of mathematics, part-time soccer coach
  • Associate professor of music, part-time registrar
  • Assistant professor of physics, part-time academic advisor
  • Associate professor of economics, part-time IT coordinator

What if we imagined that a terminal degree was an inherent, immutable requirement for working in ANY job in higher education, and that all of those faculty members also got some other institutional stuff done in their free time? What if we imagined that the deeply ingrained curiosity of intellectual life was in fact a treasured skill to be required of every single person at work among our young adults? What if we imagined that teaching and research were the fundamental skills of college life, and that being decent at spreadsheets would be enough to work a few hours a week in accounts payable?

I think it would work.

I think, in fact, that the entire culture of a school would be turned inside out. I think that intellectual dissatisfaction and curiosity and rigor would become the benchmarks of the organization, even if their soccer team sucked.

Put another way, I’d rather have a PhD faculty member in sociology doing a little advising than an advisor doing a little sociology teaching. Teaching is not merely about delivering a skill. It’s not “teaching” to show someone how to tie their shoes. At the college level, teaching should absolutely and always be about helping students see themselves as part of an intellectual community, about developing curiosity about the workings of the world, about discovering their right livelihoods and becoming vast.

This little thought experiment is one way to frame the question: What exactly is at the core of the college endeavor? Are we running a business that happens to teach classes? Or are we scholars who happen to run a business? I would absolutely, unreservedly, choose the second.

The Scourge of Author Photos

Would you buy a used sonnet from this man?

The portrait above is a historical recreation by the British artist Geoff Tristram, a 2016 effort to capture the best possible “accuracy” of Shakespeare in advance of the 400th anniversary of his death. I don’t know what Shakespeare’s face looked like, but this dude looks like a writer. The slouch, the sweatpants, the baggy eyes and bad shave, graying at the temples… I’m not a fan of the pinky ring, but in all his other schlubby, rumpled glory, this guy’s got writer stamped all over him.

The artist has fallen into the trope of the author photo: “hey, Will, just look like you’re writing, okay?” Posing with his quill nowhere near where he would have been writing, and his sleeve isn’t dragging fresh ink around. He might as well have his chin in one hand…

We’re in a highly visual age. Cameras are trivially available, and every actor and athlete and pop star has to be a model as well. It’s not enough to be good at something, you have to be good at it and cute, too. It’s a burden too far for some of us.

Nobody knew what Shakespeare looked like except for his neighbors, his friends at the pub, and the actors who put on his little shows. His manuscripts didn’t have an author photo on the back. Likewise Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, or pretty much every author until about 1970. We might have seen a photo in the paper, might have seen them on Dick Cavett, but the fact of an author photo actually attached to the book is a relatively recent phenomenon, and one that I think should never happen again.

They say in the law that if the facts are on your side, argue the facts; if the law is on your side, argue the law; and if neither are on your side, bang on the table. So the author photo is definitely not on my side, though I hope that the language might be. And I’ve got a decent voice (“a face made for radio,” as the old joke has it), so maybe those two out of the three will work.

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew!

A Trashcan Punch of Bad Ideas

Colleges contain rituals that are inexplicable when examined from outside. In the Midwest, we called one of those rituals wapatuli. Elsewhere, it’s known as jungle juicehairy buffalo, or most literally, trashcan punch. Everyone at a party brings a bottle of some cheap liquor and dumps it all into a trash can, along with a gallon or two of sticky-sweet fruit juice. After five or six Solo cups’ worth every Friday and Saturday for a semester, it just seems normal.

Wapatuli-like ideas are all throughout higher education. At the urging of private colleges and adjunct teachers alike, California’s pending Assembly Bill 1466 would designate part-time college teachers as exempt employees, not subject to overtime laws. Nobody seems to be arguing that adjuncts should actually be paid better, just that they should be spared the inconvenience and degradation of punching the clock (and that their employers should be “exempt” from paying adequate wages).The whole thing is a trashcan punch. The way we think about adjuncts isn’t a conscious recipe, it’s just a bunch of bad labor ideas dumped into a bucket.

The point of adjuncts is to purchase teaching at reduced expense and reduced obligation. That’s bad idea #1, that “teaching” is a commodity crop, interchangeable across providers. If someone chooses not to do it for a terrible price, we can always find someone else who will. Quantity (measured in “content” or “units”) is paramount and quality irrelevant.

A second bad idea is to assume we know how long teaching takes, in general or in particular. Let’s say a college pays its adjuncts $3000 per three-credit course. Does that course have twelve students or thirty-five? Is it writing-focused with innumerable hours of review time, quiz-focused with a little homework grading, or a studio arts course in which an instructor could do one-on-one, in-class reviews with no homework whatsoever? The uniform registrar’s record of the credit does not translate to any knowable amount of instructional work.

