Similar, but Not Congruent

How tenth grade explained the academic and arts job markets.

I’m struck by how many of my cohort thought they were headed for junior faculty, who’ve become data managers or advocates for women in science or some non-teaching role. There were a few of my colleagues who wound up running academic programs, like a travel study program. An associated thing that wasn’t what they’d set out to do

“Paul,” ten year adjunct faculty quoted in The Adjunct Underclass

Sixty-eight years ago, the renowned sociologist Erving Goffman wrote an ingenious essay called “On Cooling the Mark Out,” a study of how con men kept their “marks” from losing confidence and calling the cops. I’ve written before about how precisely Goffman’s language mirrors that of Damon Runyon and Guys and Dolls:

A mark’s participation in a play, and his investment in it, clearly commit him in his own eyes to the proposition that he is a smart man. The process by which he comes to believe that he cannot lose is also the process by which he drops the defenses and compensations that previously protected him from defeats. When the blowoff comes, the mark finds that he has no defense for not being a shrewd man. He has defined himself as a shrewd man and must face the fact that he is only another easy mark. He has defined himself as possessing a certain set of qualities and then proven to himself that he is miserably lacking in them… It is no wonder that the mark needs to be cooled out and that it is good business policy for one of the operators to stay with the mark in order to talk him into a point of view from which it is possible to accept a loss. In essence, then, the cooler has the job of handling persons who have been caught out on a limb—persons whose expectations and self‐conceptions have been built up and then shattered. The mark is a person who has compromised himself, in his own eyes if not in the eyes of others.

Goffman notes, in fact, that it’s more important for institutional cons to cool the mark than it is for street-corner hustlers: “One may note that a service organization does not operate in an anonymous world, as does a con mob, and is therefore strongly obliged to make some effort to cool the mark out. An institution, after all, cannot take it on the lam; it must pacify its marks.” That unproductive PhD program can’t just beat it and catch a bus to Poughkeepsie; it has to stay put and drag more people into the net, and so must calm its losers.

In Goffman’s analysis, there are two primary modes of cooling the mark. The first is to “offer him a status which differs from the one he has lost or failed to gain but which provides at least a something or a somebody for him to become.”

How many hundreds of thousands of former mid-level athletes now coach in pee-wees and high school and community college and independent leagues? How many lapsed high-school jocks are now in college, majoring in sports administration or athletic training?

How many artists run galleries, or write grant proposals for nonprofits, or teach life drawing and intro to watercolor at the local community college? How many poets teach freshman comp?

How many fully qualified scholars teach as adjuncts for three or four grand per course? How many become academic advisors, run the tutoring center, direct the women’s center?

How many novelists park their work on the hard drive in order to write news copy, or edit the work of others? Become a corporate media director, a book reviewer, a pop-culture writer?

The Washington Post reported a few years ago that the Washington Nationals baseball team employed about 200 players at all levels of major and minor leagues, and over 1,100 other employees, from business operations to travel management to chefs and trainers. Rob McDonald, the Vice President of Clubhouse Operations and Team Travel, was a perfect example of a former athlete who used a quasi-athletic job to stay close to the action:

McDonald grew up outside St. Louis, went to Northern Illinois to play quarterback, moved to wide receiver, then suffered a back injury that ended his football career. He transferred to the University of Arizona, studied pre-law, and decided he preferred the pursuit of a career in pro sports over law school. So he worked in Tucson rec leagues, then for a sports radio station in Phoenix, then for the Arizona Diamondbacks in spring training before landing in the Arizona Fall League, where baseball’s best prospects go each year.

Barry Svrluga, “The Glue,” Washington Post, September 22, 2014

Colleges especially are full of ways to cool the academic mark. Student services, IT, co-curricular offices, assessment and institutional research, grants offices, financial aid, registrar, admissions—so many functions that welcome those who are fluent in the language and practices of higher education, but who will not themselves get to participate in the life of teaching and scholarship. I used to describe being a college administrator as like living next door to your old girlfriend—you got to see her every day, but you’d always be reminded of the life you’d never, ever have. It’s a way of life that’s similar, but not congruent, to the work you’d dreamed of doing. You get paid, sometimes pretty well, to endure a very specific form of cruelty.


The second strategy Goffman lays out for cooling the mark is to “offer him another chance to qualify for the role at which he has failed.” The arts are terrific at this: there’s always another fellowship to write for, another residency, another group show. Every Starbucks needs something on the walls. The writers’ magazines are laden with short story competitions, the prize for which almost always includes having your work actually read by someone important. Maybe only televangelists exceed the arts in their demands to be sucked up to without giving anything back except promises. Con men always promise. Twenty dollar entry fee, please; tithing as our shared act of contrition and fealty.

We publish in the little magazines, paid in two contributor’s copies, read by an audience in the high dozens. But it’s printed, after all, with our names on it and everything. Unless it isn’t, unless it’s an online journal, in which case we just put the URL into our CV and hope they keep paying the registration fees for that domain name.

Parafaculty life is the same. Every year brings its new job market, new possibilities to which we rise like trout to the fly. And mostly, we find that the colleges practice catch-and-release; we’re taken up for a semester and returned to the hungry stream. But because we aren’t as smart as trout, we hang around, hoping to be caught again. We hear the murmurs of affection, from our students and our department chair, and believe that we’re accomplishing… something. Something unnamed but clearly positive, clearly productive, demonstrating our qualifications and our goodwill and our capability of being a good permanent partner if only, if only.

To return to Hans Abbing’s book that we discussed yesterday, he makes several comparisons between life in the arts and life in religious vocations. “According to an early US census report, only employees of the church faced larger income penalties than artists; it again suggests that there is a parallel between art and religion. Both invite employees to make sacrifices.” We imagine ourselves participating in something sacred, and are willing to forego earthly comforts to attain a larger reward.

The salespeople know it’s a business. Salespeople always do. But what they sell is a prosperity gospel in which our poverty is merely evidence of our insufficient faith. They tell us that our dedication and talent are similar, but not congruent, to those more righteous who have attained their promised seat in heaven. But they hold out hope, so that we persist.


Guess what, friends? This is the 199th little essay in the fourteen-month run of this website. Tomorrow will be posting #200. I’ll throw us a party.