Given the broad variation in out-of-class demands, the time card starts to look reasonable, allowing us to bill for all those late nights at the kitchen table…  except that in most hourly-wage environments, workers are under direct supervision. That raises our third bad idea: that we don’t want to spend any time actually supervising adjuncts. That leaves no way to keep fraudulent people from padding their hours, nor to help well-meaning teachers become more efficient or more effective. (If we actually paid $15 an hour for teaching work in a writing-intensive course of thirty students, it would probably run seven or eight thousand dollars per course even for a relatively efficient instructor. So we’d have to put some kind of ceiling on compensation, taking us right back to bad idea #2.)

Bad idea #4 is that hourly wages are demeaning, an oddly class-deaf argument. I’ve had hourly jobs, as well as salaried jobs in which I kept a billable-hours program running on my laptop. None of those is inherently a less respectful way of getting paid, they’re just different kinds of labor agreements with different kinds of outcomes. If tracking my hours gets me a weekend, that’s a win. But salaries equal “professions” and wages equal “jobs,” and one is good, and one is bad. With adjuncts treated as badly as they are, three thousand dollars for a course just feels better than eight or nine dollars an hour, even if they’re factually equivalent, and a salary or a contract just feels better than a time card.

Salaries themselves are part of bad idea #5, that employment should have no limits. Salaries, and e-mail, and the endless expansion of workplace engagement, are an integral part of contemporary American culture. “On the clock” will soon be as meaningless an expression as “dial the phone” or “hit rewind,” because nobody will remember that there ever was a clock.

Finally, bad idea #6 transcends the others: that healthcare and old-age safety both rely on employment status. It’s no wonder that employment conditions are so fraught; the definition of a “position” includes the most basic conditions of survival.

So there’s six bad ideas stirred together, probably with a canoe paddle, in a thirty gallon plastic bin. And just as wapatuli cannot be made better by exchanging Stonecutter gin for the Captain Morgan, adjunctification cannot be made better by instituting one modification to a tub filled with other horrible ideas. A college that relies heavily on adjunct faculty is just as juvenile an experience as a frat party, getting wasted as cheaply as we can rather than considering the larger joys and wisdom of careful hospitality. Changing one ingredient or another is not going to fix the problem. We have to face the debasement of our faculty and students head on, and not pretend we can make decent drinks from this trashcan punch.

The Writer’s Responsibility

One of the great blessings of having written The Adjunct Underclass is that a huge number of people have reached out to tell me what the book has meant to them, or to tell me their own story. But sometimes, people reach out to disagree. To tell you that what you’ve written has hurt them.

Last summer, I was at a writers’ conference, and one of the facilitators, the poet Patricia Smith, said that writers have the right to write about anything or anyone we find interesting… but that we have the responsibility to stay and be part of the conversation that writing generates. To hear back from our readers, about their satisfactions and about their complaints.

This week’s story has done that. I’ve had readers tell me how much they appreciated it… had another reader tell me that it wasn’t my story to tell. So I hope I’ll hear from you as well. I always want not merely to be a better craftsperson, but a more generous storyteller. So let me know how that’s going for you, with this week’s story, “Angels Among Us.”

First Principles

Four questions that will allow us to avoid churn.

There’s a lot of churn at the college executive level, as schools try to figure out which programs to bolster and which to trim away, what kinds of student support are essential and which could be expanded even further. And although the questions to those should be informed by data, I think that they can’t be determined by data. Those questions, and hundreds of others, are ultimately expressions of values. And without expressly naming those values, we run the danger of building incoherence, of building a college at cross purposes with itself as one unit goes one way and another unit stands in opposition.

I’d like to name four core questions that any college (or really, schools at all levels) should deliberate carefully, and come to at least some tenuous collective agreement upon. The collective answers to these questions will, I believe, deliver some first principles that almost all other decisions can stand upon.

Question One: Who owns children? That is, are educators in the business of serving parents? Or serving the state’s department of labor? Or serving a leading local employer? Or serving God, as you imagine him or her or it to be? Or serving students themselves? Whose proxy is a school voting? On whose basis do we act?

Question Two: Are people fundamentally individuals, deserving rights? Or are we fundamentally members of a community, fulfilling responsibilities? Are we in service to individual or collective goals?

Question Three: What should all humans do before they die? What are the irreplaceable elements of a well-lived life?

Question Four: Is education primarily in preparation for, or primarily an experience of? Is it an investment, or a worthy period of life on its own?

None of the answers to any of these questions are right or wrong. But they will be absolutely distinct, and lead us in absolutely different directions of daily action. And like good social science questions, they are independent of one another: the answer to one does not determine the answer to the rest. So if we imagine that each question has n responses, then this simple array of questions will lead us to n to the fourth kinds of colleges, and they will look remarkably different from one another.